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Work Head, probably female

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Arabia

Head, probably of a woman

© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Arabia

Author(s):
Franceschi Isabelle

This stylized alabaster head is an example of funerary art from the Southern Arabian kingdoms of the legendary Arabia Felix (or ancient Yemen), reputed for its fabulous riches and perfumes, especially frankincense and myrrh. Large numbers of stelae, statuettes, and funerary masks have been found in temples where they were placed in memory of the dead.

A very intense, geometrical face

This probably female head, with the hair falling behind its ears, has a very long neck. The top of the skull is missing, so the face is cut horizontally across the forehead and looks like a mask. It once had inlaid oval eyes. The design is very geometrical: the eyebrows make a straight line and the nose is a perpendicular strip ending in a bulge with two incisions for the mouth. The cheeks are hollowed on either side of the nose on a line parallel with the forehead and eyebrows, and form large planes. The head was sculpted from stone that was originally the sharp polished corner of an alcove. The back of the block has been hollowed out vertically.

From god to worshipper

This use of stone suggests the evolution of the betyl, a standing stone worshipped in pre-Islamic Arabia (the Semitic word "beth'el" means "abode of the deity"). Initially the representation of a god, it became that of a worshipper, shown in perpetual prayer before the god, or again that of the deceased who continues to live after death and must be remembered. It was then enlivened by a sketchy geometrical face, which later developed into a more elaborate mask. These faces were not intended to be portraits; they sought to materialize the power of a symbolic presence, especially through the intensity of the eyes in a face always depicted frontally. To produce this effect, the eyes, which are missing from this head, were inset in hollow sockets. The eyebrows were accentuated with bitumen. These heads were sometimes crowned with a headdress in another material and were sometimes placed in alcoves.

A legendary but little known country

Southern Arabia, known as Arabia Felix, whose caravans carried spices and precious stones between the East and the Mediterranean, was thought in antiquity to be a mysterious, distant land flowing with fabulous riches. Like the legendary kingdom of Sheba, the southern Arabian lands owed their prosperity to the production of and trade in the highly prized fragrant resins frankincense and myrrh. Harvested from shrubs that grew in this region only, they were exported to the Mediterranean and to Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt. The wealth derived from this trade boosted a civilization based on agriculture and trade, which had developed a major irrigation system, built huge monuments, and invented Southern Arabian writing. The history of ancient Yemen is still relatively obscure because archaeological remains are not very accessible and their study, which began sporadically in the last century, has only recently taken shape.

Bibliography

Au Pays fabuleux de la reine de Saba, in Dossiers d'archéologie, n 33, mars-avril 1979.
Calvet Yves, Robin Christian, Arabie heureuse, Arabie déserte : les antiquités arabiques du musée du Louvre, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, coll. "Notes et documents des musées de France", n 31, 1997.
Calvet Yves, Robin Christian, Au Royaume de Saba, archéologie du Yémen, Paris, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, coll. "Cahiers du Musée d'art et d'essai", n 4, 1980.
Caubet Annie, Aux Sources du monde arabe : l'Arabie avant l'Islam. Collections du musée du Louvre, Paris, Institut du monde arabe, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1990.
Yémen, in Dossiers d'archéologie, n 263, mai 2001.

Technical description

  • Head, probably of a woman

    3rd-1st century BC?

    Southern Arabia

  • Alabaster

    H. 22 cm; W. 10.50 cm; D. 10.50 cm

  • Acquired in 1911

    AO 4745

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Arabia: Arabia Felix, Arabia Deserta, 7th century BC–3rd century AD
    Room 19, temporarily closed to the public
    Display case 2: Southern Arabia: temple furniture and offerings

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