The Undersea Body

Apr 9, 2020 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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A few years ago my family and I took a holiday in Croatia. The previous year I had given a series of lectures on archaeology in Pula, the capital city of Istria, and I had been invited back to give a follow-up lecture. As this was during the school holidays, I decided to drive out there and take my wife and family.

We fell in love with the place – the warm blue waters of the Adriatic, the white-washed farmhouses that dotted the countryside, the walled cities with narrow valleys and quaint buildings that crowned many hilltops, the friendly people who welcomed us wherever we went. About the only thing that we found slightly disconcerting was Croatian: imagine a language where the “R” is rolled to such an extent that it is considered a vowel!

This was first drawn to our attention when we were planning a day trip from Pula and spotted an island linked to the mainland by ferry. The map said that the island was Krk and at first we thought it must be an abbreviation for some fuller name, but the family with whom we were staying assured us that this was the full name and was pronounced Krrrrrrk.

Right next door to Krk was a longer island called Cres, which we pronounced to rhyme with the leafy salad plant. Once again we were wrong. In the Croatian language the letter “C” represents a sound that I would pronounce as “ts”, the final sound in the word “nits”. So the name of this island was said “Tsres” – and you try saying that without your false teeth firmly glued in place!

We had a lovely day out on Cres and Krk, driving the length of the former to Osor, where a narrow bridge spans the twenty feet of surging water that separates Cres from Mali Losinj. Time was pressing, so we did not explore further, but fortunately Belgian holiday maker Rene Wouters had no such constraints in June 1999.

Rene was a keen scuba diver and the clear waters off the islands of Losinj and Orjule (don’t forget that “J” is prounounced as “Y”) were ideal in which to pursue his hobby. He kitted himself out in flippers and face mask, adjusted his breathing aparatus and flipped into the water from the boat which had taken him across the Orjule Channel to a point off the northern tip of Vele Orjule (Small Orjule). He headed down into the silent blue depths, enjoying every moment he spent alone in the underwater world.

It was something of a shock, therefore, when, at a depth of 145 feet, he glimpsed the brown body of a man lying on his back on the sea floor, partly covered with sand.

So little light penetrated to these depths that Rene was almost touching the man before he realised that the “body” was covered with barnacles and was, in fact, the statue of a man. He spent a few minutes brushing away the sand to expose more of the figure and then he headed slowly for the surface, stopping at the recommended depths to make sure that he did not experience the dreaded “bends”.

Once back on dry land, Mr Wouters lost no time in reporting his discovery to the authorities. I will not trouble you with the resulting bureaucratic complications; suffice it to say that eventually a joint Belgian Croatian underwater mission was set up, financed by Dr Michael and Patrick Fischer of the Oxford Maritime Trust. To the delight of everyone, the statue was recovered fairly easily and relatively undamaged. Unfortunately, when it was cast into the sea – a deliberately vague phrase – it fell into a sand-filled hollow in the seabed, catching its right foot against the rocky southern edge and shattering the statue’s base while its head, which may have struck bottom first, was partially torn from the neck by the shock. Somehow the left little finger had gone missing and the eyes, which were probably made of shell, had dissolved.

The statue belongs to a style of figure known as apoxyomenos and shows an athlete using a strigil – a curved bronze implement – to scrape oil and sweat from his body after a session at the gym. An almost identical statue was found at Ephesus in 1896, broken into 234 pieces – a jigsaw puzzle which took quite some time to put together and, until the discovery of the Vele Orjule statue, art experts continued to dispute whether it was reconstructed correctly.

The new statue was taken to Mali Losinj where it was immersed in a tank of water at the Police Training Centre for desalination, then trasported on to Zagreb, where Dr Giuliano Tordi, an Italian specialist, oversaw the cleaning and restoration. There the experts discovered that the life-size statue contained no iron framwork, a common method of supporting the easily damaged bronze of such a large figure. However they did discover a small amount of baked clay inside, part of the core of the statue from the casting process.

The head, as I have said, was partly broken off and x-ray and gamma-ray photographs revealed that in fact the head had been made as a separate piece and soldered onto the neck. It was the soldering which had broken and craftsmen from the Zagreb Institute for Welding Metals and Heat Technology had no trouble re-soldering it in place. During cleaning before this, however, it was discovered that the statue’s lips were made of red copper which, in conjunction with the white shell of the eyes, must have given the figure a startlingly life-like appearance.

Two months after the statue was retrieved the weather allowed archaeological examination of the find spot to begin. 600 dives were made, an impressive figure until one realises that the necessity of allowing time for decompression meant that in the deeper dives only 15 minutes were spent on the bottom. Despite this, however, no sign was found of a shipwreck in the area.

This means that the statue was probaby jettisoned during a storm to save the ship from foundering. Although the mariners were no doubt relieved at the success of their sacrifice, archaeologists were less pleased. Had the ship carrying the statue sunk, they would be able to discover from the size of it whether it had been on a long voyage or merely island hopping along the coast, and from the cargo whether it was carrying a mixed cargo destined for one of the many Roman settlements in the area or, as other shipwrecks, a load of scrap metal destined for smelting and reuse, or even a cargo of statues, perhaps intended for the imperial resort on the islands of Brijuni off the coast of Pula. Indeed, it is possible that the direction the ship was facing when sunk might have told us where she was heading – north or south.

The other thing the shipwreck could have told us was the date. Fortunately a mouse supplied the deficiency. It would appear that at some time in antiquity the right arm of the figure was damaged and the whole statue was taken to a workshop for repairs. It must have spent some time lying around before the workmen were able to pay attention to it and during this period a mouse seems to have crept in – perhaps through the damaged arm or perhaps through a small hole in the right heel – and made a nest out of leaves. There it ate its meals, consisting of olives, cherries and nuts, leaving the stones and pips from the fruit and shells from the nuts behind.

Preserved by long immersion in the sea, these fragments of vegetable matter allowed the scientists to use radio-carbon dating, which gives a date of 50-70 AD. An examination of the statue has led the archaeologists to conclude that it is a Greek original, so probably dates to the fourth or early third centuries BC when, according to literary sources, artists such as Polykleitos, Daedalos, Lysippos and Daippos are known to have made statues of apoxyomenoi. The Vele Orjule statue may not be one of these, but it probably comes from the same school.

It is known that in the first century AD there was a fashion among the Romans for things Greek – typified by Nero’s visit to Greece – and so it is quite possible that this statue was a precious work of art purchased by some wealthy Roman collector (or even by a city council) and was being taken to adorn his villa or the city centre somewhere in Istria, which at this time was being developed as the playground of the Roman rich.

It is likely that, once the conservation work is complete, the statue will be returned to Istria, to be placed in one of the museums there. If so, I can heartily recommend a visit to see it; but if you go, don’t plan on a flying visit. There is so much to see in Istria, so much beauty, both man-made and natural, that you really must spend at least a fortnight there. You won’t regret it.

December 2002

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