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Archeologists' Deepest Digs Tend to Be at Each Other, and Some Accuse Iris Love of Dilettantism

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Spring is here,” declares archeologist Iris Love, 47, as she symbolically plunges her shovel into the ground, “and it’s the perfect time to dig.” Not for the antiquities of Crete or Mexico’s Chichén Itzá, but for what lies beneath the well-trampled hillocks of Manhattan’s Central Park. The object of Love’s next treasure hunt: a circa-1860 marble arch and tunnel, complete with fountain and staircase, that were part of the park’s original Frederick Law Olmsted design. They disappeared during the 1930s, when the park’s roads were rerouted, and were buried (or so Love believes) in their original location. God willing—or “inshallah,” as Iris likes to say in Turkish—the city fathers will give their go-ahead for Love to lead a troop of high school and university volunteers on the dig this summer.

An excavation site smack in the middle of New York City is a far cry from Love’s more habitual haunt, Cnidus on the Aegean coast of Turkey. Since 1967, Love and her crews have been peeling away at that windswept, rugged, scorpion-infested terrain. She has struck pay dirt many times. On July 20, 1969—the day the astronauts first landed on the moon—Love made her initial find: the base of a marble statue that had stood in the temple of the goddess Aphrodite. Experts believe that the circular temple housed the legendary fourth century B.C. statue of Aphrodite by Praxiteles, which was hailed by Pliny as the most beautiful work of art in antiquity.

Love very nearly topped that discovery the next year when she found a bust—badly battered and missing a chin, nose and mouth—which she identified as the long-sought Aphrodite. The find was made not at Cnidus but in the storage basement of London’s British Museum, where the bust, brought there by an English archeologist in 1858, had been gathering dust for years. The news, trumpeted on front pages throughout the world, brought Love great attention and the undying resentment of the museum’s officials. Later its scholars sought to discredit her claim on the grounds that, among other things, a detail on the neck indicated that the bust was not part of a freestanding sculpture at all but had been attached, perhaps to a relief. The matter now lies in limbo, and the statue is no longer on display. “I hope I am wrong,” insists Love. “I’d still like to find Aphrodite in her magnificent pristine condition, not with a battered face and dismembered body.”

The daughter of a socially prominent Manhattan stockbrocker and a great-great-niece of mining magnate Solomon Guggenheim, Iris grew up surrounded by a famed collection of fourth to ninth century Greco-Buddhist statuary (“They were my dolls”). She also picked up a classical education at prep schools like Brearley and Madeira.

Love’s flamboyant approach to archeology developed when, as a student at Smith, she ascertained that certain terra-cotta statues on display at the Metropolitan Museum were fake. When the museum announced the news, failing to credit her with the discovery, Love was irate. She has since recanted her subsequent threat to expose one fake a year at the Met, though she still insists there are several: “You don’t need a lot of knowledge—just common sense and a good eye to spot them.”

When not on a dig, Love spends her time fund-raising for future projects and lecturing at museums, universities and women’s clubs. Her fee: $1,000. She owns a two-story country house in Vermont and shares with her aunt and uncle a designated landmark house in Brooklyn that has been in her family for generations. She often parties on Park Avenue with the same folks who visited her at Cnidus. Yachtloads of Agnellis, Rothschilds and once even Jackie and Ari stopped by to check on her progress. Mick Jagger and Bianca also dropped anchor at one point and Iris escorted them around. “Now,” says Iris, “Bianca wants to be my assistant.”

Love has not won high favor with the musty members of the profession who favor slow, deliberate, scholarly methods over Love’s more intuitive, spontaneous approach. They point out that she has never published a major book or paper, only preliminary reports, on her findings at Cnidus. And Love, who has worked in the field for 25 years, has yet to complete her Ph.D. at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Still, her exuberance and enthusiasm make Love a sort of Carl Sagan of archeology, a popularizer of an arcane subject. A colleague describes her as “a dilettante—she’s a wealthy amateur. She has a grasp of the whole field and a way of putting it over.” Recently Love was signed by publisher Alfred Knopf to write a survey of major archeological developments of the past 30 years; she labors in Knopf’s own office where, Iris notes, “Lauren Bacall wrote her memoirs.”

Unmarried (“The only reason to marry is for children, and it would be too dangerous to take children on some of my digs”), Love admits that “like Hercules” she is at something of a crossroads—the need to decide between “a life of pleasure and a life of work.” Though she enjoys her comparatively sybaritic existence, Love is drawn back to the field by the prospect of another headline-making discovery. “What I’ve accomplished so far,” she says solemnly, “I owe to Aphrodite and the other gods. Now I must return their generosity.”