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Archaeological Evidence for Ship Eyes:  An Analysis of Their Form and Function

Troy Joseph Nowak
Thesis: May 2006
Chair:  Bass & Wachsmann




   During the late 19th century, a number of large marble eyes were discovered near the Athenian naval facilities at Zea. Although initially published as the eyes of ancient Greek warships, many scholars have doubted the validity of this attribution. A range of hypotheses have been presented in attempts both to discredit the notion that they are ship eyes, and to re-classify these objects.

    Recent excavations of a Classical Period merchantman at TektaŸ Burnu uncovered a pair of marble discs that again raise questions relating to the identity of the marble eyes from Zea. A review of alternative hypotheses relating to the identity of these objects based on textual, archaeological, and representational evidence, coupled with technical analyses of their construction, form, and decoration, leads to the conclusion that the marble eyes discovered at Zea, as well as the objects from TektaŸ Burnu, adorned the bows of ancient Greek ships between the 5th and the 3rd centuries BC. Evidence for the function of these objects is found in the works of Greek authors who show that the eyes of ancient ships marked the presence of a supernatural consciousness that guided the ship and helped to avoid hazards.

    Studies of eye representations on Archaic and Classical Greek domestic articles and parallels in architectural decoration suggest that ship eyes may have also worked as apotropaions to counter forces such as envy.

    As early as the 5th century BC Greek and Latin authors attest to a fear and understanding of envy's destructive power, which was believed to attack through the actions of both gods and mortals. Theories related to the use of eyes as apotropaions that could counter envy are presented based on analysis of material from the Archaic and Classical Periods. Links are made between Hellenistic and Roman mariners and their fear of this force, which was expressed in their use of devices that functioned to protect them from its ill effects. It is possible that ship eyes in ancient Greece served as both epiphanies and apotropaions used to counter envy.

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