Animal Symbols at ‘Ain Ghazal

By: Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Originally Published in 1997

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Animal figurines are a familiar find on Near Eastern sites from the 9th to the 3rd millenni­um BC and from the Levant to Iran. Their function, however, is still enigmatic. Excavations at the Neolithic site of ‘Ain Ghazal (ca. 8300-6000 BC, calibrated dates), located near Amman, Jordan, have produced an impres­sive assemblage of clay artifacts among which are a large number of animal figures (Fig. 1). (See box on The Neolithic Village of ‘Ain Ghazal.) I present here the first results of a study of these figurines—the species they represented, their style, manufacture, and the contexts in which they were recovered—then place them in their iconographic context, and discuss the role that animal symbolism may have played in ancient Near Eastern thought.

The ‘Ain Ghazal Zoomorphic Assemblage

There are 126 zoomorphic figurines in the ‘Ain Ghazal assemblage. The most remarkable feature of the collection is its homogeneity. During the 2000 years of occupation at the site, the same animals were made again and again in the same style, using the same coarse material. Bulls with prominent withers are most fre­quent (Fig. 2). Other species include goats, rams, and gazelles, which are easy to distinguish by their horns (Fig. 3). One long-snouted boar (Fig. 4) and two large-tailed creatures, possibly lizards (Fig. 5), are unusual finds.

The style is remarkably uniform. The quadru­peds are invariably represented standing still, the legs parallel. Activities such as grazing, resting, sleeping, walking, running, or rearing are not portrayed. The fig­urines usually measure about 7 centimeters but are occa­sionally as large as 15 or as small as 3 centimeters (Fig. 6). The stylistic treatment is consistent. Particular sets of features are either emphasized, reduced, or altogether ignored. For example, eyes, nostrils, and mouths are sys­tematically excluded, and the skin or coat is not depict­ed. The sex organs are always omitted. On the other hand, the animal’s foreparts are exaggerated. The heads, large sweeping horns, powerful necks, withers, and shoulders bulge in front, contrasting with the small, tapering rear ends. The dorsal spine pinched along the back sometimes extends into a curious crest.

The horns reflect a great concern for verisimili­tude. They are faithfully portrayed with the characteris­tic cross-section, length, and curvature of a specific species. Bovine horns are represented as stocky and curving frontwards; those of wild goats are accurately indicated by a marked anterior spine and sharp curva­ture. Ram horns are semicircular, while those of gazelles elegantly sweep backwards (Fig. 7). In contrast, the tails defy nature: bovines are portrayed with a short append­age when, in fact, they are endowed with a long one; goats have a hanging tail which should be upturned (Fig. 3). The most stylized feature, however, are the legs. Reduced to minute pointed stumps, they lack any indi­cation of thigh, knee, ankle, forelock, or hoof (Fig. 8).

Moreover, the limbs barely project below the belly and are grossly disproportionate to the rest of the body. Finally, it is noteworthy that, although the little crea­tures are often totally asymmetrical, one side being far thicker than the other, they stand firm on their tiny legs. This suggests that, whatever the function of the fig­urines might be, they were meant to stand up.

The figurines were mostly modeled in a coarse, unprepared yellow-brown clay with large gravel and pebble inclusions, which is locally available (Fig. 9).  They were manufactured by cursorily modeling a clay coil into a neck and a head, pressing the other end against a hard surface to shape a flat rump, pinching legs and tail, and finally attaching the horns which were made separately. Some figurines exhibit puzzling fea­tures. The most enigmatic are two animals, each stabbed with three flint bladelets in the throat, the abdomen, the chest, or the eye (Fig. 10a). Others display pieces of flint or pebbles, in some cases oddly placed under the tail. A single figurine bore a set of four parallel incised lines along the side (Fig. 9). Lastly, two animals were inten­tionally truncated when the clay was still moist. Despite their modification, the animals were still able to stand; in one case, the neck of an animal severed behind the forelegs was extended to form a peculiar but steady tri­pod (Fig. 11).

