Near Eastern Alabaster Plaque with an image of ritual worship
Culture: Near-Eastern, Ne-Syrian
Period: early 3rd millennium B.C.
Dimensions: H: 39.5 cm
Ex Elie Bustros Collection, Beirut, 1950’s-1960’s.
Complete and virtually intact plaque, except for minor chips on the edges (three corners). Back surface roughly flattened and very slightly rounded. The plaque is a few centimeters thick, with straight edges, as if it was designed to be inserted in a wall, although there are no traces of tenons. Trunconical in shape, it tapers towards the upper part.
The plaque is a few centimeters thick, with straight edges, as if it was designed to be inserted in a wall,although there are no traces of tenons. Trunconical in shape, it tapers towards the upper part. The front is largely covered with incisions representing a series of geometric, architectural and figural patterns that are also attested in other contemporary Near Eastern monuments.
The decoration is composed thus: a) framing the plaque at the top and bottom are friezes of linear motifs (zigzags, hatched triangles, net patterns); b) the central part is occupied by what looks like a simplified human face (which would be female, considering the presence of the incised pubic triangle between the netting and the hatched triangles), with the eyes represented by five concentric circles and surmounted by brows, a vertical line and two concentric circles respectively representing the nose and the mouth (one could also suggest that the eye circles represent the breasts and the mouth circles the navel, so the panel would depict a female body with a strongly accentuated sexual nature); c) there are three elements pertaining to ritual worship, namely the three-floored symmetrical rectangular buildings with ornate doors and lintels, the frieze of nine eye idols of a type well documented throughout the Near East (their shape recalls the figurines first discovered at Tell Brak, in the so-called Eye Temple) and the four simplified plant branches (vertical stems with herringbone motifs) placed around the pubic area and on the first floor of the buildings. It is currently not possible to determine the exact iconographic meaning of the stele, although it is no doubt closely linked to the religious and ritualistic sphere. This work has a close parallel in a plaque of the same type and shape, excavated at Mari, decorated with incisions similar not only in their structure, but also in their general theme; there are the same geometric decorations framing the scene, the same type of face and female body, the presence of a central image linked to ritual worship (plant stems, deer whose presence near the female pubis would represent the masculine principle).
The stele from Mari, uncovered in 1997 beneath an altar dedicated to the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag (ca. 2300 B.C.), was in a grave (called favissa) in which were deposited ritualistic objects from an ancient shrine to the goddess; it would certainly be dated earlier than the altar, at the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C., like our example. It is noteworthy, however, that our stele features a more rigid and symmetrical decorative structure, with a larger number of incised motifs and fewer empty areas.
The evocation of the stylized female body, with the obvious emphasis on its sexual nature (according to a typology that refers to the iconography of Aegean, Anatolian and Levantine sculpture of the Early Bronze Age, rather than to the Mesopotamian models), is very probably connected to beliefs regarding fertility; the plant branches would have to be interpreted in the same context. The image of the eye was an important symbol in the ancient Near East. Although their exact significance is still debatable, eye idols like those carved on this stele – schematic figures formed of a simple trapezoidal plaque imitating a human body, with the highly stylized head reduced to a large pair of flat wide eyes above a thick neck – were supposed to have a religious function; it is thought that their huge eyes echoed the wonder of the faithful at all things sacred or at the apparition of the deity, or even that they might embody supernatural beings appearing through the eyes. The two constructions that frame the face/female body are placed on a flat ground which, reinforced by a frieze of zigzags, clearly divides the upper and lower parts of the plaque; the appearance of each floor of these buildings recalls the facades of temples in scenes engraved on contemporary cylinder seals. One may therefore conclude that they were religious rather than civilian buildings. No detail differentiates one fl oor from another, except their size; there is no trace of a shrine, of a cult statue or of an altar (the only remarkable elements are the plant branches located on the roofs of the first level). The presence of three stacked levels is certainly the most important element of this panel, given that practically no multi-fl oored religious building is documented in the architectural iconography of glyptics (whereas multi-floored constructions are attested by some models in the 3rd millennium B.C.); here, one would imagine that the size and proportions of the support influenced the choice of the sculptor.
The fact that two identical buildings are visible on the left and right is also enigmatic, since it is not clear whether they are two separate buildings or a simple iconographic convention meant to respect the symmetry of the scene. The association of religious architecture with a large-eyed mask is also attested in glyptics through a Predynastic cylinder seal from Khafajah (Temple of Shara), on which, below a curved line, can be seen the facade of a temple (or altar?); above the line, there are plant elements (three rosettes) and, symmetrical to the building, a face with two wide open eyes, brows, nose and small mouth. Like its parallel from Mari, this stele has a very elaborate iconography, which combines on a reduced surface several symbols related to the Near Eastern religious beliefs of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. It can therefore be imagined that this object was intended for a cult use, the functioning of which is currently unknown.
On the stele from Mari, see:
ARUZ J. (ed.), Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, New York, 2003, p. 163, no. 106.
FORTIN M., Syrie: Terre de civilisations, Montreal, 1999, p. 284, no. 295.
On “eye idols” and their meanings, see:
BRENIQUET C., Du fi l à retordre: Réflexions sur les “idoles aux yeux” et les fileuses de l’époque d’Uruk, in GASCHE H. and HROUDA
B., Collectanea orientalia: Histoire, arts de l’espace et industrie de la terre, Neuchâtel-Paris, 1996, pp. 31-53.
CAUBET A., Des idoles et des lunettes, in Syria, 83, 2006, pp. 177-181.
On architectural iconography, see:
AMIET P., La glyptique mésopotamienne archaïque, Paris, 1980, pp. 89-92; pp. 99-100, no. 681, pl. 48 (cylinder seal from Khafajah).
HEINRICH E., Bauwerke in der altsumerischen Bildkunst, Wiesbaden, 1957, pp. 69 ff.
MARGUERON J., Iconographie et architecture dans la Mésopotamie du IIIe millénaire av. J.-C., in SIEBERT G. (ed.), Méthodologie iconographique: Actes du colloque de Strasbourg, 27-28 avril 1979, Strasbourg, 1981, pp. 11-30.