colored replica of
Peplos Kore as Artemis
Although marble is found everywhere on Greece, the Greeks did not begin making statues with it until after they became a seafaring people and witnessed the colossal monuments, statues and temples in Egypt.

The first Greek statues were made during the Archaic Age (750 B.C. to 500 B.C.). They had the same rigidity, stiff posture and stylized walking gait as their counterparts in Egypt. Their left arm was forward and the fist were clenched like most Egyptian standing figures. The first advancement the Greeks made was creating a free standing statue. Egyptian statues were either seated or shown emerging from a slab of stone which acted to hold the figure up.

Early statues called kouroi were often sensuous and monumental nude statues and often featured a mysterious Mona Lisa smile. Kouros and kore are the male and female terms for "young person." Art historian Andre Stewart told National Geographic, kouroi "were intended be erotic." The subjects were usually young, male and had beautiful bodies. The largest known kouri are 16 feet high and made from marble. Before kouri the largest known sculpture in Greece were small bronzes.

Describing kouros at an exhibition titled "The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculptures from the Dawn of Democracy" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1990s, Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times, “The first images to greet the visitor are the Metropolitan's own rose-tinged marble statue of a standing nude youth, or kouros, from the late seventh century B.C., and a few steps behind him is a sixth-century kouros from the National Archeological Museum in Athens... The contrast between the stiff, schematically rendered anatomy of the earlier figure and the supple form of the latter, his arms slightly bent as if anticipating an embrace, his face lifted in an unself-conscious smile, epitomizes in a stroke the development toward the "classical" style of the fifth century B.C. [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 12, 1993]

One of the most celebrated pieces in the show is the "Kritios Boy," the first surviving sculpture in Greek art to break away from the frontal rigidity of the archaic kouros to introduce a realistic depiction of the body's shifting weight and torsion. His white marble figure is a marvel of abstracted naturalism, though his lantern-jawed face has the thick, self-satisfied demeanor of a teen-age athlete just beginning to run to fat.”

Classical Greek Sculpture

20120222-laocoonte 01.JPG
The Laocoon, a Hellenistic
period work
Classical Greek Sculpture (500B.C. to 323 B.C.) was less rigid than sculptures from the Archaic period. Works featured flexed knees, turned heads, and contemplative expressions that were regarded as attempts to suggest motion, thoughts and naturalism. As time went on more and more anatomical features emerged, the bodies became more relaxed, muscular, sensual and less rigid, hair falls more naturally, motion was conveyed, clothing seems softer and more cloth-like facial expression convey more emotion and movement and action and are more realistically conveyed. A "middle distance" gaze of the statue’s eyes was greatly admired.

As Greek art developed and the sculptors evolved from skilled craftsmen into artists, the buttocks on their creations became more rounded, the ears took on more of a three-dimensional shape, collarbones were more pronounced, and, according to Boorstin, the lachrymal caruncle of the eyes was revealed for the first time. "The whole figure becomes more alive," he says, "as the stance becomes relaxed and rigid symmetry and posture disappears...Their favored sculptural material was bronze...Bronze freed the sculptor to uplift limbs and tempted him to new postures." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Describing a classical Nike, or Victory, from the Acropolis Museum Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “Bending to untie her sandal, the intricate, looping folds of her drapery creating a linear pattern that reveals rather than hides the swelling contours of her torso. Her sensuality stands in dramatic contrast to a stele from the Metropolitan's own collection, in which a mournful looking little girl holds two pet doves, one of which gently touches her mouth with its beak.” [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, March 12, 1993]

On some funerary sculptures, some of which may have been carved by artists who worked on the Parthenon, Cotter wrote in the New York Times: “Here the figures are neither gods nor heroes but human beings engaged in the intimate activities of their lives. On one memorial, a husband and wife gaze confidingly at each other; on another, the well-known "Grave Stele of Hegeso," a wealthy woman regretfully admires her jewels, carried in a box by her servant. The presence of the servant... is of much interest here. Notably smaller than her seated mistress, anonymous, proferring wealth that is not hers, surely she has something pertinent to say about what democracy... actually meant in the Greece of the fifth century B.C. "Golden Age," a society, after all, that held a large population of slaves and extended full citizenship only to men.