The figurines do not exhibit gray cores or any other evidence of intentional baking. However, black or red marks and bits of charcoal on the surface indicate that the animals were exposed to fire, possibly in an open hearth or brazier, which would generate a partly oxidizing and partly reducing atmosphere. The fact that the figurines are often mixed with ashes in trash deposits suggests that they may have been disposed of in fire­places. This would also explain why the surface of the figurines often shows cracks and the animals are usually badly damaged. None of the figurines is complete. Head, legs, tail, rump, and especially horns are mostly broken off, with many examples reduced to the fore or back parts.

Two sets of figurines were recovered in situ. The two stabbed animals mentioned above lay side by side in a tiny pit cov­ered by a limestone slab, beneath a floor in the corner of a room (Fig. 10b; Rollefson and Simmons 1986:150, 152-53). Although the building appears to have had a domestic function, in previous phases it had also held unusual burials: five funerary pits arranged around a hearth; an infant under a doorway; a cache of three adult skulls (ibid., 155); and a child’s skull treated with black pig­ment. In the second case, a clay bull was recovered in a house, in a storage bin where it was associated with three Bos bones (Fig. 12), one of them bearing an incised pattern (ibid., 152-53).

Twenty-four clay ani­mals recovered as a hoard in the fill (see Fig. 1), together with a lump of coarse yellow clay bear­ing five curved incised markings (made by finger nails?; Fig. 13), also deserve special attention (Rollefson and Simmons 1984: 21). Twenty-three of the fig­urines were made by someone who had a knack for pinching the coarse yellow clay into ele­gant little bulls, whereas the twenty-fourth figurine, of a nondescript species, was awkwardly made of a different, finer and whiter clay or perhaps plaster (Fig. 14). The cache therefore suggests that 23 figurines were modeled more or less at one time by the same expert hand and discarded shortly thereafter with the remaining unused clay. The white figurine sug­gests a second, less experienced individual also at work.

In sum, ‘Ain Ghazal offers significant evidence on the manufacture, manipulation, and disposal of Neolithic zoomorphic figurines. The animals were modeled with coarse, unprepared locally available mate­rial, at least on occasion by an experienced hand proba­bly denoting a specialist, in groups as large as 23. Their manufacture sometimes involved stabbing the animals in vital parts with flint bladelets or severing the bodies while the clay was moist. The figurines did not random­ly portray the local fauna but selectively represented, over and over again, bulls and long-horned goats, rams, and gazelles. These animals were always shown in the same position, standing firmly on short, stumpy legs. The style of modeling consistently emphasized the foreparts, conveying force, vitality, and dynamism. The repetitious character of the figurines suggests that they were not whimsical representations, but reproduced a formal prototype. Finally, after their function was ful­filled, the figurines were disposed of by burying them under the floor of a house, placing them with other “art” pieces in a storage bin, or burning them in a hearth, after which they were discarded together with the fire’s ashes in the general household trash.

The Iconographic Context

Cattle and long-homed animals were also cele­brated in early Neolithic assemblages at other sites in Jordan or Syria (Fig. 15). Basta, Tell Aswad, and Ghoraifé are among the contemporaneous Neolithic Levantine sites at which were found comparable num­bers of zoomorphic figurines featuring the same types of animals, made in a similar way, in the same size, materi­al, and style (de Contenson 1995). As at ‘Ain Ghazal, bulls with massive withers and long-horned ovicaprines and gazelles dominate, with an occasional hoar. The fig­urines were cursorily manufactured, had oversized horns, stood steady on their dwarfed legs, bore superfi­cial soot or reddish marks on the surface, and were repeatedly found in ancient dumps. Animal figurines continue to be a familiar feature at late Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Early Bronze Age sites in the Levant, e.g., Tell Sabi Abyad, as well as in Mesopotamia and Iran, e.g., Uruk and Tepe Hissar. They are still common in the 3rd millennium BC, as at Tell Chuera, Syria, where bovines and ovicaprines were produced along with a more diversified figurine assemblage including horses, pigs, and birds. In fact, the manufacture of clay animal figurines persisted throughout the Iron Age. They were still being created in the Assyro-Babylonian period, with the only difference being that some beasts had become hybrids.

