The Human Clay Figurines And Ancient Near Eastern Magic

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By Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Abstract: The chapter analyses the forty-nine Pre-Pottery Neolithic B and Yarmoukian anthropomorphic clay figurines. The first part of the study documents the collection: the number of artifacts, their types, style, material, manufacture, surface treatment, and firing. The figurines are then related to their context: their spatial distribution and place in the stratigraphy, their relation to the remainder of the assemblage, and their parallels elsewhere in the Near East. The second part addresses the possible function of the figurines. The objects are shown to match the criteria denoting the perennial ancient Near Eastern magical practices, as described in the cuneiform literature.

Key words: clay, figural, female, apotropaic, magic

The Human Clay Figurines Collection

Forty-nine whole or fragmentary human figurines were recovered in the course of seven out of the eleven campaigns of excavations conducted at ‘Ain Ghazal (Rollefson 2008b: 387-416; McAdam 1997: 115-145). The number of human figurines collected at each campaign is as follows:

  • 4 in the 1982 season (salvage excavation) (Rollefson 1983: 11; Simmons and Rollefson 1984: 391-392, Fig. 8)
  • 24 in the 1983 season (Rollefson and Simmons 1984: 18-20, Figs. 3-4; 1985b: 40-42, Figs. 3-5; Rollefson, Simmons, Donaldson, et al. 1985: 82-87, Figs. 5-8)
  • 8 in the 1984 season (Rollefson and Simmons 1985a: 16, 25, Table 7; 1986: 150, 152)
  • 6 in the 1985 season (Rollefson and Simmons 1986: 50-51; 1987: 103-104, Figs. 8-10)
  • 1986 (no excavation)
  • 0 in the 1987 season (survey) (Simmons and Kafafi 1988: 27-39)
  • 2 in the 1988 season (Simmons, Kohler-Rollefson and Rollefson 1988: 36; Rollefson, Kafafi and
    Simmons 1989: 15-16, Table 8; 1991: 103)
  • 3 in the 1989 season (Kafafi, Rollefson and Simmons 1990: 21, 25, Pl. II)
  • 1990-1992 (no excavation)
  • 0 in the 1993 season (Rollefson and Kafafi 1994: 11-32)
  • 0 in the 1994 season (Rollefson and Kafafi 1995: 13-29)
  • 0 in the 1995 season (Rollefson and Kafafi 1996: 11-28)
  • 2 in the 1996 season (Rollefson and Kafafi 1997: 27-47)
  • 1997 (no excavation)
  • 0 in the 1998 season (last campaign) (Rollefson and Kafafi 2000: 91-118)

The Present Location

The artifacts are stored at the Yarmouk University, Irbid, Jordan, under the direction of the Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology. Four examples are on exhibit at the Museum of Jordanian Heritage, Yarmouk University, Irbid (Nos. 8, 9, 16, 21). The museum accession numbers are No. 8: A120 A1141; No. 9: A 121 114 A1140; No. 16: A119 A1142; No. 21: A122 A1139. Finally, five figurines are kept at the Archaeological Museum of Amman, under the supervision of the Department of Antiquities (Nos. 18, 19, 22, 38, 40). The museum accession numbers are No. 18: 3078/200; No. 19: 3078/175; No. 22: 3079/321; No. 38: 3082/14; No. 40: 3282/75.

The Chronology

The stratigraphy of ‘Ain Ghazal reveals that almost all the figurines were manufactured during the initial settlement of ‘Ain Ghazal. Forty-two out of the forty-nine figurines (Cat. No. 1-42) or 86% belong to the MPPNB period, 8500-7500 BC, when the site was home to only some two hundred households. In contrast, only one figurine was recovered in each of the following LPPNB and LPPNC layers, 7500-6200 BC and 6900-6400 BC, when a large influx of population turned ‘Ain Ghazal into a “mega site” of some 35-30 acres (Simmons 2007: 178, Table 7.1). Finally, there are five figurines dating to the Yarmoukian period (Cat. Nos. 43-47) prior to the abandonment of the site.

The figurines therefore belong mainly to two consecutive, but different, cultures of the Neolithic period, the PPN and the PN Yarmoukian. The two parts of the collection are treated separately. In both sections, the figurines are consistently referred to by their catalogue number.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic Figurines

The Typology and Style

The forty-four objects registered as Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) human figurines can be divided into three main types according to their degree of stylization or preservation.

  1. Conical
  2. Anthropomorphic
  3. Non-diagnostic fragments

The Conical Figurines (Pls. 4.1.1a-4.1.2.)
(Cat. Nos. 1, 2, 3, 7, 10, 11, 12, 23, 28, 33, 35, 36, 37)

The thirteen-piece collection makes the conical figures the most popular type of human representation at ‘Ain Ghazal. These are also the most schematic, consisting merely of two-legged cones (Pl. 4.1.2). They have no heads and therefore no faces. Sometimes a light swelling and a curve suggest shoulders and waist (Cat. Nos. 3, 23, 33), and in one case a round form marks the location of the abdomen (Cat. No. 37) (Pl. 4.1.1c). The two legs pinched from the base are the features that typify the figures as unmistakably bipedal human representations. The lower limbs may be round (Cat. Nos. 1-3, 11) or pointed (Cat. Nos. 7, 10, 23), of equal or different size, straight or folded under (Cat. No. 36), open (Cat. Nos. 3, 7, 10, 23, 33) or joined together (Cat. Nos. 1, 2, 11, 26). The gender is a mystery.

The Anthropomorphic Figurines

The less-schematic anthropomorphic figures can again be subdivided into:

  1. Busts
  2. Females
  3. Genderless
Bust deeply pierced in the chest with a pointed object.
Fig. 4.1.1. Bust pierced in the chest (Cat.No.18). Photograph by H. Debajah.
made of a round clay pellet
Fig. 4.1.2. Visage with round pellet eye (Cat.No. 6). Photograph by H. Debajah.

The Busts (Figs. 4.1.1.-4.1.4)
(Cat. Nos. 6, 16, 18, 21, 22, 40, 48)

None of the seven busts have a flat base. Instead, they all show traces of breakage, which means that the objects were not designed as busts but are fragments of full figures. The fact that these figurines were not fractured at the neck but below the shoulders, at a point that is not structurally weak, will be discussed later (Bienert 1995: 82). Cat. No. 16 has large shoulders, perhaps indicating a male representation. The others cannot be attributed to either gender.

The busts vary in style and manufacture. Some are crude. Made of coarse yellow clay (Cat. No. 18) or marly limestone (Cat. Nos. 16, 48), their featureless heads are barely distinguished from the rest of the body and are disproportionately small or large. One head is reduced to a point (Cat. No. 16) but others are shown larger than the shoulders (Fig. 4.1.1). One bust bears the faint shape of an arm (Cat. No. 16) but none were depicted on the others (Cat. Nos. 18, 48).

The objects made of pink clay are of better quality (Cat. Nos. 6, 21, 22, 40). This group is particularly interesting because they share some stylistic similarities with the ‘Ain Ghazal statuary. For example, like some of the statues, the shoulders droop and the heads taper up into a thin edge, probably depicting a headdress (Cat. Nos. 21, 40). Mostly, they portray the visages with the eyebrows and nose arranged in a T-shape (Fig. 4.1.3). Also like the statues, the eyes are large, set low and far apart. In one case they are made of a round clay pellet (Fig. 4.1.2), in the other they are pinched into a small point (Cat. Nos. 6, 40).

The Females (Pls. 4.1.3a-d, 4.1.4) (Cat. Nos. 5, 8, 9, 19, 27)

Five figurines exhibiting breasts or a large stomach and thick hips and thighs are undoubtedly female. Among them, a trio is particularly close in style (Cat. Nos. 5, 8, 19). The three figurines are in different states of preservation. One is almost complete, except for a portion of the lower abdomen that has been chipped away (Pls. 4.1.2a-b, 4.1.3 above) (Cat. No. 19). The second is well preserved below the waist, with only part of the chest and small breasts visible (Pls. 4.1.3c, 4.1.4 below) (Cat. No. 8). The entire front of the third is obliterated, except for the neck, the shoulders, the top of the breasts, and one hip (Pls. 4.1.3.d, 4.1.4 center) (Cat. No. 5). All three are headless.

drawings of several busts from various angles.
Fig. 4.1.3. Busts, (Cat. Nos. 6, 21, 18, 40, 16) Drawings courtesy E. McAdam, Levant XXIX 1997, Figs. 7 and 8.
several featureless heads
Fig. 4.1.4. Featureless head (Cat. No. 13). Visage with nose arranged in T-shape (left)
(Cat. No.22). Photograph by H. Debajah.

