Abstract and exaggerated eyes rise up from a trapezoidal body in white alabaster. An example missing part of its “torso” is illustrated to the left, while the alabaster figurine below is broken just below the eyes.
These objects, some of which are only 3-4 centimetres in height, are more than 5000 years old and come from the archaeological site of Tell Brak, the ancient city of Nagar, in northeastern Syria.
See Tell Brak on Google Maps (the link opens in a new window).
The ancient city of Nagar was first investigated in 1937-38 by the British archaeologist Max Mallowan, accompanied by his wife, the famous author Agatha Christie. A team from Cambridge University has been conducting excavations there since 1976.
Hundreds of small figurines like the ones illustrated here were discovered in a large building, which led the archaeologists to name it the “Eye Temple”.
The figurines had probably been gifts to the gods from visitors to the temple, perhaps representing the people who presented them to their deities. By placing this kind of “stand in” in the temple, the worshipper may have guaranteed a presence in divine company for all time. In later periods, the exaggeratedly large eyes on such votive objects symbolized attentiveness to the gods.
Learn more about Tell Brak on the project website (the link opens in a new window).
Some of the Eye Idols from Tell Brak have drilled holes for eyes rather than the incised versions illustrated here. Similar objects have been found at the Syrian site of Hama, excavated from 1931 to 1938 by archaeologists from The National Museum under the direction of Harald Ingholt. The figure to the left is made of red terracotta, is 21 centimetres in height, and has drilled “eyes”. It dates to around 3000 BCE.
The Eye Idols from Tell Brak are unfortunately not on display; however, the figure from Hama can be seen at the National Museum in room 320 of the exhibition of Ancient Near Eastern and Classical Antiquities.