• U.S.

Science: Diggers

5 minute read

Workshop of Phidias. At Olympia in the Peloponnesus, site of the original Olympic games, stood one of the most magnificent spectacles of the classical world. The great statue of Zeus by Phidias was almost 40 ft. high, and it showed the god sitting benignly on a golden throne. His face and chest were ivory, and his garment was of beaten gold. Everybody in Greece who claimed to be anybody went to admire the statue and came away ecstatic, and many writers described it, but modern scholars are not sure exactly what it looked like. No bit of it has survived. Last week Dr. Emil Kunze of the German Archaeological Institute told about a find that may prove almost as good as actual fragments of the statue.

A few months ago Dr. Kunze and his assistants turned 100 Greek laborers loose on a piece of ground at Olympia that is called “Phidias’ workshop” because of a vague belief that the statue of Zeus was made there. Nothing of interest showed at the surface, but about eight feet down the diggers hit odd-shaped objects of baked clay. They were like nothing ever found before, and no two were alike. They varied in size from a few inches across to more than 18 inches. Their edges were reinforced with iron, and the bigger ones had iron bars strengthening their backs. As the learned Germans studied these unlovely things, they began to realize with growing excitement that they had probably stumbled on the molds used by Phidias nearly 2,400 years ago for shaping the great statue. Discarded outside the workshop, they had no interest for Greece’s barbarian conquerors, so they survived while the statue itself was destroyed for the sake of its precious materials.

Dr. Kunze believes that the statue was made largely of sheet-gold supported on a wooden framework. Phidias probably fashioned a model out of clay. From it he took clay negatives of the parts that were to be made of gold. When these were baked and reinforced with iron, goldsmiths could hammer their metal into them, reproducing faithfully the shape of the model. Along with the molds were found chisels and hammers of the type used by goldsmiths of the period.

The digging in Phidias’ workshop has stopped until next fall, with much ground still untouched. Dr. Kunze is sure that he will find more molds. He does not think he can use them to reproduce the entire statue of Zeus, but he hopes that they will reveal what parts of it looked like.

The Talking Boards. Another learned German attacked another mystery, the strange written language of Easter Island, in the South Pacific. The island’s most famous feature is its great stone statues, of unknown workmanship, that stare out to sea with thin-lipped scorn, but scholars are even more fascinated by the “talking boards”: pieces of wood carved with close-packed characters.

Modern Easter Islanders cannot read their talking boards. About the only clue to their meaning was a “dictionary” compiled by Father Jaussen, a French missionary priest. In the 1860s Missionary Jaussen found an old man named Metoro who chanted a “translation” of a few of the boards. For 90 years scholars have tried to use the dictionary based on Metoro’s chants as a key to the Easter Island written language. There seemed to be some connection between the chanted words and the carved symbols, but never enough to solve the problem. Some of the scholars predicted that the talking boards would remain silent forever.

Two years ago Dr. Thomas Barthel, a young German scholar, decided that the source of the trouble might be Father Jaussen’s dictionary. After long correspondence with ecclesiastical authorities, he found Father Jaussen’s documents stored near Rome. Among them was the original notebook containing the words taken down from the lips of Metoro. When Barthel compared it to the dictionary, he saw why all the other scholars had gone wrong. Metoro had apparently done some guessing about the meaning of the symbols, and Father Jaussen, not much of a philologist, had worsened the confusion when he compiled the dictionary.

Armed with the original notes, Dr. Barthel attacked the talking boards, and soon their symbols began to make at least a little sense. They are intermediate between picture writing and a real alphabet, and are concerned chiefly with the ancient religious traditions of the Easter Islanders.

Dr. Barthel has translated so far about one-third of the inscriptions without finding any reference to the stone statues. He has learned, however, that the Easter Islanders came from an island called Rangi Tea. He suspects that the script was invented there by an unusually clever priest of the ancient religion, who recognized the power of this new intellectual tool and therefore taught it to only a few friends. Perhaps the initiates, guarding their secret, emigrated as a group. This would explain why, in the South Pacific, only Easter Island had a system of writing.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com