This graceful ceramic sculpture is a votive figure from the middle of the first millennium BC, and represents a Phoenician deity. It depicts a goddess standing on an integral base, dressed in a robe that extends cowl-like from the apex of her head down to the floor. Much of the other drapery detail has been eroded by the piece’s long immersion in the Mediterranean, as have the small details of the face, but while the smaller points have been eroded, the confident, clean lines of the piece more than compensate for their loss. As is usual with sculptures of this sort, she has her right hand raised in benediction; her left arm is cradling an eminence that was probably originally a child. While the precise significance of this is unknown, the maternity/fertility associations are clear (see below). The general rendering is diagnostically Pre-Classical – rather austere and linear composition – and reflects the archaic style of Greek sculpture that the Phoenicians inspired and with which this piece is contemporary. The piece still retains calcareous accretions (which can be removed if required), which attest to its long interment in the Mediterranean. The back of the piece is almost completely plain, implying that it was always meant to be viewed from the front rather than in the round: this is usual for figures designed for shrines.
The Phoenicians were one of the most important civilisations of the ancient world, and flourished from around 1500 to 300 BC. Their world was centred on Northern Israel, Lebanon and Syria, while their sphere of conquest and influence extended throughout the Mediterranean and even beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) and into the Mediterranean-Atlantic. Their power was due primarily to their mastery of seamanship – which they developed to a whole new level during their pre-eminence – and extremely well-organised administration which was strengthened by extensive use of the alphabet. Indeed, it was the Phoenicians who introduced the alphabet to the Greeks, who in turn passed it onto the rest of the Western World. They were essentially Canaanites, to whom they were identical in sociocultural and material terms, the only difference being the massive range over which their cultural remains and heritage can be found. Phoenician society was comparatively stable when compared to the changeable fortunes of other Eastern Mediterranean cultures, primarily due to its broad royal, political and religious foundations. The town of Byblos became a major hub for trade all over the Fertile Crescent, followed by Tyre and Sidon; overseas territories notably included Carthage (founded 814 BC), but they either took over or culturally dominated trading ports from Cyprus to Malta, Spain, Portugal and Sardinia. They traded in purple dye (“Tyrian Purple”), textiles, luxury ceramics, silver, tin (with England) and glass, explored down the west coast of Africa as far as the Gulf of Guinea, and may even have circumnavigated Africa in around 600 BC.
Their artistic output is usually on a small scale – enabling it to be easily transported and traded – and made of high-value materials such as glass and precious metal. Phoenician styles are largely derivative, being informed by sources as varied as Cyprus, Egypt, Assyria and Greece, and has been described as an amalgam of pre-classic models and perspectives, often with regionalised local stylistic variants. The use of ceramic figures seems to have been religious in origin, with shrine figures (or baetyls) depicting a wide range of the deities and legendary figures from Mediterranean mythology. Clay tableaux show these figures being displayed in niches, worshipped at a familial or group level, and they were also sometimes interred with the dead. Depictions range from the classical-naturalistic to the schematic or even grotesque. Specific members of the pantheon include Baal (or Baal-Hammon, to whom children were sacrificed), Eshmun (god of healing and the arts), Melqart (the Phoenician equivalent of Poseidon/Neptune) Bes (an Egyptian household god resembling an ugly dwarf), Tanit (the patron goddess of Carthage) and Astarte (an indigenous Phoenician goddess). Various other deities cannot be specifically identified. It is notable that the gender bias is very strong towards goddesses. The significance of individual gods or figures cannot be ascertained in most cases. As with most societies, any figure with greatly exaggerated sexual characteristics is usually associated with fertility, although most figures are likely to represent personages whose significance has been lost to us.
This sculpture was recovered from the floor of the Mediterranean; the manner in which it and associated pieces were found suggests that it might have been part of a naval shrine aboard the doomed vessel, although it is also possible that it was being taken to a Phoenician outpost in order to form part of a shrine for a prosperous household or religious centre. In either case, this is an exceptionally attractive and historically fascinating piece that would take pride of place in any collection of the genre.
Moscati, S. (ed.). 1988. The Phoenicians. John Murray Publishers, London