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Idole aux yeux

© 2008 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities
Levant

Author(s):
Iselin Claire

With its bell-shaped body and cylindrical neck topped with two perforated circles, this strange object was long known as the "eye idol" or "idol with spectacles." Such idols date from the Late Uruk period (3300-3000 BC) and are found mainly in northern Mesopotamia and Syria. They were first thought to be votive objects, but may have been used in spinning.

An eye idol?

This relatively large pottery object has a bell-shaped body and a cylindrical neck topped by two perforated circles. Its flat base shows that it was meant to be freestanding. The beige clay is covered with a thick orange-red slip, which is still shiny under the concretions. Max Mallowan coined the conventional name of "eye idols" in 1937-38 during excavations at Tell Brak in Syria, where hundreds of small anthropomorphic plaques with huge eyes were found in a richly decorated building. The archaeologist extended the name to other objects, this time called "idols with spectacles" because they were surmounted by two circles that were disproportionately large compared with the total size of the object. They were regarded as prototypes of the first objects found. The building in which they were found was called the "Temple of the Eyes" because of its rich decor of cone mosaics and gold plating, as well as for the eye idols that were unearthed there. However, the building was altered several times and remains stratigraphically unreliable. There is nothing to prove that it had a religious function.

A multitude of eye idols

Eye idols are scattered over a vast region bounded by southeast Turkey (Arslantepe) to the north, Syria (Hama) to the west, and southern Mesopotamia (Telloh, Uruk, Ur) and Iranian Khuzistan (Susa) to the south. These objects are characteristic of the Proto-urban period in Uruk (3700-3100 BC) during which the first cities appeared. The many different contexts in which they were discovered (domestic, ritual, funerary, dumps) cast doubt on the strictly religious function of these objects, which vary greatly in shape, material, and style.
In 1996, Catherine Bréniquet suggested dividing the idols into three types. Type 1, from Tell Brak, known as "eye idols," covers all the small engraved alabaster plaques evoking the upper part of a human body with the face reduced to the eyes and sometimes adorned with jewelry and headdresses. Type 2, the "large idols with spectacles," covers quite large bell- or trumpet-shaped pottery objects with a neck supporting two perforated circles. Some have been carefully shaped, smoothed and glazed, while others are quite summarily made. Our idol belongs to this type of "large idols with spectacles," present in northern Mesopotamia and Syria. Type 3, which groups "small idols with spectacles" shows strong similarities with Type 2, but these objects are much smaller and are all made of stone.

Various interpretations

Max Mallowan interpreted all these objects as belonging to one and the same series, evolving in shape over time. The group would have made a set of votive objects dedicated to an "eye god" venerated in the "temple" of Tell Brak. Other scholars have thought Types 2 and 3 to be lids (H. Frankfort), a set of standard weights or weights for a loom, or even firedogs to be set around a hearth. Catherine Bréniquet believes that Type 1 models - the only ones that really deserve to be called "eye idols" - should be distinguished from Types 2 and 3. The latter could well be instruments used in spinning, placed in front of the seated operator. The holes were used to separate two or three single threads, which were then twisted together. On cylinder seals from the Uruk period, such objects seem to be shown in association with spinners at work.

Bibliography

Les Antiquités orientales : guide du visiteur, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1993, p. 188.
Bréniquet Catherine, "Du Fil à retordre : réflexions sur les idoles aux yeux et les fileuses de l'époque d'Uruk", in Collectanea Orientalia, 1996.
Caubet Annie, "L'Idole aux yeux du IVe millénaire", in La Revue du Louvre, février 1991, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1991, pp. 6-9.

Technical description

  • Idole aux yeux

    Chalcolithique (vers 3500 avant J.-C.)

    Syrie du Nord

  • Terre cuite

    H. 25 cm

  • Don des Amis du Louvre 1991

    AO 30002

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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