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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy

18. THE GODDESS GUSHER

The massive blanket of tiles we had found at our “Park Avenue” site seemed a mile deep. We had to work gingerly, not wanting to damage anything that might be lying underneath. When we had removed them slowly -- too painfully slowly -- there appeared immense jugs, which were intact for a few seconds but then crumbled when exposed to the air. We then saw to our astonishment a terracotta statuette of a young woman, painted in vermilion, elegantly robed with folds beneath folds created with consummate care. The head snapped from her body in the light breeze.

We found one, then three little female statues, then seven. The faces were painted white and the features were not crudely pinched into the malleable terracotta, but had been gently sculpted into lively expressions. Their thin half-pursed lips were parted in joy. I could see traces of tiny shell-like eyelids, frozen by the sculptor in the act of just opening. They were equal in quality to what the genius Clodion had made in terracotta in the 18th century.
         
In time we dug out a room some five by ten feet, which appeared to be a sanctuary sacred to some goddess whose identity we didn’t know. In the center was a column supporting an altar, some three feet across and covered with a stucco as thin as an eggshell. More delicately painted statues and heads of women, each finer than the last, emerged from the damp chocolate-colored clay surrounding this altar. I found it difficult to deal with the profusion of statuettes in an orderly, archaeological way.

We’d be pushing aside the soil with sable brushes when suddenly a portion of drapery would appear, about a foot long, decorated with actual gilding highlighting the folds of some masterful drapery. The style was pure, high-class Greek of the 4th B. C. -- perfect Hellenistic style. Sjöqvist told me that he'd never seen anything finer before.

I was in archaeological seventh heaven.
         
One day close to quitting time Giovanni let out a yell. "Dottore, it is more clothing." He was holding a lump of reddish terracotta, slightly charred on one side in the shape of drapery, very complex drapery with subtle folds beneath folds. The piece was about a foot high and had to be part of a large statue. Don Ciccio kneeled beside him and they started cutting into the soil with their spatulas, carving the fragment below like a small cave and then breaking off the overhang gently with their hands. Ciccio handed me another hunk of terracotta drapery. The break was fresh and it fit perfectly into the first piece.

The very earth underneath us suddenly seemed to become a bunch of drapery.

"Is that drapery, there?" I asked.

"No, Dottore, only earth,” Don Ciccio said glumly.

But Giovanni's spatula caressed the side of the lump. It was drapery after all.

We dug further into the smooth chocolate clay as a figure began to awaken after a sleep of more than two thousand years, I could see that if we found the whole thing, she'd be more than three feet tall, the largest terracotta find so far. Then an outstretched arm greeted us and finally, a nose and then the entire head appeared from the soil. Giovanni brushed us all aside and reverently kneeled to kiss the face of the goddess we'd discovered.

Photographer Pal Nils Nilsson, who had been hovering next to this "lucky" trench, heard our cries and came running over to shoot the lady emerging from the ground, muttering that he'd finally found something worthwhile in the "tiresome" dig. His photograph of the head, half submerged, became one of the official postcards of the expedition. As the days passed my goddess gusher spewed forth a steady stream of delicate ladies with saucy buns of hair knotted behind their lovely little necks, all wrapped in thin, lovely clothing, called chimations. Where were their menfolk? We never found any. This was Demeter’s or Aphrodite’s or Persephone’s sanctuary.

The work was exhilarating and at the same time harrowing. I couldn’t stop digging for fear that it would rain and flood the trench. It was almost impossible to record my finds. Cataloging was the most tedious part of the effort but the most important. From my small sanctuary, which I began to think was dedicated to Persephone, over a hundred items had come. They included the terracotta statues and heads, as well as animal figurines, pots, vases of a variety kinds, miniature altars, bone necklaces and objects of iron, ivory, silver and bronze. To record them professionally, to clean them, to make delicate restorations would take at least three weeks if I worked hard and made no errors. And we had only three weeks before the end of the dig.

Every evening after the trenches closed I’d be in the “maggazino” for several hours cleaning the statuettes with dental tools and trying to assemble the hundreds of now-dried fragments. The work was painstaking; for if my fingers slipped, if the color on the terracotta -- they were all painted and thus couldn't be washed -- were abraded, the paint vanished, never to be resurrected. A restorer was supposed to come from Catania, but had been delayed. I had to give the prime pieces an initial cleaning or the mud would harden. That would be curtains! I was exhausted most of the time.
         
