Ancient statues eerily new Sculpture: More than 8,000 years ago, someone in what is now Jordan created remarkable representations of the human form. Today, they are on display in Washington.


March 21, 1997|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - You always gaze first at the faces, long slim heads atop stalk-like necks. These statues are not the oldest known representations of the human form, but they are nearly so, 8,500 years old. Cracks in the plaster faces could be mistaken for the wrinkles of old age.

The statues are from the place called Ain Ghazal, "the Spring of the Gazelles," an ancient settlement on the eastern edge of Amman, Jordan. A bulldozer scraping away earth for a highway uncovered the ruins in 1974. Archaeologists began working there in 1982 and four years later shipped a cube of earth that entombed the statues to the Smithsonian Institution's Conservation Analytical Laboratory in Suitland.

It took a decade to re-assemble the pieces. In 1996, conservators placed the restored statues on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, where they will remain until April 6.

Even their creators - the people of Ain Ghazal - thought these works were special.

They were made in about 6500 B.C. They were sometime later buried together under the plaster floor of a house, the way people of the region had been burying their dead for more than a thousand years. The sculptures were neither shattered nor defaced, as happens to objects that people wish to reject or forget. People thought the statues worth preserving.

"They were special beings of some kind," says Ann C. Gunter, curator of the exhibit at the Sackler Gallery. "I don't think we are supposed to think of them as dead."

The statues were made during a time of relative prosperity. In 6500 B.C., houses in Ain Ghazal were made of stone and had two to three rooms. Their walls and floors were coated with a thin layer of plaster. Households polished the floors to a high gloss and then finger-painted them in red. People herded goats and hunted gazelle and boar. They grew wheat, barley and lentils. People had already been living there, on the banks of the Zarqa River, for about 750 years.

All this was a truly long time ago: Writing was still to be invented. So was pottery. The first pyramid was 3,500 years in the future. But experiments with sculpture were already under way.

At first the raw materials were human skulls. A skull would be severed from a corpse and then covered with plaster, as if to make a mask of the dead. Someone would mold plaster cheeks or paint on eyebrows or fashion eyes out of seashells. The decorated skulls were then kept in plain view in a person's house - to memorialize the dead or perhaps safeguard the living, or both. It's what is later called religion.

Someone at Ain Ghazal adopted a different technique to make these statues. He gathered reeds, cut them to a chosen length, bundled them to the contours he desired and tied them with twine to maintain that shape.

He slathered a thick skin of wet plaster onto the reeds and molded the shape by hand and carved the details. Though the reeds and twine decayed long ago into nothingness, their imprint is preserved in the plaster.

Conservators were able to reassemble five plaster statues from the thousands of fragments. They are an art form so far found nowhere else.

Three of the statues have two heads. To the extent a two-headed being seems possible, they seem "normal," akin to unexpected but gracious guests. Each mouth is a thin, straight incised line, the chin square. Their eyes are outlined in bitumen from the Dead Sea and have bitumen pupils.

The two-headed statues have no other anatomy - they are without limbs and without gender - but they are nonetheless familiar, even comfortable; people cite ET and other creations of Hollywood. They are neither sitting nor clearly standing, as if indeed from another world.

"I feel fairly confident the same person made them all - at least the faces," says Carol Grissom, who was in charge of the conservation work. "They all seem of a piece."

Picking up one of the two-headed figures, she had an unexpected encounter with the sculptor. Her hands fitted themselves into the hand-hold the sculptor had left in the still-wet plaster, 8,500 years ago.

"It's definitely there," she says. "It's exactly where you pick it up."

There are two other, more conventional statues. Each has only one head. These figures, too, are without arms but stand on sturdy legs and have buttocks, knees, toes, even toenails. They are about 3 feet tall, which makes them all the more childlike.

They have a child's open gaze.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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