So What Do They Look Like, Those Figurines from Tell Ahmar?

So what do they look like, these figurines from 7th century Tell Ahmar?



The collection of figurines from Tell Ahmar is quite diverse with two distinct types of baked clay figurines, (one made by hand and the other using a mould) as well as a unique, rather shapeless piece which seems to be made of unbaked clay and for which I have found no parallels at any other site.


I decided to focus my research on the baked clay, hand made forms however I am now investigating the mould made figurines, a type which is found over a wide region of the Near East.


Unfortunately none of the pieces were found complete, but I don’t think they were deliberately broken.  There are standing figurines with a solid, pillar-based lower body and ornate headdresses or hairstyles.  I believe they are female, though not all of them have breasts.  Some carry very young children or babies in their arms.


All of the standing female figurines were broken at the neck and so the fragments I looked at either comprised the heads or the bodies.  Unfortunately I was only able to match two pieces.


Likewise, the horse and rider figurines were also broken.  I found a lot of horse leg pieces, which made it hard to determine whether they had come from horse figurines, or horse figurines with a rider. The riders wore pointed hats or helmets and had extended chins which I have interpreted as beards. Some of the riders had pieces of clay attached to their bodies, strips and blobs, as did the horses.  Most horses had extensive decoration on their heads and across their chests.  Fortunately, the collections at the British and Ashmolean Museums had many complete examples of all three types.

Horse and Rider figurine from the Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, held at the Ashmolean Museum (own sketch).

Horse and Rider figurine from the Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, held at the Ashmolean Museum (own sketch).

I believe these three variations, standing figurines, horse and rider figurines and horses without riders belong to the basic type. I base this theory primarily on the method of manufacture.

Have a close look at the head of this standing figurine and this horse rider.  Can you identify how the faces were formed?  The nose is a ridge, formed by pinching the clay together.  The figurine maker could have used his or her thumb and forefinger, which would have created two deep eye sockets.

Look at the eyes of all three figurine types.  Can you see the similarity?  All of them are formed from circular ‘blobs’ of clay fixed into the eye sockets.  The horses have a different shaped face, of course, but their facial features are formed in a similar way.

What about mouths?  Can you detect mouths on any of the figurines?

For a while I wondered if the thicker bands of clay apparent around the necks of some of the standing figurines might have been mouths.  I feel they are not as not all of the figurines have them and none of the riders have bands of clay around their necks.  More on mouths later.


7th century BCE baked clay figurine from Tell Ahmar, North Syria (own sketch).

7th century BCE baked clay figurine from Tell Ahmar, North Syria (own sketch).

The standing figurines all have ornate hairstyles or headdresses.  I lean towards the view that they are hairstyles, perhaps not reflecting reality, but I prefer simple theories and to argue that they were headdresses would take rather more evidence! They could be headdresses or bonnets, but why not take the simpler option and suggest that the ornate modelling of the hair could simply be a depiction of a favoured or desired hairstyle?

8th century BCE standing figurine from the Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, held at the Ashmolean Museum (own sketch).


Now take another look at the horse riders.

Their heads are somewhat elongated; this elongation is more acute on some than others. In the case of the horse riders, I believe this pointed head actually represents a helmet.  There is iconographic evidence for this which I will describe in a future post.

Figurine from Upper Euphrates Valley, North Syria, horse rider figurine, 8th century figurine

Figurine from Upper Euphrates Valley, held at British Museum (own sketch).


I’d love to hear your impressions of the figurines. What do you think they represent? Why do you think some parts of the people or creatures represented have been emphasised and others not?

And the big question: what ideas do you get from the form of the figurines about why they might have been made?

Go on.  Have a go.  Let me know what you come up with!  All views are welcome, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ opinion.  Let the brainstorming begin!

Soon, we’ll start looking at the contexts to which the figurines belonged, but for now, I’d love to get a conversation started on how archaeologists can go about interpreting figurines just by looking at them!




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Dr Victoria Clayton is author of Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar. If you are fascinated by life in the ancient past, let this very readable book take you on a journey back 2600 years to the bustling town of Kar Shalmaneser where Assyrian soldiers, businessmen, craftsmen and slaves lived together and learn who made the figurines and why. Meet their makers and learn their story. Click here for access now.

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Nabulsi - February 19, 2014

Where did you find them exactly? This might lead to suggestions on why they were made (function and symbolism).

    Victoria - May 7, 2014

    Hi Nabulsi,
    Thanks for your comment. The provenance of the figurines will be discussed very soon. However, you are certainly right, find spot is essentially when considering the meaning of figurines. It can result in circular arguments where the figurines may apparently indicate a certain meaning for the physical context and vice versa. All fun and games!

Ray Manton - May 2, 2014

Maybe the culture of the people who made those figurines has long been swept away, but then again from the iron age there could be remnants left in recorded history, or even remnants in the culture of today’s inhabitants that could provide clues about what they represented, how they might have been used etc.

    Victoria - May 7, 2014

    Great point, Ray, thanks for your comment. Indeed, the makers of the figurines are long since gone, however we can use all sorts of strands of evidence to attempt to interpret them. Written texts found at the site (soon to be the topic of a forthcoming post) were crucial to my interpretation of the figurines. Unfortunately I didn’t find any evidence that the current inhabitants of the modern village of Tell Ahmar used figurines in any way.

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