The Ain Ghazal Statues: Jordan’s Unique and Graceful Neolithic Figures

The Ain Ghazal Statues: Jordan’s Unique and Graceful Neolithic Figures


‘Ain Ghazal (hereafter Ain Ghazal) is an archaeological site located in Jordan that dates to the Neolithic period, and flourished from around the 8th to 6th millennium BC. Ain Ghazal was discovered during the 1970s, but only excavated in the following decade. The excavation of the site continued until the late 1990s, and, consequently, archaeologists have been able to shed some light on the way of life of Ain Ghazal’s prehistoric inhabitants. The most enigmatic finds at the site are undoubtedly the so-called Ain Ghazal statues. Thirty-two of these statues have been unearthed from two separate caches, including statuettes and busts. The Ain Ghazal statues were made by covering a core of reeds and twine with plaster. It is unknown for certain, however, as to the reason behind the creation of these statues, though it is commonly speculated that they served a ritual function.

Ain Ghazal and Its Sudden Population “Explosion”

Ain Ghazal translates to mean “Spring of the Gazelle,” and is located near Amman, the capital of Jordan. The site was discovered in 1974 by chance when a road was being built between Amman and Al-Zarqa. Nevertheless, excavations did not begin immediately, and only commenced eight years later, in 1982. By that time, an estimated 10% of the site had been destroyed by the construction of the road. Still, there was still a lot to be done at Ain Ghazal and the archaeologists continued to work at the site until the late 1990s.

A profile picture of the physical archaeological site of Ain Ghazal, Jordan. (Bashar Tabbah / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A profile picture of the physical archaeological site of Ain Ghazal, Jordan. (Bashar Tabbah / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The preserved portions of the site cover an area of 12-13 ha (30-32.5 acres) making Ain Ghazal one of the largest known Neolithic settlements in the Near East. Much of the archaeological work at Ain Ghazal was led by Gary Rollefson, an American anthropologist.

It is thanks to the work of these archaeologists that we have some idea of the development of Ain Ghazal over the millennia. Based on the archaeological evidence, Ain Ghazal was first occupied around 7250 BC, during a period known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic . At that time, the settlement consisted of only several hundred inhabitants, who lived in individual houses. These houses were made of stone covered with mud and lime plaster and painted with a red pigment.

A change in the settlement occurred around the beginning of the 7th millennium BC. At that time, the population of Ain Ghazal rose rapidly from an influx of new inhabitants. Consequently, the population of the settlement almost doubled in size to 1,600 people.

The increase in the settlement’s population is reflected in the architecture of the site’s domestic buildings. Houses were now built to accommodate multi-family occupation. The growth of Ain Ghazal continued for several more centuries. It is estimated that, by the second half of the 7th millennium BC, Ain Ghazal supported a population of 2,500 people. In the centuries that followed, however, the population of Ain Ghazal began to decrease, and the site ceased to be occupied around 5000 BC.

The Middle Eastern Ain Ghazal Neolithic site would have been characterized by fixed human settlements and the invention of agriculture that began about 10,000 years ago. This is a reconstitution of Pre-Pottery Neolithic period housing in Aşıklı Höyük, modern Turkey. (Sarah Murray / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Multiple Clues Tell Us Much About Daily Neolithic Life

The archaeological work conducted at Ain Ghazal also sheds light on the way of life of its prehistoric inhabitants. The archaeological evidence shows that the site’s inhabitants practiced agriculture, growing barley, wheat, chickpeas, and lentils. Additionally, there is evidence that goats had been domesticated. However, other plants and animals were also consumed by the inhabitants of Ain Ghazal.

Evidence showed, however, that as time went by, the diet of the site’s inhabitants changed, and was limited to the types of crops they planted, and the animals they kept. Although Ain Ghazal belongs to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, traces of pottery technology appeared during the later phases of the site’s occupation. It has been argued that this technology was developed by the people of Ain Ghazal themselves, rather than it being introduced by outsiders who migrated to the settlement.

