Southern Arabian Peninsula
1st century BCE
In ancient times the area of southern Arabia, in the modern countries of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman, was home to a number of kingdoms that prospered through caravan trade routes with the cultures of the Mediterranean. Some of these kingdoms include: Saba (referred to as Sheba in the Bible), Hadramawt, Himyar, Qataban and Ma’in. There was often warfare between them over control of frankincense and myrrh: highly prized aromatics burnt on altars all over the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world. The most important deity of these kingdoms was the Moon-god. This god was known by many names but was always shown in art as a bull. The Qatabanians called this deity Amm, and thought of him as their patron deity. Bull head plaques like this one were especially popular on funerary stele at Heid ibn Aqil, the cemetery at Tamna. A similar plaque can be found in the British Museum.
The stone used to carve this plaque and many other pre-Islamic Southern Arabian sculptures is alabaster. This type of stone is sedimentary, which means it was formed when sediments were compressed together over time by water and/or other layers of sediment and cemented together by the combination of minerals and chemicals. Sedimentary rock tends to be softer and easier to carve than igneous or metamorphic types of rock. Alabaster was a popular stone for carving in ancient times and examples of it can be found in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian arts as well as those of Southern Arabia. These ancient artists would shape the stone using stone or metal drills, chisels, saws, and hammers. While the materials used to make these tools have changed over the centuries many of the tool forms used for sculpting stone remain the same today. Below you will find a video showing modern versions of these types of tools and how they are used.