April 2004

Sara Pfannkuche


Mysteries of the Snake Goddess by Kenneth Lapatin

In Mysteries of the Snake Goddess, subtitled Art, Desire and The Forging of History, scholar and assistant curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum Kenneth Lapatin, sets out to trace the origins and prove or disprove the authenticity of the one of the worldís most recognizable antiquities -- called alternatively the Boston Goddess or the Minoan Snake Goddess. Hailed as the apotheosis of Minoan art, the Boston Goddess has a place of honor at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and has fascinated people since her arrival in Boston in 1914. Made of ivory and gold, she looks surprisingly modern with eyes set to the natural depth and stands bare breasted with a snake in each hand. The statuette did much to increase interest in the Minoan culture being unearthed on Crete and more specifically, at Knossos, by Sir Arthur Evans, a famous archaeologist.

In the early twentieth century Evans started excavating at Knossos and in his work discovered a building with complex architecture, mazelike storerooms, stairways, light wells, provisions for running water and frescoes. Earlier he had discovered clay tablets that he was unable to decipher. Nonetheless, Evans was convinced he had discovered an early civilization that could rival the Egyptian and other "Oriental" cultures long known as the cradle of civilization. It was important to Evans that Europe could claim a great early civilization. His discoveries, as well as the appearance of other gold and ivory statues around 1915-1918, were all the evidence he needed of an Aegean Bronze Age.

The most famous of the various other chryselephantine statues found throughout Knossos in the early party of the 20th century, are described throughout the book. The names of the archaeologists from around the globe, artists, restorers, government officials, museum personnel and rich patrons of the arts keep piling on. Itís enough to make oneís eyes grow as heavy as one of the many statues mentioned throughout the book.

At the end of the book Lapatin includes a story about an important, though heretofore invisible player, that seems to shed light on, if not the authenticity of the Boston Goddess then the authenticity of other Minoan treasures. In the early 1920ís, a restorer employed by Evans lay on his deathbed. Sending for the police he made a confession that he was working with the other restorer employed by Evans to produce forgeries of Cretan antiquities. Following the dying manís instructions, the police raided the younger restorerís house to find a forgery manufacturing plant. The men carved chryselephantine statuettes which were placed in acid to eat away at the soft parts of the ivory in order to make the statuettes appear to have been buried for centuries. One of the forgeries produced here was sold to the Candia Govt Museum in Greece.

At least, thatís how Sir Leonard Woolley, the excavator or Ur in Mesopotamia recounts the event. His account cannot be fully trusted however, as some of the details mentioned are incorrect. This story is one of the bits of evidence the author uses to solve the mystery of the authentication of the Goddess and her origins but the presentation seems less like an "A-ha" moment and more of an "ho-hum" moment. The revelation is handled is such a low-key manner that the reader can be forgiven for not realizing the importance of the story. While one doesnít like to be beaten about the head with a point, the reverse is annoying as well.

Lapatin is to be commended for his research and knowledge of a subject he feels passionate about. Too bad he canít impart some of that passion for his subject into the book. The book is touted as an intellectual detective story but I donít know why. A detective story should make the reader care about the mystery and try to solve it before the end and in general, engage the reader. Laptin lacks the ability to engage the readerís interest and not only did I not care if the famous statue is a fake or not, it took me a while to realize that the authenticity of the various statues named, including the Boston Goddess, was the mystery in question.

So how was it possible to fool the archaeologists, curators and other experts? According to Lapatin, the answer lies in the fact that they were guilty of projecting their desires and prejudices onto an unknown culture. The frescoes and other art work found seemed modern to Evans and his associates. Thus, even though the practice of setting eyes to the natural depth as seen on the Boston Goddess was unknown until the Fourth Century B.C., the experts did not question the ability of skilled Cretan craftsmen to create such a modern looking figure.

The authenticity of the Boston Goddess though ultimately isnít important, at least according to an assistant in the Classical Department of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, since the statue can be accredited with introducing generations of Bostonians to Minoan culture. Also of course, she shows how people project their pre-conceived notions of the past on objects to reflect their current, modern values.

Lapatin's subtitle is slightly misleading as he leaves out the desire part. He argues that experts that should have known better could be duped by forgeries because the pieces resembled what the experts wanted Minoan art to resemble. Thus they projected their ideas of beauty onto an unknown culture to produce an idealized past and the forgers responded by making pieces that the archeologists would like. While I think that is an interesting subject, too little time was devoted to it, as ultimately that is more interesting than if the statues are authentic or not. A question that would fit in well with this idea of forgery and desire is what does the hunger to possess a piece of the ancient past say about us? Throughout history people have wanted a piece of history -- in the Victorian age people were crazy about Egyptology, in the early part of the 20th century it was Minoan figurines, now itís pieces of temples from Cambodia. A book about manís desire to possess history, now thatís a good idea. A book trying to solve a mystery that will never ultimately be known for sure or for that matter, even affect anyone, while not a bad idea, is a book I canít recommend.

Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire and The Forging of History by Kenneth Lapatin
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306813289
274 pages