Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.05

Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier, Der Kouros vom Heiligen Tor. Überraschende Neufunde archaischer Skulptur im Kerameikos in Athen. Sonderband der Antiken Welt, Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie.   Mainz am Rhein:  Philipp von Zabern, 2002.  Pp. iv + 58, 42 col. figs., 23 b/w figs., 2 line drawings.  ISBN 3-8053-2956-3.  EUR 24.80.  

Reviewed by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Bryn Mawr College (
Word count: 1311 words

After approximately 140 years of digging in the Kerameikos cemetery of ancient Athens, the German excavators would never have expected to come upon a cache of spectacular sculptures dating from the very beginning of Archaic Attic art. Yet this is exactly what happened in March/May 2002. The finds consisted of a Doric capital in poros, and -- in Naxian marble -- an Ionic capital, two lions, one sphinx, and, most remarkably, one kouros closely related to the well-known Dipylon Head (and hand) in Athens and the New York Kouros in the Metropolitan Museum. The news was so sensational that it was immediately reported by national and international newspapers and magazines; in order to avoid inaccuracies, the present book was produced in record time (the Preface was written in August 2002), to provide a preliminary but scholarly account of the discovery and the first presentation of the sculptures to both a general and a specialized readership.

Because this book is part of a picture series by the distinguished publisher of Antike Welt, the high quality of the illustrations could be taken for granted, but even so, this is a feast for the eyes, with a wealth of topographical photographs (including some from the 1907 and 1936 campaigns in the same general area as the recent finds) and much comparative material. At the time of publication, the new sculptures had not yet been properly cleaned, and there is hope that a more extensive search may yield some of the still missing pieces, but the marbles, especially the kouros, are presented in great detail, and the text addresses many of the fundamental questions, although some answers are inevitably left pending.

The book begins with a general history of the cemetery "in the potters' quarter" and of the types of burials and funerary monuments that filled it. A helpful listing of all monographs on the German excavations and of related publications appears in a bibliographical Appendix, which is supplemented by copious other references in the endnotes. A step-by-step report of the discovery follows. Individual sections of text are devoted to the capitals, the sphinx, the lions, and the kouros, placing each against the wider background. The final chapter addresses the issues of context and function of the sculptures. The entire account is remarkably concise and yet goes into considerable depth, correcting factual errors about some of the comparisons and debating recent theories. It is also enlivened by human touches, such as the photograph of the staff (including Dr. Niemeier) celebrating the safe retrieval of the pieces with a Greek dance and party.

As is often the case, the discovery was the unforeseen byproduct of a more modest investigation. Dr. Gerhard Kuhn, who is preparing the publication of the Sacred Gate, wanted to clarify the chronology of its architectural phases by reopening an area adjacent to the structure. Under one of two canals that had served to control the waters of the Eridanos lay an earlier road whose earthen surface had been supported by reused material; the latter included the sculptures, which in fact retained traces of the wheeled traffic that had once run over them. This road is presently thought to have been connected with the first construction of the Sacred Gate, around 479/8. Because it was probably often flooded by the nearby river, the road was eventually abandoned, the two canals were built, and the Sacred Way was laid over them. This sequence of events suggests that the Archaic sculptures, already broken as a likely result of the Persian invasions, are comparable to the many monuments incorporated into the Themistoklean Wall, which were reused for expediency and speed in construction. No protective/apotropaic function can therefore be ascribed to them, since no heroic cult is implied by their condition and layout.

The poros capital is dated to ca. 580/570 on the basis of the shape of its echinus within the evolution of the Doric order. The Ionic capital is not so easily placed, since no such clear line of development can be determined; its closest parallels are Parian capitals from the second quarter of the 6th century.

The lions were probably matching pieces,1 although one animal is crouching and the other is lying down; both are meant to be seen in profile, with their head turned at 90 degrees toward the viewer. The animal to the right, in two fragments, has lost most of its head and chest, but enough remains to show that its mane was rendered in two layers, like that of the lion to the left. This latter exhibits deep orbital cavities that (surprisingly) are said to have once been filled with stucco. Technical details suggest that both lions originated from a single workshop, before or around the middle of the 6th century (on stylistic grounds).

