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13 / The Body

Female Figure
Female Figure
Artist / Origin Unknown artist (probably Syrian), Nimrud, Iraq
Region: West Asia
Date Neo-Assyrian, ca. 8th century BCE
Period: 500 BCE - 1 CE
Material Ivory
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 11 ¾ in. (30 cm); W: 2 7/8 in. (7.4 cm); D: 5 ¾ in. (14.5 cm.)
Credit Courtesy of Il Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia, Turin, Italy

expert perspective

Zainab BahraniProfessor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Female Figure

» Unknown artist (probably Syrian), Nimrud, Iraq

expert perspective

Zainab Bahrani Zainab Bahrani Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

When representations of nude females first began to emerge in archaeological excavations in places like Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, the ancient Near East, the earliest archaeologists who found these figurines, at the end of nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, began to describe them in their publications of these excavations as mother goddesses. This was just the standard interpretation for all of these figures. But, in fact, it’s actually much more complicated than that. They’re clearly not all goddesses. They’re not even all images that represent fertility or motherhood. We have a large number of images in which the female body does not seem to be that of fertility or even motherhood, but what we seem to have represented is a kind of sexualization in a very erotic way of the female form. There are no taboos on depicting that aspect of the female body at all in the way that there are in the classical tradition. With female nudity we very often get a sense that this is a nudity for the pleasure of the viewer—the viewer being understood as presumably male. The female nude was not only not taboo, but it was considered in some sense propitious, in some sense good and beautiful and perhaps even good luck.

The ideal changes a little bit over time. If you look at the early second millennium BCE you see a slim, but sort of rounded body, with emphasis on breasts and hips. In the later periods, for example, in the Neo-Assyrian era, you see more heavyset figures of women. And then later on during the Hellenistic era, when Mesopotamia becomes conquered by Alexander the Great and his armies and becomes part of this larger Hellenistic realm, you see this really interesting mixture of femininity that is a kind of a hybrid mix between the Greek classical form of the representation of the female nude merging with the more traditional ancient Near Eastern images.”