The Lady of the Spiked Throne and her Mysterious Entourage
The Lady of the Spiked Throne refers to a mysterious artifact from the Indus Valley civilization that has been dated to the 3 rd millennium BC. It depicts a woman in a position of power seated in a spiked throne in what has been described as a bull-headed boat or chariot. She and her crew display unusual features including large almond-shaped eyes, elongated heads or headdresses, and beak-like noses. The absence of information concerning the artifact’s provenance and archaeological context has made it difficult to determine its true origin and purpose.
The Lady of the Spiked Throne artifact. Photo credit: Federica Aghadian.
The controversial relic was first studied by Italian archaeologist Massimo Vidale, who had been invited by a private collector to examine the item in 2009. Vidale found the relic to be so unique and puzzling that he took the opportunity to extensively study, photograph, and write about the artifact so that its significance could be shared with the public. He also carried out thermoluminescence testing to ensure the item was not a forgery. The analysis confirmed the item is authentic and dates back to around 2700 BC.
The artifact consists of what appears to a vehicle of some kind with a bull’s head at the front. It accommodates 15 individuals, in what appears to be an official procession. At the back of the vehicle, is a woman seated on a spiked throne, guarded by four men.
In his report ‘The Lady of the Spiked Throne: The Power of a Lost Ritual’, Vidale refers to the artifact informally as a ‘cow-boat’, however, he acknowledges that it could also be a cart or chariot. He explains that theorizing one or the other is made complicated by the fact that “we would have a boat without keel, oars, and helm, and cart without wheels and oddly soldered to its draught animal.”
If the vehicle is a chariot, represented as a supernatural hybrid between cart and animal, Vidale said that it may be the earliest evidence of “the monumental chariots that in the Hindu tradition move major divinities, in occasion of important religious festivals.”
At the front of the vehicle, is one of the most impressive bull representations to come out of the Indus Valley from this era. The forehead of the animal contains a solar symbol – a thick, small circle filled by a solid dot, with rays extending outwards.
The bull head has been described as the most impressive representations to come out of the Indus valley from this era. Photo credit: Federica Aghadian.
One of the most peculiar features of the boat or chariot is its crew, who are seated in alternating rows of males and females, headed by two standing female figurines. The males are wearing a kind of turban and a short conical gown, while the females, who are larger and seated on higher stools, are semi-naked and are distinguished by their high foreheads and a tall, flat headdress.
“The flat head, long beak-like nose with round eyes drawn together make female figurines rather unnatural, when compared with the more realistic features of male ones,” writes Vidale. “The eyes, too, made in form of deep hemispherical cavities with slightly raised edges, were probably filled with a blackish pigment or substance.”
The crew consists of alternating rows of males and females, headed by two standing female figurines. Photo credit: Federica Aghadian.
Despite their unnatural appearance, Vidale reports that many such figurines have been found at Mehargarh and Nausharo dating to 2800-2700 BC in the Kacchi plains, northern Balochistan, and other sites of the region. In particular, there is an abundance of statuettes that diplay the same lozenge-shaped eyes, beak-like noses, and small mouths. Examples include the figurines of Nausharo, Pakistan, as described in Samzun (1992).
The figurines found at Mehargarh bear a remarkable similarity to the figurines in the spiked throne artifact. (Image source).
The Lady of the Spiked Throne
The dominating figure of the artifact is a lady with an “unquestionable aura of absolute power”, who is larger than all the other figurines, and is seated on a throne with her feet resting on a low stool. The back of the throne has seven spikes, and the armrests are shaped as standing bulls. She is surrounded by four male ‘attendants’.
She shares the same features as the other females, with a disproportionately high forehead, crowned by a veil-like headgear. She sits naked, except for a plain breast-plate. Vidale questions: “Who is the lady on the spiked throne, a priestess, a queen or a divinity?”. It is a question we may never know the answer to, though it is clear that whoever she is, she is in a position of authority and is obviously held in high esteem.
The lady of the spiked throne. Photo credit: Federica Aghadian.
Vidale explains that there are a number of puzzling issues concerning this ancient relic. Firstly, although figurines with similar characteristics have been found, no artifacts resembling this ‘cow-boat’ or chariot have been found in the settlements and graveyards excavated in the region of the Indus Valley civilization. Secondly, Vidale describes the hierarchical relationships among the figurines as unique and surprising. The leading role is clearly played by the female gender, while the males are depicted as subordinate attendants.
The unique and peculiar features of the artifact leave us with many questions – who was the enthroned lady? What does the artifact represent? And how was it used? While many of these questions remain unanswered, Vidale notes that there is still much that can be learned from this magnificent artifact. He writes:
The terracotta model… opens an unexpected, bewildering window on a set of ideas and possible collective rituals of the formatives stages of the Indus valley civilization. It confirms the centrality of the iconography of the humped bull; it shows that female officers or deities had a prominent role in the representation and legitimisation of power, and that the idea of mighty, prestigious vehicles was already in play. Moreover, the ‘cow-boat’ – be it a mythological subject or a synoptic representation of an actually performed ritual –bears an intimate, strongly hierarchical message. This undeniable evidence perfectly fits with what we presently understand of the pivotal role played by the elites in inventing one of the most important social experiments in human history: the rapid creation of the Indus urban world.
Featured image: The lady of the spiked throne. Photo credit: Federica Aghadian.
Vidale, M. (2011). The Lady of the Spiked Throne: The Power of a Lost Ritual. Department of Asian and North African Studies.