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W&L Professor's “Snake Goddess” Research Cited

Since the first time he saw her some 15 years ago, Washington and Lee classics professor Michael Laughy was hooked.

The object of his fascination is an unusual image found in 1932 in an excavation in Athens. The polychrome, multicolor painting on a piece of terracotta shows a woman, her arms raised, snakes on either side. Scholars dubbed her “the snake goddess” and nicknamed her the “touchdown goddess” because her posture resembles that of a referee awarding a touchdown in football. They assumed that “the snake goddess,” and the rest of the deposit from which she came, indicated a “cult of the dead.”

Michael, who joined the W&L faculty this past fall, has a different theory, and his presentation earlier this month at the 114th Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, in Seattle, was the subject of a feature story on LiveScience that also appeared on the MSNBC website.

Michael began working at the Athenian Agora Excavations as a field archaeologist in the summer of 1997. He’s been spending his summers there ever since and is now a field supervisor.

“During the summers, I would just go and look at it,” Michael said of the artwork. “What I found was that many people tended to skip over the period of history from which this piece comes. I was struck that something so striking and important was ignored. It was hiding in plain sight.”

The more Michael studied it, the more convinced he became that the image is not one of death but actually of Demeter, the goddess of corn, grain and the harvest.

Furthermore, rather than being an artifact that belonged in the agora, or Athens public square, the terracotta plaque, which is the size of a piece of notebook paper, was part of fill material used to build a new road.

Michael told LiveScience: “Not only is our snake goddess unidentified, but she’s homeless. She got mixed up in that road gravel, presumably obtained near the site of her original shrine.”

Michael admits that he based his theory on circumstantial evidence: The piece was found near a 7th-century shrine to Demeter, and the goddess is frequently associated with snake iconography.

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