At length it dawned upon me that the column in our sanctuary was not a column or an altar but a pedestal for a life-size terracotta bust.

On some premonition -- I was getting to think, like some of my workers, I was able to see beneath the surface -- I had stopped young Buglisi from throwing away something about six inches across coated with chocolate colored mud. It was conical, rising to a tapering, flat tip with a suggestion of a round knob. To Buglisi it was just the commonplace end of a water jug -- we’d found thousands of them. We’d throw them aside if there were no stamp on the bottom.

But I thought I saw a braided pattern, then no. I was about to chuck the thing aside. I was tired, it was hot as hell and I'd not slept much the night before. But glancing at the thing a second time, my mind started to race. Had I seen something like it amongst the hundreds of pieces I was cleaning and assembling in the “maggazino?” I brushed the mud off gingerly and saw it was part of a hairdo, tied neatly by one delicate terracotta string. It was the coiffure of a life-sized head of a goddess, a big sister to the hundreds of heads we'd already found.

The lady gradually emerged in dozens of wet chunks of grayish-green clay, eaten away by time and moisture. We worked in silence, punctuated by our hyperventilated breathing. We labored with dentists' tools and sable brushes, chipping, coaxing, then brushing and fingering a series of clay fragments that pushed through the surface.

It took a few agonizing hours for the full “Madonna” to come out; it was an entire bust, no doubt what had perched on the pedestal in the center of the sanctuary. Persephone herself. Not a molded or stamped piece, but a work of art. She was far from a votive clay object turned out by the hundreds, but a glorious goddess.

The face and parts of the hair were covered by the thinnest imaginable veneer of stucco. On one piece, which I gingerly cleaned on the spot, a thumbprint appeared like something startlingly alive -- the enduring signature of the artist of two thousand years before. Finally, at the end of that exhausting day, I cleaned away the mud on her face and an eye and wafer-thin ledges of an eyelid appeared. I planted a kiss on her moist mouth.

My goddess gusher never gave up. Every few minutes one of the workers would hand me a hunk of chocolate colored dirt and invariably it would turn out to be another exciting find which would, momentarily, bring back the early thrill. As I wrote the Bells, "Don Ciccio hands me a brown egg, about three inches long, covered with a bevy of smaller brown eggs. I tell him for the fiftieth time to measure the location up, down and sideways where it was found with the 'stadia.' I start cleaning the egg with my brush. A half-inch in, the dirt pops off revealing a reddish area of terracotta, ridged and waved and inscribed by a series of incisions. Another stab and a bun of hair gathered by a delicate terracotta ribbon comes to light. I brush the face and there's the tip of a nose, then the forehead and the eyes with shell-like, sharp lids and two, almost parallel, lines of lips appear. Finally, I clean the last incrustation around the cheeks and the neck. A delightful, little earring in the shape of a cornucopia is hanging on her left ear. On the right side there's a lock of hair, molded in such a clever way that an open space exists between it and the undulating flesh of the neck. The face of the young woman is sturdy, impassive, tipped to one side in a coy expression. Her eyes stare heavenward."

By that time I had unearthed over two hundred statuettes and heads, every one slightly different. I found dancing girls, girls playing flutes, their mouths covered by a strap to hold the instrument, glum girls, smiling girls, "Spanish" girls with comb-like haloes on their dainty heads. The draperies on several of the figures had gilding still hanging in there after two millennia. My men whispered, "di oro" -- gold -- to each other. The next morning a band of farm wives and two priests (my men muttered "corvi", crows, when they saw the black-frocked clerics) came up to the underground “church,” we'd discovered to inquire about the solid gold statue of the saint found in its crypt.

We came across a hoard of bulbous “unguentaries,” peculiarly shaped perfume jars with thin necks and no bases and fat bodies. To me they seemed like overweight, semi-retired courtesans, lolling around on their potbellies. Sjöqvist told me that they were offerings of oil to the deity.

I should have made an offering myself, for as soon as I had cleared the ten by fifteen foot room and gazed down giddily at the bare chocolate clay floor -- my God, I was finally at the end! -- I spotted out of the corner of my eye an odd shape in a wall. Stupidly, I took my pick and made a small test. Twenty minutes later I was looking, aghast, at the clear signs of another room, and a while later, another altar or pedestal, no doubt surrounded by another human sea of terracotta figurines.
         
