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Gallery Text

Of Fragments and Forgeries

These figurines—with their curious faces (sometimes deemed “bird-like”), elaborate headdresses, and emphatic hips—are puzzling. Examples like numbers 1–4 [1998.15.16; 1992.256.12.1–3; 2022.242.1–3; 1969.177.86.1–2] have been found across today’s northern Syria and southeastern Türkiye (Turkey) in sanctuaries and graves dating from the second millennium BCE. Their applied breasts and incised pubic triangles mark them as female, encouraging modern interpretations about fertility and sexuality. Number 5 [1953.118], likely made on the island of Cyprus, shows similar features, attesting to ideas about female bodies shared between distant but connected communities of the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia during the Bronze Age.

Who exactly do they depict? Goddesses or worshippers? Both or neither? Any answers are complicated by wrinkles in their modern stories that raise a more urgent question: are these objects even ancient?

All six figurines moved through the art market without documented findspots, making it difficult to interpret them or even assess their authenticity. Number 6 [1999.252] may be a modern forgery. And while numbers 2–4 [1992.256.12.1–3; 2022.242.1–3; 1969.177.86.1–2] arrived at Harvard as single objects, each, in fact, comprises several pieces that are not original to each other. It is not clear whether the fragments are all ancient, all modern, or a combination of both. Displayed here disassembled, the objects offer a cautionary tale about the uncertainty that accompanies poorly documented paths on the art market.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Anthropomorphic female figurine
Other Titles
Former Title: Female Statuette
Former Title: Figure of a Goddess with Bird-Like Face and Elaborate Headdress
Work Type
statuette, sculpture
1900-1800 BCE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Asia, Syria, Northern Syria
Bronze Age, Middle
Persistent Link


Level 3, Room 3440, Ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Art, Ancient Middle Eastern Art in the Service of Kings
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Physical Descriptions

H. 16 × W. 5.5 × D. 3.5 cm (6 5/16 × 2 3/16 × 1 3/8 in.)


Recorded Ownership History
William A. Koshland, New York (by 1997), bequest; to Harvard University Art Museums, 1998.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of William A. Koshland
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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This handmade terracotta figurine depicts a anthropomorphic female figure. She is naked except for a necklace or collar around her neck and a belt or sash around her waist. Four rounded projections, perforated (pierced all the way through), create a comb structure that frames her face, indicating a headdress, an elaborate coiffure, or ears. Eyes are large and round, formed of applied circular pellets which were indented by a circular tool; another perforated pellet was applied at the center of her forehead. Her forehead and nose are formed by a thin, tall rectangular piece of clay, giving her face a beak-like appearance (the basis of the “bird-like” descriptor often applied to figurines like this). Her necklace is formed out of a roll of clay decorated with two lines of rouletting.

Her arms project as short stumps to either side of her body. Her breasts are indicated by applied circular pellets indented by a circular tool. Her navel is formed in the same way. A belt or sash is formed on the front of her body by an applied roll of clay that runs below her navel; two ends dangle down onto her legs. Fine rouletted piercings in horizontal lines decorate the belt/sash.

Her hips widen in a diamond-like shape. Her legs, which taper, are delineated on front and back by a vertical line, likely a result of their formation by two rolls of clay. Her back is flat, save the line separating her legs; this is also indicative of the forming process, in which the clay was pressed against a flat surface. While her pose is a “standing” posture, the figurine would not have been able to stand upright on its own: her feet point downward and do not provide a flat, stable resting surface. Two rouletted lines decorate the top of her feet, apparently indicating toes.

A break (mended) runs from the middle of the proper right leg across through the proper left leg, as a slight upward diagonal; there is a small loss from the front surface on the proper right leg. Another break, running from the proper left shoulder below the proper right arm, has also been mended.
This figurine is a fairly typical example of a category of figurines depicting a nude female figure with a “bird-like” face. These were made in the 2nd millennium BCE at sites across northern Syria (today’s eastern Turkey and northern Syria). Specifically, this figurine is in a form that comes from the region of the Orontes River. Such figurines are often interpreted as goddesses or divinities; the frequent depiction of breasts (present here) and pubic triangles (not present here) have encouraged interpretations of deities or domains of life pertaining to female sexuality and/or fertility.

It is common for figurines of this type to be broken across the legs. It is not currently clear if this frequent breakage pattern is the result of intentional, perhaps ritual, breakage or merely indicates a common susceptibility of the figurines to breakage during use or deposition.

Further information on this type of figurine may be found in the following standard reference work (where falls into the category of Orontes Type MAI 2):
Leila Badre. 1980. Les figurines anthropomorphes en terre cuite a l'age du bronze en Syrie, Bibliothèque archéologique et historique 103. Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner.

Exhibition History

  • 32Q: 3440 Middle East, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 06/15/2023 - 01/01/2050

Related Works

Verification Level

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at