Sabean Alabaster Bust of a Woman - PF.0084
Origin: Yemen
Circa: 200 BC to 100 AD
Dimensions: 7.5" (19.1cm) high x 4.75" (12.1cm) wide
Collection: Biblical
Style: Sabean
Medium: Alabaster


This striking head is a grave marker or perhaps a commemorative piece from the ancient kingdom of Saba which ruled over the lands of southwestern Arabia, centered in modern day Yemen. Technically, the Sabeans are one of four major powers in this area, also including the Minaeans, the Qatabanians and the Hadramites, but the peoples as a whole became subsumed as a single entity by the middle of the first millennium BC. Saba is perhaps better known as Sheba, whose famous Queen was recounted as having visited Solomon in the pages of the Old Testament. The wealth of the kingdom is legendary, and is primarily attributable to Saba’s position at the crossroads of the ancient world, receiving consignments (particularly of incense) from all across the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean basin. The city of Marib was also in an ideal position to control the trade route between India to Egypt, although this lucrative venture was cut short in the 1st century AD following the foundation of a nautical route from India directly to the port of Alexandria.

As well as being a highly successful nation state in their own right, the Sabeans embraced the multiplicity of cultural influences that came with their status as a trading superpower. Their alphabet – Musnad – was one of the most complex and elegant of the day, while they also had a second, cursive system (Zabur) that was used for day-to-day operations. They mummified their dead, had a pantheon of gods, and possessed liberal attitudes to the deities and traditions of outsiders. They also had a complex social stratification system, extensive public buildings and ceremonial architecture, and a literary/theatrical heritage that survives in fragmented state. It is for their art, however, that the Sabeans are best remembered. Their religion and mythology fuelled the themes of their sculptural works – primarily anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuary – while their contact with other cultures and nations led to a highly derived and distinctive style. There are major works in bronze, precious metals and exotic minerals, but they are perhaps best known for works in soft stone such as alabaster.

This piece depicts a feminine head and neck, and appears to have once served as a grave marker, or perhaps as part of a larger alabaster structure. The face is elongated, with a broad apex above the eyes narrowing to a firm and pointed chin. As in most Sabean pieces, the eyes – under high, arches brows – are exaggerated in terms of size, being wide and almond-shaped with the remains of light-coloured inlay. The nose is very long and delicate, with a high bridge, flaring slightly towards the tip over a nugatory mouth in low relief. Detailing is limited, with incised eyebrows and a single line at the apex of the forehead that seems designed to suggest a headband or similar. It is therefore the linear design and graceful execution of the piece that provide its impact. The significance of the piece is, as ever with ancient art, open to debate. However, the fact that the person has been commemorated in this way seems to imply they had a certain status in the society in question. It is also possible that it refers to a protector spirit or god from the large Sabean pantheon. Whatever the reason, however, this is a well-conceived and executed piece of ancient art. - (PF.0084)




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