Neolithic clay figurines were not the first art form glorifying bovines and long-horned animals. From the first attempts at image making in the Near East, bulls, ovicaprines, and cervids dominated the repertory of art motifs. The entrance of Beldibi Cave featured an engraved aurochs and a deer, showing that these animals already played a special role in the Paleolithic hunters’ world of 15,000 BC. Aurochs or gazelles decorated the Epi-paleolithic tools of Kebara, El Wad, and Umm ez­Zuweitina, ca. 10,000 BC. Bulls and deer were the sub­jects of mural paintings and reliefs at Catal Höyük, 6500 to 5500 BC.

Theriomorphic art (depictions of animals) did not vanish with the advent of writing, but rather multi­plied. Domesticated bulls and rams appeared in various media, no doubt fulfilling new symbolic needs. They were represented in monumental sculptures in the tem­ple of Inanna at Kruk, ca. 3100 BC, depicted in clay, metal, and fine stones. They became two of the most persistent glyptic motifs from the 4th to the 1st millen­nium BC. Bulls and stags, rams, goats, or gazelles were interchangeably associated with the sacred tree, the master of animals, or the lion. The same is true in sculp­ture; at Ubaid, for instance, the temple of Ninhursag (ca. 2500 BC) was decorated with monumental metal bulls and two stags mastered by the lion-headed eagle, Imdugud. The predilection for bulls and long-horned animals continued through the Assyro-Babylonian as well as the Persian period. The bull still adorned the processional way of Babylon in 600 BC.

In this perspective, the ‘Ain Ghazal bull and horned animal figurines are not an isolated phenome­non. Instead, they are part of an age-old Near Eastern tradition of therionuorphic art. From the Paleolithic to the Assyro-Babylonian period, bulls and long-horned animals pervaded all forms of art, including wall engrav­ings, glyptics, monumental reliefs, and sculptures of ter­racotta, metal, and fine stones. The frequency and endurance of these motifs speak to a symbolic tradition in which these animals encapsulate some of the most profound ancient Near Eastern thoughts (Cauvin 1994:97). The meaning of the Beidibi, Çatal

and ‘Ain Ghazal animal symbols is, of course, forever lost. Nor can archaeology recover the significance of the Uruk zoomorphic sculptures that have no definite con­text. Therefore, we will never know whether the sym­bolism enjoyed continuity or suffered disjunction over time. All we know is that in the 3rd millennium BC the prominent location of monumental bulls and horned animals at the entrance of the Ubaid temple makes it clear that they had a religious connotation.

Animal Symbolism in the Ancient Near East: The Textual Evidence

The possible functions of human clay figurines have been cogently discussed by several scholars, includ­ing Agnes Spycket, Mary M. Voigt, and Peter J. Ucko, but the animal specimens have not enjoyed The same attention. Edward Ochsenschlager (1974) is among the few who put in writing the view, held by many, that the objects were children’s toys. More recently, Postgate (1994) has convincingly argued that the key to the pre­historic clay animal figures may ultimately be provided by examples of the later periods, when texts complement the archaeological evidence. He advocated the legitima­cy of using, with due caution, historical cuneiform texts to gain insights into timeless Near Eastern traditions. The new path of investigation he opened is challenging.

Bulls, rams, and stags are frequently cited in the cuneiform literature of the 3rd to 1st millennium BC as symbols of various concepts and personifications:

  1.    Zodiacal constellations. The animals were iden­tified with Taurus and Aries, or the sun (VVi ggerman 1992:174-75).
  2.   Gods. The bull was An, the sky deity, highest in the pantheon. It was also the attribute of Adad, the storm god, as well as of Nanna, the moon god. The      goat was Enki, god of water (Black and Green 1992:93).
  3.  Virility. The bull and the stag were invoked in the Shà incantations to restore sexual potency (Biggs 1967:22-24).

The cuneiform texts also stress the great impor­tance of live animals for cultic sacrifice (Leichty 1993). I will not dwell on the Bronze Age significance of the ani­mals, since archaeology cannot establish the origin or antiquity of these symbols. It suffices to underline that, as soon as written evidence becomes available, the texts disclose the ritual and cosmic significance of bulls and horned animals.

