BMCR 2020.06.23

The sculptor’s workshop

Julie van Voorhis, The sculptor's workshop. Aphrodisias, 10. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2018. x, 117 p., 60 p. of plates. ISBN 9783954902682 €69,00.

Table of Contents

In the field of Greco-Roman sculpture, Julie van Voorhis’ publication of the Sculptor’s Workshop at Aphrodisias has been eagerly awaited. The workshop features an unparalleled combination of sculptural works in various stages of completion, in a city famous for its sculpture, well-dated and excavated. The scarcity of such workshop contexts from any period of classical antiquity makes this a rare occasion to trace the practical processes of sculpture production and refurbishment in the period in which the workshop was active and potentially beyond. A thorough presentation of this material therefore matters considerably for many further lines of enquiry. In this, van Voorhis has succeeded beautifully.

The book starts with an introduction to Aphrodisias, its sculptural school, and the excavations and research on the site. The focus moves to the Sculptor’s Workshop, describing the initial discovery between 1967 and 1969. The workshop specialized in mythological (especially Dionysiac) figures and portraits. It was operational from c. 200 into the early fifth century AD. The portraits date to the end of that period, but the dating of the mythological sculpture is controversial. The presence of considerable numbers of unfinished mythological statues in a workshop that was active at a stage when such iconography was out of fashion, obviously needs explaining, as Van Voorhis states. For this, a more secure chronology is needed, which she aims to achieve by comparison with Aphrodisian sculpture found elsewhere in the Roman empire.

This relation between this workshop and the wider Aphrodisian ‘school’ raises the question of definitions. Van Voorhis defines the term workshop as a means of ‘categorizing individual sculptures’ (5), either through find locations or through technical and stylistic features. For her material, the majority of attributions is based on find spots in or nearby the workshop; outside of this area, the style and technique, and to some degree the subject matter, serve to establish connections (cf. also p. 25). For the sculpture found outside Aphrodisias, the analysis is based on a combination of style and technique as well as literary and epigraphic sources. The dual method of close analysis of technical and stylistic aspects combined with precise attention to the archaeological context is consistently applied throughout, and the way in which it is executed is a major strength of the book.

The excavation of the Sculptor’s Workshop in chapter 2 describes in an exemplary, eminently readable manner the successive campaigns that led to its full discovery in 1969. Aided by clear plans, the building phases of the area are laid out, starting with the construction of the North Stoa in the Hellenistic period, through the colonnaded temenos of the temple of Aphrodite immediately north of it, to the building of a new Bouleuterion in the latter half of the 2nd century AD. For this Bouleuterion, some of the stoas surrounding the square were demolished, but those to the North were partially left standing, even though they were now located at a dead end. It was in these rooms, numbered 3 and 4, and the open yard in front of them that the sculpture workshop operated. The chapter includes the building phases of the workshop itself, reconstruction drawings of the consecutive sections of the area, and an impression of the workshop in action. The workshop came to an end in the early fifth century AD, and shortly afterwards the buildings were covered by agricultural processing facilities. In the construction of this plant, many statues that were in the buildings and the yard of the former sculpture workshop were used as fill.

Chapter 3 discusses the finds from the workshop or nearby, of which 14 are portrait sculptures, 42 are mythological, and 59 cannot be classified as either (25). About three quarters of these finds are finished sculptures, the rest are unfinished in various degrees. Van Voorhis points out, however, that the bulk of the workshop’s output was completed and set up in their intended locations. She describes a number of the most representative sculptures left in the shop, with meticulous descriptions of provenance and technical and stylistic details. A particularly helpful quality of these descriptions is the directness of the observations, which is clear and to the point, and in most cases visibly corresponds with the plates at the end of the book. Van Voorhis has included detailed images of technical evidence such as tool marks (e.g. pl. 9 but also elsewhere), and establishes a framework of workshop-specific technical features (34) based on her material. Once these characteristics are set for sculptures produced at the workshop with certainty, she expands her discussion to the sculpture from Aphrodisias found outside of the Bouleuterion area that has the same technical features.

The strength of van Voorhis’ stylistic observations is no less convincing and well documented. For example, it is no surprise that the satyrs from the workshop are characterized by the muscular exaggeration typical of Hellenistic versions of the subject (31). Van Voorhis has a particular knack for pointing out the anatomical details where this becomes evident, describing them in concise and illuminating terms. For example, she describes the large satyr’s torso as showing ‘knobby muscles along the sides of the ribcage, emphatic abdominal muscles and a distinctive diamond-shaped pattern in the center of the sternum’ (32). In the plates of this satyr and of the smaller one it is compared with, the listed features and the similarity in both figures can be checked point by point. It is only rarely that a close-up of a specific feature is absent where this would have been helpful, and this is usually the case for pieces from outside of Aphrodisias, where image rights are of a different order.

