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25th November 2005
The Eye Idols of Tell Brak
This article will focus on the archaeological evidence found at Tell Brak.
Tell Brak is situated in what is now Syria and was the largest ancient site and one of the most important early centres of early Mesopotamia (see map below).
A Tell or Tepe are the Arabic and Turkish words for a large mound. These were formed over a long period, from layer upon layer of old building rubble. Every time a new development was undertaken it was built upon the remains of the previous structures. Therefore after centuries of development an artificial mound was produced. Tell Brak was first officially excavated by Max Mallowan (husband of famous novelist Agatha Christie, who also accompanied him on digs there) in 1937-38.
Max and Agatha on the dig
These are from excavations at Hamoukar
Material and form of the eye idols
The eye is a recurrent and symbolic motif in the art forms from the pre-dynastic to neo-assyrian periods. However it is not possible to decide whether it is a decorative, magical or religious talisman. Eye symbols are found in nearly all ancient cultures, from the far flung corners of the globe. The emphasis of the all seeing eye, seems to portray in nearly all cultures, a sign of divinity and holiness.
The image of an eye has always been a powerful amulet in Mesopotamia and thousands of these eye idols, schematised humanoid figures have been found in and around the now called 'Eye Temple' at Tell Brak, dating to the late Uruk period.
These anthropomorphic lithic sculptures are fashioned from various materials, such as lime stone, soap stone, alabaster and baked clay. The simplest form of these graven images, is a flat trapezoid body, with a thin elongated neck, supporting an oversized pair of eyes. Other examples have multiple sets of eyes, some three eyes in a row, two pairs of eyes one above the other, and on occasions a smaller eye figure of a similar style is engraved within the trapezoid body. Family groups have also come to light There are There are also more three dimensional versions which display a set of pierced eye forms on top of a conical body. This type are composed of natural stone and baked clay, and their broad bases enable them to stand upright unsupported.
Here are some examples with archaeological provenance; so we know that these are genuine. (Yes, I do know the story of the digs visitors to Egypt were invited to join and lo and behold they all found wonderful things ...made the month before).
Other eye talismans have been found depicting models of eyes cut into semi precious stones, these are known to date from Sumerian down to Neo-Assyrian periods. These artefacts are known as the 'Eyes of Ningal'. The goddess Ningal was the wife of the god Nanna, also known as Sin and she was the mother of the sun god Shammash, who was worshiped at Ur. Her cult developed independently in Syria as early as the second millennium BC, where her name was changed to Nikkal. This form of her name was also used in Babylonia.
Other statuettes and figurines have been found, which depict worshipers, rather than Gods, looking into the heavens with wide staring eyes, at various other temple sites scattered across the Mesopotamian planes, throughout most periods. Although there is no evidence from any excavated materials that eye idols were made of perishable materials such as tamarisk wood, dough, bitumen or wax, this may have been done if the eye idols were votive offerings. However this practice is documented in cylinder seals and ritual inscriptions for other votive objects at other temple sites.
Note that eye idols of the form shown in figure 4 (below), would appear to display the horned cap denoting divinity . This form of head gear is seen on god figures from the early third millennium BC onwards. Originally it was a general indication of a divine status, its use as a symbol of a particular major deity was never consistent. The Kassite kudurrus contains an inscription that names this symbol as that of the supreme God Anu (An). However in Neo-Assyrian art it was transferred to the new national God Assur. The style of the devine cap has changed from time to time according to fashion, it could be domed or flat topped as in the below examples, or may be depicted trimmed with feathers, surmounted by a knob or a fleur-de-lys. Caps today still seem to represent holiness and divinity, still worn by the pope and the cardinals of Rome, the Jewish scull cap and the turban, which are all modern day examples. It is hard to argue that they are not connected in some way to antiquity and mythology.
A more three dimensional variant also exists, but not fond at Tell Brak itself, and "families" of types have been found.
The basic iconography of the horned cap of divinity may be linked to the Bull of heaven the destroyer of worlds (a mythological Titan, given to ishtar/inanna by her father the great god Anu/An). Read "the epic of gilgamesh" for more details. Or linked to Bos primigenius (a wild species of beast) that roamed the planes of Mesopotamia, standing six feet at the shoulder, with enormous horns, hunted by the Assyrian Kings is probably where the mythology of the heavenly Bull first originated, also 'the zodiac sign Torus' ? the Apis Bull of Egyptian mythology.
There are no concrete theories as to the purpose of the eye temple and the reason for the numerous graven eye images that were found there and therefore they appeal to a very broad section of mankind. Some because they collect antiquities, some because they believe that these idols may be indicative of alien activity on the earth in ancient times
It is clear why collectors of antiquities, especially those whose interest is centred around the cradle of civilisation would like to have a decent specimen for their collection as they are truly both fascinating and mysterious.
In the eyes of a forger, they appear to be easy to manufacture and as they exchange hands for quite sizable sums in the ebay community. But there seems to be a big problem! I have spoken to the BM regarding eye idols. The man there told me that as far as he was aware, these idols did not come with the horned cap of divinty. (I think theymay be wrong about that actually)
The reason why there are so many idols with hair dos or caps of divinity presenting to the market is any ones guess.
From Jason (on Yahoo group)
Tell Brak eye idols are a little easier to authenticate as they are typically made of soft stone. A quick look under the microscope will generally show modern tool marks pretty easily if they are present.
As noted, the other issue with these figures is that fakes are often "dressed up" with hats, hair-dos, etc. Eye figures were meant to be largely passive, neutral attendants of deity figures, and genuinepieces are more usually devoid of those types of individuating characteristics.
More about Eye Idols of Tell Brak
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