Western Asiatic Limestone Domestic Altar with a Ram’s Head Protome
Culture: Western Asiatic, Caucasian
Period: Western Asia (Caspian Sea),ca. 1200-800 B.C.
Dimensions: Length: 27.9cm
Ex-Dr. C. Bernoulli collection, Basel, Switzerland, acquired in 1955.
Conditions: Intact and whole in spite of some chips. Excellent state of preservation, with a beautiful original and uniform beige patina.
This extraordinary altar is carved from a small and rectangular limestone block, with rounded edges and slightly convex walls. One of the sides is decorated with a three-dimensional protome of a ram’s head: the animal is represented with naturalistic details (many anatomical details are incised or modeled) combined with stylized forms (the fur of the neck is indicated by a vertical bulge). The horns coil on either side of the muzzle and form large volutes that resemble snails. Two undulating lines run along both lateral sides: at least one of them ends in a snake head (?) carved on the surface behind the left horn. The upper and bottom surfaces are flat. The superb protome is as contemporary in its lines and rendering as could possibly be, a tribute to the timelessness of art.
There are only a few parallels for this piece, and its purpose is still questioned. The shape and the presence of the ram - which was one of the most frequent animal offerings to the gods – suggest that it might have been a portable altar. According to other indications, these large stone blocks with ram’s heads could serve to grind various substances, like tattoo pigments or even hashish to inhale.
At the Paradeisos exhibition, in the Antikenmuseum in Basel (1991-1993).
JETTMAR K., The Slab with a Ram’s Head in the Rietberg Museum, in Artibus Asiae 27, 1965, pp. 291-300.
MUSCARELLA O.W. (éd.), Ancient Art, The Norbert Schimmel Coll., Mayence/Rhin, 1974, n. 140.