The chapter discusses portraits, then mythological sculpture in marble as well as in the two-toned ‘black and white’ stone from the Göktepe quarries. Despite the close description of the statues in the chapter, comparison with the catalogue is never redundant, bringing a different level of detail that is helpful, but not absolutely necessary, in reading the chapter. Van Voorhis proposes that the workshop used different approaches for the two types of sculpture. The style and technique of the mythological and related figures was not significantly updated from the third century to the fifth. These figures are based on earlier models, and there was no incentive to change either the iconography or the carving methods. The portraits, by contrast, display hairstyles and clothes fashionable in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, as well as carving methods typical of the time they were made, such as high levels of surface polish. The contrast with the high imperial style of the larger mythological statuary is stark, and points to two possible explanations. Either the workshop had two distinct modes, one for each type of sculpture, throughout its history; or the large mythological sculptures were remnants from an earlier period that were by late antiquity only used for display, training of apprentices, or in some cases, brought back in for refurbishment. The workshop’s many small mythological figures, often unfinished, demonstrate that even at the end of its active period the workshop had sufficient demand for these; and some stylistic and technical features on these support their late date.

In chapter 4, Van Voorhis combines traditional sculpture research with the same high-standard stylistic and technical analysis, to reach conclusions on the supply lines of marble, the number of sculptors and apprentices in the sculptor’s workshop, the division of labour, specialisation among sculptors, and their training. In my experience a thorough investigation entirely based on the archaeological and sculptural evidence, with the purpose of understanding the processes in a sculpture workshop is rare, and this chapter greatly adds to our evidence on this subject.[1] Yet while the chapter is entirely in line with the purpose of the book, the section on quarrying and the comparison with other workshops are rather summary and do not always take into account the most recent literature.[2] Particularly tantalizing is the use of the other rooms of the North Stoa that were left standing when the Bouleuterion was built, numbered 5 and 6. One of these contained a hearth, which to Van Voorhis suggests ‘some other purpose than sculpture production’ (17, with n. 65). The possibility that these spaces were either housing for sculptors or apprentices, or home to other crafts that were used to finish statuary, is not explored. These affiliated crafts are also not mentioned in the comparison with the sculpture workshops from Delos and Athens, even though recent research has made clear that they were inevitable in ancient sculpture production.[3] Despite this small criticism, the chapter offers a sound, and very rare, argument about specialisation and labour division in sculpture that is thoroughly founded on material evidence.

In the final chapter, Van Voorhis comes to the place of the mythological sculpture in late-antique Aphrodisias and beyond. While a few pieces —the larger and two smaller satyrs, for example— show high imperial style and technique, many smaller pieces have features that set them apart, suggesting that these had either been made at the workshop at an earlier date and were brought back in to be reworked, or were being made when the workshop when it closed down. Van Voorhis explores the traditional connection between the large satyr and the Esquiline group, now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, and the controversy about the chronology, with dates ranging from high imperial to a late antique. A problem with these kinds of dating disputes is that a final call is rarely or perhaps never achieved. Van Voorhis presents the arguments on all sides, and complements them with the wealth of her own knowledge, much of which can be retraced in the preceding chapters and the catalogue. She then moves to the Silahtarağa sculptures from Istanbul, among which are giants in dark-grey and white marble, similar to the two-tone stone used in Aphrodisias for smaller mythical figures. She argues that the giants may well have been restored in late antiquity, as there are signs of refurbishment similar to those on the Aphrodisias statues. Refurbishment is thoroughly discussed throughout the book, and the practice of it is certainly worth the attention. After discussing the sculpture of the villa at Chiragan in France, Van Voorhis concludes that the four groups are less homogeneous than they are often considered. The epigraphic evidence that connects them has also been criticized (59-60). Style and technique are therefore key in the interpretation of this material. In these terms, the connection between all four groups of sculpture is confirmed, but despite the high standing of the sculptor’s workshop, eventually the market became too narrow. While this probably led to the its closing, the collections in France, Rome and Constantinople remained on display, ‘as a testament to the wealth, sophistication and good taste of their owners’ (68).

This conclusion is followed by the catalogue, a summary in Turkish, and a wealth of very high-quality plates. The book is beautifully produced, and apart from rare spelling mistakes and one or two errors in plate number references, is as clear and stylish in its presentation as it is in its contents. The scholarship presented here in such a condensed form will be a fertile breeding ground for subsequent lines of investigation, and so this book is invaluable as a starting point as much as it is a culmination of decades of research.


[1] An exception at The Art of Making in Antiquity: Stoneworking in the Roman World.

[2] E.g. Nolte, S., Steinbruch, Werkstatt, Skulptur: Untersuchungen zu Aufbau und Organisation griechischer Bildhauerwerkstätten. Göttingen, Ruprecht: 2005; Russell, B., The Economics of the Roman Stone Trade. Oxford, OUP: 2013.

[3] Hochscheid, H., Networks of Stone. Sculpture and Society in Archaic and Classical Athens. Oxford, Peter Lang: 2015.