The Kritios Boy, an underlifesize marble sculpture of the early fifth century B.C., has long been considered a touchstone of Greek art. It features prominently in textbooks, travels to major international exhibitions, and currently appears, elegantly spotlit, in the lavish new Acropolis Museum in Athens. Much scholarly ink has been spilled on questions such as its iconography, dating, and attribution (most frequently to the Early Classical sculptor Kritios, hence the statue’s name). Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about something that has not been much discussed: the fact that the statue was beheaded, in antiquity, with an axe-blow to the back of the neck.
Who killed the Kritios Boy? The head and body were found separately, both buried on the Athenian Acropolis in terracing for the Parthenon. So the statue must have been injured prior to the initiation of the Parthenon building project in 447 B.C. Also in the terracing were a range of other statues from the Archaic and Early Classical periods: the Athena by Angelitos, the Calf-bearer, pedimental sculptures from the Old Athena Temple. So context doesn’t provide many useful clues to the statue’s ‘time of death,’ as it were; anything prior to 447 B.C. is theoretically possible.
Early scholars blamed the Persians, who sacked the Acropolis during their invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. More recently, the statue has been down-dated to the Early Classical period by art historians like Jeffrey Hurwit (“The Kritios Boy: Discovery, reconstruction, and date” in American Journal of Archaeology 93 (1989) 41-80) and Andrew Stewart (“The Persian and Carthaginian Invasions of 480 B.C.E. and the Beginning of the Classical Style” in American Journal of Archaeology 112 (2008), 377-412); this would then imply that the Athenians themselves did the deed.
It is clear that the Athenians did, upon occasion, behead statues; there is no other explanation for the many heads (severed from their no longer preserved bodies) that have been excavated from the Acropolis fill. Still, the injuries to the Kritios Boy to me look like Persian handiwork. Many of the Acropolis korai – dated prior to 480 B.C., and indisputably attacked by the Persians – have parallel injuries, including not only the blow to the back of the head, but also the missing hands and feet. So, too, mutilation in 480 B.C. would help to explain why the Kritios Boy was interred so soon after it was set up (otherwise, one has to assume it was created in the 470s, and ‘killed’ in thirty years or less, a rather short life expectancy for a sturdy marble statue). I would guess that the statue was set up shortly before 480, injured, and then buried – all on the Acropolis, since as an inhabitant of sacred space, it could never lose its sanctity. But it is hard to be sure; this murder mystery from 2,500 years ago offers few clues. What we can say for certain, though, is that this ‘murder’ testifies to the significance of the image, so powerful it had to be ‘killed’ to be negated.