Sackett, L. H.: The Palaikastro Kouros: A Masterpiece of Minoan Sculpture in Ivory and Gold, 40 p., 47 fig., 8 €, ISBN 960-214-507-2 (grec) ; ISBN 960-214-507-4 (anglais)
(Hellenic Ministry of Culture - Archaeological Receipts fund, Athènes 2006)
Compte rendu par Kenneth Lapatin, J. Paul Getty Museum

Nombre de mots : 1915 mots
Publié en ligne le 2009-06-22
Citation: Histara les comptes rendus (ISSN 2100-0700).
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In 1987 archaeologists excavating the Bronze Age site of Palaikastro in East Crete uncovered the fragmentary remains of a gold and ivory statuette.  Further fragments were recovered during excavations in 1988 and 1990, and over 6 tons of earth was carefully sieved to ensure recovery of as many pieces as possible.

The statuette, which originally consisted of separately-carved components of hippopotamus ivory, serpentine, rock crystal, wood, and gold, with added decoration in ‘Egyptian’ blue, has been painstaking reconstructed from several hundred burnt and broken fragments.  Standing 50 centimeters tall, it depicts a male youth, with left leg slightly advanced.  However, unlike Archaic Greek kouroi, which hold both arms at their sides, the Palaikastro figure has both arms sharply bent at the elbows and holds its clenched fists before its chest.  It also once wore a golden kilt, penis sheath, dagger, and sandals, whereas Archaic kouroi are nude.

The carving of this chryselephantine statuette is extraordinarily fine, surpassing other examples of Cretan Bronze Age sculpture in bronze, terracotta, and stone.  Minute details of anatomy, such as subcutaneous veins and tendons as well as muscles and cuticles are rendered with veristic exactitude.  The dark blue-gray serpentine head, or more precisely scalp, is meticulously incised, as if to represent shaved hair on the sides and a braided topknot above. Although badly damaged and discolored, it is certainly the most remarkable piece of Minoan sculpture that has survived to this day.


This short, attractive booklet by one of the directors of the Palaikastro excavations presents the statuette in clear, readily accessible form with numerous color illustrations.  Brief sections introduce the figure and the site in general; recall the discovery and deposition of the finds; speculate on the identification of the findspot as ‘a town shrine’; describe the statuette, its materials, techniques, conservation, and modern museum display in detail, and Minoan ivory work in general; and seek to identify the ‘kouros’ iconographically.  (Unfortunately there is no bibliography beyond citation of an edited volume published in 2000.(1))


Intriguingly, different parts of the Palakastro statuette were found in different locations, and in different condition, which the excavators believe to be the result of deliberate destruction during the late 15th century BC.  In the ‘Plateia’ facing Building 5, which is tentatively identified as a ‘Town Shrine’ on account of its finely cut sandstone masonry with double-axe incised marks and other accouterments, excavators recovered the ivory torso and left arm, fragments of gold, and patches of blue pigment.  Nearby were the right arm, separately carved ivory feet, and the serpentine head.  All were burned.  Inside the building, some 10 meters distant, were the figure’s two legs, much more badly burnt and broken (one was reconstituted from 190 fragments), and gold sandals.  The excavators believe the distance between the two groups of finds too great to be explained by the figure having fallen from an upper storey (if so, why were some components, including the feet, separate from the legs, found outside the building?).  Sackett, rather, suggests that ‘a hostile intruder, whether looter or iconoclast, could have seized the figure by the legs and, as he moved outside but stood close to the door looking inside, could have hurled these into the building.  As he did this the figure would have broken and the major pieces would have fallen close by…while others would have bounced back into the Plateia’ (p. 8).  This, of course, makes for good reading, but is highly speculative.  Likewise, in the Conservation section Sackett observes that the legs inside the building suffered from burning at considerably higher temperatures than the ivory components found outside: ‘Indeed a study of the temperatures which normally occur in accidental house fires, as opposed to those of deliberate arson shows that the rooms where our figure was found had been deliberately filled with inflammable material (such as brushwood)’ (pp. 13-14 italics in original).  Unfortunately, no reference to this study is provided, but it seems to be a paper given by T. Cunningham in 2002, published in 2007.  There the destruction sequence is reconstructed even more vividly.(2)


Returning to the figure itself, of considerable interest are the materials and techniques of the statue, which was composed, mostly of hippopotamus ivory.  Sackett states that large lower incisors were employed, but earlier studies suggest that these straight tusks formed the legs, while the extremely fragmentary face, torso, and arms were fashioned from curved upper canines.  Thus the statue might have been carved from the dentition of a single animal.  Over all, eight ivory components were joined by wooden dowels (apparently olive), and a central wooden element, now lost, must have connected the torso to the legs.  The serpentine head was attached to the back of the face, and rock crystal eyes were inserted in-between.  Clothing was added in gold sheet.  This assembly is made clear by a cut-away drawing and detailed illustrations of the joins as well as of individual components. The anonymous craftsman employed some 47 drilled and chiseled mortises, circular and triangular in section, far more than necessary to join the components and sometimes overlapping, which indicates that many of the joins were made ‘blind’.  Moreover, evidence of surviving tool marks, mostly on the tabs that slotted into the figure’s base and other unexposed surfaces, indicate that in addition to chisels and drills saws, gravers, points, burins, rasps, and knives were also used in the production of the figure, which must have been produced by a master carver trained in wood.  (For a boxwood replica of the statuette carved by Mark Moak, who contributed some of the reconstruction drawings in this volume, see and