Sculpture-Making in Ancient Greece

detail from Laocoon
Sculptures and stone masons worked in the same medium and used the same tools. Both proceeded by similar stages, first roughing out the sculptural block or masonry column and then gradually cutting, dressing, and smoothing the stone once it was in place. To minimize the danger of accidental damage, the finishing was left until after the moving and hoisting had all been done. Finally tinted wax was worked into the pores of the marble to give the desired color to sculptured parts like hair, eyes, lips, costumes, moldings and metopes." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Sculptors worked with the same kind of mathematical precision that you'd expect from an architect. The architect Vitruvius once wrote: "Nature has so constructed the human body that the face...from the bottom of the chin to the lower edge of the nostrils is a third of its height; from the nostrils to the median termination of the eyebrows the length of the nose is another third."μ

The Greeks painted their statues and decorated them with wire eyelashes, tinted nipples and inserted glass eyes.

Marble, Bronze and Other Sculpture Materials

20120222-bronze Hephaistion_Prado_bronze_head.jpg
bronze Hephaistion
The Parian marble used to make statues like the “Venus de Medici” came from the island of Paros. The Pentelie marble used to make the Parthenon came from Mount Pentalieus. In areas that are short of stone sculptors made "acrolithic" statues, ones with heads and arms of marble attached to bodies of wood draped in cloth. Sometimes eyes, lips, nipples, hair, and clothing were painted in bright primary colors that were fixed in a wax covering. Other times tinted wax was worked into the pores of the marble to give the desired color to sculptured parts like hair, eyes, lips, costumes, moldings and metopes.. Some archaeologists say that many ancient Greek statues were so brightly colored they didn’t look all that different from kitschy images of saints and madonnas sold at souvenir stands today.

The Greeks produced numerous bronze statues but few of them have survived. Pliny mentioned that ancient Athens had 3,000 bronze statues. The majority of them were probably melted down by later generations of sculptors to make new sculptures. Most of those that have been discovered have been found in the sea.

Greek bronzes were made hollow, cast with a clay core. Pieces were cast separately and soldered together. Sculptors patched up small defects made by air bubbles trapped in the original casting.

Sculpture and Color

When we think of Greek and Roman statues we think of white marble. When the Greek statuary was rediscovered in the Renaissance it was assumed that it was white and that become the norm that Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo tried to emulate.

The 18th-century scholar Johann Winckelmann used the phrase “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” to describe the qualities that were pleasing about Greek and Roman statuary. He wrote “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well. Color contributes to beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence.”

But this is not the reality of the statues in their original forms. When Greek statues were created they were often painted in what was would seem today to be bright, garish colors. This first came to light in a graphic way when sculptures from a mythical battle scene were pulled out of excavations of the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina in 1811. Some of the sculptures has red paint to mimic oozing blood as well as holes used for various props and accouterments attached to the statue.

The German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkman has made it his mission to uncover what original Greek sculptures looked like---using chemical analysis, high-intensity lamps, ultraviolet light, cameras---and then recreating the original materials and finally creating copies of the statues with plaster and marble, hand painted in bright colors using pigments made of the same materials used by the ancient Greeks such as green made from malachite, blue from azurite, yellow and ocher from arsenic compounds, red from cinnabar, black from burned bone and vine. Some of Brinkmann’s work can be seen at the Glyptothek Museum in Munich and have been displayed at a number of museums around the world including Harvard’s Sackler Museum in 2007.

Painted Greek warrior head
Brinkmann’s most useful tool is a hand-held spotlight which he shines on the sculptures late in the day when the light is low it achieve “extreme raking light” (a technical term for light that falls on a surface from the side at a very low angle) to detect faint incisions that would otherwise be near impossible to detect with the naked eye. These markings help him determine images and patterns. Pigment colors are mostly determined from chemical analysis. Ultraviolet light locates color shadows---where some pigments were applied more slowly that others---providing more insights into colors used and possible mixing of colors, shading and shadowing.

