The ROM ‘Minoan’ Goddess: the Suspect Sisters (and brothers)

Posted: April 7, 2014 - 12:59 , by ROM
Detail of the head of the ROM 'Minoan' Goddess

The ROM Goddess is just one of the ‘Minoan’ figurines in several museums sometimes thought to be fake.  These two installments of the ROM Minoan Goddess project introduce you to some of the suspected (although not definitively proven) fake figurines, and the genuine Minoan objects that may have inspired them.

I start with the suspected Minoan forgeries, which have often been compared to the ROM Goddess.  These are discussed in detail by Kenneth Lapatin in Mysteries of the Snake Goddess (2002).  It is very hard to certainly prove that any of these are in fact forgeries made in the early 20th century, but they share characteristics which, taken together, suggest that the figurines were not genuine Minoan objects.  They all have a vague acquisition story and no known archaeological findspot, although several of them are linked to particular areas of Crete as their stories were retold over the decades after they were acquired.  This sort of imprecise archaeological provenience is not in itself particularly surprising, since, if genuine, these pieces were smuggled out of Crete without permission from the authorities.  However, many of the figurines have a suspiciously similar collection pattern, travelling through the hands of the same people.  They are also similar in aspects of their stylistic and technical details – resembling the archaeologically excavated Minoan artefacts, but different in certain key respects.  As I discuss in an earlier post, there is evidence that fake Minoan artefacts were being made and then artificially aged in Crete by the people who worked with Arthur Evans excavating the genuine Minoan remains at Knossos.  

The Boston Snake Goddess

Chryselephantine statutette of a Snake Goddess, (c) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Statuette of a snake goddess in gold and ivory, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
no. 14.863, Gift of Mrs W. Scott Fitz
Photograph with permission, © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


The first of the figurines to appear outside Crete was this chryselephantine (ivory & gold) goddess which was acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1914.  There are several versions of the story about how this object travelled from Crete to the US, explained by Lapatin, whose 2002 book concentrated on this figurine.

It arrived at the museum as many fragments of ivory and gold in a small tin, which were then restored using wax and plaster to replace the missing right arm and pieces of skirt.  The figure had originally been carved from several pieces of ivory joined together – the two arms were separate, as was the lower skirt.  The gold decoration on the dress was attached with gold pins, and pins were also used on the breasts as nipples. The crown of the goddess is all that remains of a larger headdress, and the row of holes around the forehead may once have held the pins securing a gold diadem or metal locks of hair.

The restored figurine is a Snake Goddess  who holds two gold snakes, very similar to two faience figurines excavated by Evans at Knossos in 1903 (see my next post).  Evans declared it to be a genuine Minoan goddess and published it in Palace of Minos.  However it was questioned by other scholars, and Lapatin’s work has convincingly shown that it was probably a carving of the early 20th century.  Lapatin gives many reasons, but the most convincing (to me) are the details of technique.  He shows that the surviving ivory arm was joined to the body using dovetail-slot joins, a technique which didn’t appear in Cretan ivories (although it was used for Egyptian objects).  He also points out that the carving of the face (which had always intrigued because of its ‘modern’ features) must have happened after the ivory had been aged, since it is complete and centred on the surviving ivory, despite some of the ivory on one side of the face being lost. 

What Lapatin was not able to do was prove the case scientifically.  Radiocarbon dating (C14 testing) of some fragments of ivory that weren’t used in the reconstruction (but which were thought to be part of the figurine) showed that the ivory dated to either AD 1420-1535 or AD 1545-1635.  This test can only determine the age of the ivory (when the elephant died) not the date of the carving, but it is still an unexpected result – about 3,000 years too late to be genuine, but more than 300 years too early to be a fake created from fresh ivory following Evans’ Minoan discoveries in the early 1900s.  There are several alternatives that could explain this result.  Either the fragments did not belong to the figurine after all, or they were contaminated by restoration and conservation treatments.  Alternatively, the figurine was made reusing ivory that dated to the Renaissance period, an early 20th century fake carved from older ivory.

The Boston goddess is no longer on display, and the online collection information reflects the doubts about the date saying that it is either Minoan (1600-1500 BC), or modern of the early 20th century.  It is this figurine that has been most often studied, and many of the other suspect figurines, including the ROM goddess, are condemned as fake because of their association with this figure.     

