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The Berkeley Plato

From Neglected Relic to Ancient Treasure, An Archaeological Detective Story

Stephen G. Miller

Publication Year: 2009

This book explores the provenance of the so-called Berkeley Herm of Plato, a sculptural portrait that Stephen G. Miller first encountered over thirty years ago in a university storage basement. The head, languishing since its arrival in 1902, had become detached from the body, or herm, and had been labeled a fake. In 2002, while preparing another book, Miller—now an experienced archaeologist—needed an illustration of Plato, remembered this piece, and took another look. The marble, he recognized immediately, was from the Greek islands, the inscription appeared ancient, and the ribbons visible on the head were typical of those in Greek athletic scenes. The Berkeley Plato, rich in scientific, archaeological, and historical detail, tells the fascinating story of how Miller was able to authenticate this long-dismissed treasure. His conclusion, that it is an ancient Roman copy possibly dating from the time of Hadrian, is further supported by art conservation scientist John Twilley, whose essay appears as an appendix. Miller's discovery makes a significant contribution to the worlds of art history, philosophy, archaeology, and sports history and will serve as a starting point for new research in the back rooms of museums.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-xii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xvi

I am a dirt archaeologist who has excavated in ancient Greek lands an average of three months each year for the past forty years. As such, I sometimes feel that my knowledge is broad, but only rarely deep, and it must surely be admitted that I am not an art historian, that I am not a specialist in Greek sculpture, ...

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History of Acquisition and the First Century in California

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pp. 1-4

On November 12, 1902, eighty-eight cases of antiquities and plaster casts of ancient sculpture arrived in San Francisco. These had been shipped from Rome on August 27 via New York, whence they went overland to the Museum of Anthropology of the University of California. ...

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Description of the Artifact

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pp. 5-9

A typical herm shaft narrows slightly toward the top and supports the head of a bearded male, perhaps in his fifties or early sixties. His head is crowned with a ribbon, or tainia, which is held in place by a headband, or mitra, that encircles the crown of the head (figs. 2–6). ...

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Pertinence of the Head

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pp. 9-12

We thus come to the question of the pertinence of the head to the shaft. The acid treatment of the head has ruined the edges of the marble around the neck, and it is impossible to prove a join between those outer edges (figs. 9, 10).22 The holes of the iron pin that was inserted at some time, probably before the herm arrived at Berkeley, ...

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The Inscription

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pp. 12-16

If the evidence for the authenticity of the herm and its portrait is conclusive, we may turn our attention next to the question of the authenticity of the inscription, which has been described as a modern addition to an ancient herm shaft.31 ...

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The Seven Sages

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pp. 16-25

The most distinctive letter forms in the Berkeley inscription, however, are the rectilinear omicrons and thetas. These can be paralleled, but only in a discrete group of thirty-seven portrait herms (mostly headless) all discovered near Tivoli.38 (See appendix A.) ...

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The Tivoli Plato

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pp. 25-29

Given that the Tivoli square-omicron portrait herms comprise a series with one and only one example of each famous ancient,55 this conclusion that the Berkeley Plato does not belong to the Tivoli group actually became inevitable already in 1846. ...

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The Berkeley Plato and the Renaissance

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pp. 29-33

The Berkeley Plato itself does, however, provide two clues about its modern history. One is the fact that the phallus socket had been filled with plaster just like the Bias now in the Vatican (fig. 61). This clear evidence of a fig-leaf mentality might suggest that the Berkeley Plato was once a part of a papal collection. ...

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Portraits of Plato

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pp. 34-37

At this point the Berkeley portrait must be considered in the context of the other identified portraits of Plato. It has long been a source of frustration that only the Berlin Plato (fig. 25) has come with an inscribed herm that allows for some security in establishing identity. ...

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The Berkeley Plato and the Akademy

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pp. 37-40

More than a decade ago in his Sather Lectures, Paul Zanker reviewed the reactions of scholars to a portrait of Plato now in Munich (fig. 32) and by extension to all known Plato portraits.86 He noted that previous scholars thought that “it did not correspond at all to the way people imagined Plato” and that it did not portray Plato’s “true nature.” ...

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pp. 40-45

The ribbons on the Berkeley Plato, however, have been the major reason for discrediting the inscription, and by extension the portrait, even if the latter has hitherto been unknown. These ribbons, for which the ancient name is ταɩνία (pl. ταɩνίαɩ), have rounded ends.94 ...

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Plato and Ribbons

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pp. 45-53

This should not surprise us, for Plato was much involved with athletics. He repeatedly uses the status of the Olympic victor as representing the happiest of lives (Laws 729D and 807C, Republic 465D–466A), and Olympia as the best place to be honored by the dedication of a statue (Phaedrus 236B; cf. Apology 36D). ...

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Why Plato and Ribbons

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pp. 53-55

At the end of the Republic—generally regarded as Plato’s masterpiece— after he has argued for the various aspects of his ideal state, including the nature of and the need for justice; after a discussion of the various types of government, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny; after the famous argument set in the cave; ...

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pp. 55-56

The Plato at Berkeley has been shown to be a genuine ancient portrait herm that was probably created in the second quarter of the second century after Christ, and may very well be based directly upon and reflect an original of 370–365 B.C. It does not fit neatly within the long-established Plato type, ...

Appendix A. The Square-Omicron and Square-Theta Portrait Herms from Tivoli

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pp. 57-68

Appendix B. Technical and Scientific Analysis

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pp. 69-76


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pp. 77-82

General Index

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pp. 83-86

Index of Ancient Sources

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pp. 87-90

Index of Collections of Artifacts

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pp. 91-92

Image Plates

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pp. 124-179

E-ISBN-13: 9780520943599
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520258334

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2009