Bactrian Composite Seated Female Idol

Near Eastern · Bactrian, late 3rd-early 2nd millennium B.C.





L: H: .2 cm





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The body, legs and hair are made of chlorite, the head and foot of white limestone. The neckline, the surface of which is less smooth, was probably decorated with inlaid elements (an adornment) made of another material. The bottom is smooth without any carved details. These various elements were certainly assembled with a glue, whose traces are not visible. The statuette represents a woman seated on the ground, her legs bent and placed in a position that seems uncomfortable. The bust is vertical, thin and rectangular in shape, the outline of the shoulders is rounded; the legs form a semicircle that extends in front of the figurine, the pointed end at the posterior right probably corresponds to a fold of the fabric behind the foot.
A large oval hole, pierced between the shoulders, was carved to insert the neck and head of the statuette. The treatment of the face shows an excellent artistic level in which the shapes are unexpectedly fresh for such a figurine. The details are rendered in a very elaborate, though stylized manner: the eyes are almond-shaped, the mouth is a simple horizontal slit, the nose is long and pointed, the ears – a bit too large in size – are carved in the shape of leaves. The hair is a simple thin skullcap decorated with engraved circles that probably indicate the curly hair with two locks drawn up just above the temples.
The woman is wrapped in a long garment, whose texture is rendered by a series of lozenges in low relief arranged in regular rows and decorated with incised chevrons. This tunic, or at least its material, recalls the kaunakes (the traditional Mesopotamian dress in the Bronze Age); it is composed of long stacked locks and would imitate a sheep- or a goatskin.
Bactrian statuettes wear the kaunakes in a different fashion to that of Mesopotamian figures: the garment, composed from pointed elements here, indistinctly covers the entire body. The only visible fabric border appears at the breast, which is crossed diagonally by a straight line in very low relief (from the left shoulder to the right side). Such composite statuettes form a class of unique objects that are specifically part of the western Central Asia civilization (they come from a very wide area ranging from Margiana (modern day Turkmenistan) to Pakistan, with a large concentration in Bactria). They rarely exceed 15 centimeters in height. Their composite nature – including various dismountable elements and the use of various materials resulting in a two-colored or polychromatic surface – is their most distinctive feature. There are also important differences in the attitude and quality of the statuettes: among more refined figures, like our example, are also more roughly made, or even incomplete specimens. The absence of attributes that are specific to Bactrian figurines and of archaeological contexts (they most often come from necropolises, but some examples were uncovered in houses), does not enable us to precisely determine their purpose. Although their provenance suggests a funerary symbolism, it is impossible to determine whether they were deities, worshipers, simple offerings to the gods, intermediaries between the deceased and the divinity, etc. Moreover, the existence of different types of statuettes would indicate that several figures were represented with similar features or that they were various aspects of one and the same figure.
Though no complete typological study of this material has been published yet, one may indicate the existence of distinct categories like the standing statuettes, the statuettes seated on a visible stool or on a stool hidden by the kaunakes, the statuettes seated on the ground with bent knees (like here) or the statuettes with a schematic, flat and triangular body (without indication of the bust). They look like the three dimensional transposition of the contemporary Elamite deities and queens, as they were depicted on the cylinder seals from Susa and from other Iranian centers, or on the famous silver cup from the Fars Province (Marv Dasht, Tehran, Bastani Museum). The iconographic affinities with Mesopotamian and Iranian objects, as well as their distribution help us define the chronological framework: archeologists unanimously agree in dating these figurines to the late 3rd millennium or the early 2nd millennium B.C. They are therefore contemporaneous with other remarkable artistic productions of this region during prehistoric times (gold- and silverware, metal vessels, seals, etc.).


Excellent condition; right foot now lost (originally inserted in the square hole visible); no preserved traces of arms. Partially chipped. Face slightly damaged


Art market, prior to 1996;

Ex- British private collection, UK;

Ex- US private collection, Colorado, USA, February 16, 1996


Phoenix Ancient Art Catalogue 2013- 1, no. 16


BRAFA, Brussels, 2013

Frieze Masters, London, 2016


For related statuettes, see:
LIGABUE G. and SALVATORI S. (ed.), Bactria: An Ancient Oasis Civilisation from the Sands of Afghanistan, Venice, 1988, pp. 244 ff, nos. 112-113
and 114-115.
Good development on the question of composite figurines in:
BENOIT A., Princesses de Bactriane, Paris, 2010.
POTTIER M.-H., Matériel funéraire de la Bactriane méridionale de l’Age du bronze, Paris, 1984, pp. 44-46 and pp. 74-77.
WINKELMANN S., Le dee dell’altopiano iranico e della Battriana, in LIGABUE G. (ed.), Dea Madre, Milan, 2006, pp. 193 ff.
In general on this culture and on composite figurines, see:
AMIET P., L’âge des échanges inter-iraniens: 3500-1700 av. J.-C., Paris, 1986, p. 157, fi g. 110 and p. 159, fi g. 113-114 (cylinder seals); pp. 190ff.
ARUZ J. (ed.), Art of the First Cities, The Third Millenium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, New York, 2003, pp. 347-375.