Unravelling the mystery of an ancient statue
For more than a decade Concordia University has investigated the origins of a mysterious sculpture known as The Starving of Saqqara. (Concordia University)
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Sunday, March 20, 2011 1:21PM EDT
For more than a decade, art historians and archeologists at Montreal's Concordia University have been puzzling over the origins of a mysterious Egyptian statue.
Experts have declared the statue both grotesque and beautiful and said it is either a potentially priceless artifact thousands of years old or a worthless fake.
"It's very mysterious and very unusual piece," Clarence Epstein, the university's director of special projects and cultural affairs, told CTV.ca. "None of the specialists, none of the experts are ready to say whether this piece is authentic, what it is, how old it is, or where it comes from."
The 67-centimetre-high limestone sculpture depicts two seated, intertwined figures with large, elongated heads and long thin limbs, lending the carving its unofficial name: The Starving of Saqqara.
It has traces of pigment, indicating that it was once painted, and includes inscriptions in what appears to be an ancient but as yet unidentified language.
But Epstein says little else is known about the 80-kilogram statue. He has consulted experts from Cambridge University, the British Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Israel Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum -- but none were able to confirm the sculpture's pedigree.
"One specialist commented that if it can be proven to date to the period when the Jews were exiled from Egypt, it could be one of the rarest finds of its kind," says Epstein. "Another archeologist suggested the statue was either from a pre-dynastic tomb or was an outright fake."
If genuine, the statue could predate the pyramids, Epstein says, making it "one of the rarest finds of its kind."
The statue came to the university in 1999 from the collection of Vincent and Olga Diniacopoulos, Greek immigrants from France who amassed an enormous group of Mediterranean antiquities which are now in museums and private collections around the world.
The sculpture was exhibited in the 1950s at their family-owned Galerie Ars Classica in Montreal, but remained hidden away for decades, stored in fragments in a sealed crate.
Little is known about where or how the Diniacopoulos family acquired it. Saqqara refers to a vast burial ground in the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, but it is not clear how this region relates to the statue.
But no expert among the many Epstein consulted over the past decade could identify the sculpture's age or artistic tradition, nor could they decipher the script carved into its back.
Epstein said the sculpture may have come from an early Egyptian tomb representing "images of the conquered" -- people enslaved by an ancient ruler.
His theory is that it comes from a very early burial site or tomb dating back to before the first pharaohs rose to power in Egypt. "I believe it's 4,000 years old or older and that makes it a very, very rare find."
In an essay about The Starving of Saqqara, Swiss art historian Jean-Jacques Fiechter weighed in on the side of authenticity.
"An experienced collector and connoisseur such as Vincent Diniacopoulos would not have bought this piece, nor shipped it at great cost to Canada, had it not been considered authentic," Fiechter wrote.
The university restored the statue and put it on public display for the first time this week in hopes of attracting international attention and possibly fresh insights into its origins.
The three-day exhibition and newly published pictures of the statue on the university's website drew opinions, questions and interest from respected archeologists, art and cultural experts and curious amateurs, Epstein says.
"We've gotten a considerable response from all over the world," he says.