2500 BC to 1500 BC
6.25″ (15.9cm) high x 4.5″ (11.4cm) wide
This impressive wooden maternity figure was found in the now-extinct country of Bactria, spread across what are now Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Northern Afghanistan. It was one of many economic and social entities in the vicinity, and was a powerful country due to the exceptional fertility and wealth of its agricultural lands. This in turn gave rise to a complex and multifaceted set of societies with specialist craftsmen who produced luxury materials such as this for the ruling and aristocratic elites. For this reason, the area was fought over from deep prehistory until the Mediaeval period, by the armies of Asia Minor, Greece (Macedonia), India and the Arab States, amongst others.
While Bactria has been a force throughout much of the past 6000 years, the civilisation referred to as the Oxus (or the BMAC) is perhaps the most notable. Flourishing between about 2100 and 1700 BC, it was contemporary with the European Bronze Age, and was characterised by monumental architecture, social complexity and extremely distinctive cultural artefacts that vanish from the record a few centuries after they first appear. Trade was a major issue, with artefacts turning up all over the Persian Gulf as well as on the Iranian Plateau and the Indus Valley. Pictographs on seals have been argued to indicate an independently-developed writing system; they appear to have worshipped deities symbolised by stone seated women with detachable heads made of ivory or bone. The crafts, as stated above, extended into zoomorphic and anthropomorphic statuary in gold, silver, stone and ceramic. While the function of these objects is unclear, it is possible that they occupied some cult purpose. Wooden sculptures, however, are almost unknown.
This piece evokes many of the characteristics of Bactrian female figures, with the seated position, the disproportionate mass of the torso, the nugatory legs, and the seemingly rather small head with incised eyes and protuberant nose, cheeks and chin. The fact that the head is attached rather than separate is in itself somewhat unusual. The arms are large – unusually – and encircle a small infant that is sprawled across the lap with its head to the left of the mothers’ body; one of its hands appears to be grasping her right breast, the other reaching up towards her neck. The balance of masses combined with the erosion of several thousand years – the eyes and the hair detail seem to have been repeatedly re-engraved – lends a starkly powerful effect to the piece, which has evidently seen some ritualized usage. There are flecks of pigment and colour variance over the surface of the piece, implying that it was once painted and may also have seen the application of libations etc that have penetrated the wood. The presence of several drilled holes implies that something may have been attached to the statuette – perhaps some sort of offrenda. This lends weight to the notion that these figures may have operated as idols, as did African statuary in more recent times. While the precise significance of this piece cannot be assessed with any degree of certainty, it is nonetheless an exceptionally rare and unusual piece of ancient art, and well deserving of a place in any discerning collection of Bactrian art.Login to view price