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Chi Lives: sizing up the ancient Greeks

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Among the art-history tenets Eleanor Guralnick dutifully absorbed as a college undergraduate in the 1950s was the notion that a stylistic relationship existed between Egyptian statues and Greek kouroi, statues that depicted young Greek men. It wasn't until years later that she realized that art historians had no proof for that claim.

"In some ways these statues are alike, while in others they're not," she says. "Both stand frontally, one foot forward and hands clenched in a fist down at their sides. On the other hand, Egyptian statues are generally clothed in a kilt, while Greek statues are nude."

As a University of Chicago graduate student in search of a dissertation, Guralnick set out to collect evidence of an artistic connection between the two geographically separate and culturally distinct societies. A review of ancient Near Eastern literature led to her first clue. Egyptian sculptors used "canons of proportion," a modular grid drawn on a piece of stone as a blueprint. A properly proportioned Egyptian statue of the seventh century BC--the period when Greeks began to carve statues across the Mediterranean--was 21 modules in height from the base of the feet to the tear ducts of the eyes.

Guralnick postulated that if Greek sculptors had actually been influenced by the Egyptians, their statues too would be based on the canons. As a preliminary test, she pulled out her slide projector and superimposed a photo of a Greek statue on a 21-module grid she'd drawn on cardboard and mounted on her dining-room wall. "I simply had to ask, 'Is the statue 21 modules high? Are the shoulders six squares wide? Is the waist three squares wide? Are the hips four squares wide? Does the belly button come 13 squares from the ground?'" The figures all clicked.

A fellowship committee agreed that Guralnick's theory was worth checking out. In the summer of 1968 she headed to Greece to systematically measure the nine Greek kouroi then known to archaeologists to have survived complete. Not that she would be the first to measure the statues, she says, for archaeologists often pulled out their tape measures during excavations. "But they didn't measure along a straight plane. Most of the time they'd measure along angular planes, like the line from the tip of the nose to the end of the penis." To standardize her measurements, Guralnick took along a camera and a tripod with a special attachment for taking stereometric photos, precisely separated pairs of images that allowed her to "look around" the statue.

Guralnick had another question she wanted to try to answer on her trip: Did Greek statues represent real or idealized human beings? To help her with that question she also took along an anthropometer, a kind of three-dimensional yardstick used by physical anthropologists to measure human beings. She wanted to use it to take measurements of the statues that she could compare to statistics NATO had gathered in the early 60s, using the same device to take measurements of Greek, Turkish, and Italian air force personnel that would help in the design of uniforms and cockpits to suit their body proportions better than standard Western designs.

A few months later Guralnick was back in Chicago with her photos, measurements, and conclusions. "My work demonstrated very clearly that some archaic Greek statues are indeed proportioned according to Egyptian canons," she says. She had even come upon evidence of sculpture grids drawn on papyrus, portable blueprints she thinks were produced at Egyptian sculpture classes and transported across the sea by Greek sculptors who had attended.

After running NATO's air force statistics and her statue measurements through the University of Chicago's first mainframe computer, Guralnick also learned that early Greek statues strongly represented idealized human beings and later ones were a bit more realistic. The earlier statues tend to have compressed bodies. "The heads tend to be larger than real human heads, the torsos shorter, the shoulders broader and stronger, the waists and hips more slender."

Guralnick, who is now an independent archaeology researcher, is still traveling the world measuring Greek statues. In the past four years alone she has studied more than 50 statues in museums in Greece, Europe, and the U.S. She has also been measuring figures along the Parthenon's 526 continuous feet of frieze.

In her spare time Guralnick lectures throughout the country for the Archaeological Institute of America. Next Saturday, March 31, she will take part in a daylong symposium on the ancient eastern Mediterranean being presented by the Chicago branch of the AIA, of which she is a past president. She will discuss the history of archaeological collections in Chicago's museums, from the Art Institute to the Field Museum. Archaeologists from around the world will present 14 other topics, including the effects of pollution and tourism on ancient monuments, the ten-year Hittite-English dictionary project, and the discovery of 90 extraordinary glass panels, depicting everything from harbor scenes to ancient philosophers, that were inexplicably buried in crates beneath the sea in the port of Corinth for thousands of years.

The symposium takes place from 8:30 AM to 5 PM in the Oriental Institute's Breasted Hall. The fee is $30 in advance for AIA members, $40 for nonmembers, and includes a wine-and-cheese reception and a detailed program book. Seating is limited, so mail your check promptly to Karen Bradley, 5728 S. Blackstone, Chicago 60637. For more information call 752-8680 between 9 and 5 Monday through Friday or 643-8613.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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