The Tell Asmar Sculpture Hoard of Prayerful People

The Asmar Statues, ca 2900-2500 BCE
The Sumerian Worshipers from the Temple at Tell Asmar. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.

Key Takeaways: Tell Asmar Statues

  • The Asmar Statues are twelve statues found by archaeologist Henri Frankfort in the Early Dynastic temple of Tell Asmar at the site of Asmar, in present-day Iraq. 
  • The statues were carved and modeled from alabaster, a hard form of the mineral gypsum, at least 4500 years ago, and buried intact in a single deposit, very unusual for votive hoards. 
  • The statues include two very tall individuals who appear to be cult figures, a hero figure, and nine seemingly ordinary people, with hands clasped and staring eyes looking upward. 

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 a 33 x 20 inch (85 x 50 centimeter) pit, located about 18 in (45 cm) below the floor of the Early Dynastic (3000–2350 BCE) version of the Abu Temple known as the Square Temple.

The Asmar Sculptures

The Tell Asmar statues are all different sizes, ranging from 9–28 in (23– to 72 cm) in height, with an average about 16 in (42 cm). 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 (28 in, 72 cm) is thought by some scholars 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 (23 in or 59 cm tall) as a representation of the "mother goddess" cult. One other figure, a nude man kneeling, may represent a semi-mythical hero.

More recently, however, scholars have noted that most of the other statues are of people, not gods. Most Mesopotamian cult votive figures are found broken and scattered in pieces, while the Tell Asmar statues are in excellent condition, with eye inlays and some bitumen paint intact. The hoard seems to made up of prayerful people, a group headed by two cult figures.

Style and Construction

The style of the sculptures is known as "geometric," and that is characterized by recasting realistic figures into abstract shapes—Frankfort described 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. That abstracted style is not just found 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 BCE, and remaining in use until 2500 BCE. To be more specific, Frankfort's team 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 predate the temple by some centuries, carved during the Early Dynastic I period, rather than to have been placed there at the time 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.

Sources