From Olympia comes the depressing news that armed thieves have stolen a pile of stuff from the nearby museum. I've been waiting for a list of what's lost, but the only description I've seen is "60 or 70 statuettes". If so, I'm almost relieved. The statuettes are probably of athletes and gods, and of incalculable value. But in that same museum is one of my favourite archaeological pieces, and it's not a statuette; it's the ancient equivalent of an office coffee cup.
One of the greatest sculptors of the ancient world, possibly the greatest, and certainly one of the greatest artists in all of history, was a fellow by the name of Phidias. You might not have heard of Phidias, but you've certainly heard of his work. Phidias was the guy who made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the mega-huge statue of ivory, gold and ebony, that was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Phidias also made the statue of Athena that went into the Parthenon. It's given to few men to create one wonder of the world. Phidias worked on two of them. (Strictly speaking, it's the Parthenon itself and not the Athena that's the wonder in Athens, but frankly, Phidias was close enough to the action to get a tick there too.)
Back in 1958, when they were excavating the workshop in Olympia, the archaeologists uncovered a broken piece of pottery cup. When they turned it over, they got a shock, because scratched into the bottom were these words:
I BELONG TO PHIDIAS
They had discovered the personal cup of Phidias. It's almost impossible to get a decent picture of the writing on it. In the museum the cup's upright, with a mirror to show the inscription. Here's a picture from Oxford University.
If you look closely you'll see letters scratched in white on the base. The first word is this: Φειδίας
It seems the problem of cups being stolen from the office kitchen stretches back to ancient times. Phidias probably made the cup himself on a rainy Sunday (when you're the world's greatest craftsman, you can do these things) then scratched his name into it so his co-workers wouldn't make off with his nice cup. This means two things:
- You are looking at a Phidias original, be it ever so humble.
- To the best of my knowledge, this is the world's oldest autograph by a famous person.
The value of this thing is beyond imagination. I don't know what it would fetch in an auction, but to call this piece of broken pottery irreplaceable would be a major understatement.