The closest parallels for the style and technique of the figure are the ivory components recovered by Sir Arthur Evans from the so-called ‘Treasury Deposit’ at Knossos, and by Sinclair Hood in later excavations along the ‘Royal Road’ at the same site, but Sackett rightly notes the ‘astonishing sophistication of our craftsman in representing the human form, its bone structure, muscles, tendons, and veins, and especially details of hands and feet that can stand up to the critique of a modern expert in human anatomy’, and he seems to approve of the suggestion that such detailed carving is based on observation of a live human model, or even that the Minoan artist might have gained anatomical knowledge from dissection, a practice first attested in Hellenistic Alexandria (pp. 20-22). Elsewhere, however, he repeats earlier observations that the figure’s proportions seem to be based on a variation of the First Egyptian canon, making the figure taller and more slender, and that some of the anatomical details, though carefully carved, are not entirely accurate (pp. 23-24).

Interpretation of the figure as a cult statue of the young male consort of the Cretan Mother Goddess, later associated with Diktaian Zeus, celebrated at Palaikastro in the Early Iron Age, is based on the apparently partially-shaved coiffure, thought to be linked to a series of male age grades and initiation rituals, and the precious materials of its manufacture, which were employed for later temple statues (often called ‘cult’ statues although there is no ancient Greek equivalent for that term), such as those fashioned by Pheidias in the second half of the fifth century B.C.  Iconographically, however, the Palaikastro figure finds its closest parallels in terracottas from the peak sanctuary of nearby Mt. Petsofas, which have always been considered to represent votaries, not a divinity.  Nor do the precious materials of the gold and ivory bull leapers excavated by Arthur Evans at Knossos guarantee that the figures represented should be considered divine, rather than human.  Another interpretation offered by the excavators links the figure with Egyptian gods, Osiris in particular, and the constellation Orion, as gold flecks on a blue ground might have represented a starry sky on the base of the figure, though its pose is rather different. Again, recent publications on the topic are not cited, nor are alternative interpretations.(3)


Invoking Jane Harrison and J.L. Myres, but not apparently Arthur Evans, at least in this regard, the author ends his book imagining the celestial readings of Minoan priests who calculated the timing of harvest festivals, in which celebrations the public display of this spectacular gold and ivory figure would have played a central a role.  He even invokes a procession through town, like the one depicted on the famous Harvesters’ Vase from Hagia Triada, ending his book, with the suggestion that ‘if the interpretation proposed here is accepted, this would add a new dimension to our concept of Minoan cult practice in East Crete, and perhaps add tangible evidence for a physical basis to one of the earliest European myths of divine origins’ (p. 35).  Arthur Evans could not have said it better.

For its fine pictures, readability, and convenient presentation of the ‘facts’ surrounding the manufacture and recovery of what is arguably the most impressive piece of Minoan art to have survived, this book is to be recommended.  As far as interpretation of the figure, more work remains to be done – but that is always the case with great works of art.



(1) J.A. MacGillivray, J.M. Driessen and L.H. Sackett eds., The Palaikastro Kouros:  A Minoan Chryselephantine Statuette and Its Aegean Bronze Age Context (British School at Athens Studies Series, no. 6, 2000). More recent works by the present author and others are unacknowledged, and references to ivory figurines excavated at Archanes in central Crete, modern forgeries, and other comparanda mentioned in the text, such as the above-mentioned ivory components excavated by Evans and Hood, the frescoes from Thera, and a statue base found at Mt. Kofinas in Central Crete, are not provided.  See, e.g., the present author’s review of MacGillivray et al. in American Journal of Archaeology 106 (2002): 326-328; Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology, 2001); Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (2002); Y. Sakellarakis and E. Sapouna-Sakellaraki, Archanes: Minoan Crete in a New Light (1997).


(2)     T. Cunningham, ‘Havoc: The Destruction of Power and the Power of Destruction in Minoan Crete’, in J. Bretschneider, J. Driessen, and K. van Lerberghe eds., Power and Architecture: Monumental Public Architecture in the Bronze Age Near East and Aegean (2007): pp. 23-44. ): ‘the statuette held aloft, the blow struck probably with the left hand.  The point of impact was the right forehead, the blow slightly downwards.  The face shattered and scattered to the attackers right; the head split in two and was sent flying into the West façade of Building 3; the neck and upper back, torqued by the force of the head being knocked off, were similarly projected out to the far side of the Plateia…  The destroyer then flung the legs of the statuette into the building, where they struck the rear wall of Rome 2 (releasing a fine scatter of very small ivory fragments)… Burn marks show that the statuette was broken apart before it was burnt and that the burning took place where the pieces were found… There is simply no alternative to human agency for the destruction of the statuette…’ pp. 34-35.  The fire is discussed subsequently.


(3)    E.g., E. Bowden, ‘The Palaikastro Kouros as Poseidon Hippeios’, Mankind Quarterly 35 (1995) pp. 313-326;   Robert Hanna and Marina Moss, ‘The Archeoastronomy of the Palaikastro Kouros from Crete’ in M. Blomberg et al. eds., Calendars, Symbols and Orientations: Legacies of Astronomy in Culture (2003) pp. 73-78.