The three figurines are disproportionately wide compared to their thickness, which is no more that 18 mm (Cat. No. 19) or 27 mm (Cat. No. 8). All three picture mature women who seem plump rather than pregnant. They have broad shoulders, a well-defined waist, placed high just below the breasts, and big hips. Two have no arms (Cat. Nos. 5, 8) and those of the third disappear under the voluminous breasts (Cat. No. 19). In all three, the focus of the composition is the large abdomen with a long groove in the center, too large to depict the navel. On Cat. No. 8, the two thighs meet to form a triangle, but the vulva is not depicted. When the legs are preserved, they are never complete. Either they only show the thighs (Cat. No. 8), or the calves, with no indication of ankles or feet (Cat. No. 19). The back is absolutely flat.

The three women are covered with impressed markings interpreted by some as tattoos (Townsend 1997: 175). In fact, because some of the ‘Ain Ghazal statues were clearly represented wearing colorfully painted clothes and no tattoos, it is more likely that in this case also, the patterns depict garments. The design consists of strips about 1.2 cm long, featuring a tight row of a dozen perfectly parallel strokes. The motif is repeated to form a herringbone pattern. Three lines on each breast and six on each side of the abdomen converge towards the center of the body. The same number of nine vertical lines covers the back of the legs. A similar herringbone composition covers the front of Cat. No. 8, also converging into a vertical arrangement along the back of the thighs. The six vertical impressions in the front and two at the back of Cat. No. 5 seem random.

Little can be said about the two other female figurines, each unique of its kind, except that they bring variety to the assemblage by introducing thin, nude bodies (Cat. Nos. 9, 27).

Reclining figure performing a dramatic gesture wrapping the left arm around her head as if to touch her forehead. The body ends below the thighs with no indication of sex.
Fig. 4.1.5. Reclining figure. (Cat. No. 38) Photograph by H. Debajah.

Non-Diagnostic Fragments (Figs. 4.1.7-4.1.9) Cat. Nos. 4, 13, 14, 20, 24, 25, 26, 31, 32, 34, 41, 42

These twelve pieces are definitely purposefully hand modeled but are too fragmentary to be defined as male or female effigies.

The value of the non-diagnostic fragments is to provide information on surface treatment. Particularly interesting are the impressions left by a small string about 1 mm thick, that was wrapped five and twelve times around two objects, respectively (Fig. 4.1.8) (Cat. Nos. 31, 32). Additionally, two pieces display most clearly the same impressed motifs as those decorating the three female figures (Fig. 4.1.7) (Cat. Nos. 4, 26).

drawings of several figurines from different angles
Fig. 4.1.6. Genderless figurines. (Cat. Nos. 17, 38, 39) W. 2.2, H.5.5, TH. 2.0; W. 4.7, H. 4.7, TH. 2.7; W. 2.4, H. 4.3, TH. 1.9. Cat. No. 17, 39: drawings by L.S. el-Khoury; Cat. No. 38: courtesy E. McAdam, Levant XXIX 1997, Fig. 9.
the same impressed motifs as those decorating the three female figures
Fig. 4.1.7. Rocker stamp impression. (Cat. No. 4) Photograph by H. Debajah.
Fragment showing a small string, about 1 mm thick, was wrapped diagonally around twelve times.
Fig. 4.1.8. String impressions. (Cat. No. 31) Photograph by H. Debajah.

In sum, the human figurine assemblage displays a great stylistic diversity. The figures represented are nude or clad, full-bodied or thin; they may be standing, sitting, squatting, stooping, or lying down. The heads of some are covered with headdresses and others have neither faces nor heads. Eyes may be shown by punctures in the clay or by affixed pellets. The figurines may have broad or drooping shoulders; some have no arms, and others hold their heads or clutch their breasts. Within this eclectic group three styles of figurines emerge. The first consists of the thirteen schematic figurines mostly reduced to a cone. The second includes three semi-naturalistic female figurines with exaggerated hips (Cat. Nos. 5, 8, 19). Finally, five heads show a certain similarity with the statuary in the headdresses they wear and their facial features (Cat. Nos. 6, 17, 21, 22, 40). Each of these groups adds to our knowledge of the figurines. The conical style shows that verisimilitude was not necessary; on the contrary, the human form could be treated most schematically. Unless large shoulders were meant to picture a man (Cat. No. 16), the female figurines illustrate that breasts were the only specific reference to sex. This in turn means that most of the time, gender was not an important factor in the manufacture of figurines, and in some rare cases when it was, the sex was female. However, because male figurines are routinely recovered in other Near Eastern sites, it is likely they also existed in ‘Ain Ghazal although they have not been found yet. Finally, the little figures all dressed up with their flat headdresses and looking upwards intensely with their big eyes, suggest that each type of figurines had its own special function. The unique reclining figurine that makes a dramatic gesture with her arm reinforces this idea (Cat. No. 38).

drawings of purposefully hand modeled fragments from different angles.
Fig. 4.1.9. Non-diagnostic fragments. (Cat. Nos. 26, 31, 4). W. 4.1, H. 4.8, TH. 3.5; W. 5.0, H. 9.5, TH. 3.0; W. 3.4, H. 4.0, TH. 7.2 mm. Cat. Nos. 26, 31 drawings courtesy E. McAdam, Levant XXIX 1997, Figs. 6 and 7; Cat. No. 4 drawing by L.S. el-Khoury.

The Size

It is difficult to discuss the size of the figurines because they are mostly broken and therefore incomplete. Bodies are decapitated and busts are severed from their trunks. The rare complete specimens exemplify that the usual height/length of the objects is small, ranging between 3 and 5 cm (Cat. Nos. 17, 38, 39, 27 measure respectively 5.5, 4.7, 4.3, 3 cm). Among the larger exceptions, a 5.5 cm female figure broken at the neck and below the hip (Cat. No. 5), and a 4.2 cm bust (Cat. No. 40), could both have reached 10 cm in their day. The conical figures are among the smallest, with some measuring only 2 cm (Cat. Nos. 3, 23).

There must be a reason why the human figurines are exceedingly small, especially the conical ones. Smallness precludes display in a public place. Instead, it supposes a personal, private, and perhaps even secretive function. Among the many possible interpretations for miniaturization discussed by D. W. Bailey, the most likely explanation in the case of the Neolithic figurines was perhaps to convey to the human form a sense of otherworldliness and mystery (Bailey 2005: 34-35).

The Material

Clay was used to model forty of the forty-two MPPNB ‘Ain Ghazal figurines. Kaolinite, a common type of clay in the region, was readily available at the site. It can be collected today in two different colors, pink and yellow, in cracks of the cliffs along the Zarqa River (Garrett 2001: 17). Both colors were also used during the Neolithic in approximately the same proportions. Among thirty-four specimens where the color of the paste is clear, there are fourteen yellow figurines and twenty pink, which shows only a slight preference for the latter shade.

Large and small pebbles visible on some (Cat. Nos. 7, 23, 33) and large inclusions on others (Cat. Nos. 28, 35) show that the conical figurines were made of unprepared clay. With few exceptions, (Cat. Nos. 18, 30) the clay used for the other types of figurines was finer. Either it originated from better deposits or was purified. This would be achieved by using running water to separate the fine clay particles from organic and inorganic impurities. As a result, several of the figurines show a homogeneous (Cat. Nos. 22, 39, 40), and even fine paste (Cat. Nos. 6, 38). The three females are made of pink clay of unequal quality. Two are hard (Cat. Nos. 19, 5), but the third is crumbly (Cat. No. 8). Cat. No. 5 shows a large quantity of white inclusions. No temper is ever added, but one may question whether bits of charcoal in Cat. No. 21 and pieces of flint in Cat. No. 17 might be intentional.

Thin-section analysis determined that the six figurines that are not made of clay were carved from a soft marly limestone common in Jordan (Kafafi 1986: 57-61). Among these figurines, two belong to the MPPNB period (Cat. Nos. 15-16). A single one dates from the LPPNB and another one from the PPNC (Cat. Nos. 48- 49). Finally, the last two are Yarmoukian (Cat. Nos. 43-47).

