Since time immemorial, sculptors have examined the enigmatic connection between their material, and us, the ultimate viewer, in a number of different ways. From the minute to the monumental, such as the the Great Sphinx on the banks of the Nile River in Giza, statues are intended to be observed from a 360-degree perspective, forcing us to change our point of view as we interact with them.
While we’ve touched on breathtaking colossal statues before, some of the most incredible ancient statues from our distant past were recovered from watery graves, archaeological digs, and saved from the hands of smugglers. Each unique in their beauty, backstory, location and age, they stand as an extraordinary tribute to the sculptors of ages past.
10. Statues of Mount Nemrut (62 BC)
The spectacular tomb of King Antiochus I of the Commagene Kingdom on Mount Nemrut, is among the most intriguing archaeological ruins in Turkey. Apart from the breathtaking nine meters high statues of the king and several gods found at the foot of the mountain, it remains an archaeological site that somehow still retains its secrets. To date, nobody has determined what could be hidden by the man-made (over 2,000 meters high) embankment on the mountain, as the king’s actual grave has never been found. Furthermore, astronomers have never been able to unravel the enigma of the iconic “lion horoscope” imposed on a mural garnishing the side of the mountain.
The techniques employed in the creation of the massive ancient statues combine the traditions of both the Greek and Persian art forms. Though they are no longer intact, the heads of the massive statues once had bodies with identities engraved on them. Nobody knows when exactly the heads were severed, as the ancient kingdom went through different rules over the ages. Mount Nemrut was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987.
9. Head of a Roman Patrician (75-50 BC)
The droopy, and leathered facial expression of this unidentified Roman citizen of the wealthy elite is demonstrative of the ideologies of the Roman Empire, which, before everything else, valued the civil infrastructure and the military power of their societal structure. Rather than simply duplicating the equally iconic Greek paintings and sculptures of their age by generating romanticized representations of their rulers as deities, the people of the Roman Empire tried to portray their value systems in true physical form.
As such, this statue does not portray the wealthy man as young or athletic but rather reinforces his maturity which directly translates to wisdom—through distinguishable wrinkles expertly crafted into his neck and face. The statue, dating back to the 1st century BC, also corresponds to the government and its political views of the time: the Roman Republic was initially ruled by its nobles. Eventually, the elite Roman classes established affiliations with wealthy and powerful commoners, but the persisting societal disparities ultimately led to its decline.
8. The Riace Bronzes (460 BC)
The Riace Bronzes were stuck in their watery grave off the coast of Riace, Calabria, Italy, until their discovery in 1972 by Stefano Mariottini. While snorkeling one day he was horrified to see what he believed was a human arm, sticking out from the seafloor. Believing that he had found a victim of the Italian mafia, Stefano contacted the authorities. While investigating the scene, the police immediately realized that they had come across something far greater than a corpse, and called in experienced archaeologists who unearthed the two ancient Greek bronze statues. What makes the find perplexing is that no remains of a shipwreck could be located in the area.
The statues, identified only as statue A and statue B, only differ by a few centimeters in height and are believed to have been created by two different artists. At some point in time, both held spears, but they have not been recovered. Even though the statues were unearthed in 1972, they were not revealed until 1981. Currently standing in the National Museum of Greece, Reggio, Calabria, they are a popular tourist attraction and are viewed by more than 1,000,000 people every year.
7. Lamassu Statues on the Gate of All Nations in Persepolis (465 BC)
Lamassu statues symbolize each and every lifeform as imagined within the heavenly bodies and the constellations. Placed as icons of safety and protection throughout ancient Assyria, their bodies represent those of lions or oxen while they feature the heads of human beings, as well as massive wings typically folded to their sides. Traditionally verging alongside city entrances or palatial entry points, the lamassu (male statues) or apasu (female statues) were also seen as deities of protection for households, and would often be found engraved in clay tablets that would be buried beneath household doorsteps.
At the remains of the Gate of All Nations in Persepolis (Iran), incredibly majestic lamassu can still be seen on several of the surviving pillars. Commissioned by King Xerxes around 465 BC, the surviving lamassu are somewhat eroded after hundreds and thousands of years of military conflict and razing. However, a pair on show at the Louvre in Paris gives us an idea of how these lamassu may have looked during their prime.
6. The Fallen Warrior of the Temple at Aphaia (480 BC)
The temple of Aphaia was constructed on the island of Aegina, in a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Aphaia. The remaining temple that we can find there today is thought to be the second and even possibly the third temple built at the site after the former ones were decimated in wars.
By 1811, Baron Otto Magnus Von Stackberg and the English architect Charles Robert Cockerell decided to remove statues from both the western and the eastern pediments of the temple and sold them to the then-heir to the throne, Ludwig I of Hanover.
The statues the men removed from the temple, both extraordinary examples of Greek sculpture, were of two warriors of the Trojan wars, slain in combat, and in the process of dying. The warrior from the western pediment seems to have had a spear or an arrow in his chest (we can’t be sure as it has gone missing over time). The warrior from the eastern pediment is believed to have been created a few decades later as the techniques employed in its craftsmanship falls into the classical period. Both statues can today be found in the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany.
5. Merenda Kouros (540-530 BC) & Phrasikleia Kore (550-540 BC)
The statues of a beautiful kore (maiden) and a kouros (naked youth) were revealed buried next to each other in the ancient catacombs of Merenda in Attica in 1972. Buried since the late 6th century BC, the couple had long since been forgotten. However, in 1730, Michel Fourmont, a Catholic priest and historian, observed an inscription on one of the stones reused in the columns of Merenda’s Church in Panaghia. The stone was, in truth, an ancient statue foundation, which made reference to “Phrasikleia,” a young girl who had passed away before she had the opportunity to get married.