The most enigmatic artifacts from Ain Ghazal are unquestionably the so-called Ain Ghazal statues. A total of 32 plaster Ain Ghazal statues have been unearthed at the site, consisting of both statuettes and busts of human figures. The Ain Ghazal statues were discovered in two caches, one in 1983 (containing 26 statues), and the other in 1985 (containing 5 statues). Additionally, a single statue head was also unearthed in 1985. The 1983 cache has been dated to around 6700 BC, whereas the 1985 cache is found to have been deposited about 200 years later. Therefore, the Ain Ghazal statues are “among the world's oldest known large-scale statues”.

Not surprising, the Ain Ghazal statues are not the first of their kind to be discovered in the region. Two other caches of statues were discovered by Garstang at Jericho in 1935, whilst Kenyon unearthed another cache of statues during the 1950s when she was excavating at the same site (Jericho).

The Ain Ghazal statues, however, were not just “two more caches of plaster statues.” Although the statues unearthed by Garstang and Kenyon were earlier discoveries, they were largely in fragments and not well preserved. In comparison, the state of preservation of the Ain Ghazal statues, with the exception perhaps of the single head bust, which was heavily damaged, is remarkable.

In the case of the 1983 cache, this was in part due to the fact that the entire cache was “blocklifted,” and then brought to the Institute of Archaeology in London, where the statues were excavated and conserved immediately in a laboratory.

Just one of the many Ain Ghazal statues currently safe and secure in museum settings. (ALFGRN / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Just one of the many Ain Ghazal statues currently safe and secure in museum settings. (ALFGRN / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Ain Ghazal Statues: Made from Reeds and Plaster

The Ain Ghazal statues were made with two primary raw materials – reeds and plaster. In addition, bitumen was also used, though only in small quantities. The bitumen was used to draw the outline of the eyes, and the irises.

Essentially the statues consist of a reed core covered in plaster. Considering the relatively large size of the statues, i.e., almost 1 m (3.3 ft) in height in some instances, it is believed that the various part of the statues (the head and neck, torso, and legs) were made separately before they were assembled.

A possible production process of the Ain Ghazal statues, based on current research, is as follows:

·       First, the framework of the statue’s torso was formed by assembling bundles of reeds. Researchers found that in the smaller statues, at least eight bundles were used, while the larger ones used 20 or more bundles. It was also observed that these bundles were bound by individual cordage, which allowing the number of bundles to be determined.

·       Next, the head and neck section, which were formed separately but in a similar way to the torso, were attached to the reed torso framework.

·       Plaster would then be applied to the front of the torso, head, and neck. Once the plaster dried, the statue was flipped and its back covered with plaster.

·       The head, neck and torso was then “attached” to the legs, which had also been made individually, and the joints between the two last sections were filled with plaster.

A beautiful two-headed Ain Ghazal statues, possibly a deity. On display at the Jordan Archaeological Museum, Amman, Jordan. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A beautiful two-headed Ain Ghazal statues, possibly a deity. On display at the Jordan Archaeological Museum, Amman, Jordan. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Different Forms and Styles, And Some with Two Heads!

Apart from the manufacturing technique , scholars have also analyzed the forms of the statues, as well as their styles. In terms of the statues’ form, it has been noted that they consist of “flat, broad, shallow, simple shapes”. This is because when the plaster was applied, the statues had to be laid horizontally, due to their large size. The artisans may have had to lay the statues flat to make it easier to manipulate them.

Additionally, the weight of the plaster may have flattened the statues even further. It has also been pointed out that for the statues in the 1985 cache, the torsos were made broad deliberately so that two heads could be fitted onto them. Incidentally, this is a distinguishing feature between the two caches, as the statues in the 1983 cache have only one head each. It is not entirely clear, though, as to why the other statues were made with two heads.

The number of heads is not the only differentiating feature between the statues from the two caches. Apart from that, it has been noted that there are stylistic differences between the two sets of statues. For example, compared to the statues from the 1983 cache, the ones discovered two years later have more angular faces, and more exaggerated, almond-shaped eyes.

