An Italian team of archaeologists has discovered 76 intact Roman statues at Cyrene in Libya. The discovery is remarkable because the site, once a thriving Greek and then Roman settlement, has been under excavation for the last 150 years.
With a nearby coastal port, Apollonia, serving it, Cyrene was once a conurbation equivalent to Alexandria, Carthage and Leptis Magna. An important Dorian colony, founded by Greek settlers from the island of Thera in 631 BC, it was later ruled by the Ptolemies and then the Romans. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 375 AD but continued to be inhabited until the Byzantine period.
At the end of the seventh century BC, the city was not only famous for its grain and wealth, but also for a quasi-miraculous plant, silphium, which has medicinal properties. The trade in silphium, distributed all over the ancient world, was monopolised by Cyrene for at least 200 years. Up until the Roman conquest, silphium was even printed on its currency.
A sacred site in Cyrene, made up of many temples, was discovered by Italian archaeologists between the first and second world wars.
The latest discovery is the work of Mario Luni, an archaeologist from the University of Urbino, who has been working with his team at the site since 1997. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Professor Luni said: “One morning, a collapsed wall in the Roman temple, which was discovered in the 1930s, revealed a marble serpent wrapped around a stone. We could not have known that this was only the first in a series of statues of every kind and size that we would pull from the ground. We just kept discovering them every day, for a month and a half, and found 76 in total.”
Professor Luni stressed that the excavations were “an ongoing collaboration with the Libyan department of antiquities which has agreed to gradually rediscover ancient Cyrene”.
This incredible haul brings to mind the 54 marble sculptures discovered by English archaeologists at Cyrene in the mid-19th century at the temple of Aphrodite, which are now housed in the British Museum.
At least 12 of the newly discovered statues are 20 to 35 centimetres high and show Cybele, daughter of the goddess Demeter, in different poses. These statues are linked to fertility ceremonies associated with the goddess. They were lined up along the back wall of the area inside the temple. The remaining works, some smaller and others much larger, are dedicated to other gods. All the statues date from the Severan period in the second century BC.
According to Professor Luni, these statues have remained undiscovered for so long because “during the earthquake of 375 AD, a supporting wall of the temple fell on its side, burying all the statues. They remained hidden under stone, rubble and earth for 1,600 years. The other walls sheltered the statues, so we were able to recover all the pieces, even works that had been broken”.
Also, before World War II, during the Italian occupation of Libya, a pine forest was planted which covered the ruins of ancient Cyrene, hiding the city—which Professor Luni calls “the Athens of Africa”—under a layer of earth and trees.
Professor Luni’s team has so far focused on central public areas, the heart of the monumental city, such as the forum, the public square and the scared site with its temples. But Cyrene is vast and spread out over an enormous area. The excavations, which will take decades to complete, will now concentrate on the immense Greek settlement, the most ancient part, which was home to successive generations of inhabitants until the Byzantine era and is, as yet, completely unexplored.
Professor Luni said, “Researching the pieces will take at least a couple of years. We have photographed and catalogued the pieces and are currently restoring them”.
He has made many other astounding discoveries at Cyrene. Three years ago, he discovered a large theatre carved into the stone hillside in the public square. He then started to excavate the sacred site and has so far located five temples to the south of the city’s forum. The first, a monumental temple of six columns dedicated to Demeter, was found in 1999 and is still being excavated.
The article is accompanied by a photo of some of the discoveries ....