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"Preserving Ancient Statues from Jordan," an exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 28 July 1996 -- 6 April 1997.

Eight examples of the oldest human-form statues ever found in the Near East are on display in "Preserving Ancient Statues from Jordan."

This Website provides information about the discovery, construction, conservation, and display of the statues and explores them as works of art and cultic objects.

This project is supported by a grant from the James Smithson Society.

All presented material is copyright © 1996 Smithsonian Institution, except where noted.
Comments to author: Ann Gunter (Click here to mail to guntean@asia.si.edu)
Last updated: July 28, 1996

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Click on the items below to go to their text - only versions.

Introduction to the statues
Discovering the statues
Making the statues
Preserving the statues
Investigating art and ritual

|Also available|
Exhibit brochure
Images and exhibit labels
Links and resources
Exhibit home page

|Introduction to the statues|

The settlement at 'Ain Ghazal was a village of farmers, hunters, and herders occupied between 7200 and 5000 B.C. during the Neolithic period (ca. 8500­p;4500 B.C.). Its inhabitants made objects for daily use, such as stone tools and weapons, and objects that seem to have served symbolic functions, such as small clay figurines of animals and humans.

More sophisticated works of art have also been discovered at 'Ain Ghazal: large, human-form statues and busts made of plaster, and faces in plaster, which had been modeled on human skulls.
These unique finds have been uncovered, studied, and preserved at the Smithsonian Institution's Conservation Analytical Laboratory in suburban Washington, D.C. This exhibition seeks to show the important steps in the process of recovery and preservation. In addition to wall texts and object labels, an illustrated brochure and an interactive computer program providing more information are available within the exhibition space.

The objects in this exhibition have been lent by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

The brochure, interactive computer program, and Website were produced by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in consultation with the Smithsonian Institution's Conservation Analytical Laboratory, and are supported by a grant from the James Smithson Society.

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|Discovering the statues|

|At the site|
Occupied between 7200 and 5000 B.C., 'Ain Ghazal was a large village of farmers, herders, and hunters. Archaeologists began to excavate the site in 1982, after bulldozers digging in modern highway construction exposed an ancient site that needed scientific excavation. Archaeologists discovered evidence of multiroomed houses made of stone with timber roof beams, plastered walls, floors, and courtyards. They also excavated cooking hearths with food remains, stone tools, stone and clay figurines, and graves.

In 1984 archaeologists examined the side of a bulldozer cut made some years earlier during highway construction. They found the edge of a large pit about 2.5 meters under the surface, in which fragments of plaster statues were visible.

|Reaching the statues|
Archaeologists reached the level of the statue pit by digging down from the top of the site along the side exposed by the bulldozer. When they reached the level of the pit, they found that the statues had been carefully placed in a pit dug through the floor of an abandoned house. The pit measured about 1.5 x 1.0 meters. Conservators decided that it was best to lift the statues out all together, leaving them embedded in the earth that had surrounded them until their modern discovery. The statues could then be excavated and preserved in a well-equipped scientific laboratory, without the time pressures imposed by a seasonal excavation.

|Removing the statue pit|
How were the statues brought to the United States? Archaeologists first removed the earth around the statues, isolating the statue pit as a block. The block was then wrapped in layers of aluminum foil and sealed with masking tape. A wooden crate was placed around the block and polyurethane foam was poured in to fill the spaces between the crate and the foil and to cushion the statues during shipping. As the pedestal of earth was cut away, a lid was inserted to cover the bottom of the crate. The crate was then lifted and inverted to remove the dirt pedestal.

The crate was shipped by air to New York, then by truck to the Smithsonian Institution's Conservation Analytical Laboratory near Washington, D.C., where conservators had agreed to undertake the task of uncovering and preserving the statues. Excavations are still in progress at the site of 'Ain Ghazal, where archaeologists, conservators, and art historians continue to study clues that may help them understand the meaning and history of these remarkable ancient plaster statues.

