The Nereid Monument and Lycian Art

The Lycians are a people that are talked about often, but little is firmly known about them (Keen 1998, 1). They were an Anatolian people who inhabited the southern part of what is now Turkey, they were heavily influence by the culture around them especially the Greeks and the Persians. What we do know about them comes from a scattering of comments in the ancient authors and from the fantastic funerary monuments that they have left. The Nereid Monument is perhaps the most famous example, it is now housed in the British Museum and heavily restored.

Figure 1 The Nereid Monument as it is today in the British Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1838 the archaeologist and explorer Charles Fellows led an expedition to Asia Minor where he ‘rediscovered’ the lost Lycian cities. What is meant by this is that they had now been seen by a western scholars (Fellows 1839, 224), his local guides were perfectly aware of the ruins.

On his third trip to the region, he did so with a decree from the Ottoman Government allowing him to excavate the ruins of Xanthos and bring back any items he saw fit. This was partly instigated by the British Foreign Secretary (and later PM) Lord Palmerston, since Turkey relied on Britain for defence against the Russia and France; art and it’s transfer to Britain seemed to be part of the bargain to ensure Britain helped Turkey.

Fellows’ archaeological methods concerning the Nereid monument (and Lycia as a whole) were fairly modern. He kept clear records when in Lycia about things that he had found and saw, copying inscriptions and cataloguing coins. For sculptural remains he or one of the artist with him would draw it as it was, and for the larger monuments they would draw suggested reconstructions, the version of the Nereid Monument that is in the British Museum is based upon these drawing.

This could be seen as part of the evolution of survey archaeology, the exploration of a region in order to gain a greater understanding of the people who lived there. Survey archaeology is about non-invasive archaeological techniques however, and the removal of the Nereid Monument from its original context is a strike against him. However, it has to be remembered the political element of the expedition and the fact that it was fairly common in this period to remove large amounts of architectural art and take it back to the archaeologist’s home country. For example, the gallery that the Nereid monument is housed in is right next to the controversial Elgin Marbles, taken from the Athenian Acropolis.

Fellow’s wrote a work about the monument called ‘An Account of the Ionic Trophy Monument excavated at Xanthus.’ He hypothesises that it was a victory monument for the Persian General Harpagus, who conquered Lycia under the orders of the first Persian king Cyrus at around 540 BC (recorded in Herodotus, Histories, 1.76). We now know this is not the case, and that it is in fact the tomb of the Lycian dynast Erbbina and that it dates to around 380 BC. This change is due to a better understanding of the chronology of Lycia and because of further analysis of artistic styles present on the monument.

Figure 2 Nereids in a variety of poses that display knowledge of Polycleitan techniques (dated to the High Classical period), though there are some archaising features such as the ‘swastika pose’ adopted by the centre and right figures, used in the archaic period to indicate flight. (authors own photograph)

If we pick drapery as an example, on the eponymous Nereids there is heavy use of the windblown and wet look styles, styles that are meant to accentuate the shape of the body underneath the drapery without having to portray them nude. This style is very classical and is very similar in style to the Late Classical Aphrodite of the Athenian Agora and Hellenistic Nike of Samothrace.

So how did Fellows get the date range so wrong? Lycia art is a combination of different styles and motifs, due to the fact they were in between these two cultural zones. Another is the fact that the Anatolian aspect of their identity was initially overlooked, meaning that the Nereid monument was placed in the Greek Art galleries of the BM rather than the Near Eastern ones.

Figure 3 Reception scene from the Nereid Monument. Erbbina is portrayed in Persian style, seated on a throne. The cap and the royal parasol are key to his identification with the ruling ‘ethno-class’ i.e. the Persians. (authors own photograph)

Persian motifs that are a part of the monument will have also led to confusion. The inner frieze contains lion hunts and scenes of dynastic feasting. On the lower frieze there are scenes of siege that have drawn comparisons with Assyrian art (Childs 1979). The scene which is mostly likely to have helped drawn the conclusion that it was a victory monument is part of the lower frieze that shows a dynastic figure receiving a delegation from one of the besieged cities. Fellows that elements of Lycian art reminded him of artefacts he had seen from Persepolis (Fellows 1839, 173).


The Nereid Monument has come to symbolise the Lycian people. The charge of barbarism laid at them by Herodotus and Strabo (Hdt. 1.173; Strabo, 14.5.23) is certainly unwarranted, the culture of the Lycians was a tasteful adaption of non-Greek ideas presented in a Greek way (Mellink 1971, 248). Fellows misunderstanding was due to this combination of features that makes Lycian art so unique, but we in present have to recognise that the Lycians are a people separate from the Greeks, but who weren’t removed from their world. Museums have a role to play in this, to ensure that the most factual representation of the ancient art is given, since context is key to understanding.


Herodotus, Histories, trans. De Sélincourt, A. (1954) Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Strabo, Geography, trans. Roller, D.W. (2014) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Childs, W.A.P. 1978 The City Reliefs of Lycia. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Fellows, C. 1839 A journal written during an excursion in Asia Minor. London: J. Murray.

Fellows, C. 1848 Account of the Ionic trophy monument excavated at Xanthus. London: J. Murray.

Keen A.G. 1998 Dynastic Lycia: A Political History of the Lycians and their Relations with Foreign Power C. 545-362 B.C. Leiden: Brill.

Mellink, M. 1971 Excavations at Karataş-Semayük and Elmal, Lycia, 1970. American

Journal of Archaeology, 75(3), 245-255.


Figure 1 Nereid Monument (Wikimedia Commons)

Figure 2 Nereid group (authors own photograph)

Figure 3 Reception relief from Nereid Monument (authors own photograph)

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