Magazine article Science News

Ancient Figurine Lifts Horses' Profile

Magazine article Science News

Ancient Figurine Lifts Horses' Profile

Article excerpt

While excavating an ancient Syrian city last September, archaeologists unearthed a 4,300-year-old clay figurine that stands as the oldest known sculpture of a domesticated horse, according to an announcement this week by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

The discovery suggests that horses played a more important role in the rise of early civilizations than researchers have often assumed, contends Thomas Holland, an Oriental institute archaeologist. He directed the team that found the skillfully crafted figurine at Tell Es-Sweyhat, about 200 miles northeast of Damascus. Other evidence points to the domestication of horses in central Asia at least 6,000 years ago (SN: 6/2/90, p.340).

The meaning of the horse sculpture to its makers and the predominant function of horses in their culture remain unclear, asserts anthropologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. Zarins did not participate in the dig, but he has examined the equine find.

"This is without a doubt the best early example of a domesticated horse sculpture," Zarins maintains.

Holland and his associates place the manufacture of the 5-inch-long, 3-inch-high figurine at about 2300 B.C., based on carbon-14 dates and pottery styles at Tell Es-Sweyhat.

Two signs of domestication appear on the pale-green sculpture, Zarins says. A hole bored through the muzzle may represent the position of a bit to hold reins or a nose ring for leading the horse by hand. …

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