This attractive ceramic sculpture is a votive figure from the middle of the first millennium BC, and represents a deity in the Phoenician pantheon. It shows a goddess standing on an unusually tall integral pedestal base (about one third of the total height of the piece), dressed in a long robe that covers the back of the ornate hair and stretches down to the ground. Her face is partially obscured by calcareous concretions (which can be removed if required), but the delicate modelling of her features can still be seen. Her hair is long, hanging to the shoulders, and her toes can just be seen protruding from the hem of her long robe. Her left hand is on her breast, her right raised in a gesture of benediction. The breasts are unusually prominent – they are typically obscured by textile and in any case much smaller – and the stomach is also very large. These characteristics of pregnancy are not uncommon in votive figures but the finesse with which the figure has been rendered is unusual. Examples in the main reference text for Phoenician art are typically very crude and purely notional fertility charms. This, by contrast, has true artistry. Her upright stance and austere pose are reminiscent of the Archaic Period Greek statues which the Phoenicians inspired, and with which this piece is roughly contemporary. 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 appropriate 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. Fortunately, the current piece is less ambiguous.
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. 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.