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Portion of Gold-and-Ivory Figure Found in Dig on Crete

June 8, 1987

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ Archaeologists digging on Crete have unearthed pieces of a unique ivory- and-gold figure sculpted almost 3,500 years ago when the island’s Minoan civilization reached its artistic peak.

The torso and arms from a statue of a young man that once stood 19 1/2 inches high were discovered last month at Palaikastro in eastern Crete.

″It’s the biggest Minoan ivory carving ever found, done in a style of sculpture that’s one of the highest ancient art forms,″ Sandy MacGillivray, the excavation’s co-director, said in an interview with The Associated Press over the weekend.

″The figure probably fell from an upper floor in a fire that devastated a large public building around 1450 B.C. It definitely must have come from a shrine,″ added MacGillivray, assistant director at the British School of Archaeology in Athens.

The Palaikastro dig is sponsored jointly by the British School and the New York-based Institute of Aegean Prehistory.

The rare ivory find is important as the earliest known example of ″chryselephantine″ sculpture in which ivory-carved figures were clad in gold leaf.

Such figures later were made larger than life-size and worshiped as cult statues in classical Greek temples. The most famous was Phidias’ 39-foot statue of the goddess Athena that stood in the 5th century B.C. Parthenon temple on the Athens Acropolis.

The Palaikastro piece, carved around 1550 B.C., shows a slender youth with arms clenched over his chest. The torso was made of three interlocking ivory pieces with the arms fitted separately.

Veins on the hand were delicately carved. Fragments of gold leaf, the remains of a garment, clung to one arm and holes were drilled in the chest for inserting gold studs to represent nipples.

″It’s an exceedingly fine piece, I think the best Minoan ivory we have, and it may well have been a very early cult statue,″ Sinclair Hood, a leading British expert on Minoan art, told the AP.

The excavators say they hope to find the rest of the statue next year. They believe it resembled clay figures of the same period, found at a nearby mountain-top Minoan sanctuary.

″The clay pieces have the same clenched fist stance as the ivory,″ MacGillivray said. ″If the rest was similar, the ivory figure would have worn a pony-tail hairstyle, a dagger in his belt, a loincloth, a codpiece and boots.″

MacGillivray said the ivory possibly was a Minoan cult statue of Zeus, king of the ancient Greek gods, who was worshiped on Crete in the form of a young man.

The sophisticated Minoan civilization on Crete was named after mythological King Minos who kept a half-man, half-bull monster called the Minotaur in a labyrinth beneath his palace at Knossos.

Minoan ceramics, frescoes, ivories and engraved sealstones are prized for their delicate naturalism and skilled workmanship.

In the Late Bronze Age, Palaikastro flourished as the biggest Minoan port in eastern Crete. In the early 1900s British archaeologists uncovered a sprawling town but never located a prehistoric ruler’s palace like those found at Knossos and other important sites.

Two seasons of fresh excavation have revealed a major building complex at least 30 yards long, fronted with fine stone masonry. The ivory statue was found just outside.

″We don’t yet know whether it’ll turn out to be a palace, but it seems to be the most important building on the site,″ McGillivray said.

Like dozens of Minoan settlements, Palaikastro was razed and abandoned as a wave of destruction swept across Crete around 1450 B.C., caused either by warfare or earthquakes.

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