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|Making the statues|

How were the statues made? Of what materials?

|A plant core|
The statues were formed by modeling wet plaster on a reed core, using plants that grow in Jordan along streams and rivers. The bundles of reeds were lashed together using twine. The reed core provided a sturdy form onto which the plaster was modeled. Over time, this reed core disintegrated, leaving behind the plaster "shell" of the statue and a hollow interior. When modeled, the wet plaster took the impressions of the reeds and twine, which are beautifully preserved on the inside surface of the statue. Reed and twine were ideal materials for making the statues' internal framework. The reeds are light, easy to bend when wet or damp, and locally available.

|Assembling the parts|
After the ancient artisans completed the reed and twine core, they applied plaster in dough-like consistency until they created the desired shape. In some places, the plaster is very thick; in others, as thin as the wall of a drinking glass. Knees, buttocks, toes, and toenails are modeled on the full statues. Some of the faces preserve traces of paint. The statues may also have worn wigs or headdresses of some kind.

|Modeling the head|
The head of each statue was modeled on a reed core wrapped tightly with twine to provide rigid support for the long, skinny neck. Conservators used a kind of X ray to look at the interior of the heads. X rays, or radiographs, clearly show the impressions of wrapped twine preserved on the inside of the plaster.

The tops of the heads are recessed from the faces. Since this area is also rougher than the smoothed faces, archaeologists believe that the heads may have been covered with a cloth headdress or wig.

The artisans probably used their hands or simple tools made of stone, bone, or wood to shape the nose and nostrils, cheeks, and ears. All these features are skillfully shown by modeled plaster or by simple grooves. Conservators analyzed the black substance used to ornament the eyes and found that it was made from bitumen, a natural asphalt. A pointed tool was probably used to make a groove in the shape of the eye while the plaster was still moist. A putty containing bitumen was rolled into a worm and pressed into the groove. Pupils were fashioned by working putty containing bitumen into a small diamond shape, which was then stuck onto the eyeball.

|Making and using plaster|
What is plaster? How was it made and used at 'Ain Ghazal?
The plaster used for making the 'Ain Ghazal statues is made from limestone. Lime plaster is made by heating limestone to temperatures between 600 and 900 degrees centigrade, using timber as fuel. This product is then combined with water. Lime plaster becomes a durable, water-resistant material when it dries and hardens. Analysis of the statue plaster showed that the lime was mixed with unheated crushed limestone for use in making the statues.

Plaster was made in the village of 'Ain Ghazal, where archaeologists found a pit in which the rock was probably heated. After about 7500 B.C., the people of 'Ain Ghazal began to use plaster on a large scale for covering walls, floors, and hearths in their houses. A fine, smoothed layer of plaster helped to seal a floor surface and make it waterproof. Often, walls and floors were decorated with red, finger-painted patterns and designs, as in the painted floor shown in this photograph. Plaster was also fashioned into other kinds of objects. In addition to the statues, this material was sometimes used to make bowls and plates, figurines, pendants, and tokens of geometric shapes.

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|Preserving the statues|

After the statues were discovered at 'Ain Ghazal, they were crated and sent to the Smithsonian Institution's Conservation Analytical Laboratory for excavation, study, and treatment. This section explains how the statues in this exhibition were removed from the crate, put back together, and preserved.

The crate that arrived at the laboratory in 1986 contained large, well-preserved pieces that clearly belonged to individual statues. But there were also hundreds of plaster fragments that could not be easily identified or joined with a particular statue. How could the conservators keep track of these many pieces and figure out their original placement?

First, conservators stretched a string grid over the crate. As plaster fragments were separated from the earth inside the crate, they were labeled by their grid location and outlined on Polaroid photographs. The conservators described each fragment in a notebook. After conservators recorded information, they removed fragments and earth from the crate, exposing the large pieces. Eventually, the crate was emptied of all earth and plaster fragments.

Before any fragments were removed, conservators tested samples of plaster to see which chemicals strengthened them best. This was necessary because the ancient plaster was fragile and could not be handled without adding strengthener, a process called consolidation. Each fragment was gently removed and cleaned with a mixture of water and acetone. Conservators then applied the strengthening solution to fragments so they could be safely handled. Some materials, such as the bitumen used to make the eyes, were very fragile.

