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Gallery Text

What Is in a Head?

Figural representation often emphasizes the head and face. Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth hold particular potential for interaction with the viewer, and the face is frequently perceived as a mirror of the mind. In ancient Egypt, the Near East, and Greece, most depictions of humans and deities included the full body. This allowed the subjects to strike a distinctive pose, while their clothing indicated social standing. Portraits in head or bust form became common in Roman art and have played a major role in Western art ever since. The art of other cultures around the world also reflects special significance attributed to the head. The Edo peoples of the Benin kingdom in present-day Nigeria, for example, regarded the head as the seat of knowledge and decision-making power and crucial to a person’s, or in the case of a king, the state’s well-being. In this space outside the Roman gallery, several sculpted heads — self-contained images, a vessel, and statue parts — invite comparison across continents and millennia.

The sculptures place varying emphasis on accessories, such as the royal coral-bead cap and collar of the Benin bronze head and the “barbarian” floppy hat of the Roman marble head. Hairstyle and physique can express social roles and character traits, as in the case of the philosopher’s beard of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, seen here in an Italian Renaissance version, and the princely topknot of the Gandharan bodhisattva, an enlightened, compassionate being distinguished from other Buddhist figures by his depiction in royal Indian attire.

The individualized features of the ancient Peruvian stirrup-spout bottle — probably portraying a historical or mythical figure — contrast with the idealized face of the bodhisattva and the classicizing one of the Roman marble head of what may be a generic Easterner. The heads meet the viewer’s gaze with unemotional, controlled expressions that correspond to the codes and conventions of their time.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Head of an Eastern Woman ("The Ponsonby Head")
Work Type
head, sculpture
early 2nd century CE
Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Europe
Roman Imperial period, Middle
Persistent Link


Level 3, Room 3710, North Arcade
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Physical Descriptions

Pentelic marble
34.5 cm h x 29 cm w x 29 cm d (13 9/16 x 11 7/16 x 11 7/16 in.)


Recorded Ownership History
William Francis Spencer Ponsonby, First Lord de Mauley (by 1854). Hon. Ashley G. J. Ponsonby, London, (by 1881), by inheritance; to Claude Ponsonby, London, (1898-1903), sold; to Edward W. Forbes, Cambridge, MA, (1903-1905), gift; to Fogg Art Museum, 1905.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Edward W. Forbes
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Published Catalogue Text: Stone Sculptures: The Greek, Roman and Etruscan Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums , written 1990

Ideal Head of a Captive Barbarian Queen

This head, the so-called "Ponsonby Head," has in the past been identified as Amastris and more recently as Olympias. The noble lady, in oriental costume and with a seemingly sorrowful expression, typifies representations of idealized captive barbarians, as seen on Roman triumphal monuments, on sarcophagi, and in the minor arts. Despite the romantic names attached to this head, it seems doubtful that a direct model can be found in the time of Alexander the Great's immediate successors. The decorative statue, of which this head once formed a part, was probably carved in the Trajanic to early Hadrianic periods of the Roman Empire (about A.D. 100-125). It certainly had an architectural setting.

Cornelius Vermeule and Amy Brauer

Publication History

  • Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain, J. Murray (London, England, 1854), I, p. 37, II, p. 83
  • Otto Jahn, Sophoclis: Electra (Bonn, 1861), ill., frontispiece.
  • Adolf Theodor Friedrich Michaelis, "Tragischer Kopf", Archaologischer Anzeiger (1880), Vol. 38, 75-84
  • Adolf Theodor Friedrich Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, UK, 1882), pp. 472, no. 1, 484, no. 18 (and older references)
  • Eugenie Strong, Burlington Fine Arts Club Exhibition of Ancient Art, exh. cat. (London, England, 1903), pp. 21-23, no. 29
  • Salomon Reinach, Recueil de têtes antiques idéales ou idéalisées, Gazette des Beaux-Arts (Paris, 1903), p. 183-184, pl. 227.
  • Jan Six, "Amastria, Koenigin von Amastris", Romische Mitteilungen, Loescher and Co. (1912), pp. 86-93, pl. I, as Queen Amastris of Amastris
  • George H. Chase, Greek and Roman Sculpture in American Collections, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1924), p. 98, no. 115
  • Charles Picard, La sculpture antique de Phidias a l'ere byzantine, 2, H. Laurens (Paris, France, 1926), pp. 198ff.
  • Arnold W. Lawrence, Later Greek Sculpture and its Influence on East and West, J. Cape (London, England, 1927), pp. 12, 95, pl. 8
  • George M. A. Hanfmann, An Exhibition of Ancient Sculpture, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1950), p. 14, no. 38
  • Raissa Calza, Scavi di Ostia: I ritratti, pt. 1: Ritratti greci e romani fino al 160 circa d.C., vol. 5 (Rome, Italy, 1964), p. 16, no. 5, pl. 3
  • Edward Waldo Forbes, Yankee Visionary, Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1971), The Checklist, p. 150
  • Romans and Barbarians, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA, 1976), p. 7, no. 8
  • George M. A. Hanfmann and David Gordon Mitten, "The Art of Classical Antiquity", Apollo (May 1978), vol. 107, no. 195, pp. 362-369, p. 366
  • Cornelius C. Vermeule III, Greek and Roman Sculpture in America, University of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, 1981), p. 212, no. 177, and colorplate 17
  • Cornelius C. Vermeule III and Amy Brauer, Stone Sculptures: The Greek, Roman and Etruscan Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p. 107, no. 93
  • Fritz Wille, Fuhrungsgrundsatze in der Antike, Schulthess Polygraphischer Verlag (Zurich, Switzerland, 1992), p. 105, ill.
  • [Reproduction Only], Persephone (Spring 2001), Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 40
  • [Reproduction Only], Persephone, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 2011, p. 62.

Exhibition History

  • Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/22/2007 - 01/20/2008
  • 32Q: 3710 North Arcade, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

  • Google Art Project

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