The National Geographic Society has some hot items on display in the lobby of its headquarters at 17th and M NW.
Six marble carvings, stolen in 1976 from the ancient city of Aphrodisias and recently recovered from red-faced American dealers, will be on display in Explorers Hall until they're returned to Turkey in January.
Among them is a figure of Eros, his battered baby face bearing a wonderfully knowing and sardonic expression. "His face says to me that while men may have captured and bound him, he knows he has unleased forces in this world that never will be mastered," said Kenan T. Erim, who's in charge of excavation at Aphrodisias.
Under formal Turkish policy the carvings would have been returned to that country as quietly as they were purloined from the project warehouse and slipped into the international traffic in plundered antiquities.
"The Turkish prohibition against lending out national treasures is inflexible," Erim said. "But I insisted, because they were returned voluntarily by the dealers - who had no idea they were stolen - and because the Geographic has been helping support our dig for 11 years."
Aphrodisias, in the Anatolian uplands was continously occupied from about 6000 B.C. to modern times, Erim said, only a sixth of the city has been excavated. "It is almost unbelievably rich; farmers turn up something every day. We already have found thousands of fragmentary sculptures and hundreds of intact ones. The city was a center of sculpture and yet relatively remote. Not being on major trade or invasion routes, it was more or less lightly plundered; it withered away for a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Many of the statues are found just where they landed when they fell from their bases, so that we have the inscriptions to tell us what they represent." Erim, of Turkish descent and a classics professor at New York University, fairly bubbled as he led a preview tour.
"These works are of course the patrimony of the Turkish people, but I feel that they are mine," he said. "I feel a responsibility for their preservation, a sense of obligation to the men who made them. They speak to us through time, and for all time."
Four of the works are ornaments from the capitals of interior "false columns," which once in place could at best have been dimly seen; yet the attention to detail is unfailing.
"Why would they work so carefully on things they couldn't expect to be appreciated? Because they were proud craftsmen," Erim said. "The work itself is the reason for the work. They had the leisure and resources to do it during the Pax Romana, the long Roman peace, and because Aphrodisias was favored by the Roman emperors, particularly Sulla and Julius Caesar, and was free from taxes and other levies."
Perhaps the most powerful piece is the fragmentary head of a boxer. "See the broken nose, at the bridge, above where the nostrils have been broken off, and the scar tissue above the eyebrows and the cheekbone," Erim said. "We have the torso, back at the site, and you can see that he was a professional, because he is conditioned like an athlete but is no longer young."
Although the city was named for Aphrodite, goddess not only of romantic love but of fecundity, earthiness, sex and all the down-and-dirty, Erim has not yet turned up a single erotic or sensual piece. "Pompeii it is not," he said. "Beautiful it is, especially on a summer night when the moon is full and we put on classical music. When I stand there on the plain, with the mountains all round, I am someone else . . ."
Erim has spent every summer since 1961 at Aphrodisias. "The first thing I saw, looking straight at me from an irrigation ditch, was the head of goddess with a diadem representing the city's destiny. I don't know that I shall ever get away from her."