It is noteworthy that the figurines tend to be found in clusters of identical material, color, paste, and types/ density of inclusions. For example:

  • In square 3076, four figurines are made of pink clay (Cat. Nos. 5-8).
  • In squares 3080, 3081, 3082, and 3083, seven figurines are made of yellow clay (Cat. Nos. 29-
  • In square 3282, four of the six figurines are of the same fine quality of pink clay (Cat. Nos. 37, 38,
    39, 40).
  • In square 3081, 3082, and 3083, five figurines share the same type of large, white, chalky
    inclusions (Cat. Nos. 30-33, 35).
  • In square 3077, the temper of two pink figurines unusually includes bits of charcoal (Cat. No. 10-
    12). On the other hand, thirty-three animal figurines from the same square are made in a different
    coarse yellow clay.
  • In square 3078, two figures were made of marly limestone (Cat. Nos. 15-16).

The clay and limestone analyses lead to three conclusions. First, because they were made of such a negligible quantity of two common materials available at the site, the figurines probably had no long-term value. Second, clusters of figurines showing in their paste identical inclusions in similar concentration suggest that a number of figurines were made at the same time, by the same individual, and probably for the same purpose. It is noteworthy, too, that none of the five human figurines is made of the same yellow coarse paste as the thirty-three animal figurines in the same Square 3077 (Cat. No. 9-13). This suggests that the animal and the human figurines were probably made and used separately.

The Manufacture

Molds to model figurines were still unknown in the Near East; therefore, the Neolithic figurines were solid, and shaped individually. The manufacture of the conical figurines was particularly simple. Once the clay was collected, it took little effort to shape a cone and pinch two legs. What seemed to be important in their manufacture was to provide a large, flat, stable, circular base to enable a steady upright posture. The same was true for the genderless figures (Cat. Nos. 17, 30, 39).

Most of the other types of figurines were modeled in several steps. In the case of the busts, the torso, shoulders, neck, and head were first fashioned in one piece. Then a flat pellet was applied in front of the head to form the face and pinch brows, nose, and eyes (Cat. Nos. 22, 40).

The manufacture of the three female figurines took place in three stages. The trunk, limbs, and other body parts were modeled separately and were mounted together before drying. Breasts were formed with short coils, and legs with long ones (Cat. No. 19). Figurine Cat. No. 19 could not possibly stand up on its stumpy, feetless legs, and was also probably not meant to do so. Like Cat. No. 5, the back was reinforced with a special additional layer of clay. Consequently, the sturdy and absolutely straight figure could lie perfectly flat. The third woman was either kneeling or squatting. In either case, it stood on its own.

The study of the manufacture of the human figurines allows several considerations. Because their execution showed little skill, they were not the work of specialized “artists.” Whatever position they were pictured in, be it standing, sitting, kneeling, or lying down, the figurines provided with a flat base could stand alone, without being held. Third, and most importantly, the difference in care of manufacture between the conical and anthropomorphic style further suggests that each type of figurines had its own role and significance.

The Surface Treatment

The figurines had no surface treatment. Sometimes, the last small lumps of clay added to complete a piece were not even flattened out (Cat. No. 40). Of course, no slip and no paint were applied. However, five exceptions, including the three female figurines, were finished with an impressed pattern (Cat. Nos. 4, 5, 8, 19, 26), perhaps made with a rocker stamp or a thin string wrapped around a narrow stick.

Fingerprints left involuntarily on the surface of several pieces were investigated with the hope of finding out whether the figurines were modeled by men or women (Cat. Nos. 17, 22, 34). However, whereas only the central part could have provided the desired information, the impressions showed only the tip of the fingers (J. Rose, personal communication, 2001). One bust is particularly interesting because it bears a deep thumb fingerprint at the break showing that the figurine was torn apart while the clay was still soft (Cat. No. 22).

The surface of the figurines shows no wear and tear, but some reveal traces of manipulation. One bust was deeply pierced in the chest with a pointed object (Fig. 4.1.1) (Cat. No. 18). String impressions preserved by chance are visible on several figurines (Cat. Nos. 18, 26, 31, 32). On one occasion, a small string, about 1 mm thick, was wrapped diagonally twelve times around (Fig. 4.1.8) (Cat. No. 31). Sets of three and four string impressions are visible on one fragment (Cat. No. 26), five short lines on another (Cat. No. 32), and a single one on a third (Cat. No. 18).

The deep perforation on the bust (Cat. No. 18), the fingerprints and strings impressions allow us to conclude that these figurines were altered while they were wet. One example was even destroyed while still wet (Cat. No. 22). This in turn suggests a usage of very short duration. The traces of strings show that the function of the figurines involved some form of binding or wrapping.

The Firing

Thin section analyses, performed under the direction of Dr. Mustafa Al-Naddaf, Director of the Yarmouk University Archaeological Laboratory, Irbid, on three yellow and reddish fragments, determined that firing was not part of the manufacture of the figurines. (The samples numbers from 1983 season of excavation are as follows: 3073–bag 223, Locus 004, MC 315; 3077–bag 90, locus 028, MC 37 (a shapeless yellow fragment next to conical figurine No. 10); 307–bag 235, locus 076A, MC302; 3079–bag 345, locus 084, MC 325). Nonetheless multiple figurines present evidence for direct contact with fire and, in particular:

  • Cat. No. 3, a conical figure, exhibits a black core.
  • Cat. No. 4, a fragment, shows a very dark gray surface.
  • Cat. No. 18, a bust with deep indentations filled with charcoal around the head and on the chest.
  • Cat. No. 22, a bust that was purposefully torn, is reddish gray with black marks along the break.
  • Cat. No. 23, a conical figure, is dark gray through the thickness.
  • Cat. No. 31, a fragment, shows red and black clay surfaces.
  • Cat. No. 36, a conical figure, is black throughout its thickness.
  • Cat. No. 40, a bust, is black on the surface and also at the break.

There are two possible interpretations for the traces of burning on particular figurine. First, after use, the figurines were deposited in a hearth. Second, fire was part of the voluntary destruction of the figurines. In fact, these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Most figurines are candidates for the former and Cat. No. 22 for the latter.

The Yarmoukian, or Pottery Neolithic Figurines

Next to the forty-four Pre-Pottery Neolithic figurines discussed above, the ‘Ain Ghazal excavations of 1988 (Rollefson, Kafafi, and Simmons 1989: 15-16 Table 8; 1991: 103, Table 9, Fig. 3:1) and 1989 (Kafafi, Rollefson, Simmons 1990: 21, 25, Pl. II) produced five Yarmoukian figurines (Kafafi 1993:110; 1998: 134-135, Fig. 4). These five specimens form a small, but representative assemblage of the Pottery Neolithic Yarmoukian culture known for bringing in the late 7th millennium BC to the southern Levant a very distinctive new interpretation of the human form in clay and stone (Orrelle 2011). The collection includes:

  1. Two fragmentary heads
  2. Two busts
  3. One pebble figurine

The Yarmoukian Heads (Figs. 4.1.10-4.1.12) (Cat. Nos. 45-46)

The body of such figurines is clearly human but the head is not.
Fig. 4.1.10. Yarmoukian figurine, front (a), side (b). (Cat. No. 45) Photograph by H. Debajah.

The large head, 3.6 cm high, is the fragment of a typical Yarmoukian seated female clay figure (Garfinkel 1999: 44-48, 54-55; 2004: 140-147). The body of such figurines is clearly human but the head is not. The face grossly distorts the human facial features and introduces animal elements (Figs. 4.1.10a-b and 4.1.12 above). Some view the enormous drooping nose that extends disproportionately upwards as the representation of a mask and headdress (Kafafi 1998: 134-135, Fig. 4). Because the face has no cheeks or cheekbones, the lizardlike eyes are placed diagonally on either side of the nose. They are stylized into narrow reliefs deeply grooved in the center along their entire length. The ears are set next to the eyes, also at the base of the nose. The mouth is entirely missing. The only feature at the back of the head is a smooth form, often interpreted as hair, covering the nape of the neck and ending at the shoulders. Traces of paint are visible on the smoothed surface.

The second head departs somewhat from the traditional Yarmoukian style.
Fig. 4.1.11. Yarmoukian figurine. (Cat. No.
46) Photograph by Hussein Debajah.