Between January 1990 and June 1993, conservators removed the statue fragments from the crate by carefully loosening the earth around them with soft brushes and bamboo sticks and removing the dirt with teaspoons or a vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner's nozzle was covered with netting to prevent it from sucking in fragments. Small plaster fragments were lifted out with plastic tweezers, large ones by hand. Once all fragments were given labels and removed, cleaned, and consolidated, conservators were ready to put the pieces back together.

|Piecing together|
Because many fragments were out of place and badly damaged, putting the statues back together was difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes, the broken edges of two fragments could be easily matched like the pieces of a puzzle. But the edges of many fragments were heavily eroded, and this was not always possible. In some cases, the reed or twine impressions preserved on the interior surfaces of the statues could be used to determine where joins should be made.

Once joining fragments were identified, conservators used a special kind of adhesive to reattach them. The adhesive can be removed if any further preservation work is needed in the future. Even after many months of careful work, the statues could not be completely put back together. Conservators filled in gaps with a "dough" made of acrylic resin, glass micro-balloons, and cellulose powder. They tinted the new areas with watercolors to help viewers distinguish them from the ancient fragments.

Conservators needed to create a way to support the statues so as little weight as possible would rest on the fragile, ancient plaster or put pressure on their modern joins. This would also enable the statues to be displayed upright in museum cases. Layers of acrylic resin, acrylic putty, and epoxy putty were applied to the inside of the statue. The epoxy provides the strength to support the statue, while the acrylic layers allow the epoxy to be removed in the future if necessary. Conservators extended the epoxy below the statues to form a surface on which the statues can rest without putting weight on the ancient plaster. Hollows in the epoxy at the base hold rods that keep the statues upright when they are displayed in museum cases.

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|Investigating art and ritual|

Do the statues depict humans?
Gods or goddesses?
Imaginary creatures?
How were they used?
Why were they buried?
Since the statues were made long before the earliest writing in the Near East, there are no documents that provide answers to these questions. Archaeologists and art historians obtain clues to solving these puzzles from excavations at the site of `Ain Ghazal, excavations at other sites, and the objects themselves. This section explores some of the clues available to finding answers.

|Archaeological Clues|
What clues do the archaeological excavations provide?
The plaster statues were found in a specially dug pit, placed in a group, many face down.
The pit was dug through the floor of an abandoned house. Five of the statues lay with their heads toward the west end of the pit. This arrangement suggests that the statues were probably buried together at the same time. The pit was not unearthed again until modern archaeologists found them. The parts of one of the two-headed busts were found scattered in the pit, indicating that the statue had been broken prior to burial.

Burying statues of human form together in a pit may suggest a link with actual burials of humans at 'Ain Ghazal. In many human burials at 'Ain Ghazal, a single body was buried for a while. After the fleshy parts decomposed the upper part of the skull was removed, leaving the lower jaw. The body was placed in a flexed position under a floor or courtyard within a house. Sometimes the skull was covered with plaster and the eye sockets inlaid with bitumen, a natural asphalt, giving them a lifelike appearance. Later, the skull was reburied together with skulls from other burials at the site. Three plaster faces modeled on human skulls, found at 'Ain Ghazal, are displayed in this exhibition.

What can we conclude from these archaeological clues?
Burying statues of human form together in a pit may suggest a link with actual burials of humans at 'Ain Ghazal, but there are also some important differences.
Human burials were usually placed individually in graves, not in groups.
Plaster statues have not been found in inhabited houses.
Human burials were often dug up and the bodies altered, unlike the statues which were not disturbed once they were buried.
The one bust whose fragments were found scattered in the pit suggests that the statues had been used for some time before they were buried.

Perhaps the statues were used as cult objects, then buried with special care because of their importance and meaning.

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|Artistic Clues|
What clues to meaning or purpose do the statues themselves provide?

The forms of the statues are important clues. They are either full statues with legs, or busts consisting of torsos and heads. The simplicity of the torsos--- in contrast to the detailed heads--- suggests that the bodies were concealed by clothing. Any clothing must have been made of a perishable material because no definite remains have been found. The shape of the heads suggests that the statues wore wigs or headdresses of some kind, perhaps made of another material that has not survived, such as cloth or human hair. Perhaps these wigs or headdresses were signs of identity, showing gender, age, or a special quality of a god or goddess.