A reconstruction of an archer---thought to be Paris, the man who started the Trojan war---found at the Temple of Aphaia recreated by Brinkman features: 1) flowing hair made of molded lead, painted brown, which was fitted into holes in the statue’s head; 2) bronze arrows and a bronze and marble bow; 3) bright colors determined by traces of pigments and variation in the stone’s weathering (durable vermilion protects stones better than fragile yellow ochers, for example; and 4) images and intricate patterns worked out by the presence of incised lines and patterns that show up under ultraviolet light.

Sculpture, Sports and Nudity in Ancient Greece

Greek statue of
discus thrower
While male gods and athletes were sculpted in the nude, goddesses and women were usually chiseled fully clothed. The exception was Aphrodite who was often depicted with her breasts blossoming from the top of her chilton.

The male subjects of Greek statues were often in the nude because the athletes they depicted competed in the nude. Instead of using models in a studio early Greek sculptor and painters worked from athletes exercising in a gymnasium. When the painter Zeuxis asked for models to use in his painting of Helen of Troy he was taken to a boy's gymnasium and told to imagine the beauty of their sisters. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Many scholars link the development of Greek statuary art with the rise in the popularity of Greek athletics. Some towns had thousands of athletic statues and citizens often sought them out as cures for illnesses for the same reason citizens in modern Chinese eat bear gall bladders: they believed that the strength emanating out the statues would be passed on to them.

Olympians competed in the nude. In some competitions and during the opening and closing ceremonies they often covered themselves in perfumed oils. Even jockeys wore nothing. Wrestlers in the nude often had their foreskin tied over the tip of the penis for protection. The only exception was the charioteers who wore long white robes. Nudity was seen as a way of making all competitors equal by stripping social ranks they could otherwise express with their clothes. See Olympics and Nudity

Females Nudes in Ancient Greece

The few female sculptures produced were usually clothed and the clothing was painted. There were very female nudes in Greek art until the forth century B.C. when Praxiteles began creating cult images of a nude Aphrodite.

One of the first Greek statues to reveal the body of woman was Dying Niobid (450-440 B.C.). According to legend Niobid boasted about her fourteen children and humiliated the mother of Apollo and Artemis. To get even the two gods killed all of her children and then shot her in the back with an arrow. In an frantic attempt to reach back and remove the arrow her peplos fell off. The nude statue of her is the earliest large female nude in Greek art. [Source: "History of Art" by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

The first images of Aphrodite (Venus) stepping out of a scallop shell were statues found in Anatolian Turkey.

Polyclitus, Phidias and Praxiteles

athlete head
Polyclitus was one of Greece's most famous sculptures. According to an often repeated tale he once made two statues at the same time. One was made according to his principals of art and another he modified according the wishes of people who observed it. When the two were finally unveiled everyone marveled at one of the statues and laughed at the other. Thereupon Plyclitus said: "But the one of which you find fault with, you made yourselves; while he one you marvel at, I made." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Polyclitus produced wonderful sculptures of athletes. A New York Times critic Grace Gluek wrote his “brilliance is evident on the rhythmic play between the torso and the thorax, each tilting slightly in the opposite directions, and in the lifelike separation of the feet that gives the otherwise placid statue a sense of movement.”

Phidias is credited with making the sculptures on the Parthenon, including the Elgin Marbles now in the British Museum, and the ivory and gold statue that was once inside, but we don't know whether he sculpted these pieces himself or was a supervisor. His skill was greatly admired and it was said he alone among mortals had seen the gods as they truly are.

