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Work Composite female statuette

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Statuette of a woman wearing a kaunakes, called the "Princess of Bactria"

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Benoit Agnès

Bactria corresponds to the region of modern Afghanistan that lies north of the mountains of the Hindu Kush. In the late third and early second millennium BC it enjoyed an age of prosperity because of its privileged status as a supplier of raw materials to Mesopotamia. It produced exceptionally fine metalwork and also a series of highly distinctive small female statuettes, commonly known as the "Bactrian princesses."

Composite figures

The "Bactrian princesses" are small composite figures consisting of a number of detachable parts. The two stones most commonly used were steatite and calcite, offering a contrast of color between green and white: the green steatite was used for the garments and headdress or hair, and the white or cream calcite for the parts of the body left bare.
The statuettes are small (generally 8-14 cm in height), so this example is unusual. The figures are generally dressed in the kaunakes, a Sumerian tufted garment with tufts added on, woven or still attached to the tanned sheepskin. The skirt of the kaunakes is here as voluminous as a crinoline, and is partly covered at the back by a flounce or shawl, all of which lends the figure a majestic bearing. At the front of the statuette is a sort of platform at waist-level designed to receive the now missing hands and forearms. The square recessed neckline might originally have had an inlay of metal or stone. The standing position of this figure is unusual: more than forty figures of "Bactrian princesses" are known, most of them in a seated position.

Princesses or goddesses?

The principal question posed by these female figures is who they depict: possibly ladies of rank who took their portraits with them to the tomb? The only "princess" to have been discovered complete in a precisely documented archaeological context did indeed come from a grave, and the great diversity found in the faces and hairstyles might support this interpretation. The other hypothesis often put forward is that they might represent goddesses, or even the one great goddess who in Central Asian mythology reigned over the natural world, pacifying the elemental forces often represented as lions, snakes or dragons. This would account for the serene, immobile appearance of these figures, their hands joined together at waist level, both in statuary and on compartmentalized seals.

The great goddess and the "scarred man"

If the Bactrian "princesses" do indeed represent the principal female deity, this prompts another question. What is their connection with another figure depicted in these small steatite and calcite statuettes: the character known as the "Balafré", or "scarred man", also in the Louvre? This terrifying apparition of a man with the scaly skin of a snake or dragon seems, in the inverted use of the two different stones, to be the polar opposite of the goddess.

Bibliography

Benoit Agnès, Art et Archéologie : les civilisations du Proche-Orient ancien, Paris, 2003, pp. 314-17.
Ghirshman Roman, "Notes iraniennes XVI. Deux statues élamites du plateau iranien", in Artibus Asiae 30, 1968, p. 237-48.
Pottier Marie-Hélène, Matériel funéraire de la Bactriane méridionale de l'âge du bronze, Paris, 1984, n 302, p. 45 and plate XI.

Technical description

  • Statuette of a woman wearing a kaunakes, called the "Princess of Bactria"

  • Chlorite, limestone

  • Acquired in 1969

    AO 22918

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Display case 3: Bactrian period (late 3rd–early 2nd millenium BC)

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