The second head departs somewhat from the traditional Yarmoukian style. (Figs. 4.1.11- 4.1.12 below) The nose is still the central feature of the face but its proportions are less extreme. The forehead is no longer as high and the head, strangely cut by a deep incision, has a more normal round form. The eyes are reduced to a long diagonal groove on the side of the face and the ears are shown by a mere circular relief. The mouth is still absent but, because the nose protrudes less, the visage can be construed as having a chin. Traces of red paint remain around the neck, the eyes, and in a deep incision near the top of the head.

The Busts (Cat. Nos. 43-44)

Both Yarmoukian busts are females, as shown by their breasts. Like the PPNB busts they do not have a flat base and therefore are mere fragments of figurines. The first bust is badly damaged. Among features still identifiable are the arched back, breasts, and the trunk with no indication of genitals (Cat. No. 43). The second artifact shows a woman presenting her breasts (Cat. No. 44). The gesture, used in the ancient Near Eastern for female idols, is rendered gracefully although the woman’s arm is awkwardly made.

Two large and 6 small drawings from all angles and with hash marks indicating red paint.
Fig. 4.1.12. Yarmoukian heads. (Cat. Nos 45, 46) W. 1.8, H. 3.6, TH. 1.5; W. 3.5, H. 8.4, TH. 3.7. Cat. No. 45: Drawing courtesy Z. Kafafi, Paleorient 19/1 1993 Fig. 5a; Cat. No. 46: by L.S. el-Khoury.
Four drawings of a figuring made of a smooth pinkish-white limestone river pebble.
Fig. 4.1.13. Pebble figurine (Cat. No. 47) W. 2.2, H. 5.0, TH..2.0. Drawing by L.S. el-Khoury.
Drawing of two figurines from Sha'ar Hagolan showing a similar linear pattern.
Fig. 4.1.14. Pebble figurine from Sha’ar Hagolan. W. 4.2, H.
9.0, TH. 3.3. After Stekelis 1972: Pl.52:1.

The Pebble Figurine (Cat. No. 47)

A smooth pinkish-white limestone river pebble, 5 cm long, was selected to make the stone figurine (Fig. 4.1.13). Contrary to the clay figures, the face of the stone figurine has no nose. Two oblique incised strokes indicate the eyes, which are placed very low, just above the chin. The mouth is not shown. The face is separated from the body by a mere horizontal incision, which means that neither the neck nor the shoulders are depicted. The ‘Ain Ghazal Yarmoukian pebble figurine is among the most decorated examples of the genre (Garfinkel, Ben-Shlomo and Korn 2010: 128-132; Garfinkel and Miller 2002: 204-205). It is covered in front by a symmetrical arrangement of vertical, diagonal, and horizontal lines that extends onto the back. Because a similar linear pattern is repeated on pebble figurines from Sha’ar Hagolan (Fig. 4.1.14) (Stekelis 1972: 31, Pl. 52:1; Garfinkel 1999: 73-75; 2004: 170-175) and Munhata (Gopher and Orrelle 1995: 63, 154- 155, Fig. 41: 6; 174-175, Pl. IV: 2), the design may represent a particular garment or contraption.

The PPNB and The Yarmoukian Figurines: Differences and Similarities

The most significant innovation of the Yarmoukian figurines was their manufacture. They were made of the red mineral tempered clay used for pottery (Garfinkel 2004: 160), which means that they shared the clay produced by the household potter for practical vessels. Like the stereotyped bowls, jugs, and jars, Yarmoukian figurines became repetitive. The PPNB figurines were remarkable by their diversity and the Yarmoukian figures by their uniformity.

The ultimate fragmentation of figurines may be similar over time. Several MPPNB pieces were not broken at the neck, as one would expect since it is the most fragile point, but the break was below the shoulders (Cat. Nos. 6, 18, 22, 40). Similarly, one Yarmoukian example was severed below the thorax, at an equally structurally strong point (Cat. No. 44). This type of breakage is usually interpreted as evidence for the intentional smashing of the figurines. At other sites, the study of the fragmentation of figurines has led to interesting results concerning the number of breaks and the dispersal of the resulting multiple pieces (Gaydarska, Chapman, Raduncheva, and Koleva: 176-179). This type of analysis could not be done at ‘Ain Ghazal because the excavations never recovered several pieces belonging to a same figurine.

Another main difference between the two collections was style. The Yarmoukian seated females measured about 15 cm; in other words, they were about three times as large as the usual PPNB figures. The most radical difference was the treatment of the facial features. When it is featured, the face of the PPNB figurines was typically human as opposed to the Yarmoukian visage, which was monstrous.

The Spatial Distribution

After completing the physical analysis of the artifacts, I now consider the context in which the figurines were recovered and the light it may shed on the collection. The human figurines were spread unevenly across the excavated area of ‘Ain Ghazal. Forty-five of the forty-nine figurines (Cat. Nos. 1-42, 45-47) were found in a cluster of trenches of the so-called “Central Field.” Figures 4.1.15 and 4.1.16 illustrate the number of human and conical figurines in each excavated square.

Numbered grid illustrating the number of human figurines in each excavated square.
Fig. 4.1.15. Distribution of human figurines. Drawing by M. Al-Bataineh.

3067 = 3
3076 = 4
3077 = 5
3078 = 7
3079 = 3
3080 = 1
3081 = 4
3082 = 5
3083 = 3
3273 = 1
3282 = 6
3677 = 2
3680 = 1

Of the four remaining examples, two were excavated in the nearby Central Field, area II: 3482 = 2. Two more figurines were recovered in the neighboring “North Field”: 5315 = 1, 5316 = 1. Figurines were entirely absent from the trenches opened to the East and South of the site or the so-called “East Field” and “South Field.”

Numbered grid illustrating the number of conical figurines in each excavated square.
Fig. 4.1.16. Distribution of conical figurines. Drawing by M. Al-Bataineh.

The spatial distribution brings two pieces of information. First, the figurines occur in numbers sometimes as large as six or seven in a 5 m square rather than singly. This may suggest that several figurines were sometimes needed to fulfill their function. Second, and more importantly, the figurines are not spread evenly in the site but are concentrated in the region of the Central Field. This should not be dismissed by the fact that the area has been more thoroughly explored. Rather, it seems revealing that the concentration of figurines matches district thought to be used exclusively for habitation. Accordingly, forty-two figurines came from MPPNB domestic houses (Cat. Nos. 1-42) and two from a Yarmoukian home (Cat. Nos. 45-47) (Kafafi, Rollefson, and Simmons 1990: 14).

The Architectural Context

The stratigraphy of ‘Ain Ghazal concurs with the spatial distribution in showing that the variation in the number of figurines can be correlated to radical changes in architecture (Rollefson 1998: 45-55). The figurines are most numerous in the MPPNB small buildings used as dwellings. On the other hand, the decrease in the number of figurines in the LPPNB corresponds to the appearance of formal structures. Figurines were not present in the LPPNB apsidal or circular buildings with thick plaster floors, and neither in the multiple-roomed structures. Not a single one was exposed in the “special buildings” of dressed limestone where platforms and rows of orthostats denote a religious function (Rollefson 1998: 48-51). Figurines remained virtually absent when architecture stalled in the PPNC. None were recovered in the vicinity of the presumed PPNC shrine housing the female stone statuette of a pregnant female, either (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 5.1). As for the Yarmoukian figurines, the two clay heads were recovered in a large Yarmoukian II house with a courtyard (Square 3677) (Kafafi, Rollefson, and Simmons 1990: 14). Finally, two were located in a re-used apsidal building (Square 3482, Area II) (Rollefson, Kafafi, and Simmons 1991: 110-111) where left behind decorated bowls of fine ceramics also suggest a domestic function (Rollefson, Kafafi, and Simmons 1989: 22; 1991: 110-111).

In sum, the spatial and the chronological distribution of the figurines at ‘Ain Ghazal emphatically concur to establish that the artifacts belonged to domestic rather than public life. They were made, used, and disposed of in everyday usage.