In 432 B.C., Phidias was arrested and convicted of sacrilege and "misappropriation of public funds" for carving an images of himself and his patron Pericles onto Athena's shield in the Parthenon. According to conflicting accounts, Phidias was either exiled or died in prison. See Parthenon, Athens

Praxiteles did some of the most wonderful sculptures in Olympia and is one of the few artists we know by name who has produced works that exist today; the sensuous Aphrodite of the Cnidians and classic Hermes . Scopas was the name of another great Greek sculptor.


Colossus of Rhodes
Lysippus is considered one of the finest sculptors of ancient Greece. Born around 390 B.C. near Corinth in a town called Sikyon, he is the only known portraitist of Alexander the Great who worked in his time. His portraits of Alexander the Great beginning when Alexander was only a small boy "were said to record the development of both a great artist and a great subject." Lysippus is also referred to as the inventor of portraiture. Portraits were a new idea to the Greeks and he was believed to be first sculpture to pour wax into his plaster mold to get the facial features right. Before him most Greek sculpture attempted only to create the most beautiful and idolized sculptures possible. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Lysippus is said to have made 1,500 statues, including portraits of Alexander the Great and Hercules and is said to have been the teacher of Chares of Lindos, the creator of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. None or few of Lysippus’s original works have been preserved. All we have today are copies of his works.

According to ancient chroniclers Lysippus worked until he was 80 and produced a great number of works in both marble and bronze. Most of what we know about his body of work has been gleaned from copies of his works and representations on coins.

Bronze Statue by Lysippus

A life-size bronze figure called “Victorious Youth,” attributed to Lysippus was snagged by fishermen in their trawling net in 1964 and was sold by the fishermen for a few hundred dollars without knowing its worth to the Barbetti brothers and smuggled out of Italy and showed in London 1971 where it was purchased by a European art consortium called Artemis. After lengthy negotiations it was purchased by the Getty Foundation and is now on display at the Getty Museum in Malibu. [Source: Los Angeles Times, July 2006]

The statue, which depicts a young athlete, is rare find in that it is one of the few existing Greek bronzes ever found and if it is indeed by Lysippus it is one of the greatest art and archeological finds ever. On top of that it is quite beautiful and displays great artistic skill. German art dealer Heinz Herzer told the Los Angeles Times, “the statues’s pose, with its hand’s poised centimeters away from its head, moments after donning the victor’s wreath...indicates great technical skill.” Remnants of flax found in its core suggest that it was made in the ancient city of Olympia. Some experts, including British archeologist Bernard Ashmle, have said that the statue is perhaps one Lysippus is said to have made of Olympic victors but proving it was made by him is difficult.

20120222-Elgin Marbles East_pediment_KLM_Parthenon_BM.jpg
Elgin Marbles, East pediment of the Parthenon

What had happened to the statue between the time the Barbetti brothers held it and its appearance in London is not known, In the 1966 the Barbettis were sentenced to four months in jail and a priest that helped them was given two months but the convictions were overturned on the grounds that the statue was found in international waters. The Italian government has demanded that the Getty museum return the statue. The Getty museum has responded by saying it was “not realistic for Italy to expect the statue to be returned, siting among other things that the statue of limitation for the claim had expired.

See Looting Under Archaeology

Masterpieces from the Classical Age

Statues in the Parthenon were heroically-scaled and meant to be seen at a distance. Unfortunately only bits and fragments of them remain. Inside the temple there was a gold and ivory statue of Athena (now gone), dully armed and wearing a triple-crested helmet. Phidias, a friend of Pericles regarded as the sculptor of the gods, sculpted the statue of Athena, the Frieze on the Parthenon and the ivory-and-gold statue of Zeus, at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Most the sculptures in the Acropolis Museum were taken from buildings on the Acropolis other than the Parthenon. The most famous are the Caryatides of the Erechtheum, columns shaped like women that are known for their "archaic smiles." The other sculptures and reliefs don't look like that much at first but use your imagination. One of the more interesting ones shows Typhon, a monster with three human heads, watching a battle between Triton, a male mermaid who was the son of Poseidon, and Hercules. Another shows Athena taking on several giants. The museum also contains the exquisite statues of the enchanting doll-like Kore in Dirian Peplos with her falling hair. The Kore from Chios retains some the original green paint and has a soothing sensual smile.

