Category Archives: Tell Ahmar Figurines
Both the Bronze and Iron Age figurine repertoires include humans wearing a pointed or conical headdress. Most of the figurines wearing conical caps appear to have had the standard standing base. However, some figures wearing the conical helmets also appear to have been attached to the back of horses.
The faces of figurines wearing the pointed helmet are formed using the same techniques as the standing figurines: sharply ridged noses, applied eyes and no apparent mouths. The eyes are perforated in the same way as the Bronze Age figurines. Some helmeted figures from the Bronze Age also appear to have ear lobes, often perforated with large holes, such as those from Selenkahiye.
The cap or helmet on the Bronze Age figurines is also often decorated with tiny incisions. Another piece strikingly similar to those from Iron Age Euphrates sites comes from Çatal Hüyük and depicts a head wearing a pointed cap decorated with a single strip applied around the rim. A second strip runs around the neck, mirroring closely the later style. From the Upper Euphrates basin, similar pieces have been found at Tell Halawa.
Figurines from Tell Ahmar wearing a pointed helmet:
It seems probable that the standing figurines with elaborate hairstyles represent women. Some are modelled with breasts. Others are not, but this does not mean that they did not represent females. It seems that it was unnecessary to model anatomical evidence of sex. Rather, it appears, as with the Iron Age figurines, that some images were modelled with breasts if that was the wish of the maker. This feature does not appear to have beenessential to the understanding of the significance of the standing figurines. Indeed, the sex/gender of the figurine is likely to have simply been understood by those who made them without it having to be deliberately modelled.
The figurines with pointed helmets are never depicted with breasts, either in the Bronze or Iron Ages, strongly suggesting that they represent men. The excavations at Selenkahiye yielded at least four figurines wearing the conical helmet who had incised beards as well. Furthermore, many of these individuals were also modelled with perforations through the arm stumps, a feature also noted within figurine assemblages from Tell Halawa, Tell Hadidi and Habuba Kabira.
As I continued working with the Iron Age figurines I wondered about the possibility that they might have grown out of an earlier figurine making tradition or style, so I decided to take a closer look at the handmade figurines from the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age in North Syria is divided into three periods: the early Bronze Age which is early-third-early second-millennium (about 3300-100 BC), the Middle Bronze (about 2100 BC to 1550 BC) and the Late Bronze Age, (1550-200 BC). This post concerns the standing, or ‘pillar-based’ figurines from both periods.
Dr Leila Badre and others have studied the Bronze Age and recognised that the assemblages of this period from the Upper Euphrates Valley do represent a regional tradition. I believe that the Iron Age figurines also indicate localised conventions and that at some sites, both Bronze and Iron Age examples have been found.
Early Bronze Age figurines have been found at both Tell Ahmar and Tell Amarna and these are similar to those from sites of the late 3rd- early 2nd millennium further to the south. The nearby site of Shiyukh Tahtani has also yielded a few figurine fragments of Early Bronze age date, but has poor evidence for Iron Age occupation. Tell Ahmar, Tell Amarna and Shiyukh Tahtani seem to be the most northerly sites where figurines similar to those found at Bronze Age settlements such as Selenkahiya, Tell Hadidi, Sweihat, Tell Abd, Tell Halawa and Habuba Kabira.
In other words, the sites that that yielded the figurines of the Iron Age also yielded figurines of the Bronze Age though not as many as sites further to the south, which, unfortunately, were destroyed at the end of the Bronze Age with no further occupation into the Iron Age.
In appearance, the Iron Age figurines have some similar characteristics to those of the older, Bronze Age tradition. The method of manufacture is by hand and characterised by considerable use of applied clay bands and pellets, heavily incised and perforated, to produce elaborately decorated images wearing necklaces and ornate hairstyles. For example, the Iron Age figurines have solid, pillar-shaped bases, though these are stockier than the taller, slenderer figurines of the Bronze Age.
A noticeable exception the figurine from el Qitar as well as one from Habuba Kabira which have thick, short bodies similar to those from the later period. Other Bronze Age examples, and found further afield at the site of Çatal Hüyük in the Amuq Plain, the other from Tell Afis, are stylistically similar to the Habuba example.
Another similarity between the Bronze and Iron Age figurine collections is in the faces. With sharp pointed noses and applied clay eyes, the absence of mouths or ears. A difference is apparent in the detail of the eye. On the Iron Age figurines, the figurine maker sometimes put another blob of clay on top, while in the Bronze Age the eye pellets are usually pierced to indicate pupils.
Figurines from both the Bronze and Iron Ages have ornate hairstyles, although there are variations in decorative technique. In the Bronze Age, strips and sometimes blobs of clay are applied over the head to form a variety of styles from loosely hanging locks to ‘buns’ or ‘pony-tails’ gathered behind the neck. The figurine makers used short incised lines on the hair and necklaces, a technique which is rarely used in the Iron Age.
