Minoan Ivory Goddess

This exquisite ivory and gold figurine (museum registration number 931.21.1) has been an icon of the ROM collection since she was acquired in 1931, but she has also attracted huge controversy. 

When she was bought by the ROM, she was believed to be a rare example of a female bull-leaper from the Minoan civilisation of Bronze Age Crete, and to date to around 1600 BC.  She was an expensive prize for the new museum, much admired by experts, including Sir Arthur Evans, who had himself discovered the remains Minoan civilisation at the beginning of the 20th century and who named her ‘Our Lady of Sports’.  However, within less than a decade questions were raised as to her authenticity.  With no certain archaeological findspot, and only a vague collection history before she came to the museum, she was condemned by some scholars as a modern forgery, associated with several other `Minoan` figurines made of stone and ivory that appeared on the art market in the early decades of the 20th century.   Other scholars defended her on technical grounds, comparing her to Bronze Age ivory fragments recovered from excavations on Crete.

For many years her fortunes wavered as scholarly opinion castigated and then rehabilitated her.  She remained on display, but was little publicised.  Finally, a 2001 article in Archaeology magazine by Dr K. Lapatin, a specialist in chryselephantine antiquities and now Associate Curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, reached the Canadian press and prompted a reassessment of the display.  For the first time the doubts about her authenticity were voiced in the gallery label, and the museum visitor was invited to form their own opinion.  In 2005, when the Bronze Age Aegean gallery was re-opened after renovations, she was not included.

Throughout the long history and fluctuating fortunes of the goddess, there has been little actual investigative work, and what there was has been directed towards dating her to the Bronze Age.  The current investigation seeks to open up the stories of the figurine herself, rather than proving a point.  Standard scientific testing of the ivory is still not an option – it would be impossible to take a sample for a Carbon-14 test that hadn’t been contaminated by more recent conservation treatments without destroying the figure.  But non-destructive examination of the figure and close study of the techniques of her manufacture may tell us more about how and when she was made. 

Whenever she dates to, she will enhance our understanding of the culture that created her.  If she does come from Bronze Age Crete, she reveals the network of Minoan trading contacts that brought raw materials to Crete, and shows the skill of the ancient craftsmen that fashioned her.  If she was made in the early 20th century, she has a story to tell about the craze for Minoan artefacts and Minoan-inspired fashions prompted by Sir Arthur Evans’ discovery of Knossos, and his ‘invention’ of the Minoan culture at the beginning of the century.  Indeed, she embodies the way in which the ideas of a single expert, Evans himself, can influence the study and understanding of a period of history.  

Perhaps closer to home, the goddess also speaks to the early history of the ROM itself, showing how Charles Trick Currelly and his staff sought to establish the newly-formed museum as a place of serious research and important collections, able to rival the older, better-known museums in America and Europe.

As the investigation unfolds over 2013, this research page will be updated.  We'll be thinking about the following questions and posting research articles on the ROM blog every month or so, which will be linked here as they appear.  Visit regularly, to follow our progress and join the conversation.  

  • The story so far….

This search of museum records and publications reveals the attitudes to the goddess throughout her time in the ROM – from her appearance on the art market in 1930 to the present day.

The Goddess in the Museum: the early years (posted 6th August 2013)

The Goddess in the Museum: the ROM reaction (posted 7th August 2013)

The Goddess in the Museum: “What’s in a name?” (posted 9th August 2013)

With thanks to Paul Denis (ROM Greek & Roman), Arthur Smith and Irene Wu (ROM Research Library), Nur Bahal (ROM Registration)

  • Taking a closer look

A short video lets you to look closely at the figurine, while Julia and I explain what you are seeing on the surface and what an x-ray of the goddess reveals.

Exposing the ROM 'Minoan' Goddess (blog posted 6th November 2013)

The Minoan Goddess Exposed (video)

With thanks to Zak Rogers, Scott Loane and Randy Dreager (ROM New Media), Heidi Sobol (ROM Conservation)

  • The Evans connection

Here I examine the significance of Sir Arthur Evan’s discovery of the Minoan civilisation – how his interpretations were affected by his own agenda, and how the ancient Minoan culture affected the tastes and fashions of the early 20th Century. 

The Evans Connection Part 1: The Minoans Discovered (posted 30th December 2013)

The Evans Connection Part 2: The Minoans Created (posted 31st December 2013)

  • Let's talk about it

Here I chat with Dr. Kenneth Lapatin, author of Mysteries of the Snake Goddess.

ROM 'Minoan Goddess Hangout: battling with technology! (posted 12th February 2014)

With thanks to Dr Kenneth Lapatin (J. Paul Getty Museum), Rae Ostman (ROM Ancient Cultures) and Ryan Dodge (ROM Social Media)

  • Stylistic & Technical Analysis

Using art historical, technical and archaeological analysis we consider whether the goddess is the right style, and made in the right way to be a Minoan artefact.  How does she compare with other Minoan objects?  Is there anything about the way she looks and the way she’s made that means she has to be a modern fake?

  • Meet the family

The ROM goddess is often associated with other Minoan ivory figurines, now in museums around the world.  Here I look at these 'siblings'.  Some of them come from archaeological excavations and are certainly genuine, while others, without archaeological provenance, are often thought to be fake.

The ROM 'Minoan' Goddess: the Suspect Sisters (and brothers) (posted 7th April 2014)

The ROM 'Minoan' Goddess: The Minoan Relations (posted 8th April 2014)

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), Catherine Morgan and Amalia Kakissis (The British School at Athens).

  • Does Science have the Answer?

What can modern scientific tests tell us about the age of the figurine?

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)


Recent Publications