Sabean Granite Head of a Woman

SKU LK.110
Circa

600 BC to 100 BC

Dimensions

9.5″ (24.1cm) high x 4.25″ (10.8cm) wide

Medium

Limestone

Origin

Yemen

Gallery Location

UK


 

This striking head is an architectural fragment from a notable public or ceremonial building, and pertains to the ancient kingdom of Saba which ruled over the lands of southwestern Arabia, centered in modern day Yemen. Technically, the Sabeans are one of four major powers in this area, also including the Minaeans, the Qatabanians and the Hadramites, but the peoples as a whole became subsumed as a single entity by the middle of the first millennium BC. Saba is perhaps better known as Sheba, whose famous Queen was recounted as having visited Solomon in the pages of the Old Testament. The wealth of the kingdom was legendary, and was primarily attributable to Saba’s position at the crossroads of the ancient world, receiving consignments (particularly of incense) from all across the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean basin. The city of Marib was also in an ideal position to control the trade route between India to Egypt, although this lucrative venture was cut short in the 1st century AD following the foundation of a nautical route from India directly to the port of Alexandria.

As well as being a highly successful nation state in their own right, the Sabeans embraced the multiplicity of cultural influences that came with their status as a trading superpower. Their alphabet – Musnad – was one of the most complex and elegant of the day, while they also had a second, cursive system (Zabur) that was used for day-to-day operations. They mummified their dead, had a pantheon of gods, and possessed liberal attitudes to the deities and traditions of outsiders. They also had a complex social stratification system, extensive public buildings and ceremonial architecture, and a literary/theatrical heritage that survives in fragmented state. It is for their art, however, that the Sabeans are best remembered. Their religion and mythology fuelled the themes of their sculptural works – primarily anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuary – while their contact with other cultures and nations led to a highly derived and distinctive style. There are major works in bronze, precious metals and exotic minerals, but they are perhaps best known for works in stone such as alabaster and, in the present case, granite.

This androgynous human head is carved from a single piece of granite, and was presumably once part of a much larger block. The head is elongated and framed by two long, wavy blocks denoting long hair reaching to the level of the chin. The neck is columnar; the anterior aspect thereof is at the same level as the hair. The face stands well proud of both, and is likewise elongated with a long nose and forehead arranged into a T-format. The eyes are rounded ovals, and are heavily indented; it is likely that they once held insets (made from shell and semi-precious stones) to give a startlingly vivid expression to this austere visage. The cheeks are subtly modeled and rounded, giving way to pursed lips and a smoothly rounded chin that runs into the recessed neck area. The nose, while elongated, is also rounded and protuberant at the apex, and nearly flat at the bridge. The eyes are further defined with indented recesses, and framed beneath incised eyebrows. Further detail can be found in the banding at what was presumably the border of the hair/hat (since lost). For the most part, however, the sculpture is characterised by fluid, flowing, smooth lines that perfectly express the contours of the human face. The role of this piece is uncertain, although the Sabeans are known to have used commemorative pieces to remember the dead, and also grave markers in this general format. However, the breaks to the top, side and base of this piece suggest that it was architectural in origin, and may have served as a form of caryatid for a structure of social import to the society at the time. As a fragment, it has lost none of its impact. This is a beautifully-executed and well- preserved piece of Sabean art.

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