Both Bronze and Iron Age figurines wear bracelets and these are formed in a similar way to the necklaces. In the Bronze Age these are mostly indicated by incision, however, a few figurines from Tell Halawa, as well as Çatal Hüyük, further to the west in the Amuq Plain, have their bracelets formed using tiny strips of clay, a typical Iron Age technique.
Standing figurines from both periods are modelled with breasts. Some figurines have obvious breasts, sometimes these are covered by the hands, sometimes the hands rest on the chest but do not cover or touch the breasts. On two examples from Tell Hadidi the arms curve around the breasts, leaving them exposed.
Iron Age figurines show more variety in arm position than the Bronze Age samples. Some may have been modelled with arms raised, as indicated by the fragment from el Qitar with damaged arms, although the majority have their arms resting on the torso. Several Iron Age figurines are modelled holding a child, but there are no known parallels from the Bronze Age sites of the Euphrates Valley. With the exception of the figurine from Çatal Hüyük which holds a smaller figure in its left arm. It has a short, thick body, three applied bracelets and ‘pincer’ hands similar to a fragment from Tell Ahmar. An unusual difference is that it also has modelled feet.There certainly seem to be overlaps in style and method of manufacture between the Bronze and Iron Age figurines. Why do you think that could be?
 For specific assemblages, see, for Selenkahiye, Liebowitz, H, 1988; for Tell Hadidi, Dornemann, RH, 1979 and 1989; for Sweihat, Holland, TA, 1976 and 1977b; for Tell Abd, Finkbeiner, U, 1995; for Tell Halawa, Meyer, J-W and Pruss, A, 1995; and for Habuba Kabira, Strommenger, E, 1983.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
After being part of the excavation team for some years, I was invited by the director of the Melbourne University Tell Ahmar (the modern village located where Til Barsib once stood) Archaeological Mission, to study the collection of baked clay figurines found during the excavations of 7th century buildings in the lower city. This area of the site had yielded well-preserved architecture and a rich assemblage of artefacts including tablets, carved ivories and seals which give us insights into life in this important provincial outpost of the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the Iron Age.
The site had been investigated by two French archaeologists in the 1920s; their trenches were situated on the Tell (mound comprising many centuries of remains of human occupation) and uncovered the palace of Shalmaneser III, who invaded the North Syrian region and colonised Til Barsib in 856 BC. I was delighted to base my doctoral research on the figurines and in 1996 began five years of study which took me to the British and Ashmolean Museums in Britain, as well as the Aleppo Museum in Syria.
I participated in the excavation at Tell Ahmar from 1993 to 1996 and visited Syria again in 1998, after a season of excavation in Turkey to study the figurines held in the Aleppo Museum. During that trip I visited Tell Ahmar and spend two days with friends I had made in the village.
The Melbourne University excavations were known as a ‘rescue dig’ – operations undertaken when a site is under threat of destruction. Tell Ahmar and the other sites in the vicinity were at risk of inundation as a massive dam on the Euphrates River was under construction to the south. The dam is now complete and I believe the area is now under water.
The University of Liege is continuing excavations on the tell and have uncovered remains dating to the Bronze Age, but much of the lower city has been flooded and I think the villagers have been forced to leave their homes. It is my hope that one day I might be able to return to Syria and locate some of my old friends, but given the tragic circumstances in Syria at present, such a visit may not be possible for some time.
 For the French excavations see Thureau-Dangin, F, Til-Barsib, Paris, 1936. For University of Melbourne excavations see Bunnens, G, “Tell Ahmar (Ancient Til Barsib, Middle Euphrates)”, Syrian Archaeological Bulletin 1, 1988, pp.1-2; “Tell Ahmar on the Euphrates. A New Research project of the University of Melbourne,”, Akkadica 63, 1989, pp.1-11; “Melbourne University Excavations at Tell Ahmar: 1988 Season”, Mesopotamie et Elam, Actes de la XXXIV Rencontre Assyriologique Internationales, Gand, 10-14 Juillet 1989, Mesopotamian History and Environment, Occasional Publications, Vol.1, Ghent, 1991, pp.163-170; “Ahmar”, Weiss, H (ed), “Archaeology in Syria”, American Journal of Archaeology Vol.95, 1991, pp.732-734; “Melbourne University excavations at Tell Ahmar on the Euphrates; Short report on the 1989-1992 seasons”, Akkidica 79-80, 1002, pp.1-13; “Tell Ahmar”, Weiss, H (ed), “Archaeology in Syria”, American Journal of Archaeology Vol.98, 1993-94, pp.149-151; ‘Tall Ahmar/Til Barsib 1988-1992”, in Kuhne, H (ed) “Archaologische Forschung in Syrien (5)”, AfO, Vol.40-41, 1993-94, pp.221-225. For other publications of Tell Ahmar material see Roobaert, A, “A Neo-Assyrian Statue from Til Barsib”, Iraq, Vol.58, 1996, pp.79-87, Bunnens, G, “Carved Ivories from Til Barsib”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.101, 1997, pp.435-450 and Bunnens, G (ed) Abr Nahrain, Vol.34, 1996-1997 for translations of tablets and inscriptions from Tell Ahmar.