Iberian Flat Marble Idol
Period: Circa 3000-1800 B.C.
Dimensions: Height: 13.2 cm
Ex-G. Halphen Collection (1913-2003), Paris, France; collected in the 1940’s-1980’s.
The piece is complete and in an excellent state of preservation, even though it has been reconstituted from two main fragments and a small chip (on the lower right). The white stone is finely veined with gray.
This idol looks like a small, flat pillar with a slightly concave profile. The design reproduces human anatomical details of a face: the eyebrows (two thick, curved lines, with vertical incisions) are clearly indicated above the eyes, which look like a the spokes of a wheel (a circle delineates the iris and a small central hole indicates the pupil). Under each eye are three other semi-circular lines, whose exact meaning is unknown – tattoos or a beard have been suggested, but none of these explanations seem totally satisfying. On the back, a zigzag pattern may represent wavy hair, the rendering of wich almost evokes fabric.
This is a very noteworthy piece, which echoes the contours and anthropomorphic decoration of cylindrical Iberian idols, but differs because of the absence of three-dimensionality. Such works are rare: the finest example known is in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. Besides these idols, other parallels are known with representations of similar faces: simple rectangular stone plates, of variable sizes, with or without suspension holes; bovines or equine bones with incised and/or painted anatomical features; more or less detailed anthropomorphic statuettes; ceramic containers. In his classifi cation of Iberian idols, M.J. Almagro Gorbea groups pieces like these as variant IV, D with elaborate decoration.
This sculpture belongs to the Prehistoric culture of modern day Iberia and, more precisely, to the Hispanic Bronze Age I. This period’s most famous culture was known as Los Millares, which derives its name from a necropolis in southern Spain, but was also widespread in the West, as far as modern day Portugal. These societies were based mainly on a pastoral and agricultural economy, but metalworking was practiced (the Iberian Peninsula was an area rich in tin, a metal used to produce bronze) and it is highly probable that they had close trade relationships with the different cultures of the Central and Eastern Mediterranean.
In places where the archaeological context is known, these images are almost always related to the funerary sphere: in their various forms, they come from tombs or necropoleis. Their connection with beliefs about the afterlife is therefore obvious and very strong, although their exact purpose in the context of funerary rituals and cults remains largely a mystery. Some archaeologists think that such figures are linked to the great Neolithic Near Eastern divinity, the Mother Goddess, who was related primarily to fertility and fecundity. Her cult, in very different forms, spread from Mesopotamia to Anatolia, the Balkans, Central Europe, and to as far as Iberia and the British Isles.
ALMAGRO GORBEA M.J., Los idolos del Bronce I hispano, Madrid, 1973, p. 141-143, pl. 21-22; on bone carved «idols», see p. 171, fi g. 28.
SPYCKET A., The Human Form Divine, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 86-88.
On the Great Goddess, see:
GIMBUTAS M., The Language of the Goddess, London, 1989, p. 54-57.
LIGABUE G. – ROSSI-OSMIDA G. (ed.), Dea Madre, Milan, 2007.