The stone remained unknown until the Merenda statues were uncovered close to the chapel. One of the archaeologists recounted the inscribed stone and realized that the kore could be the virgin Phrasikleia. Verifying his hypothesis was a vast circle of lead found within the burial site, which previously attached the kore to her foundational mounting. It was a perfect fit to kore’s base. It is believed that the statues memorialized members of the Alcmaeonid family, political adversaries of the Peisistratids, who’d been forced into exile and may well have entombed their opponent’s grave symbols after a vandalism incident, or possibly to safeguard them from one. The kouros, broken from its base just above its ankles, was actually painstakingly entombed with the broken limbs.
4. Lady of Auxerre (650-625 BC)
Discovered hidden away in a storage room of the Auxerre Museum in 1907, the exact events surrounding the finding of this relatively obscure statue called the Lady of Auxerre remain unexplained. It made the list, however, as it is the absolute epitome of the Daedalic style that signaled the redevelopment of stone sculpture in the Mediterranean basin from around 700 BC. From the stepped and heavy hair to the u-shaped face, its rigid frontality are the key elements of a style that originates from Daedalus, the sculptor believed to have crafted the first statues in ancient times.
It is important to note that almost all ancient statues and sculptures appeared much different originally from what they look like today. They were usually painted with brilliant colors which unfortunately wore away as time went by. The Lady of Auxerre, carved from limestone, was sculpted in Crete around 640-620 BC. The craftsmanship and material clearly point to Crete because of the characteristics of the specific limestone used, but also the similarity of the statue’s attire, expression, and its similarities to other clay works uncovered on the island. Comparative analysis with funerary materials unearthed at Eleutherna implies that the Lady of Auxerre was obtained from these catacombs around the end of the 19th century.
3. Bust of Nefertiti (1345 BC)
The much-publicized statue of Queen Nefertiti has been the embodiment of feminine perfection since its discovery in 1912. Queen to the controversial Pharaoh Akhenaten, who attempted to obliterate Egypt’s accepted deities and initiate his own religious doctrine, the details of Nefertiti’s life were lost to history. Many suspect that she ruled for a number of years after Akhenaten’s death, and according to some scholars, Nefertiti could also have been the famous pharaoh, King Tutankhamun‘s, mother. Seeing as her tomb has never been located, numerous Egyptologists believe that she was put to rest in a sealed room just next to the tomb of King Tut.
The stucco-coated limestone statue is one of the most reproduced works of art ever to come out of Ancient Egypt and is characterized by a sophisticated approach that diverges from the commonly formalized techniques employed in Ancient Egyptian sculptures. Strangely enough, soon after its discovery and well before the onset of the Second World War, Nefertiti’s bust was moved to Germany, where it remains to this very day. In fact, an entire room was set aside for Nefertiti at the National Museum in Berlin, and the bust is considered a symbol of the city.
2. Bison Sculptures at Tuc D’Audoubert Cave (13,000 BC)
The cave of Tuc d’Audoubert is situated in the enclave of Montesquieu-Avantes, of the central Pyrenees, in southwestern France. It is part of a larger group of vast underground caverns split into three caves: the cave of Enlene, the cave of Trois Freres, and the cave of Tuc d’Audoubert. These three caves accommodate several prehistoric artworks, which include several stone carvings, cave paintings, and most astonishingly, even sculptures – the most famous example being the intricately carved 15,000 year old relief sculpture of bison.
The amazing ancient reliefs are more than half a meter in length, over 45 centimeters high, and about 10 centimeters deep. They were modeled from clay and smoothed over by wetting the surface during the creation process. The marks of the tools used and even imprints of the artist’s hand can still be seen and are clearly visible. Their straggly mane and hair seem to have been etched with a tool; however, the mouths were delicately traced by the sculptor’s very own fingernails. Both animals are backed by a massive rock, and therefore are absurdly well preserved. The chamber also includes two other bison engravings, however, these were done on the floor. The statues can be seen about 650 meters from the entrance to the cave.
1. The Venus of Dolni Vestonice (29,000-25,000 BC)
The Venus of Dolni Vestonice is almost comparable to many other Venus statuettes found around the world. It is an 11.3 centimeters, nude statuette with a curvaceous feminine shape, complete with a buxom bosom and distended derrière. But that is where the similarities end. The Venus of Dolni Vestonice was the first documented ceramic statue ever found, made of a clay body that was fired at a very low temperature that actually predates the established use of fire-baked clay pottery by more than 14,000 years. The statue was unearthed on July 13, 1925 in Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia.
The small statue, together with a few others as well as hundreds of individual fragments, had to be a novel and new technology. Evidence suggests that the items were fired at a constant low temperature of 700 degrees Celsius, and many of the items reveal thermal cracks – including the Venus, which was discovered in two pieces upon excavation. The Venus has four puncture sites on its head, which may have been placed to keep herbs and flowers or possibly for ceremonial purposes. During analysis in 2002, a fingerprint belonging to a child between 7 and 15 years of age was found on the left side of the statue. Although the scientists could not conclude whether a child literally created the statue, they point it out as scientific proof of a social element involved in the advanced ceramics production of the Gravettian era.