The statues are quite similar in their simple shapes, long necks, and facial features. The bodies lack details indicating age or sex, but there is some variation in size.

The two-headed busts provide another clue to identifying the statues. No other two-headed images have been found at 'Ain Ghazal. The busts may depict a twin-headed god or goddess, but they could also be interpreted as a human couple or twins.

The statues are much larger than other sculptures of human form found at 'Ain Ghazal. They required considerable time and skill to make and decorate.

What can we learn from other works of art found at 'Ain Ghazal?
Other artifacts found at 'Ain Ghazal include small figurines modeled in clay or plaster or carved in stone. These were often found on house floors or in trash heaps. One type of figurine depicts a human head or torso, without indicating sex, facial features, or function.

What can we conclude from these artistic clues?
In their large size, method of manufacture, and detailed heads, the statues in this exhibition differ considerably from the small figurines made of clay, stone, or plaster found at 'Ain Ghazal. If they wore wigs, headdresses, or clothing, their original appearance would have been significantly different and could have provided important clues to their identity and use.

Perhaps the statues and busts served as images of ancestors, gods, or goddesses and were worshiped as part of religious ceremonies, then later buried when new images were considered necessary.

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|Other Discoveries|
What clues can discoveries at 'Ain Ghazal and other sites in the area provide?

Two years before the discovery of the statues in this exhibition, a large pit containing about 25 plaster statues and busts was found at 'Ain Ghazal. The statues in the large pit had been placed on their faces, backs, and sides. These statues are being uncovered and preserved at the Institute of Archaeology in London. Some of these statues show arms and other body details and preserve traces of paint. Some figures seem to depict adult females; others may represent children. There are torsos with one head, but none with two heads. Although they are smaller than the statues in this exhibition, they are closely similar in overall form, material and manufacture, and decoration. Like the statues in this exhibition, they were found buried together in a specially prepared pit. Some archaeologists think these statues were "portraits" of deceased ancestors, worshiped in religious ceremonies.

Plaster statues of human figures have been found at other sites near 'Ain Ghazal.
Jericho: Two groups of three plaster statues were found in pits.
Nahal Hemar: Plaster statue fragments were found in a cave.
'Ain Ghazal: Two pits were found containing plaster statues.

What do these other discoveries tell us about the statues in this exhibition?
Discoveries at other sites reveal that the people of 'Ain Ghazal and their neighbors shared several beliefs and artistic practices.

Probably the statues were objects of worship or reverence. They could be images of gods and goddesses or portraits of ancestors, worshiped as powerful forces.

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|Images and exhibit labels|

Statue no. I
'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, around 6500 B.C.
Plaster and bitumen.
The heads of the statues and busts are curiously shaped. The top of the head is recessed from the face, and the surface of this area of the head is rougher than the faces. These features suggest that the heads were originally covered with a wig or cloth headdress. Impressions of a woven material are preserved on the back side of two of the heads (statue nos. 1 and 2), but such impressions could have been made accidentally while the plaster was still damp.

Statue no. 2
'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, around 6500 B.C.
Plaster and bitumen.
Deformed during burial over thousands of years, many pieces of the statues no longer fitted neatly together. Originally the feet of this statue were placed side by side, like those of the statue no. I.

Two-headed bust no. 3
'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, around 6500 B.C.
Plaster and bitumen
This unusual two-headed bust is one of three recovered from the site of 'Ain Ghazal. It may represent a twin-headed god or goddess, but it could also be interpreted as a human couple, or twins, perhaps worshiped as revered ancestors.
The protruding portion of the figure's right side shows the original width of the bust. Distorted during burial, some pieces no longer fitted neatly together.

Two-headed bust no. 4/8
(one head mostly restored)
'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, around 6500 B.C.
Plaster and bitumen.
This bust originally had two heads, but only a portion of the bust's right head survived. The other two examples of two-headed busts show that the heads are almost identical.
A conservator restored the head using acrylic putty shaped on an epoxy form and colored it to resemble plaster and bitumen. This new head is secured by a stainless steel screw and can be easily detached.

Two-headed bust no. 5/6
'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, around 6500 B.C.
Plaster and bitumen.
This bust must have been broken at the time it was placed in the pit, because the fragments belonging to it were found both above and below the other statues. Study of the bust's manufacture suggests that the heads might have been made by one person, the torso by someone else.

