Persian figurines at Tell Halif

It was especially in Field IV, excavated from 1992 to 1999, that Persian figurines were found on Tell Halif. But throughout the excavations of Field V (2007 – 2015), we also regularly came across figurines. This year the Persian figurines were found in the North of Field V, areas A8 and A7.

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Here’s the head of a nice bearded man. The figurine was hollow and manufactured in a mold. By pressing sheets of clay in a mold, more detailed figurines could be made and they could be produced quickly in large quantities.
It is thought that the figurine represents a priest.

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Then we’ve got the head of this lovely lady with a peaked cap. Many of such figurines have been found in previous seasons. It is not quite clear who may be represented here.

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The head of this lovely figurine is unfortunately missing. The chair is also molded in clay. But any clear identifying features are missing.

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This naked warrior with a dagger in one hand and a shield in the other might have represented one of the ancient heroes, like Hercules.

Figurines like these have been found around all the Eastern Mediterranean. Their style is characteristically Persian, though at times it blends into art from the Hellenistic time. The use of molds allowed for the detail shown here. Also characteristic are the relatively exact proportions of the figurines. In earlier figurines, the main aspects were often emphasized, so that proportions were not always followed. In Persian times, and even more so from the Hellenistic era onwards, the ideal proportions of the human body were considered far more important.

And why do we have so many figurines on Tell Halif? It is generally considered that there was a temple or sanctuary on Tell Halif in the Persian Period. These figurines were used as votive figures by visitors to the sanctuary. The point was to give something, to dedicate it. Therefore, the figurines were not re-used. Rather they were left at the temple. Maybe they were even broken. Then they were disposed off in a favissa, a special pit inside or near the temple. During the Byzantine Period much of the upper soil on Tell Halif was disturbed as the people built new terracing, so they probably also dug up the favissa a few centuries after the figurines were deposited and spread the soil and the figurines over parts of the tell. That means that the figurines are not in their original context. We do not know where the favissa or the temple would have been located on the tell. But from the many figurines (over 800 have been found so far), we can conclude that there probably was such a temple here in Persian times.

Even though figurines have been found from the Iron Age (Biblical Judah), there were not that many and it is likely that most of them were in households, and not dedicated when visiting a temple. We do not know how exactly the figurines were used during the Iron Age and whether they should be called “cultic”. But if figurines from the Iron Age and the Persian Period are somehow cultic, they do represent a shift in the religious practices of the people. Now, if Tell Halif is biblical Rimmon, according to Nehemiah Jews returning from the Babylonian Exile settled here. The question may then arise how what became Judaism moved from very little cultic depictions in the Iron Age to this plethora of figurines in the Persian Period to the strict prohibition of images in the Roman Period. Many theories have been proposed, often diametrically opposed to each other. The whole interpretive exercise depends on a chain of assumptions. Some of these assumptions are better supported than others. But I still think that the questions have to be asked. We may never know the answer, and I would regard it as dangerous to discount all but the one favoured by us personally.

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