In ancient Greece, lifelike—and, in some cases, larger-than-life—statues of gods and goddesses towered over temples, inspiring acolytes to seek blessings and present offerings. The majority of these sculptures disappeared over the intervening centuries, falling victim to vandals, medieval lime-kilns and other ravages of time. But every so often, an unwitting individual stumbles upon a long-forgotten remnant of one of these ancient artworks, opening up a window into the distant past.
Last weekend, the Greek Culture Ministry announced the chance discovery of one such artifact. Per a statement, routine sewage work in Athens unearthed a buried bust of the Greek god Hermes on Friday, November 13.
The statue—found in the wall of a drainage duct—is in good condition and appears to date to around 300 B.C., the Associated Press reports. In a departure from traditional depictions of Hermes as a youthful man, the newly discovered bust portrays the god at “a mature age,” according to the statement. Following its excavation, the likeness was transferred to the Athens Ephorate of Antiquities, an agency of the Ministry of Culture.
As Valentina Di Liscia notes for Hyperallergic, the sculpture is in the style of Alcamenes, a Greek sculptor active during the second half of the fifth century B.C. His head of Hermes Propylaeus, which once stood at the entrance of the Acropolis of Athens, inspired an array of later copies, including works housed at the Getty Center, the State Hermitage Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Per the AP, the millennia-old bust was “one of many” statues used as street markers in ancient Athens. Known as herms, these works consisted of a square pillar topped with a bust of Hermes and an erect phallus (“carved in relief or in-the-round,” writes Carolyn Swan for the Bryn Mawr Classical Review). According to the Hermitage, worshippers placed the images at crossroads and gates in hopes of invoking Hermes’ protection.
Hermes, the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia, was one of the 12 Olympian gods. The etymology of his name most likely stems from the word herma, which roughly translates to “a heap of stones.” In Greece, such stones were often used to indicate boundaries or landmark, acting as both cult objects and location markers, notes Encyclopedia Britannica.
Like other gods and goddesses, Hermes fulfilled multiple roles. Some revered him as the god of fertility, while others knew him as the messenger of the gods, embodied by a spritely young man with wings. Perhaps most importantly, Hermes served as the protector of travelers and merchants—a fact that made him popular in a society where robbers and pirates ran rampant.
Destroying herms was considered extremely sacrilegious; in 415 B.C., after a number of protective pillars across Athens were mutilated overnight, an investigation resulted in the trial and indictment of multiple suspected vandals.
As Nick Squires reports for the Telegraph, the newly discovered herm was buried three feet beneath the surface of Agia Irini, or St. Irene Square. Once an object of adulation, the bust was eventually consigned to a sewage duct.
In a Facebook post, Athens’ mayor, Kostas Bakoyannis, lauded the find as a symbol of “[u]nique Athens.” He added that he felt “[p]ride and admiration.”