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Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Demange Françoise

This mask is part of a composite statue with the body and hair carved from materials of a different type and color. Such sculptures have been found on sites in the middle Euphrates, but also further west at Ebla, where a brilliant civilization, open to influences from southern Mesopotamia, developed during the 3rd millennium BC.

Part of a composite statue

Many sites in the Near East have turned up composite statues using materials of different colors and types. The face, like this one, might be carved from pale limestone whose colour suggests flesh, the hair made of steatite, a dark green rock, and the body of stone or wood covered with sheets of metal. These assemblages were designed to render the colors of life as realistically as possible. They were sometimes made of precious materials, as shown by the animal statuettes found in royal tombs in the Ur cemetery in which gold and lapis lazuli were combined to produce items of unprecedented luxury. Although there are many examples of small items of this type, larger sculptures are rare. And yet traces have been found on sites in the Middle Euphrates, mainly at Mari, but also in western Syria at Ebla, where a brilliant civilization open to influences from southern Mesopotamia developed in the course of the 3rd millennium BC - as it did at Mari.

An elaborate manufacturing technique

This beak-nosed male face once had eyes inlaid in the deep sockets The eyes were deliberately enormous because the Sumerians believed that they expressed life and intelligence. The eyes were outlined with bitumen; the eyeball was made of shell and the iris of lapis lazuli. Bitumen was used as an adhesive to keep the various parts in place and for the eyebrows; traces survive in the grooves above the eyes. The forehead is cut low where the hair was applied. Two almost complete wigs found at Ebla are of a similar size to this mask and give an idea of the kind of hairstyle it once had. They are made of about ten finely carved pieces of steatite, each representing a lock of hair. They were held together by bitumen and attached with a litle peg to a wooden core that was curved on one side to fit inside the wig and on the other took the mask of the face.

The face of a worshipper before his god

The very particular features of this mask are similar to some male statuettes found at Mari. The same hooked nose, small pointed chin, and rather mysterious smile is found on most of the faces of Mari figures and expresses the worshipper's happiness before his god. Although it originated in the middle Euphrates or still further west, the face with its empty eye sockets remains a mystery. We can just imagine that it belonged to dignitary who, like many of his contemporaries, had a statue made in his likeness to represent him in the temple, standing before his god in eternal prayer.

Technical description

  • Mask

    Early Dynasty III, c. 2400 BC

    Mesopotamia

  • Limestone and traces of bitumen

    H. 0.12

  • Purchased October 1-2, 2000

    AO 31550

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

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