Ancient Figurines from Ancient Near East ,
Tell Ahmar Figurines
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.
Head from a standing figurine, Tell Ahmar, showing Bronze Age features.
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.
Bronze Age standing figurine from Catal Hüyük (Amuq Plain) holding a child. (Artists’ impression after Badre, L, 1980, Pl.XXV:14).
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.
Standing figurine (two views) from Tell Halawa, Early Bronze Age (After Meyer, J-W and Pruss, A, 1994, Abb.10: 99).
Standing figurine (three views) from Tell Halawa, Early Bronze Age (After Meyer, J-W and Pruss, A, 1994, Abb.10:107)
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.