Alabaster, South Arabian Peninsula,
3rd – 1st century BC,
Inscription on base “LOBWT T’NB’L”
Provenance: Private Collection Mr M.R. (Paris)
H 30.5 x W 14 x D 9 cm
(12 x 5 ½ x 3 ½ in.)
This alabaster standing male figure, originating from the Southern Arabian Peninsula somewhere between the 3rd and 1st century BC, is a funerary object or votive object in the shape of an offering-bearer. Statuettes like these were traditionally intended to be placed in tombs or temples. They were tokens of piety and attempted to invoke the favour of the gods, but simultaneously they also served as a public display of the donor’s wealth and status. Adorned with a long, plain garment reaching almost to the ankles, the present figure stands in the canonical fully frontal pose. His eyebrows, eye contours and pupils have been carved with meticulous emphasis and probably once held inlays. Traces of pigments that once embellished the statuette’s surface can still be seen. The arms are bent at the elbows, extending out at right angles to the body. The hands are clenched to form fists, pierced vertically to hold some kind of object, possibly even a sceptre.
South Arabia or Yemen was home to the great South Arabian kingdoms of Saba’, Hadramawt, Awsan, Qataban, Ma?in (the Minaean kingdom) and, lastly, Himyar, which all flourished at different times during the 1st millennium BC until well into the 1st millennium AC. Their crucial role in the lucrative trade in spices, perfumes, frankincense and myrrh allowed them to grow ever more powerful and accumulate enormous wealth. The region was described by Classical Roman writers as Arabia Felix (Fortunate Arabia) as a result of its fertility, wealth and opulence. As the most advanced and literate part of the Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic times, it has yielded countless pre-Islamic inscriptions which provide enormous insight into the political history, economy, society and prevailing religion of the region. Excavations at sites such as Ma’rib, Baraqish, Shabwa and Timna? have yielded important works of art.
Within Southern Arabia there developed a tradition of carving sculptures and other objects from a fine-grained translucent yellowish stone which resembles and thus is often popularly refered to as alabaster. This industry particularly flourished in the 1st millennium BC and lasted well into the first few centuries AD. Free-standing South Arabian ancient sculpture in the round is of greatly varying quality, comprising works by both common and master craftsmen. Materials ranging from the finest alabaster to the coarsest limestone were employed. Many examples of fine alabaster heads, ending at the base of the neck, are known. These may have been dedicated in temples as votive statues or made in memory of a deceased person. Related to the former group is a class of alabaster statues of both males and females shown either standing or sitting on a plain socle. The typical posture of these stylized statues is one of a frontally facing figure with arms bent at the elbows, forearms projecting forward and fists clenched. The body is usually abstract, monolithic and stocky. The only individual features indicated, apart from those of the face, are the fingers, toes and hair. Some of the standing figures show the line of a garment below the knees, and the hands are occasionally perforated, suggesting that they once held some kind of object. While most of the figures are depicted barefoot, some wear sandals. Often, the front of the socle on which the figure stands bears an inscription. The eyes and eyebrows of these stone sculptures were usually inlaid or highlighted with red or black pigment although, surprisingly, there does not seem to be any evidence for more extensive colouring of the sculptures to indicate details of dress or jewellery. Metal earrings and necklaces were occasionally attached to the female figures and gypsum plaster was sometimes added to indicate the hair or secure carved stone heads into the window-like recesses cut into the tops of stelae. In the case of this statue, the drilled pupils as well as possibly the incised eyebrows were most probably originally set with inlays.
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Gunter, Ann C (ed), Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the ancient incense trade, Washington, D.C., Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2005.
Jamme, A, Miscellanees d'ancient arabe II, Washington D.C, 1971.
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Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 113 (Jul. 1,1982 - Jun. 30, 1983), p. 19.
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