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Arte-Factual: Athenian Owl Figurine

In the last edition of Arte-Factual, I wrote about the Gayer-Anderson cat statue and its virtual counterpart seen in the original Tomb Raider.

This time around, I will be looking at an artefact that depicts one of my favourite feathered friends: the Athenian Owl Figurine.

Athenian Owl Figurine. Image credit: WikiRaider.

The Athenian Owl Figure is one of the collectable relics found in Tomb Raider: Anniversary. As its name suggests, it’s a depiction of the owl normally associated with the Greek goddess Athena and the ancient city-state of Athens. However, its real-life counterpart is not just a figurine; it’s actually an aryballos.

Aryballoi are small spherical or globular flasks that once contained scented oils and were commonly used by ancient Greek athletes. These small flasks can be seen in ancient Greek art, where they are often seen hanging from pegs on a wall or suspended from straps tied around the athletes’ wrists.

Not all aryballoi were spherical or globular. Some were mould-made, like this owl-shaped aryballos, and examples of aryballoi in the shapes of wild animals, birds, feet, or warrior’s heads can be found in museums across Europe.

An owl-shaped Proto-Corinthian aryballos. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It’s likely that the owl figurine seen in Anniversary is based on an owl-shaped Proto-Corinthian aryballos on display at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen museum in Munich, Germany, but the Louvre also has a similar item in its collection. The owl figure is hollow inside and the perfume or scented oil it once contained could be poured out through a hole in its base.

Although it’s a stylised depiction of an owl, it is meticulously decorated and strangely lifelike. Black varnish and red paint have been used to great effect to imitate an owl’s feathers and beak. This aryballos is thought to have been made in Corinth, not Athens, in about 630 BC.  This fine piece of craftsmanship is an example of Proto-Corinthian art, which is characterised by polychrome techniques, incision, and black-figure techniques adopted from Western Asia.

During the 7th century BC, Corinth was a flourishing centre of trade and commerce. It has trade links with Cyprus, Asia Minor, and other parts of Western Asia and it specialised in the production and export of aryballos flasks across the ancient Mediterranean. Corinthian artists began to look to the Phoenicians and Assyrians for inspiration and this is reflected in the use of typically Western Asian motifs on Proto-Corinthian pottery. These motifs included rosettes, wild animals, mythical creatures, and narrative scenes.

This little Athenian owl figure is just one of many beautiful works of art that were produced during this period of cultural interchange. It doesn’t take a wise man to see why Lara was drawn to it.


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