The Baltimore Snake Goddess

Chryselephantine figurine of a Snake Goddess, (c) Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Statuette of a snake goddess in gold and ivory, now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
no. 71.1090
Photograph with permission ©The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Very similar in appearance, although less well preserved, is a second chryselephantine Snake Goddess in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.  It was bought by Henry Walters in the 1920s from the Parisian art dealers, Feuardent Frères, but did not enter the museum collection until after his death in 1931, when it was discovered in a desk drawer together with an undated certificate from the dealer declaring it to be genuine and to have come from Knossos.

The figurine was discovered in pieces in a box bound together by the gold foil and wire of the clothing, and was restored using metal rods and gelatin adhesives.  Once again, this is a Snake Goddess made of several pieces of ivory, with the remains of a gold snake around one arm.  The two arms and lower skirt are again separate components (although joined to the body in a different manner from the Boston Goddess) but here the head is also separate, slotted into the body with a wedge-shaped tenon.  This goddess wears a tall crown on her head and the gold clothes were again attached with pins, as shown by the holes that survive in the gold and ivory.

Although this goddess resembles the Boston goddess in subject, technique and lack of archaeological provenience, there is one key difference.  It is so badly preserved that it no longer has a face.  The state of the ivory may be the result of using acid to artificially age the material, as has been described in the Cretan fakers’ workshops, but it would make the end result less likely to sell – the appeal of the other figurines is their suspiciously well-preserved facial features. 

The Baltimore goddess is on display in the Walters Art Museum, where the label mentions the doubts about the date of the object.    

The Seattle ‘Boy God’

Seattle Boy God, (c) Seattle Art Museum

Statuette of an ivory Boy God, now in the Seattle Art Museum
no. 57.56, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund
Photograph with permission © Seattle Art Museum


At some point in the 1920s the Parisian art dealers, Feuardent Frères, also sold another rather different ‘Minoan’ ivory figurine.  In 1924 Arthur Evans presented this figure in a Royal Society lecture as a Minoan ‘Boy God’ and it remained a treasured part of his own collection until his death in 1941 (although he offered to sell it to the ROM in 1936).  In 1957 it was bought from Jacob Hirsch, the executor of Evans’ estate, by the Seattle Art Museum.   

This figurine was extremely well-preserved and needed only a little restoration of the surface of the thighs.  It is hard to tell whether the naked figure was meant to be male or female, since it lacks either genitals or breasts.  It stands almost on tiptoe on a wedge-shaped plinth which is unknown elsewhere in Minoan art (except the Ashmolean god discussed below).  It has shoulder-length wavy hair and wears a tall crown of a very un-Minoan style.  The arms are made separately, but the rest of the figurine was carved of a single piece of ivory. 

In Palace of Minos Evans identified this figurine as a young boy, who would once have worn a gold belt and loincloth (no gold survives but there is a pin hole at the back of the figure).  Evans thought it was so similar to the Boston Goddess in style and size that he believed they formed a pair, perhaps made by the same craftsman, and that the boy was in fact a Boy God raising his hand in worship of his divine mother the Snake Goddess.  This seems to be an example of Evans fulfilling his own preconceptions about the Minoans.  There are images on Minoan gems that may show men worshipping women, but there is no good evidence to identify these as a Boy God and Mother Goddess.  We also can’t be certain that this figurine is a boy at all.  Lapatin has suggested that it was actually meant to be a young (pre-pubescent) girl created by forgers to justify another of Evans’ theories – the existence of female Minoan bull leapers – but then misidentified by Evans.  A crucial difficulty with Lapatin’s suggestion is that the tall crown worn by the figure would be impractical for a bull-leaping acrobat, whether male or female.     

The figure has also undergone radiocarbon testing, and the ivory seems to be around 500 years old.  As with the Boston goddess, this is an unusual date, which may be explained by the same alternatives.  Despite this result, it still appears on the museum’s online collection website as being Minoan.

The Ashmolean Boy God

Chryselephantine statuette of a 'Boy God', (c) Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Ivory figurine of a youth ('Boy-God'), now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
no. AE1938.692
Photograph with permission © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.