The Artifactual Context

As it is generally the case in other sites, the figurines were consistently found in the fill in or around the houses (Meskell, Nakamura, King, and Farid: 145). None was found in a specific context such as on a house floor, in a niche, or in a container. The only examples that can be considered in situ are those recovered in fire pits (Cat. Nos. 19, 20, 32, 41, 48). Because the figurines were not recovered in a precise location, it is difficult to assess whether their association with other significant objects of ‘Ain Ghazal was intended or fortuitous. This is particularly tantalizing for the figurines found in the same squares as the following significant ‘Ain Ghazal finds:

  • the red painted human skull in square 3078 (Cat. Nos. 14-20) (see Rollefson, Schmandt-Besserat, and Rose, chapter 5)
  • the bull figurine laid in a storage bin in square 3082 (Cat. No. 33) (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 3.1)
  • the two animal figurines stabbed with flints in squares 3083/3283 (Cat. Nos. 35, 36) (Rollefson and Simmons 1986a: 150-152, Fig. 10; see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 3.1)
  • quantities of charred peas, lentils, and barley in squares 3083/3283 (Cat. Nos. 35-36) (Rollefson and Simmons 1986a: 150)
  • a large collection of tokens in square 3078 (Cat. Nos. 14-20) (Rollefson and Simmons 1984: 21- 22, Table 7; see Iceland, chapter 2.1)
  • The evidence for the relation of the human figurines to mortuary practices is contradictory. Cat. Nos. 13 and 35, according to field notes, may conceivably be associated with infant burials. On the other hand, the fact that no human figurine was found around any of the skull caches (Rollefson and Simmons 1984: 25) seems to indicate that they were not part of those rituals.

One would especially like to know whether the figurines were in any way associated with the ‘Ain Ghazal statuary (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 7.5). Cat. Nos. 5-8, found in the fill around the first cache of statues in square 3076 (Rollefson and Simmons 1984: 27), and Cat. Nos. 37- 42, recovered with the second cache in square 3282, could suggest that there was indeed a relation between the two types of human effigies. If this were so, it would provide an interesting background for three of the most unique clay figurines of the collection (Cat. Nos. 38, 39 and 40). However, it is more likely that the figurines and statues had, in fact, nothing in common. There is strong evidence that the statuary was buried in the ruins of houses after they had been long abandoned with the figurines they contained (Rollefson and Simmons 1986b: 51-52; 1987: 104).

The Context of Deposition

While no conclusive evidence can be drawn from the association of the figurines with other artifacts, the different deposition context of the PPN and PN figurines is informative. Forty-one PPN figurines were found mixed with discarded items and twenty-eight times the surrounding sediments showed clear evidence of fire in the form of ashes, charcoal, burnt bones, and heat-cracked stones. On the other hand, the Yarmoukian figurines were embedded with household trash including animal bones and flints. Therefore, although all the PPNB and Yarmoukian figurines originated in similar domestic contexts, it is clear that their disposal points towards a different usage. The PPN figurines ended up in fire before they had time to dry, and thereafter, some were deposited with other burnt items in the ruins of abandoned houses (Cat. Nos. 2, 3, 6, 10, 11, 33, 36), and others in vacant areas (Cat. Nos. 9, 12, 13, 15). On the other hand, the Yarmoukian figures that were baked and painted were perhaps displayed in houses until they were broken and discarded. A number of PPN figurines may have been intentionally smashed but the same cannot be said of the Yarmoukian bust broken at the neck (Cat. No. 43).

Parallels at ‘Ain Ghazal

The following discussion compares and contrasts the human figurines with the other types of symbols at ‘Ain Ghazal—the statuary, stone statuette, plastered skulls, tokens and animal figurines—that bore a meaning beyond their appearance. As discussed in previous publications, the tentative interpretations proposed for each of this type of artifacts are based on Near Eastern iconography and traditions. The purpose of the investigation is to probe for possible relations within the symbolic assemblage and ultimately better understand the significance of the human figurines

The statuary and the figurines differ in scale and material (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 7.5). The statues are monumental next to the small figurines. Whereas the clay to model the figurines was ready to be scooped up at the site, the statues were made of plaster, a dazzling white material that required a large input of energy to produce. The disposal was also different. The statues were not part of collections of discarded items and showed no contact with fire, but were instead laid carefully in a pit before being buried. For these three reasons, it is safe to assume that the significance of the two types of human representation was not the same. The importance of the large statues and busts was to lend the gods a tangible form to be propitiated in communal rituals. The figurines could not serve such a public function. In particular, because they were only a few centimeters high, they could not, like the statues, be carried in procession and be the focus of communal ceremonies. However, there is a definite stylistic link between five miniature clay busts and the statuary. The two genres share the same facial features with the brows and nose disposed in a T-shape; the eyes are emphasized, and the mouth is minimized or ignored. It may also be particularly significant that they sport a same flattish headdress and lift their face in the same anxious way.

Except for the fact that both genres featured a woman’s body, the female figurines had nothing in common with the statuette (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 5.1). First, the clay figurines were temporary but the stone figure was permanent; second, the figurines were clumsily modeled, but the female forms of the statuette were brilliantly translated into a geometric composition of circles and triangles requiring advance planning and careful execution; third, the statuette was probably displayed seated on a throne in a small shrine, but the figurines were household items with no public function. Finally, the pink-colored stone of the statuette celebrated nudity and her pregnant anatomy glorified the mystery of life. The flat female figurines covered with a deep all-over pattern had to bear a different meaning.

The plastered skulls that reconstituted human facial features were radically different from the faceless conical figurines (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 6.2). Compared to the more naturalistic figurines measured in millimeters, the plastered masks, modeled on actual skulls, were human size. Unlike the figurines, they were carefully buried under the house floors and had no association with fire. The plastered skulls perhaps already embodied the ancient Near Eastern traditional belief that, from the Great Beyond, the dead could see the past, the present, and the future and therefore could protect a household against evil. But there is no sign that the figurines had any ties with mortuary rituals.

Among the many shapes of tokens, the cones that stood for units of grain were particularly frequent (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 2.3). They occurred in two sizes: the small cones were usually 1 or 2 cm high and the large ones were typically above 3 cm. Archaeologists could easily mistake the conical figurines for tokens and vice versa. Of course the same was not true in antiquity when the two types of artifacts were most likely manufactured and handled by different peoples in different contexts.

The PPN human and animal figurines were most closely related (see Schmandt-Besserat, chapter 3.1). They belonged to the same period, and the same domestic context. They were made of the same clay in equivalent sizes and in the same casual way. The fact that both types of figurines were consistently found mixed with charcoal and ashes speaks for a similar function. However, it is unlikely that they were used simultaneously in a single event because when the two types of figurines are found in the same vicinity, the composition of their paste generally does not match. As Jacques Cauvin had noted, human female and bull figurines were often fashioned during the Neolithic period, but contrary to his interpretation, the fact that their manufacture differed indicates that they were not made and not used together (Cauvin 1997: 148-150).

The symbols at ‘Ain Ghazal could take geometric or animal shapes, but the human anatomy prevailed. This leads to the awesome conclusion that people turned mostly to the human form to represent the supernatural; to embody the mystery of life and death and to create benign or malefic idols. Consequently, one may expect that the human figurines too were used as instruments to manipulate supernatural powers to satisfy human hopes or fears.

Parallels in Near Eastern Neolithic Sites

Human figurines or fragments thereof are commonly found among Neolithic remains across the Near East (Kozlowski and Aurenche 2005: 27). Their number, however, differs greatly from one site to the other. Although it is problematic to compare collections without taking into consideration the number of excavation campaigns or the surface excavated, sites in Turkey and in Iran, seem more prolific than ‘Ain Ghazal in producing figurines. In Nevali Cori, 486 human figurines of various types are reported (Morsch 2002: 151); 61 in Cayonu Tepesi, Turkey (Broman Morales 1990: 60-64, Plates 22-24); and 625 in Tepe Sarab, Iran (Broman Morales 1990: 10- 19, Pl. 6d-g and 7-14). The reverse is true in the Levant, where the collection of 49 figurines at ‘Ain Ghazal outnumbers the 19 specimens at Munhata (Garfinkel 1995: 15-20, Figs. 13-14), 14 at Jericho (Holland 1982: 551-153), and 14 at Ghoraifé (Contenson 1995: 321, Fig. 199: 11). In Jordan, there are 23 at Es-Sifiya, Wadi Mujib (Mahasneh, Gebel 1998: 106, Table 1), three at Ghuwayr-I (Simmons 2000: 7; Simmons, Najjar 2003: 421), one at Wadi Shu’eib (Simmons, Rollefson, Kafafi, et al.: 2001: 27-8, 31-2, Figs 14-15), and one at Tell Abu Suwwan (Al-Nahar: 2009). Finally, there are none at Dhuweila (Betts 1998: 136) and none at Basta, where the assemblage included small human heads carved in stone as well as clay animal figurines and tokens, but not a single clay human figurine example (Gebel, Hermansen 1999: 11-12; Hermansen 1997: 334, 338 Pls. 4a-b).