Furthermore, in the earlier statues, the arms are shown as small and withered, but disappear completely in the newer ones. Therefore, these differences suggest that between the production of the first and second set of statues, changes in the style had occurred.

A front closeup of an Ain Ghazal statue. But what did these statues really mean? (ALFGRN / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Theories About The Purpose and Use of These Statues

It is not entirely certain as to why the Ain Ghazal statues were created in the first place, though it is speculated that they served some sort of ritual function . It is believed that they were ritually buried, perhaps after they ceased to be used. Since the materials used to make the statues are perishable, it may suggest that they were not created to last forever.

Moreover, it is believed that the statues’ function was ephemeral, and that they were discarded as soon as they had served their purpose. This is supported by the fact that multiple caches of these statues have been discovered. Furthermore, since the two caches at Ain Ghazal are separated by about 200 years, it is believed that the knowledge for making these statues was passed down from one generation to the next.

One of the hypotheses regarding the function of the Ain Ghazal statues is that they portrayed ancestors and were therefore used for ancestral worship . This was first proposed by Kenyon, who compared the plastered skulls from Jericho to ethnographic data. She also noticed that there were similarities between the plastered skulls and the statues (though differences may also be observed), thereby linking the latter to the ethnographic data as well. Incidentally, a number of plastered skulls were also found at Ain Ghazal. Kenyon’s hypothesis was widely accepted, though certain questions have been raised. For instance, it seems unlikely that the double-headed statues were meant to be representations of dead ancestors.

Another hypothesis is that the statues were meant to represent ghosts. This is based on evidence found in Babylonian cuneiform literature, in which rituals involving ghosts are mentioned. In these rituals, substitute figurines, perhaps like the Ain Ghazal statues, were used to represent these supernatural beings . These rituals include the expulsion of malevolent ghosts, summoning benevolent ghosts to heal a sick person, and asking for divination form the spirits of the dead. Once again, however, the idea of two-headed ghosts seems to be an obstacle to this hypothesis. Additionally, the texts do not mention much about the modelling of the statues of the ghosts, and it is likely that they were small objects, unlike the Ain Ghazal statues.

A third hypothesis is that the statues were meant to represent deities. The double-headed statues, for instance, are said to have parallels with the representation of twin deities from the Neolithic period. Additionally, later textual sources are also used to support this hypothesis. The supreme deity of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk, for instance, is described, metaphorically, as having two heads. This hypothesis is also used to explain the presence of female figures in the caches, which did not fit in the role of either ancestors or ghosts. According to this third hypothesis, the female figures would represent deities, perhaps fertility goddesses.

This Ain Ghazal statue, like so many others, spent a long time in the restoration rooms of prestigious museums, like the Smithsonian. (Michael Gunther / CC BY-SA 4.0)

This Ain Ghazal statue, like so many others, spent a long time in the restoration rooms of prestigious museums, like the Smithsonian. (Michael Gunther / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Ain Ghazal Statues: Years of Museum Restoration

It is quite unlikely that we will ever know for certain as to why the inhabitants made these plaster statues, and how they might have been used. Thus, the debates around these statues will continue.

In the meantime, efforts have been made to conserve these statues for future generations. For instance, the staff of the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute spent seven years excavating the 1985 cache of statues in a laboratory and conserving them.

Between 1996 and 1997, the statues were exhibited at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, before they were returned to Jordan, where they were first displayed in the Jordanian Archaeological Museum on the Citadel in Amman, and then the Jordan Museum in Amman, which was established in 2014.

Lastly, it may be mentioned that despite the archaeological significance of Ain Ghazal, the site is threatened, and was placed on the 2004 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund.

Urban development was cited as the biggest threat to the site, only a portion of which is under protection. It is stated, on the site’s page on the World Monuments Fund’s website, that “The Jordanian Department of Antiquities hopes to preserve the entire site as an open-air museum.” It seems that this has yet to materialize.

Top image: One of the finest double-headed Ain Ghazal statues, currently “living” in the Jordan Museum. Source: (Jean Housen / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     


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Duchovny's picture

Perhaps they were early scarecrows...made of straw to stand in the fields.


Jamie Rose

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