- Museum number
Front of tin bronze altar; cast in relief with an inscription around the cornice; two spouts in the form of bulls' heads at the front, and below the cornice, three rows of sphinxes, shown facing frontally (the sphinx decoration, here preserved only at the back probably extended to all four sides).
- Production date
- 1stC BC-1stC
Diameter: 34.50 centimetres
Height: 66 centimetres
Width: 110 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Original gallery exhibition label reads: "The surviving part of the inscription on the altar states that ...'il (name largely destroyed), son of 'Amm'anas, a priest of Rahmu, had dedicated two persons, Lahay athat and Sabhhimu (possibly his sons), to the god Rahmu. The god Rahmu is otherwise unknown".
This outstanding and thus far unique semi-complete bronze altar carries an incomplete Sabaean inscription. The name of the dedicant is unfortunately not preserved but the inscription, which commences on the most completely preserved side, describes how the altar was dedicated to a previously unattested local deity called Rahmaw following completion of a successful hunting trip (Lundin and Frantsouzoff 1997a). However, Robin (CORRES 15/1/03) suggests that this inscription has been misread by Lundin and Frantsouzoff and that there is no reference to a hunt but instead to a dedication (as was originally suggested in the label, above). (A broken letter on the side with the bulls' head spouts has caused the problem).
Two joining portions of this altar survive, the first and largest of which consists of the front panel showing three rows of standing sphinxes shown frontally, set below a lightly projecting cornice around which runs the beginning of a Sabaean inscription. The raised letters were made by applying individual wax threads onto the panel before it was cast; the same technique was used to make bronze dedicatory tablets (Simpson St J 2002a, cats 31, 219). The second fragment represents part of the corresponding back panel of the altar flanked by a projecting bull's head spout (Christie's 1970, no. 159; Barnett and Curtis 1973, 130, pl. LXIIb).
After acquisition in 1970, the thick heavy corrosion products which measured up to 5 cm thick in places and which obscured the surfaces were removed, not only revealing the inscription and decoration but also blow holes resulting from the original casting and the almost-pure copper nails which had been used in antiquity to attach the metal onto a wooden core or frame (see also Simpson St J 2002a, cat. 167). Traces of burning mixed with the corrosion suggests that the remains of the altar may have been discarded in an ashy deposit. Technical examination within the Department of Scientific Research also indicated that the main part of the altar was probably made as a single casting from several separate melts poured successively into a mould; the metal composition is almost uniform with c. 11-14 per cent tin added to c. 83-90 per cent copper with the usual minor trace elements of lead, zinc, iron and nickel. Smaller fragments belonging to a second bronze altar also decorated with sphinxes but made with a slightly different metal composition exist in the British Museum collection (Seipel 1998a, 297-8, no. 172; see also Costa 1978, 43, pl. XXII, no. 82).1
1 Unpublished reports (R.L. and Conservation File No. 2987).
Barnett, R. D. and Curtis, J., 1973. 'A review of acquisitions 1963-70 of Western Asiatic Antiquities (2)', British Museum Quarterly 37, 119-37.
Costa, P., 1978. The Pre-Islamic Antiquities at the Yemen National Museum, Rome: "L'Erma" di Bretschneider.
Lundin, A. G. and Frantsouzoff, S. A., 1997. 'An Inscribed Sabaean Bronze Altar from The British Museum', St Petersburg Journal of Oriental Studies 9, 384 91.
Part of 1970,0604.2 (BM.135324).
Compare with 1972,1101.1 (BM.135756).
Published: Christie's 7-7-1970, no. 159; BMQ 37, pls LXII-LXIIIa.
