World’s Oldest Statue to go on Show in Rome

Ancient artworks from Jordan some of them never before seen outside Petra and Amman – are going on display today at Rome’s Quirinal Palace. The star attraction at the exhibition is a statue found at the site of Ayn Ghazal near Amman dating from 7500 BC, one of the oldest surviving statues of its kind and size.

The exhibition has been organised by the President of the Italian Republic in honour of the state visit of the King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan. Sixty items will be on display in the ‘Sale delle Bandiere’ at the Palazzo del Quirinale and these will reflect the history of Jordan, from the Neolithic era to the end of the Ottoman empire.

The ‘oldest statue in the world‘, stands 84cm high and is made of white plaster encasing a cane frame. It belongs to a group of cane and plaster statues found in Ayn Ghazal in 1983. Many of the Ayn Ghazal statues, including the one on display in Rome today, have painted clothes, tattoos and features including cowrie shell eyes marked with black bitumen. Ayn Ghazal is a neolithic site in north-eastern Jordan outside Amman and was largely forgotten until development work and subsequent excavations began in the 1970s and 80s.

Other exhibits include a limestone bust of a male with a curly beard and hair wearing a pointed hat. This was found at Petra and dates from the Nabatean era during the first and second centuries AD. The Nabatean culture traded along networks of oases in the area between Syria, Arabia, the Red Sea and the Euphrates river. They were annexed to the Roman empire some time during the rule of Trajan (98-117 AD). A Roman-era pendent or cameo is also on display from the Jordan Archaeological Museum this dates from the second or third centuries AD and is made of gold and gemstone.

Whether the Ayn Ghazal statues are actually the oldest statues known to us may be a matter for debate. Earlier this year a far older ‘statue’ was found in a cave in Germany the ‘Venus’ of Hohle Fels is 35,000 years old and is believed to be the earliest known form of figurative art. However, the figure is less than 10cm high and, in my humble opinion, looks more like a roast chicken (or as Sean points out in his blog, a large molar) than any kind of ideal female form. The Ayn Ghazal figures are much bigger and more complex.

The exhibition – Jordan: a Crossroads of People and Culture is free to the public except on Sundays when the representative rooms of the presidential palace are also open and there is a charge of 5 euros. Opening hours are 10-13 and 15.30-18.30 from Tuesday to Saturday; 8.30-12 on Sundays and closed on Mondays.

An exhibition in the building opposite Palazzo del Quirinale is currently showing an excellent exhibition of Roman paintings, including impressively realistic portraits, frescoes and still-lifes. Roma: La Pittura di un Impero is showing at the Scuderie del Quirinale until January 2010.

Photos courtesy of Jordan Archaeological Museum and Petra Archaeological Museum.