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Home > Auctions > 7th September 2021 > Large South Arabian Face Stela

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LOT 0208

GBP (£) 6,000 - 8,000
EUR (€) 7,050 - 9,400
USD ($) 8,360 - 11,150

Opening Bid
£4,590 (EUR 5,394; USD 6,397) (+bp*)

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Large South Arabian Face Stela

3rd-1st century BC

A substantial rectangular Nabataean or Yemenite limestone stela, carved with a stylised face of a male dignitary to the upper end; the expressive face with scaphoid slit mouth and triangular nose beneath a prominent brow-ridge, rounded eyes with lateral wedge-shaped corners, sockets to accept inserts; mounted on a custom-made display stand. 32.8 kg total, 77cm including stand (30 1/4"). Fine condition.

Property of a Kensington gentleman; acquired on the London art market in 2000; accompanied by an archaeological expertise by Dr. Raffaele D’Amato; this lot has been checked against the Interpol Database of stolen works of art and is accompanied by AIAD certificate number no. 10733-174377.

Cf. similar limestone face stelae in Bienkowski, P., The Art of the Jordan, Stroud, 1996, fig.47; Wenning, R., ‘The Betyls of Petra’ in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 324, 2001, pp.79–95; Simpson, S., Queen of Sheba. Treasures from Ancient Yemen, London, 2002, p.197, no.276, 199, nos.279-280.

A similar carving style is demonstrated in the anthropomorphic idol from The Temple of the Winged Lions in Petra. Its shape is clearly similar to the betyls, i.e. blocks of stone representing a Nabataean god. The term ‘betyl’ derives from the Greek Βαιτύλια and from a Greek myth, according to which Ouranos created animated stones falling from the sky. Nabataean inscriptions include two terms for betyls: nşb and mşb. Both terms are related to the Semitic root yşb and describe an erected/standing stone/stela. Betyls were commonly placed on altars or platforms for religious rites being performed. The stela could be incorporated in a stone frame, with the inscription of the deceased or of the divinity, and sometimes decorated, like the stela of the goddess of Hayyan son of Nabat (Bienkowski, 2002, p.46), with specific attributes, like the laurel crown. A special type of Nabataean betyl, in Dalman’s classification, is called the eye betyl, where the high, rectangular, plain slab is represented with square eyes and a straight nose. Another special type are the face stelae, to which category our specimen belongs. Eye betyls and face stelae are of interest to scholars due to the inconsistency in what is largely understood as Nabataean aniconism. Like the Nabataean betyls, the face is carved in raised relief; the thick lips contrast with the triangular, massive nose that raises from the background. The traces of red on the eyelids and the other red and black pigments on eyebrows and eye sockets, makes clear that these stelae were originally enhanced with the colours and the insertions of precious stones for the eyes.