Three plaster faces
'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, around 7000 B.C.
Plaster, red pigmented plaster, and bitumen.
These three faces, found buried face down in a small pit at the site of 'Ain Ghazal, were reassembled from many fragments. They were originally made by modeling plaster over human skulls, in some places directly on the bone and in others over grasslike material used to stuff hollows and cavities in the skull. A thin, finishing layer of plaster, colored pink with iron oxide pigment, was applied to the modeled surfaces and smoothed over. Horizontal slits indicating eyes were filled with a black paste containing bitumen, a natural asphalt. Curiously, no bone was found in the pit, and it appears that the plaster had been intentionally removed from the skulls and carefully buried.

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Links and resources

Click here to go to ABZU
ABZU is a guide to resources for the study of the Ancient Near East available on the Internet. A project and publication of The Research Archives of the Oriental Institute, Chicago.

Click here to go to The Smithsonian Institution Conservation Analytical Laboratory WWW site.
The Conservation Analytical Laboratory (CAL), located at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., is the Smithsonian Institution's specialized center for research and training in the conservation and technical study of museum objects and related materials. A staff of scientists, conservators, art historians, and archaeologists uses modern scientific research technology in studying objects of artistic, scientific, cultural, and historical significance.

Bar-Yosef, Ofer. "The Neolithic Period." In The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, ed. Amnon Ben-Tor, pp. 10­p;39. New Haven: Yale University Press; Tel Aviv: Open University of Israel, 1992.

Grissom, Carol. "Conservation of Neolithic Lime Plaster Statues from 'Ain Ghazal." In Archaeological Conservation and its Consequences, eds. Ashok Roy and Perry Smith. London: Butterworth, 1996.

Roaf, Michael. "Early Farmers." In Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, pp. 18­p;35. Oxford: Equinox and Facts on File, 1990.

Rollefson, Gary O. "The Uses of Plaster at Neolithic 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan."Archeomaterials 4 (1990): 33­p;54.

Simmons, Alan H., Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, Gary O. Rollefson, Rolfe Mandel, and Zeidan Kafafi. " 'Ain Ghazal: A Major Neolithic Settlement in Central Jordan." Science 240 (1 April 1988): 35­p;39.

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Preserving Ancient Statues from Jordan:
An Interactive Computer Program and WWW Resource
© 1996 Smithsonian Institution

The objects in the exhibition have been lent by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. The brochure and interactive computer program were produced by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in consultation with the Smithsonian Institution's Conservation Analytical Laboratory, and are supported by a grant from the James Smithson Society.

Concept and Development:
Interactive and exhibition text written by: Ann C. Gunter, associate curator of ancient Near Eastern art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.With contributions by: Carol Grissom, senior objects conservator, and Harriet F. Beaubien, objects conservator, Conservation Analytical Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution; and Sarah Ridley, assistant head of Education, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art.

Multimedia and WWW:
Michael Edson, Coordinator for Emerging Technologies, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art. Dr. Christopher Maines, Conservation Scientist, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art.

Editor: Mary Cleary, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art.

Photographs and Illustrations:
The author is grateful to the following individuals and institutions for providing photographs and illustrations:

Special thanks to Dr. Gary O. Rollefson, of the 'Ain Ghazal Research Institute, Ober-Ramstadt, Germany, and to Dr. Zeidan Kafafi, Yarmouk University Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Irbid, Jordan, for photographs, drawings, plans of the site and its finds.

Sr. Mary Besitka, IHM, Drexel University, Philadelphia, for photographs of Phragmites australis (shot in Old Lyme and New Haven, Connecticut).

Conservation Analytical Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution, for photographs of laboratory work in progress and documentation.

John Tsantes and Neil Greentree, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, for photographs of statues and laboratory work in progress.

Kathryn W. Tubb, Institute of Archaeology, University College, London, for photograph of restored 1983 plaster statues from 'Ain Ghazal.

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All presented material is copyright © 1996 Smithsonian Institution, except where noted.
Comments to author: Ann Gunter (guntean@asia.si.edu)
Last updated: July 28, 1996

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