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The issue of unprovenanced antiquities (Part 1)


Writing my book The Cycladic Spirit
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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It was around that time that I'd been working on a book on Cycladic art, which was published under the title of "The Cycladic Spirit" and it was based to a large extent on a very important private collection, the Goulandris Collection of Cycladic antiquities. Mrs Goulandris lived and lives in Athens and way back in the 1960s she was travelling the Cyclades in her yacht and where possible, acquiring Cycladic antiquities. Well, that was a rather curious situation because under Greek law, all antiquities belong to the state and therefore it's a criminal offence to dig them up, but at the same time Greek law has encouraged rather than discouraged private collectors of Greek antiquities of whatever kind. And so she had a licence to collect antiquities, and she was actually at that time encouraged to do so by the Greek Archaeological Service because there was a lot of looting and a lot of antiquities were leaving the country, and I think they formed the view that it was better for antiquities to remain within Greece even though their precise circumstances of discovery were not recorded because of the loss of context due to looting. Well, I'd been studying Cycladic figurines obviously since I wrote my dissertation in 1965 and then in 1967 partly through studying her collection but mainly through studying the, the finds that were preserved in the National Museum in Athens and the other museums, I was able to see more clearly how the different kinds, the different forms of, the different types of Cycladic figuring fitted into which stage in the cultural succession which I'd been redefining and then to devise a new chronology and a new typology for the development of Cycladic sculpture, which was published in 1967, and studying her collection had been very useful and she'd been very generous in allowing me and also Jane to go and look at her collection, which at that time she had in her very large Athens apartment. She later went on to found the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, named after her husband, the N.P. Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, which has got a - a very handsome building and very beautifully displayed collections. And all of this had been collected with the knowledge and as I say, the encouragement of the Greek Archaeological Service. All the things were registered, and although I'd been very concerned at the way most of the main Cycladic sculptures are in private museums all over the world, the Louvre Head and other impressive pieces and therefore very little known about their origins. I'd been able, using the pieces which had been described from proper excavations, which were mainly in the Athens National Museum, I'd been able to make some sense out of that, and she had asked me to go ahead to use this background to produce a, a book, which would be illustrated mainly by pieces from her collection. And so that was a very interesting book to, to write and she had a wonderful photographer whom I got to know very well, John Taylor, John Bigelow Taylor who took a beautiful series of photographs for this book. And the book also allowed me to speculate a little on why these things seem to us so beautiful. That's something that I had been interested in when I first saw them really, and they're very simple marble forms. The heads don't usually show the eyes or the mouth, just a very prominent nose, although it has become clear that very often the, the facial features were painted on them but have usually been sort of eroded away by the passage of time. So that was a very interesting book to produce, but when it was published there was quite a lot of criticism. There one very well written and very critical article by David Gill and Chris Chippindale, which was published maybe even before the book was published. It was around the same time. They were working independently and they documented very clearly, using the Cycladic cultures as a special case, how the illicit excavation of antiquities, looting of antiquities if you want to call it that, had produced such a dramatic loss of context, that we were losing an enormous amount of information about the prehistoric past and in particular, about the Cycladic past. And I, when I read that review, it got a few things wrong but basically I think it, it was making very sound points.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 5 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009