Sabean Funerary Stone Plaque

SKU SF.002
Circa

400 BC to 1 BC

Dimensions

12″ (30.5cm) high x 6.80″ (17.3cm) wide

Medium

Limestone

Origin

Yemen

Gallery Location

UK


 

The ancient kingdom of Saba ruled over the lands of southern Arabia, centered in modern day Yemen. Saba is perhaps better known as Sheba, the Hebrew word for the kingdom, whose famous Queen was recounted as having visited Solomon in the pages of the Old Testament. Biblical accounts speak of the wealth of this ancient civilization of traders and merchants, and modern archaeological excavations confirm these reports. Ruins of fortresses and walled towns are evident and remnants of their extensive irrigation system that turned the desert into a paradise still cover the land. Although gold and silver deposits were present, the chief source of their vast wealth was derived from their veritable monopoly of two of the most coveted materials in ancient times: frankincense and myrrh, resinous gums obtained from certain trees that only grow in Southern Arabia and were literally worth their weight in gold. There was not a temple or wealthy house in the ancient world, from Babylon to Rome, where one would not smell the fragrant scents of these incenses. In addition, a trade route that connected India to Egypt that passed through their capital of Marib was another major source of wealth. In the 1st Century A.D., the Ptolemaic Greeks discovered a sea route from India directly to the port of Alexandria, eliminating Saba from her lucrative trade and ushering in the decline of Sabean prosperity.

This magnificent stone funerary plaque is a stunning example of the sophistication of Sabean art. The following is a transcription of the analysis kindly provided by Professor Kitchen (University of Liverpool).

‘This ‘headpiece’ was originally inserted into a matching rectangular recess, cut into a tall stela (like a narrow quadrangular pillar), to form a tombstone plus ‘formal’ portrait. For intact examples, cf. St. John Simpson (ed.), ‘Queen of Sheba, Treasures from Ancient Yemen,’ (London, British Museum, 2002), p. 198, nos. 277-278.

Facial tombstone in high relief and with a slightly less conventional face than most. Here, the ears are more lozenge-shaped with sharp, not smoothly curved, angles. A stronger hairline also has a central quiff pointing onto the brow. Other features (brows, eyes, nose) are standard but a small slit mouth is encased all round by prominent, rounded lips.

The 3-letter name, S l m, is a simple Salim, a very common Arabic name at any time (cf. R. L. Cleveland, ‘An Ancient South-Arabian Necropolis …Timna Cemetary,’ (Baltimore, 1965), p. 325, but more common up north as in Safaitic, with some examples in Minean and Sabean. Again, three-letters are a precarious dating-base but probably somewhere broadly within the 4th-1st centuries BC.’

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