As if inspired by Evans’ identification of the Seattle Boy God, another figurine of a Boy God appeared at around the same time.  Little is known about this figurine before Evans published it in 1935.  He claimed that it had been found in southern Crete, and had been in a “collection across the Atlantic” (North America), before returning to Britain to become part of his own collection.  In 1938 Evans donated the figurine to the Ashmolean Museum.

As with the Seattle ‘Boy God’, this figure stands on a wedge-shaped plinth, arms raised, but this ‘God’ wears a gold loin cloth or apron, which hides his carved male genitals.  Slight damage to the surface of the legs was restored sometime before 1935.  The arms, one now missing, were carved separately and join the body at the biceps (the arms of the other figurines join at the shoulders).  The hair is shorter than that of the Seattle figurine, and seems to have a bald patch on top, which Evans believed was a tonsure that was once covered with a gold cap.  This hairstyle, not seen elsewhere in Minoan art, suggested to Evans that this youth was older than the Seattle ‘Boy God’ and had dedicated some of his hair as a votive offering when he reached puberty, a tradition that existed later in the Greek world.  

Lapatin argues that a comparison with the Seattle ‘Boy God’, both the similarities of style and the crucial differences, proves that this Ashmolean god is a forgery made after the Seattle figurine.  The Cretan forgers, now aware of a demand for Boy Gods, improved on their earlier attempt (the Seattle God) by making the figurine unequivocally male.  Certainly, the style of this figurine is unlike that of the archaeologically excavated Minoan figurines, in any respect – either in dress, stance, expression or style of carving.  Radiocarbon tests seem to show that the ivory is several centuries old, which is another unexpected scientific result. 

The ‘Boy God’ is exhibited in the Ashmolean Museum’s Aegean Bronze Age Gallery in a display called ‘A World of Myths’, which discusses the modern views and interpretation of the Bronze Age Aegean.  In this context it is clear that the museum believes this figurine to be a modern creation based on Arthur Evans’ visions of the Bronze Age past.  For more about this topic see my earlier post The Evans Connection Part 2: The Minoans Created.

Of the unprovenienced figurines, these four are the closest to the ROM goddess in terms of material and technique – they are all carved from ivory and have some detachable limbs.  But there are several other snake goddess figurines made of ivory or stone that are less skillful.  Many of them have disappeared from the public eye, either lost, destroyed or in private collections, but others are still in museum collections, for example a stone goddess in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and a steatite goddess in the Walters, Baltimore.  

In the next installment I'll look at the certainly genuine Minoan material that resembles the ROM Goddess and was found in excavations on Crete.  Many of the objects were excavated in the early decades of the 20th century and so could have inspired the creation of figurines such as the four discussed here, but there are also some more recent archaeological discoveries.  I'll talk more about how the ROM Goddess compares to all these figurines in another post.

Further Reading

C.L. Cooper (Kate Cooper), 'Biography of the Bull-Leaper: A 'Minoan' Ivory Figurine and Collecting Antiquity', in Cooper C.L. (ed) New Approaches to Ancient Material Culture in the Greek & Roman World (Leiden: Brill, MGR 27, 2021)

K. Butcher & D. Gill (1993) ‘The Director, the Dealer, the Goddess and Her Champions: The Acquisition of the Fitzwilliam Goddess’ American Journal of Archaeology 97, pp.383-401

A. J. Evans, Palace of Minos: A Comparative account of the successive stages of the early Cretan civilization as illustrated by the discoveries at Knossos (London, 1921-1935)
The Boston Goddess: Volume 3 (1930) p. 438 ff.
The Seattle ‘Boy God’ : Volume 3 (1930) p.443ff
The Ashmolean ‘Boy God’: Volume 4.2 (1935) p. 468 ff

K. Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess. Art, desire, and the forging of history.  (Boston & New York, 2002)

A Google+ Hangout where I chat with Kenneth Lapatin 

With thanks for assistance and picture permissions to Ken Lapatin (J. Paul Getty Museum), Christine Kondoleon and Marta Fodor (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Marden Nichols and Ruth Bowler (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore), Sarah Berman and Matt Epsom (Seattle Art Museum), Amy Taylor (Ashmolean Museum), Yannis Galanakis (Cambridge University).