The sphinx also had a matching piece, which was, however, found as early as 1906, not far from the Sacred Gate: Athens National Museum no. 2891.2 Both sphinxes wear the same type of rosette earring engraved on the ear lobe, and traces of paint (figs. 40-41) confirm the similarity in the rendering of their feathers. Regrettably, the new sketches do not show the pattern once painted on the sphinxes' caps, which was still visible on NM 2891 when it was first photographed.3 In isolation, this earlier find was thought to have crowned a gravestone, especially since it was directed to the right, as is usual for such finials. The newly discovered sculpture is directed to the left, and both its extreme resemblance to NM 2891 and its findspot suggest that the two sister creatures (dated ca. 560 B.C.) once stood near the Gate as part of a funerary plot, perhaps flanking a structure or at the ends of a wall, like the sirens from the monument of Dexileos (who died in 394 B.C.). Such sepulchral precincts were thought to be a feature of the advanced Classical period, but an earlier occurrence seems demanded by the new finds, and a possible candidate from the first half of the fifth century (p. 52) may form a bridge between the Archaic and the later phases.

The "Kouros from the Sacred Gate" (as the new find will certainly be called) may have had a sibling as well, although not an identical twin. It is remarkably close to the Dipylon Head (so named after its findspot), although it lacks the neck ornament and its tresses hang loose over the shoulders. In this hairstyle, the new statue resembles the New York Kouros, with which it shares several anatomical renderings; it also parallels the fragments of a male statue from the Athenian Agora, which may or may not belong with the Dipylon Head. The new discovery is bound to put to rest the suspicion of forgery that still lingers around the sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum. In terms of size, the Sacred Gate Kouros falls between the two: taller than the New York Kouros, but, on proportional grounds, slightly smaller than the Dipylon one.4 A detailed description and photographic documentation point out all similarities and differences, convincingly attributing the recent find to the Dipylon master and the piece in the United States to the same workshop but probably not the same hand. Yet the three figures (plus the Agora fragments) form a cohesive group, especially when contrasted with the widely disparate Sounion Kouroi, the other early statues from Attic soil. On locational grounds, and despite their over-life size, the Kerameikos kouroi should definitely be funerary, but their original context (as distinct from the archaeological one of their findspots) remains unclear. A dating around 600-590 B.C. would remove any connection with Solon's reforms.

Enthusiasm for the new finds, especially the kouros, could easily turn this review into a longer text than the one being reviewed. I therefore stop here, urging the interested reader to go directly to this deceivingly popular and important "picture book."


1.   The text (p. 33) states that the crouching lion in two pieces was to be viewed from its left side, yet the photographs (figs. 42-43 on p. 36) clearly show the animal's right side. In describing the lion lying down, the text (p. 34) repeats that "wiederum" the left flank is the main view. Could the two photographs have been printed reversed? If, however, the directional terms have been confused, the two lions would definitely form a pair in mirror image, despite the slightly different pose.
2.   The text (p. 33) gives 1906 as the year in which Ferdinand Noack found the first sphinx (its National Museum inventory number is not cited). Yet on p. 52 and in the captions for figs. 39 and 65. the discovery is dated to 1907. The correct date, according to Noack's account (AM 32 [1907] 550), is August 27, 1906.
3.   See the DAI Athens negatives nos. 5096 and 5097, published, for instance, in AJA 94 (1990) 590-91, figs. 5-6. I am also not sure that the ribbon binding the tresses of the two sphinxes over the nape was meant to pass "above the ear and over the forehead hair" (p. 32). Since, as pointed out, this arrangement is impossible on present rendering, could the fillet have been meant to tie only the hair mass falling over the back, rather than encircling the whole cranium? The cap worn by the sphinxes would have been sufficient restraint for the coiffure of the head calotte. A parallel to this type of fillet can be found on a sphinx head in Athens: E. Walter-Karydi, "Tautisê mias attikês epitumbias sphiggas kai prospatheia ermêneias tês," in ARXAIA ELLHNIKH GLYPTIKH (Athens 2002) 63-72, esp. 65, figs. 3-4.
4.   The height of the New York Kouros is usually given as 1.843 m., but n. 52 points out that it should be 1.927 m. The mistake is due to a discrepancy between the first (1947) and subsequent editions of G. M. A. Richter's Kouroi; in the original publication, the lesser dimension referred to the kouros' height up to the hairline, not to its total height. At my request, Dr. C. A. Picon, Chief Curator of Greek and Roman Art, has kindly had the New York Kouros remeasured, and tells me that the correct height, from the top surface of the plinth to the top of the head, is 1.946 m. Problems exist also regarding the dimensions of the Dipylon Head. Richter said it was 0.44 m. high, but this measurement refers to the entire fragment, not to the head alone, which is instead 0.365 m. Thus calculations for a ca. 3 m. high kouros are erroneous: Niemeier, on p. 40 with n. 53, suggests a height of 2.28 m., on proportional grounds. The Sacred Gate Kouros, ca. 2.10 m. tall, falls between the other two members of the group.

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