Jordan's Sculpted Treasures

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Jordan's Sculpted Treasures

Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Archaeological reconstruction of the past, or at least parts of it, can be fascinating. We all want to know where we came from and what our ancestors were like. The romance of archaeology is in all of us.

The 1985 discovery of eight sculptures from 7,000 to 6,000 B.C. at 'Ain Ghazal near Jordan's capital of Amman illuminates some aspects of our ancestors. ('Ain Ghazal means "spring of gazelles" and is pronouned AYN ga-ZAHL.) The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is premiering these mysterious, nearly life-size white plaster statues in its current exhibit "Preserving Ancient Statues From Jordan."

This is a big first for the Sackler, and for Washington, as these works are the oldest sculptures of humans ever found in the Near East and are unique among neolithic plaster statues.

They not only are the oldest, but also are among the most puzzling of Near Eastern neolithic sculptures. There is nothing else quite like them in prehistoric art, especially that of the Near East, and they are being displayed here for the first time anywhere in the world.

There are three double-headed busts, which could have been worshiped as twin-headed gods or goddesses, a human couple, twins or revered ancestors. The Sackler exhibits the sculptures through April 6, when they will travel back to their owner, the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

Roughly modeled and about 4 feet high, these sculptures have a mesmerizing, otherworldly presence. It is the eyes that grab - and hold - us first. The eyes and their pupils are heavily outlined with a black paste containing bitumen, a natural asphalt. The stylized facial features probably were shaped by hand or with simple tools. Traces of paint remain on some of the faces.

Richard Franklin, the Sackler's new director of design and production, has made the objects come alive with the show's dramatic lighting and deep burgundy background. The stark whiteness of the statues gleams against the intense red-purple around them. The two small exhibition galleries are often used most effectively for the Sackler's more focused exhibits, such as its Islamic calligraphy exhibit of last fall.

The sculptures were found accidentally in a burial pit when a road-construction bulldozer cut through part of the 'Ain Ghazal site, exposing the cache. The 'Ain Ghazal pieces, created an astonishing 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, have been dated with carbon-14 testing of plant remains at the site. Because of the sculptures' extreme fragility, the Department of Antiquities of Jordan crated and shipped them to the Smithsonian's Conservation Analytic Laboratory (CAL) at Suitland in the huge block of earth in which they were buried.

The statues have been reconstructed, studied and preserved there for the past nine years.

Just look at the nearby National Gallery of Art's exhibit "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico." Flourishing as an urban culture some four to five centuries after the 'Ain Ghazal peoples, the Olmecs also had no writing but were able to create cities and monumental sculpture.

The 'Ain Ghazal peoples were just changing from lives as hunters and gatherers to village settlers, yet they were able to create these very large, technically sophisticated and impressive figures. They are awe-inspiring, just as are those of the Olmecs.

Where did the 'Ain Ghazal sculptures come from, and how were they created? These are just some of the questions this exhibition tries to answer with its handsome display, informative brochure and wall labels and its interactive computer program (Home page:

Excavations of other, roughly contemporaneous prehistoric East Asian and Indian sites have yielded pottery, adzes, axes and crude mother-goddess effigies. Archaeologists and the show's organizers label this site as "pre-pottery neolithic," dating to around 8,500 to 5,500 B.C. It shares, according to the exhibit's brochure, many traits with other sites located in what are now Jordan, Syria, Israel and Lebanon: people living in year-round villages, using advanced stone tools, farming grains and legumes, herding sheep and goats, hunting wild animals and gathering plants. …

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