Tell Asmar Sculpture Hoard of Iraqi Gods and Goddesses

Why Are the Eyes of the Mesopotamian Asmar Hoard Staring at Us?

Sculpture 1, Asmar Hoard
Sculpture 1, Asmar Hoard. Rosemaniakos from Beijing

The Tell Asmar sculpture hoard (also known as the Square Temple Hoard, Abu Temple Hoard, or Asmar Hoard) is a collection of twelve human effigy statues, discovered in 1934 at the site of Tell Asmar, an important Mesopotamian tell in the Diyala Plain of Iraq, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad.

The hoard was discovered deep within the Abu Temple at Asmar, during the 1930s archaeological excavations led by University of Chicago archaeologist Henri Frankfort and his team from the Oriental Institute. When the hoard was discovered, the statues were stacked in several layers within an 85 x 50 centimeter (33 x 20 inch) pit, located about 45 cm (about 18 in) below the floor of the Early Dynastic [3000-2350 BC] version of the Abu Temple known as the Square Temple.

The Asmar Sculptures

The statues are all different sizes, ranging from 23- to 72 cm (9-28 in) in height, with an average about 42 cm (about 16 in). They are of men and women with large staring eyes, upturned faces, and clasped hands, dressed in the skirts of the ?Early Dynastic period of Mesopotamia.

The three largest of the statues were placed first in the pit and the others carefully stacked on top. They are believed to represent Mesopotamian gods and goddesses and their worshipers. The largest figure (72 cm, 28 in) is thought to represent the god Abu, based on symbols carved into the base, which show the lion-headed eagle Imdugud gliding among gazelles and leafy vegetation. Frankfort described the second largest statue (59 cm, or about 23 in tall) as a representation of the "mother goddess" cult.

Style and Construction

The style of the sculptures is known as "geometric", and that is characterized by recasting realistic figures into abstract shapes--Frankfort describes it as "the human body...ruthlessly reduced to abstract plastic forms". The geometric style is a characteristic of the Early Dynastic I period at Tell Asmar and other similarly dated sites in the Diyala Plain. The geometric style is not just in carved figurines, but in decorations on pottery and cylinder seals, stone cylinders carved to be used to leave an impression in clay or stucco.

The statues are made from gypsum (calcium sulfate), partly carved from the relatively hard form of massive gypsum called alabaster and partly modeled from processed gypsum. The processing technique involves firing gypsum at about 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius) until it becomes a fine white powder (called plaster of Paris). The powder is then mixed with water and then modeled and/or sculpted into shape.

Dating the Asmar Hoard

The Asmar Hoard was found within the Abu Temple at Asmar, a temple which was built and rebuilt several times during Asmar's occupation, beginning before 3,000 BC, and remaining in use until 2500 BC. To be more specific, Frankfort found the hoard in a context that he interpreted as beneath the floor of the Early Dynastic II version of the Abu temple called the Square Temple. Frankfort argued that the hoard was a dedicatory shrine, placed there at the time of the Square Temple's construction.

However, in the decades since Frankfort's interpretation associating the hoard with the Early Dynastic II period, today scholars consider it to have predated the temple, carved during the Early Dynastic I period, rather than to have been placed there when the temple was built.

Evidence that the hoard predates the Square Temple has been compiled by Evans, who includes archaeological evidence from the excavator's field notes, as well as geometric stylistic comparisons to other Early Dynastic buildings and artifacts in the Diyala plain.