20120222-Zeus itektur_002.jpg
Statue of Zeus

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Reputed to be 40 feet high and placed in the great temple of Zeus in 457 B.C. the statue depicted Zeus seated on a throne. His body was carved from ivory and his robe and ornaments were made of gold. It was sculpted by Phidias (who created a similar statue of Athena in the Parthenon in Athens) sometime after 432 B.C.

The statue of Zeus was made of gold and ivory plates placed over a wood structure (making it from bronze and gold would have been too heavy for a statue of this size). A system of pipes was devised to bring oil to the wood to prevent it from rotting, The oil also helped preserve the ivory. Zeus sat on the golden throne with jewels for eyes, with his feet resting on a foot stool of gold. Worshippers used to pray at the statue’s feet. Chroniclers said the statue was still there in the 2nd century B.C. After that it disappeared, most likely it was stripped and looted.

The original Temple of Zeus was destroyed in A.D. 426. The new temple one that housed the statue was 32 meters wide, 75 meters long and and 12 meters high, It was made of the finest marble and topped by a gilded statue of Nike. Sculpted lion heads with their mouths open served as drain spouts for the Temple of Zeus roof.

Friezes at the Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles

The magnificent friezes on the Parthenon looped for 175 meters around the entire edifice. They show a procession of gods honoring Athena. Fragments from the eastern gable of the temple depict the birth of Athena from Zeus's head. Those on the western gable show the contest between Athena and Poseidon for patronage of the city. At the western entrance are the spirited horsemen.

Athena Aphaia W Pediment colored

The battles with Amazons, giants and centaurs and scenes from the Trojan war that once graced the Parthenon are now in the British museum and called the Elgin Marbles. Perhaps the most striking and well known piece of classical Greek statuary, the Elgin Marbles are sections of a pediment and the 175-meter frieze that looped around the Parthenon.

The Elgin Marble friezes contains images of battling horsemen and reclining deities, the most glorious of which are the Three Goddesses . These three beautiful but headless female bodies have wonderful shape and form. Their clothing is folded and drops gracefully and naturally on the bodies.

The Elgin Marbles were brought to England from Greece and given to the British museum by Lord Elgin who paid of a Turkish sultan £35,000 for them. The first shipment of the friezes was lost at sea. Only the second shipment made it to the British Museum. Although the rightful owners of these treasures are perhaps the Greeks, removing them from Athens notorious pollution has kept them in better condition than they would have been in if they had stayed in Greece. See Looting Under Archaeology

Hellenistic Sculpture

Hellenistic Sculpture (323 B.C. to 31 B.C.) was much more varied and extreme than sculpture produced during the Classical period. Some of the most beautiful pieces of Greek statuary, including the Nike of Samonthrace, the Dying Gaul, Apollo Belvedere , and the Lacoön Group, date back to Hellenistic times. The Dying Gual has the hair and facial features of an ethnic Gaul.

The Lacoon, now at Vatican Museum, features a father and two sons struggling to entangle themselves from the grasps of giant serpents. The 2000-year-old statue depicts the punishment meted out to a priest who warned the Trojans to beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Colored Alexander Sarcophagus

Apollo Belvedere , also at the Vatican Museum, glorifies the male body. Described by one critic as "a symbol of all that is young and free strong and gracious," it is most likely a Roman copy of a Greek bronze made by Leochares around 330 B.C. The original once stood in the Agora in Athens but is now lost. The copy lacks its left hand and most of its straight arm and scholars believe the right hand held a quiver and the left hand a bow. The elegant cloak is still in place. For several centuries it had a fig leaf over private parts.

Apollo Belvedere stood for four centuries in a niche in the Octagonal court of the Vatican until it was taken by Napoleon's army in 1798 and kept in Paris until 1816, when it was returned. It was said Napoleon that coveted it more than any other booty because it was considered the embodiment of the high culture of classical Greece.

