Object: Figurine

C/1984/4/6
Yemen: Carved Face Votive
Middle East,  Marib, Wadi Beihan, Aden (Yemen)
1st Century B.C.
Materials:  Alabaster

This object is a carved face votive of alabaster.  The wedge-shaped stone has one rough surface and the opposite is smooth with a carved stylized face.  The face consists of a 1.5” band representing hair across the top of the face (forehead).  The nose is long, wedge-shaped and extends down the face.  The surface of the nose is flat and smooth.  The eyes are elliptical with raised eye lids and a center pupil.  A mouth is represented by a raised ellipse which is incised in the center.  The three remaining sides of the square frame the face.   This represents a beard and is stained with a red-orange ink (possibly henna).

Ancient Yemen was centered around the Port of Aden on the Gulf of Arabia.  The country engaged in the lucrative trade of frankincense and myrrh.  It was invaded by the Romans in the 1st century A.D., and converted to Islam in A.D. 628.  According to Judeo-Christian legend, the Biblical Queen of Sheba was from Yemen.

Alabaster has been mined and worked in Yemen since Pre-Islamic times.  The ancient Yemenis carved it into stelai and monuments, as well as thinly sliced the mineral for use as windows.  Alabaster is the name applied to two distinct minerals:  gypsum and calcite.  Gypsum is the alabaster of today, while calcite is the alabaster of the ancients.  The two kinds are distinguished from one another easily, because of differences in their relative hardness. The gypsum kind is soft enough to be scratched with a fingernail.  The calcite kind is too hard to be scratched in this manner; however, it is easily carved with a knife.

[Debra Taylor]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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