The Kouros of Palaikastro

Professor Jan M. Driessen, UCLouvain, Belgium.

Associate Professor Sorin Hermon, The Cyprus Institute, Nicosia, Cyprus.

Dr. J. Alexander MacGillivray, British School at Athens, Athens, Greece.

The Kouros of Palaikastro

The Palaikastro Kouros is the earliest known example of a chryselephantine statue, an artistic technique renowned in Archaic and Classical Greece. Dated to the 15th c. BC (Late Minoan IB), it was found as heavily burned fragments during the 1987, 1988 and 1990 excavation campaigns at Palaikastro and, once restored, published in detail in the volume: J.A. MacGillivray, J. Driessen & L.H. Sackett, The Palaikastro Kouros. A Minoan Chryselephantine Statue and its Aegean Bronze Age Context, (British School at Athens Studies, 6), London, 2000 (with contributions by C.V. Crowther, P. Harrison, S.A. Hemingway, R.B. Koehl, M.S. Moak, A. Moraïtou, J. Musgrave, A. Nikakis, S.E. Thorne, J. Weingarten).

At present, the recomposed statue is exhibited in the Sitia museum (SM7678). Made of ivory in combination with steatite, rock crystal and gold, and standing 0.48 m high, it is the largest Minoan statue ever found. Because of its naturalistic anatomic details, it is considered a masterpiece. Made of eight separate pieces of hippopotamus ivory, the statue was fitted together using wooden dowels. The hair was carved from a piece of serpentine and the eyes were inlaid with rock crystal. The statue was partially covered in hammered gold and inserted into a base decorated with gold spots on an Egyptian blue ground.

Since its discovery, there has been plenty of discussion on its taphonomy and the circumstances and reasons for its destruction (see e.g. J. Driessen, The Birth of a God? Cults and Crises on Minoan Crete, in M. Cavalieri, R. Lebrun & N. Meunier (eds), De la Crise naquirent les cultes. Approches croisées de la religion, de la philosophie et des représentations antiques, Wetteren, 2015, 31-44; J.A. MacGillivray, Finding God at Palaikastro, in J. Driessen & C. Knappett, Megistos Kouros. Studies in honour of L.H. Sackett (Aegis 23), Louvain-la-Neuve 2022, 230-245); H. Whittaker, The Palaikastro Kouros and Iconoclasm in the Wider Mediterranean Area, European Review 2022, 1-8. Within the Talos project, we explore whether its destruction can conceivably be explained as an iconoclastic reaction in a time when male divinities were gradually replacing a major female divinity as a possible consequence of the impact of the Santorini eruption. The number of findspots where the statue’s fragments were found, and the nature of their dispersal has never been satisfactorily explained.

Now, new digital technologies may help to provide an explanation. In collaboration with the Cyprus Institute and the research group APAC (M. Polig, V. Vasallo) of Prof. S. Hermon and EFALAS (C. Sofianou, K. Zervaki), the application of a non-invasive and non-destructive 3D documentation technique using a structured-light scanner was performed[1]. This will provide a high accuracy (sub-millimeter) 3D model of the statue by its components, which will enable further investigation of its surface geometry and overall shape. Such an investigation is instrumental in discovering particularities otherwise not visible to the naked eye that may further help us understand how the statue was manufactured, the techniques and technologies employed (e.g. tool marks), as well as more accurately assess its conservation conditions today (e.g. minor surface cracks or fissures). Moreover, by virtually disassembling and digitally re-contextualizing the statue’s fragments at the moment of its archaeological discovery, we may be able to reconstruct the dynamics that led to the dispersal of the numerous fragments as they were discovered. We will also apply micro-3D surface investigation by means of a digital microscopy on selected areas. Thus, a 3D-scan of the statue will allow it to be manipulated virtually and to deconstruct it again re-assigning the fragments to their archaeological findspots. Thus, a virtual destruction process can be simulated and the place where the initial destruction took place potentially identified.

The kouros was placed on a table around which moved our 3D-scanner, operated by M. Polig and V. Vasallo. This scanner consists of a S-60 lens of which the highest resolution is 0,02mm. The other elements found with the statue, including a miniature ivory pommel, several small ivory elements, a drilled disc fragment, a lozenge, two triangular fragments, a rosette, stone fragments and gold foil were also scanned.

The entire process was captured on film by Aorifilms of Athens by Nikos Dayandas and Stelios Apostolopoulos as part of a documentary re-appraising the kouros. The educational video meant for display in the Sitia Museum is also shown here.

[1] See e.g. Hermon, S., Polig, M., Driessen, J., Jans, G., Bretschneider, J. 2018. An integrated 3D shape analysis and scientific visualization approach to the study of a Late Bronze Age unique stone object from Pyla-Kokkinokremos, Cyprus, Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage 10. 

Dimensions of the Palaikastro Kouros

Exploring the Kouros – from Left to right: Martina Polig, Valentina Vassallo, Sandy MacGillivray, Jan Driessen, Chrysa Sofianou and Klio Zervaki