Nike of Samonthrace , at the Louvre, is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Greek art. Wings spread wide into a headwind that blows her clothes against her headless body, an image that later would grace the bow of many ships. see the Louvre

Venus de Milo

Apollo Belvedere
The Venus de Milo is arguable the world’s most famous sculpture and may be the second most famous work of art after the Mona Lisa . Thousands check it out daily in the Louvre, where it has stood for more than a century. It has been sketched, copied, debased and lampooned, Among the artists who have been inspired by it and/or placed it in their own works have been Cezanne, Dail and Magritte but at the same time it has been debased in advertisement and kitschy souvenirs . When she came to Japan in 1964 more than 100,000 people came to greet the ship that carried her and 1.5 million filed past on a moving sidewalk that ran past where she was displayed. [Source: Gregory Curtis, Smithsonian magazine, October 2003]

The Venus de Milo was originally carved in two parts, with the two halves concealed by the fold of drapery circling her hips. The pedestal and the arms have been lost. No one is sure how the arms were posed. Some believe the upraised arm rested on a pillar. Others believe it may have held a shield. Yet others believe it may have held an apple found near the statue.

After the statue was brought to the Louvre restorers tried to attach plaster arms in all conceivable positions---carrying robes, apples and lamps or just painting here and there. None of which looked right. It was thus decreed that the "work of another artist must never mar her beauty" which set a worldwide precedent. From then on classical works of art were never monkeyed with again.

History of the Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo
The Venus de Milo was found in 1820 by a peasant in a cave on Melos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea about halfway between Crete and the Greek mainland (her name means “Venus of Melos”). It was then claimed by French archaeologists and bought by French officials for the relatively paltry sum of 1,000 francs, which was paid to the Ottoman Turkish overlords of Greece. After it was displayed the Germans claimed the statue was there as it was unearthed on land purchased by Crown Prince Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1917.

Sculpted around 100 B.C., the Venus de Milo was found in two parts, along with pieces of the arms and a pedestal. The French originally thought it was made by the master Phidias or Praxiteles, until it was discovered it was inscribed with the name “Alexandros, son of Menides, from the city of Antioch on the Meander". Compounding the disappointments was the fact it was produced after the classical period (statues made in the Hellenistic period were considered inferior to those made in the classical period). Not to worry the base with the name on it was simply made to disappear. However drawings made when the base was still in existence and the debate on whether it was a classical piece or not entered the dispute between France and Germany as to who owned. To this day the Louvre remains a little embarrassed by the whole issue.

Early in the 20th century reference to Alexandros of Antioch were found in Thespiae, a city near Mount Helicon on the mainland of Greece. It turns that Alexandros was more than just a sculptor. An inscription dated to 80 B.C. identifies Alexandros of Antioch, son of Menides as the winner of a singing and composing competition.

Lost Greek Sculpture and Replicating Them

The reason so few ancient statues have survived is that many statues were burned in lime kilns to make mortar and plaster, and bronze statues were melted down for the metal by the Greeks and civilizations that followed them. Of the statues that remain hardly any have survived in one piece. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

20120222-Venus-de-Milo restoration.jpg
Venus de Milo restoration
with arms
These days observers of classical statues are fine viewing bodies with missing arms, broken torsos and other damaged good but that wasn’t always the case when the first Greek and Roman statues were unveiled to European audiences in the late 18th century. Then an effort was made to piece fragments together and replace any missing parts.

In the old days when a copy of a statue was made it required packing the statue in plaster to create a mold from which a copy could be caste. The direct application of plaster could damage the sculpture and damage pigment traces and other clues that archaeologists could use to determine the color of the statues and other things about it. Today, 3-D laser scanning can produce a copy without any contact to the original. The technology uses lasers to scan the image, replicating details down to small chisel marks. Reproductions can be made using rapid prototyping technologies in which 3-D objects are generated from computer data with machines that build up the object a layer at a time.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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