Abundant archaeological data confirm the allu­sions in the cuneiform texts to the cultic use of clay ani­mal figurines: (1) as cx-votos, (2) as apotropaic founda­tion deposits, (3) in magic rituals. For instance, clay dogs excavated in shrines of Gula, bearing dedicatory inscriptions such as “For the lady Gula, I made a clay dog and presented it to her,” demonstrate that the god­dess of healing received as ex-votos figurines of her sacred animal (Postgate 1994:176-77). Also, instruction texts prescribing the ritual burying of animal figurines to protect buildings against evil are corroborated at sev­eral sites, in particular at Nimrud and in earlier levels of Ur, where snakes, dogs, and composite creatures were recovered along house and palace walls.

Incantation texts also attest to the fact that fig­urines were created in the course of magic rites. One such text, from the 7th century BC Assyrian Namburbi series (Caplice 1974: 23-24), refers to an ox figurine fashioned in a ritual intended to bring brisk trade to an innkeeper. The ceremony involved building an altar to Ishtar, offering bread, and creating an ox figurine according to a specific ordered procedure. First, the participant col­lected dirt at various places, including a quay, a crossing, a bridge, the intersection of four roads, the city gate, and at the doors of the Ishtar temple, a prostitute’s, and a busy tavern; next he mixed the dirt of these various locations with water. He then spread some of the mix­ture at the threshold of the inn; next, he modeled an ox with the remainder of the paste. Then he uttered a spell seven times, prostrated himself, and finally buried the figurine under a vat. A second text of the Namburbi series prescribes making clay figurines to coun­teract the bad omen of a lizard (Caplice 1974:19). This ritual involved first sweeping the house roof, sprinkling water, building an altar, and preparing (animal?) offerings. Next, a lizard was modeled in clay and placed on the altar on a specified design drawn in a bowl. Then the patient pronounced a given number of spells, while standing on tamarisk wood, and holding the hand of the priest.

These incantation texts are invaluable in giving specific information on the making of the clay animals used in the rites, their manipulation, and disposal. It is evident that, in the ritual contexts described, the quality of the clay was of no concern but the location where the dirt was collected was important; and that the value of the objects derived from the simple act of creating them rather than from careful craftsmanship. These texts like­wise present a scenario in which the manufacture involved as many as three actors: the patient, a priest, and sometimes his attendant. The figurines were made in prescribed numbers, varying from a single object to large groups; the manipulation of the objects was limit­ed to a brief presentation on an altar; and their disposal was immediate and consisted of burying them at a given location, throwing them in the river, or burning them.

Possible Functions of the ‘Ain Ghazal Figurines

To turn back through the millennia to the ‘Ain Ghazal material, what might have been the function of those animal figurines? Simple logic suggests that the pair of animals, each stabbed three times in vital parts and buried in a specially prepared cavity in a corner of a room, cannot easily be explained as toys. The figurines are also unlikely to represent surrogates for offerings, since we know that in later periods the main purpose of sacrificing animals was deriving omens from the behav­ior of the live beast as it was led to slaughter, extracting its entrails for divination, or collecting its blood for purification (Leichty 1993:239– 42). Could the Neo­lithic zoomorphic figurines be related to magic as described in the cuneiform texts? The evidence at hand certainly warrants the question (Postgate 1994:176-84).

Late texts unquestionably reveal that, in the 1st and 2nd millennia BC, magic pervaded everyday life and religion and that animals, en­dowed with a cosmic signifi­cance, played a role in the rites. Why, as proposed by Postgate, is it legitimate to apply knowl­edge derived from the late his­torical period to the Neolithic period? Because it is attested by the Fara incantation texts that magic was already practiced in the same way in the early 3rd millennium BC (Krebernik 1984). And it is certainly within the bounds of possibility that the situation was similar in prehistoric times. In fact, it is commonly assumed that the Fara texts transcribed a long-lived oral tradition that had its roots in prehistory (van Dijk et al. 1985:1). The assumption is plausible, first, because magic is universal, and second, because rit­uals are formal and repetitive. To the extent that the effectiveness of spells is thought to depend on the preci­sion of their execution, magic practices have little potential for modification and reinterpretation and thus tend to be slower to change than most other aspects of culture.

