- Museum number
- The Ain Sakhri lovers
Sculpture of embracing lovers presented in low relief on a calcite cobble. The couple are shown face to face, one embracing the other who is sitting in his lap by the shoulders. The heads are separated by a groove in the outline of the stone. Although no facial features are shown, the lips are evidently touching. The arms of one figure bend up at the elbows, embracing the opposite figure with the wrists touching just below its shoulders.The knees of this figure are bent upwards so that the buttocks and area of undepicted feet form the base of the sculpture. The buttocks of the embraced figure are indicated above the feet of the other and the knees are raised so that the lower legs extend around the waist suggesting genital contact. In profile, the figures have conical heads, no necks and their arched backs curve into one another. Ingeniously, the low relief that depicts tender embrace is also intentionally phallic in all aspects.
The surviving natural surface on the cobble is bruised with chattermarks indicating that it came from the bed of a stream where it had bumped together with other stones. The sculptor utilised the natural heart-shaped outline of the stone to pick out the outline of a couple making love face to face in a sitting position. This was done using a 'picking' technique using a stone chisel with the stone or antler hammer to reduce the calcite surface by percussion so that the outlines of the figures appear in low relief. When first made the picked line would appear lighter than natural surface of the cobble enhancing the visual impact of the sculpture.
Found/Acquired: Ain Sakhri, Ain Sakhri is a small cave not far from a spring that gives its name to the Wadi Kareitoun a steep-sided, rocky gorge about 10 km long, in the Judean Desert, 10 km southeast of Bethlehem. When he first published the sculpture in 1933, Neuville did not specify that it came from the cave refering it simply to the Wadi Khareitoun as the Bedouin informant had indicated, but his excavation of the cave eighteen years later convinced him that the sculpture was associated with Ain Sakhri. Before Neuville worked there, the cave had been cleared out to make space inside by its owner and the limited remnants of the deposits excavated by Neuville yielded only a small number of backed crescents or segments, characteristic flint implements of the early Natufian, as well as a stone pestle with a phallic form. The earlier removal of sediments from the site may explain how the sculpture was found in the gorge by a Bedouin who took it and sold to the French Fathers at Bethlehem who had a museum where it was subsequently seen and acquired by the French archaeologist l'abbe Breuil and Neuville on a visit to the Fathers in 1933 ( Boyd & Cook 1993, pp.300-401). Calcite cobbles like that used for the sculpture occur in the bed of the wadi which was a regular route for Bedouin travelling between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. Caves along the route were used as campsites.
Height: 102 millimetres
Weight: 343 grammes
Width: 63 millimetres
Depth: 39 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The sculpture of the lovers from Ain Sakhri is a unique, accomplished and highly sophisticated sculpture. Using the subtle shaping of the natural stone the sculptor has produced a remarkably evocative image of human sexuality. It is the oldest known sculpture of people making love and has a timeless, touching resonance of tenderness, love and relationship. It has always been popular with museum visitors and acquired a new modern symbolism during the period of lockdown against Corona Virus in 2020, when it epitomised the simple but essential need for the reassurance of a hug that had to be avoided at that time.
Viewed archaeologically, it is distinctive. Other sculptures dating to the early Natufian period in the Levant, including pieces found in the Wadi Khareitoun, are worked in bone or antler. They depict grazing animals naturalistically and form elaborate handles for reaping knives. Stone phalluses are also known from this period and anthropomorphic figures produced on stone pebbles occur later in the early neolithic of the region. It is impossible to assess the personal or social preoccupations that inspired the sculpting of the Ain Sakhri lovers in deep history or to suggest an interpretation for such complex sexual imagery. Whether personal and erotic, symbolic or mythological, or indicative of sexual competence related to fertility, increase and abundance, it is easy to recognise the timeless thrill and comfort of human intimacy.
This object was sent for moulding in the Cast Shop between 19 and 28 March 1963 and several copies therefore exist (WAA, 'Transfers' book).
- On display (G51/dc2)
- Exhibition history
2019 21 Sep-17 Nov Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Dorchester, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2019 8 Jun-31 Aug Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2019 15 Mar-26 May, Bolton Museum, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2018-2019 14 Dec-3 Mar, National Justice Museum, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2018 25 Sep– 2 Dec, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories
2017 11 May-15 Mar, BM, Room 69a, Desire, love, identity-exploring LGBTQ histories
2014-2015 13 Dec-15 Mar, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2014 23 Apr-01 Aug, Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'
2005 14 Jul-2006 27 Apr, Israel, Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, In the Beginning: Beyond the Myth of Creation
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Following Neuville's death in 1952, his son sold the sculpture through Sothebys.The piece was well known among archaeologists in Britain and it was purchased by the British Museum. Its discovery and earlier history are documented in Boyd & Cook 1993.
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number