Oh, my God -- and goddesses -- enough already!
         
When I told Nancy of the new discovery, she hissed, "Why didn’t you leave it alone?"
         
"I did think of covering it up, but Erik was there and jumped into the trench. He congratulated me glumly and said, 'I suppose you must proceed, my lad.'"
         
Every night before collapsing into bed I'd tell her about my progress in the new sanctuary, for surrounding this new pedestal were more figurines and gobs of ritual objects, sadly, these more smashed than the earlier ones.
         
"This second pedestal has been crunched by a retaining wall for an olive tree grove planted, say, in the eighteenth century by the grandfather of a temporary worker, Mascara, or at least so he claims. Erik had a good idea this morning -- one I should have had and I think he thinks less of me for not having had it -- if this is an altar, then they would have made a sacrifice when they erected it."
         
"Human?"
         
"Chickens. Spill a glass of red, throw in some charred chicken bones and maybe a couple of gold coins."
         
"And?"
         
"By God, we found a small niche deep in it with some bones, some pottery fragments and one coin, not gold, but bronze. I was triply cautious with it and recorded the placement twice and brushed it real clean and made a decent drawing and description and. . . "
         
"This is the coin that Lucy Shoe claims you lost?"
         
"Yup. But I think she did. Christ, I brought it to the 'maggazino' myself and made a special mention of it. I think Erik believes I didn't lose it."
         
"You'll never know the date of these rooms?"

"Yes and no or maybe. We do have all those statuettes of the 4th-3rd century B.C. for style dating and the single coin may be unreliable. This little niche in the altar was smashed in half by the olive grove wall. The shards we found never made it together into a cup, which they should have, so it's possible that this coin and the shards were on a higher level and were pushed down when the wall was built. I'm saying that the coin is not hard evidence."

"Why can't you go into that first altar and find an intact niche with a hoard of gold coins and the remains of some virgins or chickens."

"Brilliant. You've done it again, just like Santo Spirito in Ravenna. You ought to be the archaeologist in this family."

"Heaven forbid!"

I told Erik of Nancy's idea and he gave permission to give it a try. Giovanni, Renzo and I began to pry loose the complex congeries of stones, terracotta nuggets and loose soil, which made up the core of the altar without disturbing the thin outer coating of stucco. But we soon saw that we couldn't go further without seriously damaging the altar so we left it. I never learned if anyone, later on, had gone in there or found dating evidence in the form of coins, for, as far as I know, my bronze one was never found, or if it was, it was not tagged or catalogued.
         
The last two days of the dig were chaos caused principally by Lucy Shoe who, in trying to finish off the way-behind cataloging, burst into tears repeatedly and blamed everyone else for missing numbers, objects forgotten or misplaced or mislabeled. Nancy was blamed the most, though we all came in for some vituperation.

Erik said to me, "Nancy could have done a better job, certainly in keeping proper accounting and in working with people."

On the last day, June 26th, the workers all came through the Villa, looking over the “maggazino,” oohing and aahing over "my" treasures. Three small terracotta heads went missing. I didn’t think they’d been taken by any of the men. I remembered a strange boy hanging around. Sjöqvist wanted to raise hell with the foremen, but I persuaded him to let me deal with it. I got the word out through Giovanni, Renzo and Orazio that I'd offer a cash reward for the return of the missing heads. That same evening they were deposited with their catalog tags tied around their necks on the entrance to the “maggazino.”

Some goodbyes were teary, some jocular. I gave each member of my team a packet of photographs I'd made and they were delighted. The last one to leave was Giovanni, with a surprisingly limp handshake and a kiss on both cheeks.

Except for Sufia, I never saw any of them again. I have never been back to Aidone and have never seen any of my goddesses again.

We started north in a convoy, which soon split up. Helen Woodruff decided to hightail it to Milan in her sporty station wagon Fiat 600. The Nillsons and Kyle Roberts wanted to follow every inch of the via Appia into Rome to sell the pictures to a magazine and we declined to join that brick by brick journey. We never saw them again. We drove Fred Licht to Bari and he took a train to Spain. We never met him again.

As for excavating, I never did that again, either.
         
This is chapter 18 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email