The idea that the Neolithic zoomorphic fig­urines could be related to magic is supported by the ‘Ain Ghazal assemblage, and in particular by various charac­teristics of the assemblage:

  • the cursory modeling, suggesting that the objects had no intrinsic value, but that their importance derived from the simple act of manufacturing them;
  • the force and vitality communicated by sys­tematically exaggerating the foreparts;
  • the stabbing, slashing, or cutting of particular figurines;
  • their ability to stand up on a designated place, such as an altar;
  • the clusters of 1, 2, and 24 figurines;
  • the likelihood that in some cases they were manufactured by an experienced individual, maybe a “priest” or “shaman,” with the par­ticipation of a less able hand, perhaps an attendant or the patient for whom the ritual was performed;
  • the association with other “art” objects, such as incised bone; and especially  the conscious disposal of the clay animals by burying them under a house floor or in the vicinity of unusually treated human remains, by placement in a food storage area, or in the fire.

Alf, indeed, some of the Neolithic figurines of ‘Ain Ghazal played a ritual role, the objects can no longer be dismissed as trivial. The clay animals were metaphors of the forces of nature that fostered con­sciousness of the place of humans in the universe. By expressing the numinous, they facilitated the elaboration of a cosmology that bonded individuals of the same cul­ture. Moreover, magic enhanced important cooperative social acts as it brought people together in the pursuit of common goals. Finally, the ceremonies in which the fig­urines were created could have promoted the rise of leadership by showcasing an officiating figure ‘deemed to steer cosmic powers. In fact, Neolithic magic cere­monies that involved animal symbols to express cosmic powers could have presaged fundamental characteristics of the Mesopotamian temple, the first Near Eastern public institution.

The Neolithic Village of ‘Ain Ghazal

A bulldozer digging in construction for a modern highway exposed prehistoric remains near the spring of ‘Ain Ghazal in 1982. Subsequent excavations over four seasons revealed remains of one of the largest Neolithic communities in the Near East. Three stratified periods of cultural development—Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, PPNC, and the Yarmoukian phase of the early Pottery Neolithic—were exposed in the excavations.

A village of farmers, hunters, and herders, ‘Ain Ghazal at its peak extended over 9 hectares (about 22 acres) on both banks of the ancient Wadi Zarqa. Archaeologists have uncovered rectangular multi-roomed structures with walls of undressed limestone slabs and cobbles and timber roof beams. Walls, floors, and courtyards were plastered and decorated with finger-painted designs in red pigment.

About 500,000 bone fragments, most representing refuse from human consumption, constitute one of the largest faunal assemblages from the Near East. They provide information about the diet and subsistence economy of the Neolithic villagers. The assemblage is dominated by goats (Capra sp.), followed by gazelles, then cattle (Bos sp.). Fox, hare, and a large variety of small carnivores are also represented, together with birds and reptiles. Fish remains are surprisingly scarce, considering the site’s position on the banks of the Wadi Zarqa.

Chipped stone artifacts, grinding stones, and stone bowls were among the utilitarian objects made for daily use. Bone tools might have been used for weaving, sewing, and possibly leather work. Clay tokens, interpreted as counters to keep track of goods, were probably used to implement an incipient redistribution system. As well as the animal figurines discussed in this article, the site also has produced 36 small human figurines modeled in clay.

Bodies were usually buried under floors, in a flexed or semi-flexed position, and, in the early period, decapi­tated. Caches of skulls had in some cases been treated with plaster, asphalt, and red ocher. The meaning of three remarkable caches of plaster human statues is unknown; they may have been objects of worship—images of gods or goddesses or representations of ancestors.

‘Ain Ghazal is currently being excavated by an American Jordanian team directed by Gary 0. Rollefson of the ‘Ain Ghazal Research Institute and Zeidan Kafafi of Yarmouk University in Irbid.

Cite This Article

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. "Animal Symbols at ‘Ain Ghazal." Expedition Magazine 39, no. 1 (March, 1997): -. Accessed April 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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