Conical figurines are frequently represented in the Near East, including the Levant, Turkey, and as far as Iran. All share the same stable circular base and a conical body, but each site displays some slightly different idiosyncratic characteristics. For example in Syria, at Tell Ramad (Contenson 2000: 179-216, Fig. 100: 16-27), and in Turkey at Çatal Hüyük (Hamilton 2005: 188) the tip of the cone may be pinched into a schematic head sometimes with a nose and eyes. In Jordan, at Gwair I, the top of the cone is bent over and covered with fine punctuations (Najjar: 2002: 105, Fig. 8), and at es-Sifiye, several of the conical figurines are given stumpy arms (Mahasneh, Bienert 1999: 117: 1-3, Fig. 4 and Pl. 23:A). The closest parallels to ‘Ain Ghazal in Syria are those of Tell Aswad (Contenson 1995: 182, Fig. 126: 18-24; 127: 1-7; 321, Fig 199:11), Tell Assouad (Cauvin 1972: 101, Fig. 4:5), in Israel, Munhata (Garfinkel 1995: 125, Fig. 40:12), in Turkey, Nevali Cori (Morsch 2002: 149, Pl. 4:2) and Hacilar (Voigt 2007: 492a, Fig. 12.4), and in Iran, Zaghe (Daems: 2004: 12-13, Fig. 18), because at these sites the base of the cone also suggests legs.

In Munhata (Garfinkel 1995: 70-73, Figs. 13: 2-4; 14: 3, 5, 7), and ‘Ain Ghazal small figures are shown wearing a square headdress and anxiously turning their faces and big pellet eyes upwards (No. 6 and 21). The same personage occurs at Tell Aswad, in the same position, and with the same headdress, but the eyes are coffee bean shaped (Stordeur 2003: 11 Fig. 6: 1). By contrast, the three ‘Ain Ghazal females have no true match, mostly because they are clothed and the others are nude, but also because they are lying down or kneeling, while elsewhere the figures are usually seated (Nishiaki 2007: 117-125, Fig. 1-2). The exact impressed pattern that covers the three female figures is found, however, around the base of a conical figurine from Ghoraifé (Contenson 1978-1979: 157, Fig. 12). Contrary to statements in the literature, ‘Ain Ghazal has presently no match for the visual display of male genitals (Khalaily, Bar-Yosef, and Boaretto 2007: 24-25, Fig. 17: 1). Of course, in some cases, gender identification may be subjective, and it should be mentioned that the preliminary study of the ‘Ain Ghazal figurines identified as “male” some of the fragments classified here as “non-diagnostic” (McAdam 1997: 123, Figs. 6-7) (Cat. Nos. 26, 31, 32).

Crude busts of limestone are familiar in Syria at Tell Sabi Abyad II (Verhoeven 1997: 2-3, Fig. 3: 2-3) and Tell Assouad (Cauvin: 1972: 101, Fig. 4: 6), and as far as Guecuetepe II, in Turkey (Schmidt, Beile-Bohn 1996: 10). Like at ‘Ain Ghazal, the objects belonging to LPPNB are small and ruthlessly stylized with crudely pierced eyes (Cat. No. 48). However, unlike these examples, the bust from ‘Ain Ghazal shows no trace of having been originally fastened to a clay or wooden body.

Unlike the conical and female figures, but more like the coiffed busts, the geographic distribution of the Yarmoukian figurines never reached further than the Levant. Beyond ‘Ain Ghazal, the pebble figurines occur only in two Israeli sites: Sha’ar Hagolan and Munhata (Gopher, Orrelle 1996: 257-258, Fig. 2: 1, 3). There are Pebble figurines in Byblos. A large collection of seventy-four fragments of the seated male or female clay figures comes from Sha’ar Hagolan in Israel. They are represented further at Munhata (Garfinkel 1995: 54-56, 94-97, Fig. 25: 3, 26: 5), Megiddo, and Tel Aviv (Rehov Habashan). Finally, they are also present in Byblos, in Lebanon (Garfinkel, Miller 2002: 194) and several fragments occur at Abu Thawwab in Jordan (Kafafi 2001: 59-60, Fig. 20).

This short review exemplifies that the Neolithic villagers of the 7th millennium BC interpreted the human form in many multiple ways. Some of their innovations in portraying new styles or postures remained unique while others were repeated. Among the most popular types, the genderless conical figures and the heavy females are most consistently represented throughout the Near East. Their ubiquitous recurrence signals that these established types, at least, fulfilled a significant pan-Near Eastern function. A single type of figurine known only from its broken heads, big eyes, and flat headdresses, seems particular to the Levant. Because the little figures show the same features and headdress as the large ‘Ain Ghazal statuary, it is likely that both types of artifacts represent a specific personage meaningful in the region in the early 7th millennium BC.

The Function

Following in the footsteps of Mary Voigt (2000: 260-265) and Peter Ucko (1962: 47-48), who first devised a methodology, Christopher A. Tuttle (2009: 246-250, 328, Table 1) has narrowed down the possible functions that clay figurines could have served in antiquity and offers logical criteria to identify each. Among the functions applicable to Neolithic figurines are the following: 1) cultic, 2) magical, 3) didactic, 4) representational, 5) recreational, 6) decorative.

The fact that the PPNB figurines were not baked, that they were used while wet, and that some were torn before they had dried rules out all usages that required durability, such as cultic, didactic, or representational. The figurines also did not show the wear and tear expected with toys. The cheap material the PPNB figurines were made of and the lack of surface treatment made them also unlikely decorations. On the other hand, the miniaturization of the objects, their ordinary material, the intentional breakage and piercing, the fire marks, and their disposal among ashes and charcoal in deserted places match the criteria for a magical function. The PPNB figurines can be viewed, therefore, as being part of magic paraphernalia. They were used in ceremonies intended to attract felicity or dispel evil. This conclusion is in agreement with the ‘Ain Ghazal tradition of using the human form to symbolize the supernatural.

The Yarmoukian figurines do not show any scratches or traces of rubbing; therefore recreational use can be eliminated as a possibility. But because they were made with potter’s clay, because they were baked and painted, and because they were part of household refuse, their range of possible functions is wider. The figurines could serve didactic, representational, decorative, or one of several cultic functions. Among those, a funerary or votive function can be rejected since the figurines were found in a domestic context. This leaves as most likely a personal cultic function, either devotional, for personal veneration, or apotropaic, as protection against evil. Because the Near Eastern apotropaic figures traditionally took the form of hideous composite creatures (Wiggermann 1987: 3), the monstrous Yarmoukian style tips the scale in favor of apotropaic.

In sum, archaeology provides a host of precise information on the creation, manipulation, and disposal of the Neolithic figurines of 10,000 years ago. All this evidence can be successfully combined in the interpretation of the PPNB figurines as magical and the Yarmoukian figurines as apotropaic. However, archaeology leaves significant details unexplained such as the fingerprints or the string impressions left on the objects. In addition, the ritual ceremonies in which the figurines were used stay obscure and the people who performed them remain abstract. This is why, as is usual for archaeological scholarship, it is helpful to turn to accounts of more richly documented analogous magic rituals (Mithen 2004: 18). In the ancient Near East, we have the luxury of not having to search for data in faraway exotic islands. Instead, the cuneiform literature provides a trove of information on the ancestral magic traditions in the region.

The Near Eastern Tradition

The ancient Near Eastern cuneiform texts reveal that the act of modeling clay was associated with the ultimate power: the creation of life. For instance, goddess Nammu requested clay from the abyss to create the first humans. Also, when it was time to provide a match for Gilgamesh, goddess Aruru washed her hands, took a ball of clay, kneaded it, and Enkidu was born (Barrelet 1968: 7-11).

Six of the so-called “magic texts” summarized below illustrate that not only gods but also the people of the ancient Near East turned to clay in their quest to control supernatural forces. In the course of domestic rituals they formed clay figures that, with appropriate words and gestures, could drive away demons, undo the effects of sinful actions, counteract threatening omens, protect against the activities of sorcerers, increase sexual potency, or secure the favor of loved ones (Black, Green 1992: 125). According to need, one or several figurines stood for a protective deity, a beloved, a ghost, a witch, a disease, and even a demon. In the latter case, the figurines had to be schematic because, as described by the texts, the demons were featureless “like clouds, now amassing and now dissolving” (Reiner 1987: 30). Clay ex-votos took the form of human figures pointing to the ailing parts of the body (Biggs 1969: 98). In some cases, the most important role of the figurines was not so much their creation but their destruction and with them, the evil they represented (Braun-Holzinger 1999: 149). Following specific instructions, the figures were stamped upon, burned (Rollin 1983: 42), thrown in the river, or buried in deserted places.