Request that E. Safani bid at auction on behalf of the Museum (ANE Corres, 17 June 1970, q.v. Safani)
Bowers Catalogue entry (unpublished):
Altar with a Sabaean dedication to the deity Rahmaw
Possibly 6th century BC
Height 66 cm, width 110 cm, thickness 34.5 cm
Possibly from Marib
ANE 1970-6-4,1-2 = 135323 and 135324
Purchased from Christie’s; said to have previously belonged to Sharif Ahmed ibn Awadh al-Habili
This unique object is one of the largest and most important examples of ancient South Arabian metal-working. Its suggested date has been attributed on the basis of the palaeography (the shape of the letters). Two joining portions survive, the first and largest of which consists of the panel showing three rows of standing sphinxes shown frontally, set below a lightly projecting cornice around which runs the beginning of a Sabaean inscription. These portions were originally probably used as cladding placed over a plain stone block. The raised letters were made by applying individual wax threads onto the panel before it was cast and although most have been carefully smoothed, the uneven tops of some indicate how they were individually moulded; the same technique was used to make the bronze dedicatory tablets. The second fragment represents the corresponding side of the altar where the recessed top was drained by a pair of projecting bull’s head gargoyles.
The altar carried a Sabaean inscription which commences on the most completely preserved portion and has been translated by the Russian scholars A.G. Lundin and S. Frantsouzoff as:
“[...]il, son of Ammanas, priest of Rahmaw, [has] dedicated to Rahmaw Lahayathat and Sabahhumaw when [he performed the h]unt of Athtar dhu-Musawwatim. By Ath[tar] ...”
The name of the dedicant is unfortunately not preserved but the inscription has been interpreted as describing how the altar was dedicated to a local but previously unattested deity called Rahmaw, following the completion of a successful hunting trip. Successful hunting trips were believed to confer divine fortune, and even until recently in the Hadramawt it was said that “if we did not hunt, the rain would not come to us; there would be drought in the country and scarcity of food”. However, this interpretation has since been challenged by the French philologist, C. Robin, and the inscription has been alternatively translated as follows:
“[...]il, son of Ammanas, priest of Rahmaw, [has] dedicated to Rahmaw Lahayathat and Sabahhumu, the day when he became minister of Athtar dhu-Musawwatim. By Ath[tar] ...”
When the altar was first acquired, thick heavy corrosion products covered the surface to a depth of up to 5 cm. thick in places. After these were carefully removed, the inscription and decoration were made much more clearly visible but also the “blow holes” resulting from the original casting and the almost-pure copper chaplets which had been used in antiquity to secure the core. Traces of burning mixed with the corrosion suggest that the temple in which the altar stood had been burnt or that it may have been discarded in a hot ashy deposit. Scientific analysis also indicated that the main part of the altar was probably made as a single casting from several separate melts poured successively into a mould; the metal composition is almost uniform with c. 11-14 % tin added to c. 83-90 % copper with the usual minor trace elements of lead, zinc, iron and nickel. Smaller fragments belonging to a second bronze altar also decorated with sphinxes but made with a slightly different metal composition exist in The British Museum collection.
- On display (G53/dc2)
- Exhibition history
2017-2018 17 Jan-2 Jul, Basel, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, 'Arabia Felix: Treasures from Ancient South Arabia'
2007- 11 Jun-, BM, G53/South Arabia/2
2005 25 Jun-11 Sept, Washington, Smithsonian (Arthur M Sackler Gallery), 'Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the ancient incense trade'
2004-2005 17 Oct-13 Mar, California, Bowers Museum, 'Queen of Sheba: Legend and Reality'
2002- Nov-, BM, G51, centre case
2002 5 Jun-13 Oct, BM, 'Queen of Sheba: Treasures from ancient Yemen'
1970s-1997 BM, West Stairs: South Arabian Landing [SAL], centre case
- Clay core prone to flaking; face consolidated; historical tendency for this object to develop slight white crystal growth on the top surface (noted 2002; 2005).
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Christies 7 July 1970 lot 159; Christies 7 July 1970 lot 159; deposited 29/5/70 as item 2551. According to G. Turner (pers. comm., 14th January 2003) this object was originally acquired by Sharif Ahmed ibn Awadh al-Habili.
- Middle East
- BM/Big number
- Registration number