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Work Head of a woman wearing a polos

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Heads of women wearing poloi

© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Raphaël Chipault

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Iselin Claire

In the temples of Mari, statues of male and female worshippers have been found, all conforming to the same smiling ideal. Representing the person who commissioned them in the act of praying, standing or seated, with hands clasped before the body, they were intended to give permanent, continuous form to the dedicator's prayer. Many of the women wear a high headdress called a "polos" that could identify them as priestesses or ladies of the court.

A headdress characteristic of the Middle Euphrates

This statue shows a type of headdress characteristic of the Middle Euphrates region, especially of Mari. It probably consisted of a piece of cloth, or perhaps felt, covering a light framework to form a tall, voluminous tiara, wider at the gently rounded top than at the bottom, and fastened to the head by a horizontal band over the forehead. Over the back of the neck and on either side of the face the polos belled out, giving the impression of a wig, no doubt covering the true hair discreetly visible above the forehead. The headdress was complemented by earrings in precious metal or shell, which have rarely survived with the statues.

Priestess or lady of the court?

This type of headdress is also found in shell mosaics at Mari depicting a ritual scene in which women wearing the polos play a part. They may be priestesses, or perhaps laywomen who had a particular role to play in certain ceremonies. Such priestesses or ladies of the court would have been responsible for the erection of these votive statues with polos in the Mari temples.

Sculpture at Mari: composite materials or inventive fabrication?

The material most frequently used at Mari was the local gypsum, taken from the cliffs of the Euphrates valley, a soft stone which tends to suffer from long burial in the damp earth. The monochrome of the stone is enlivened by the use of inlays of lapis lazuli, shell and bitumen to give emphasis to the eyes and eyebrows. This woman's head with polos was carved separately and fitted to the body of the statue by means of a socket cut in the neck, as in several other statues. In the time of the Archaic dynasties, the sculptors of the Mari school shared the same canons of proportion as Sumer, but their figures are marked by a greater variety of posture and by an even more radiant serenity in the smile, as can be seen in this example.

Bibliography

Amiet Pierre, L'Art antique du Proche-Orient, Paris, L. Mazenod, 1977, p. 360, fig. 278.
Parrot André, Mission archéologique de Mari. Le Temple d'Ishtar, t. I, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique, LXV, Paris, P. Geuthner, Institut français d'archéologie du Proche-Orient, 1956, pp. 86-87, pl. XXXVII.
Spycket Agnès, La Statuaire du Proche-Orient ancien, coll. "Handbuch der Orientalistik", Band 7, Kunst und Archäologie, Leiden-Köln, E. J. Brill, 1981, p. 113, n 377.

Technical description

  • Heads of women wearing poloi

    C. 2500-2400 BC

    Temple of Ishtar, Mari

  • Alabaster; shell inlays (eyes)

    H. 14.80 cm; W. 12.60 cm; D. 8.80 cm

  • Parrot excavations, 1933

    AO 18212, AO 17564

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Display case 7: Period of the Old Sumerian dynasties (c. 2900–2340 BC). Antiquities from Mari (Middle Euphrates)

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