  1. The first text presents a ritual to expel a ghost from a man’s body (Scurlock 1988: 260-268, Prescription 62). The ceremony was to start at sunset by sweeping the area and sprinkling it with holy water. After building a reed altar and making offerings of bread, water, and beer, the priest “nipped off clay,” shaped it into a figurine representing the harassing ghost, and placed it in an upright position over tamarisk wood. After reciting an incantation, the patient was instructed to describe his suffering to the gods and beseech them to use their divine powers to expel the ghost from his body.
  2. In the following text, from a ritual meant to avert nightmares and their evil influence, the affected individual was to manufacture male and female figurines, recite an incantation seven times, and place the figurines at his head “before lying down” (Butler 1998: 294-295).
  3. The third text describes a ritual to cure an epileptic performed by a priest in the presence of the patient (Stol 1993: 99). After presenting offerings to Shamash, the priest made a clay figurine representing the disease and dressed it in a wedding gown. During the marriage ceremony that followed, the figurine was wedded to a piglet and the patient prayed: “Any evil to which I have been married in your presence … remove it from my body. O Shamash, in your presence I made it take in marriage a piglet ….” The sick man’s garment was then cut three times at the hem to symbolize his divorce from the disease.
  4. The next text, intended to dispel the effects of witchcraft, prescribed: “You place a brazier before Shamash … You bind these figurines; you light a torch … and put it inside the brazier….” An incantation was then pronounced three times, after which the figurines were cooled in water while another incantation was recited: “You, Water …” Then the figurines were to be burned again and their remains thrown into an uninhabited place (Abush 1990: 45).
  5. According to this text, also meant to counteract evil magic, figurines of clay mixed with flour were made to represent a warlock and a witch. They were placed in a 1/2 sila container, sprinkled with fish oil, and burned while the officiator recited three times the incantation,  “I raise up the torch and burn your statues …” Then the figurines were stamped upon before their remains were buried in an uninhabited place (Abush 1990: 45).
  6. The final text, concerning sexual potency, stipulated: “You mix together dough made of emmer and potter’s clay; you make figurines of the man and the woman, put them one upon the other and place them at the man’s head; recite an incantation seven times; remove the figurines and place them near a pig.” Then, according to the text “if the pig approaches, it means ‘Hand of Ishtar.’ If the pig does not approach, it means that the man has been affected by sorcery” (Biggs 1967: 46). (“Hand” of a supernatural being identifies the source of an illness) (Stol 1991-192: 42).

Of course, no one will assume that such rituals were performed in exactly the same way in PPNB ‘Ain Ghazal. But, the texts are as valid for analogies as any ethnographic report on 19th- and 20th-century exotic cultures that tried to harness occult forces with abracadabra formulae. First, recent anthropological models of religious behavior based upon research in cognitive sciences allow us to regard the Mesopotamian rituals not as the bizarre behavior of a remote past, but as a timeless and universal religious phenomenon (Boyer 2001: 231; Hinde 2007). Second, the Mesopotamian rituals have the added advantage of being unequivocally rooted in prehistory. In addition, because rituals are among the most long-lived human creations, they probably still echo some of the magic that took place in the Near East in a far-more-distant past.

The Relevance of the Textual Data

The Mesopotamian magic texts are invaluable for reconstructing the use of human clay figurines in cultic activities. They help inject life, movement, and sounds into the scanty material remains left behind. In particular, they give a sense of the sequence of the events that took place, the timing of the rituals, the number and quality of individuals involved, the kind of gestures, and actions performed and the type of incantations pronounced. For instance, they explain how the rites often started with the presentation of offerings to a god, continued with the creation of the figurine(s), the repetition of incantations for a fixed number of times and ended with the prescribed disposal of the figurines. The texts describe that sunset was stipulated as a propitious time to conduct a particular ceremony and that the performance of rituals generally involved one or two persons, a patient/petitioner alone or with a priest. Finally, on occasion, the area where the ritual took place was to be cleaned and sprinkled with water.

Far more importantly, the texts corroborate the archaeological evidence collected in excavation, and by doing so, they lend support to the interpretation and make the conclusions more plausible. For example, the texts verify:

The Manufacture/Style

  • The observation that no specific instructions were given for the manufacture of the objects beyond “nipping the clay,” explains the stylistic and technical diversity in the assemblage.
  • The manufacture of the figurines by a patient, or a priest, supports the contention that they were not the product of specialists.
  • The depiction of unreal supernatural beings or particular beloved women explicates the extreme schematization of some figurines and the more explicit shape of others.
  • The usage of figures in a variety of rituals pursuing vastly different ends, such as the riddance of ghosts or regaining potency, proves that, indeed, each type of figurines had its own purpose.

The Usage

  • The fact that a patient was to place the figurines above his head before lying down substantiates that the figurines were dealt with in the privacy of a home.
  • The timing of modeling the figurines at the beginning of the ritual explains why they were handled wet.
  • The different number of figurines required for each ritual validates that groups of figurines sharing the same clay composition were probably used in a same event.
  • The fact that some figurines were meant to stand upright and others to lie down justifies the large base of some and the flat back of others.
  • The prescribed holding of the figurines during the recitation incantations may account for the fingerprints left on their surface.
  • The burning of figurines elucidates the fire marks.
  • The impressions of strings find a plausible explanation in the description of figurines being bound together or dressed up.

The Disposal

  • The burial of figurines in inhabited places clarifies the deposition of the objects in or about the ruins of abandoned houses.

The two combined sources of information, archaeological artifacts and ancient texts help visualizing the cultic use of figurines in antiquity. At the same time they raise new questions, such as: can the various rituals elaborated for such different ends such as ridding ghosts or demons, counteracting witchcraft, securing sexual potency, or averting portended evil, explain the diversity of forms of figurines?

The Meaning

The method of scrutinizing iconographic details to their full extent elaborated by C.A. Tuttle (2009: 257-261, 275-277, 323-326) is put to work here in an effort to identify the type of ritual the conical figurines, the female figurines, the reclining figurine with the great gesture, and the busts sporting a headdress were intended for.

Each iconographic feature, and in the case of the conical figurines, the absence of features, may be interpreted as communicating information on the figure they symbolized (Tuttle 2009: 324). For example, the lack of head, face, or chest magnified the genderless character of the conical figurine by suppressing any possible dimorphic marker such as a beard, shoulders, breasts, or waist. The conical form may also be viewed as a concern for restraining the figure. For instance, with no face and no eyes, the thing could not stare, glance, or have eye contact with any one; without bust, arms, and hands, the creature was prevented from touching, pushing, or grabbing. The legs devoid of thighs, knees, calves, or feet denied the figure any mobility. It could not stand or walk, and it could definitely not run away. Reduced to a human trunk, with a flat base in lieu of buttocks, it could only remain still. The conical figurines, therefore, should no longer be considered as awkward technological misfits. Instead, they can be understood as the purposeful representations of fearful faceless, limbless, and genderless entities. They may be considered as picturing evil immaterial beings such as pestering ghosts (Scurlock 2006: 55) or wicked demons suspected to spread diseases and other calamities. In fact, the conical figurines can be considered the “naturalistic” depiction of demons such as those alluded to in the following spell and incantation:

… Neither female are they, nor are they male; They are the ones who keep flitting around. They have no spouse, never bore a child, They do not know the result of their actions, nor do they pay attention to prayer and offering. In the street, they stir up a storm, they keep roaming about in the thoroughfare. They are seven and seven seven times seven.

(Farber 1995: 1896)


Whether you be the evil Ala who has no mouth; Whether you be the evil Ala who has no limbs; Whether you be the evil Ala who hears not; Whether you be the evil Ala who has no countenance …”

(Geller 1985: 137; 2007: 225)

In this perspective, we may anticipate that the conical figurines served in rituals intended for the riddance of immaterial entities such as diseases, ghosts or demons. As it is spelled out in the magic texts, the purpose of depicting in clay the malevolent creatures was to symbolically make evil solid and tangible so that it could be “caught,” destroyed, or at least expelled.

