The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Height: 30.000 cm
Width: 19.010 cm
Thickness: 7.000 cm (at nose)
Calcite gravestone showing a standing woman
Qatabanian, 1st century BC - 2nd century AD
Possibly from Tamna, Qataban, Yemen
This is the gravestone of a young woman named Aban, of the clan of Mahdhar. She probably lived in Qataban, since the alphabetic script records the language of that region. Qataban was one of the rival kingdoms of south Arabia, the others being Saba (the oldest and most powerful), Hadramawt, Himyar and Ma'in. By the time of this sculpture, Saba had conquered western Qataban and, by the second half of the second century AD, Qataban had completely disappeared, annexed by the Hadramite empire.
Aban is represented looking to the front. This is common in the contemporary art of Palmyra, where such funerary sculptures were known as a nefesh: a 'soul' or 'personality', important for a person's identity in the next world. The top of her head is planed off horizontally, to enable the hair to be added in plaster. This feature is typical of portrait busts from ancient South Arabia.
The wealth reflected in sculptures such as this one often derived from the extensive South Arabian trade in frankincense and myrrh. These resins, which only grow in eastern Yemen, southern Oman and Somaliland, were two of the most prized materials of the ancient world. They were burnt on every altar in the Near East and Mediterranean.
W. Daum (ed.), Yemen: 3000 years of art and c (Penguin, 1988)
R.D. Barnett, Fifty masterpieces of Ancient (London, The British Museum Press, 1969)
St J. Simpson (ed.), Queen of Sheba: treasures from (London, The British Museum Press, 2002)