Greek eyes are watching you! (ophthalmoi from Tektaş Burnu)

It is with a heavy heart that I publish this post. I’m thinking of Hasan Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem who died suddenly over the weekend, his passion for art history and open access to resources and information, and his generosity with me when I first started this blog. I didn’t know what I was doing (and still often feel like I don’t), but Hasan was always kind, supportive, encouraging, and freely shared his expertise and experience with me and so many others. Somehow just having him out there, working away in the middle of the night (he once told me that he needed very little sleep), forging the way for art history and humanities bloggers, made a huge difference. I feel his absence. I feel it deeply. And it seems right, a little bit therapeutic, even, to go ahead and finish this post today. Rest in peace, Hasan.

I was excited to be able to go to a lecture recently by the president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Dr. Deborah Carlson. (It was supposed to be a date (how nerdtastic is that?), but didn’t quite turn out that way – that’s another story.) I didn’t know much about nautical archaeology – only enough to be fascinated by it. The thought of archaeological excavations underwater, often over 100′ underwater, makes my skin crawl a bit, but Dr. Carlson’s photos and descriptions of what they find and their methods made it seem well worth the challenges – and made me glad that they’re doing it and not me!

Among the excavations that she discussed, I was riveted by her description of finding these:

From shipwreck at Tektaş Burnu, Aegean coast of Turkey, excavation 1999-2001, Institute of Nautical Archaeology

Here’s a photo soon after they were found:

Dr. Deborah Carlson and Dr. George Bass, Tektaş Burnu Shipwreck

Dr. Carlson said that it took them an embarrassingly long time to figure out what these were, although that they ever figured it out amazes me. They were eyes from Greek ships. Can you believe it? Like this:

Dionysos in a ship, sailing among dolphins. Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 530 BCE. From Vulci, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

or this:

Odysseus and the Sirens, Greek Red-Figure Stamnos Vase, c. 480-460 BCE, British Museum

The eyes in the first photo above were found at Tektaş Burnu, Turkey – on the Aegean coast near Izmir. Other eyes, or ophthalmoi, have also been found, the one below as early as 1880, though some of them look quite different and are much more obviously eyes:

Marble eye from Zea harbor, 5th century BCE (?), Piraeus Archaeological Museum

The traces of paint (or stain) on this eye – see the red? – are particularly poignant, I think. I still remember what a revelation it was for me when I learned that so much ancient sculpture would have been painted. We love the sheen of the white marble, but people in ancient Greece wouldn’t have seen that. When you think about it, it makes sense, at least for some of the sculpture. Sculpture on a pediment, for example, high above the viewer’s head – how could you have seen the details if they weren’t painted? Here’s a quick (and fun) example:

Archer, 500-490 BCE, W. pediment, left side, Temple of Aphaia, Aegina. Now in Munich, Glyptothek.

Reconstruction based on traces of paint left on the sculpture (isn’t it groovy?):


Anyway, back to the eyes. The eyes found by Dr. Carlson and her colleagues were the first found in association with an actual ship(wreck).  (Others were found in wells, the Agora in Athens, which is inland, and harbors.) The discovery of these eyes in addition to those found previously led to the conclusion that round eyes were used for merchant ships, carrying cargo from place to place, and the more almond-shaped eyes were used for warships. And they are all thought to be either apotropaic (protective) or anthropomorphic, that is, to make the ship into a living being that could read the sea as human eyes could.

Finding items like this, it seems to me, makes the past come alive in a unique and exciting way. Amphoras, column bases, glass, all found through nautical archaeology on the ocean floor, tell us about ancient culture, travel, and trade.  But there’s something about these eyes, maybe because they were, in a way, the essence or spirit of these ships, that seems more personal, more powerful, more indicative of a people in a time and place. Although other cultures put eyes on their ships, too, the fact that ships like those found under the ocean today also appear on ancient vases, tied to myths and legends of ancient Greece, enable me to feel more of a connection to those people who made the eyes, who painted them, who affixed them to their ships, and who sailed on the Aegean Sea. I hope that seeing them here does the same for you!


Deborah Carlson, “Seeing the Sea: Ships’ Eyes in Classical Greece,” Hesperia 78 (2009): 347-365. (free download by signing up for here:


6 thoughts on “Greek eyes are watching you! (ophthalmoi from Tektaş Burnu)

  1. Cool, Karen! I recently read a textiles article about how early dyeing goes back (that can’t be grammatically correct what I just said, erp). Anyway, we think of ancient textiles as natural colors such as gray, brown, white, etc. but apparently the use of plant dyes and pigments to color yarns and fabrics goes way back too. Kind of blew my mind to think about it.

  2. Great post! That is very cool about the ship eyes. And I always forget that ancient sculptures, and even buildings like castles, were often painted, so that recreation of the painted sculpture is really trippy to me.

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