Because deities are usually shown nude (Tuttle 2009: 259), the robed female figures probably represented mortal women. The fact that one figurine (Cat. No. 19) was especially modeled to lay flat on her back suggests that it served in a love or potency ritual. In which case, by sympathetic magic, the woman portrayed was meant to become entranced with a passionate love towards her suitor. The repetition of the same dress on several figurines implies that it was a garb worn either by special people or at special ceremonies. However, because the same garment was draped around a conical figure of Ghoraifé, it means that the garb was also suitable for supernatural beings. This brings to mind the ritual to cure epilepsy, in the course of which the figurine symbolizing the disease was to be dressed for a wedding ceremony.

The reclining figure ostentatiously pointing to her head is reminiscent of ex-votos, yet another use of figurines that is not particularly mentioned in texts, but is well known from excavated artifacts. These figurines were meant to be offered to deities to either ask for their help and blessings, or in gratitude for prayers granted. In the case of Gula, the healing goddess, some of her ex-votos were human figures clutching the part of the body for which assistance was requested (Biggs 1969: 98).

No fragment was ever recovered that could be considered to complement the busts. This means that no one knows whether the bodies of these figurines were lean or plump, nude or dressed, or whether they ended with or without legs or feet. What we know is that the drooping shoulders of some and the breasts of another indicate that at least some were female. Except for the fact that the mouth is not depicted, nothing appears demonic in the representation. Instead, iconography tends to identify the figures as deities. First, the Yarmoukian figurine presents her breast, which is a gesture usually reserved to female idols in the ancient Near East. Second, many of these figurines show a strong stylistic similarity with some of the large ‘Ain Ghazal plaster statues also shown presenting their breasts—and therefore also interpreted as divine (‘Amr 1980: 316-320). The big eyes and the position of the face looking up could be interpreted as symbolizing a benign figure recognized in the Levant by her special headdress. Logically one would therefore expect such figurines to fulfill an apotropaic function, protecting their owner against misfortune and evil and therefore the object of veneration. But the archaeological evidence points to the contrary. The mere fact that these figurines were not fractured at the neck but below the shoulders at a point that is not structurally weak indicates that they were deliberately destroyed. The intentional destruction of this group of figurines is further supported by the figurine bearing a deep thumbprint showing that it was torn while still wet (Cat. No. 22). Why the gentle-looking figures should be brutally broken and thrown in the fire—the usual treatment for witches (Rollin 1983: 42)—cannot be answered by logic. The busts, therefore, have to remain enigmatic.

In the end, the assembled PPN and Yarmoukian human figurine collections of ‘Ain Ghazal leave the impression of an impressive gallery of Neolithic real or fabulous beings. All types of representation, starting with the conical, female, busts, and genderless figurines and ending with the Yarmoukian pebbles and clay figures, seems to embody specific entities that would have been familiar in their time and immediately recognizable by their particular demeanor, features, and apparel. Each of them, no doubt, was endowed with benefic or malefic powers and accordingly was to be venerated or annihilated.

The Significance

The appearance of three types of symbols contrasts the PPNB from the preceding period. In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period (PPNA) of 9000 BC there were no clay figurines, no plaster statues, and no tokens. The presence of these symbols in PPNB ‘Ain Ghazal is indicative of significant religious, economic, and political developments.

The substitution of stone, difficult to carve, by clay, which was plentiful and easy to work, signals that figurines were in greater demand during the PPNB. This in turn, implies that magic had become more pervasive. Figurines not only multiplied, but they took repetitive forms such as conical, breasted females and figures wearing a headdress, showing that magic rituals became more diversified and specialized. There might be a ritual for curing a disease, different from that to dispel a pestering ghost, and a third to conquer the love of a desired woman, while still other figurines warded off evil from houses. The intensification and diversification of magic practices entail that, in the PPNB, a class of individuals held the knowledge of how and when to make the proper figurines for a specific end, the appropriate words to pronounce and the gestures to perform while fashioning them. These individuals no doubt benefited from their craft and gained prestige, authority, and political power from the practice (Gebel 2002: 322).

As is known from the cuneiform texts, the magic practitioners who used figurines to relieve the pains caused by physical illness, grief, or unfulfilled love, never ceased to be influential in the society. Magic persisted well into the historical period, when it became the dominion of secondary temple priests. But another set of anthropomorphic symbols arose in the PPNB that heralded a change in cult rituals. Plaster statues were no longer miniaturized; on the contrary, their large size, stylized features, and probably their bright apparel, were designed to make the effigies visible from a distance and allow an entire community to participate in common rites. The large “monumental” statues indicate a shift from domestic to public cult. This, in turn, gave rise to a new type of leadership that had the charisma to confer value to communal activities and rituals. These leaders played a prominent role in cultic ceremonies and derived a high status in the process.

The tokens of ‘Ain Ghazal are evidence of an efficient tool to count and account for goods and individuals who had the cognitive ability to use it. These individuals managed the incipient redistribution economy and by controlling the input and output of barley and other commodities in the communal granaries, achieved considerable political power.

The PPNB was a period of cultic zeal that fostered new positions of authority and a new quest for political power (Kuijt 2002: 87). It was a point of departure for two of the most singular sources of political power: religion and economic control. History offers multifold examples of individuals who knew to combine the two and thereby reached a uniquely dynamic formula for success. The Priest-Kings of the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia in the late 4th millennium BC, are usually singled out as the charismatic leaders, who by uniting religion and economic control, created the first state, established their yoke far afield in Syria and Elam, and left behind an architecture and art that rank among the world’s masterpieces. In fact, were the Priest-Kings the heirs of a long Near Eastern tradition?


The anthropomorphic figurines from ‘Ain Ghazal contribute a new understanding of the genesis and evolution of the genre, so prolific and enduring in the ancient Near East. Unlike the previous PPNA culture that carved symbols in stone, the PPNB people innovated by turning to clay to create figurines (Kuijt, Chesson 2005: 163). Because clay proved easy to secure and to work, figurines had a first flowering in the MPPNB when they were used to cope with the shadowy Neolithic world filled with a multitude of invisible spirits. Because clay is so malleable, it opened infinite possibilities to create an imagery of the supernatural world. Some figurines symbolized benefic spirits that brought prosperity and were to be propitiated. Others embodied mischievous or downright evil demons to be annihilated. The female figure provokingly presenting her breasts framed between her two hands is one of the examples of PPNB clay figurines that led to a perennial iconography of the invisible world. The image persisted in the entire Near East with no interruption until the 1st millennium BC. The ‘Ain Ghazal figurine collection also documents a major technological landmark of the craft when the Yarmoukian figurines became part of the potter’s craft. The stereotyping that ensued was a first step that presaged the commercialization of figurines in workshops and their standardization following the invention of the mold in the 3rd millennium BC (Spycket 1992: 36).

The figurines occupy a special place among the anthropomorphic symbols of ‘Ain Ghazal. They are the smallest and most modest compared to the statues, the stone statuette, and the plastered skulls. They are also the least carefully done and the most schematic of the group. They were the most private and even intimate use of symbols in their time since they were entrusted with the ability to overcome evils of human life and to subjugate love. They also may have been the most beneficial in bringing hope and serenity in households, thereby releasing communal social tension.

The study was funded by a Fellowship from the American Center of Oriental Research, Amman, Jordan (ACOR) and a grant from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC).


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Photographs of seven conical figures.
Plate. 4.1.1. a) Conical figurines. (Cat. Nos. 10, 11, 7), b) Bases of conical figurines. (Cat. Nos. 10, 11, 7), c) Conical figurine with a round form around the abdomen. (Cat. 37) ; Photographs by H. Debajah.
Several drawings of conical figurines from different angles.
Plate. 4.1.2. Conical figurines, (Cat. Nos. 1, 2, 10, 11, 36.) Drawings by L.S. el-Khoury.
Four photographs of female figurines.
Plate. 4.1.3. a) Female figurine, front. (Cat. No. 19); b) Female figurine, back. (Cat. No. 19); c) Female figurine. (Cat. No. 8); d) Female figurine. (Cat. No 5) Photographs by H. Debajah.
Drawings of female figurines at different angles.
Plate. 4.1.4. Female figurines. (Cat. Nos. 19, 5, 8) Cat. No. 19: Courtesy G.O. Rollefson and A.H. Simmons, Basor Supplement 23, 1985, Figs. 3; Cat. No 5: Drawing by L.S. el-Khoury; Cat. No. 8: courtesy E. McAdam, Levant XXIX 1997, Fig. 2.

Catalogue of Human Figurines

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