A visit to the Jordan Archaeological Museum on the Amman Citadel or the Jordan Museum in Ras al-Ayn brings you up close with multiple examples of stone statuary from Iron Age Amman (ca. 1150–550 BCE). These impressive sculptures include miniature statues of standing anthropomorphic figures and life-size and nearly life-size sculpted heads. Central to the Amman statuary corpus is a series of male figures with the same arm position and basic dress pattern (Routledge 2004). Most of the Ammonite statues measure below one meter in height and consist of locally abundant limestone. A dramatic addition to this collection came with the 2010 discovery of a colossal basalt statue of a standing male figure (Fig. 1) through rescue excavation in front of the Roman Theatre in downtown Amman (Burnett and Gharib 2014). At 2.10 meters in height and weighing approximately 2 tons, the Amman Theatre Statue adds a new dimension of scale and material to this statuary corpus. These objects represent an elaborate tradition of stone sculpture produced in Iron Age Amman that was distinctive to the Ammonite kingdom and unique on both sides of the Jordan River.
Comparisons to art from other parts of ancient western Asia and Egypt show that this Ammonite statuary corpus displays a distinct combination of emblems, gestures, and dress features, even while drawing on motifs appearing singly across the broader Near East. For example, hair features, full beards, and clothing details show connections with stone sculpture from north Syria and Mesopotamia. Other motifs come from Egypt, often through the Phoenician coast, especially the characteristic arm position of the male statues, the lotus flower held in the left hand of some statues, and the atef crown on two statues and several heads, which in Egyptian art is worn by Osiris and other deities, and occasionally by human rulers as well.
But who or what do these sculptures portray? What do they tell us about the ideals, identity, and practices of the Ammonite kingdom and its broader society? The colossal scale of the Amman Theatre Statue certainly suggests a figure of importance. The one inscribed example suggests a statue of a royal figure named YrḥꜤzr (Aufrecht 2019). The distinctly Ammonite form of the atef crown adorning some of the statues and heads might indicate either a king or a god, while other figures appear with a headband or diadem (Horn 1973; Abou Assaf 1980; Daviau and Dion 1994). Beyond these hints, what more can we understand about the meanings and uses of this impressive collection of stone statuary?
These artistic emblems and motifs—what scholars call the statuary’s iconography—provide the key for answering these questions. Most of these sculptures (except for YrḥꜤzr) lack inscriptions, and all were discovered in archaeological contexts other than their original settings or with no archaeological context at all. Fortunately, the broader Near Eastern parallels offer accompanying archaeological and inscriptional evidence illuminating the meanings and functions of these Ammonite statues.
The headgear and flower emblems among the Ammonite statuary prove to be two interrelating elements of iconography, each with its own binary pattern (Burnett 2016). First, the atef crown alternates with the headband diadem in portraying the Ammonite god and the Ammonite king, respectively, as first suggested by Abou Assaf (1980). Second, two statues with the head preserved portray a human ruler wearing a headband or diadem and holding an Egyptian lotus that droops against the left shoulder. In Levantine art, the drooping lotus signifies a deceased royal figure (Van Loon 1980). Thus, the Amman Theatre Statue and the inscribed YrḥꜤzr statue portray deceased Ammonite kings. On the other hand, a headless statue from the Amman Citadel holds a bundle of vividly upright flowers pointing toward the figure’s face, indicating a living royal figure in Levantine art. The two atef-crowned statues of the Ammonite chief god hold no discernable emblems. In sum, the headgear and flower motifs combine to indicate identically posed and dressed images of the Ammonite god and of living and deceased Ammonite human kings (Burnett 2016).
Matching the same basic pattern in headgear are abundant parallels to the Amman Theatre Statue among colossal standing male statues (mostly in basalt) of kings and gods from Iron Age political capitals of northern Syria and southeastern Turkey (Burnett forthcoming). Accompanying these parallels from Carchemish, Zincirli, and other Syro-Anatolian political centers, archaeological and inscriptional evidence attests the veneration of deceased human kings in royal ancestor cults (Voos 1988; Niehr 2014; Lewis 2019). These royal ancestor cults shared five basic elements: stone statues memorializing deceased rulers; belief in the postmortem existence of deceased rulers (sometimes as “divine” figures, defied in death); ritual invocation of the deceased king; food and drink offerings to the deceased ruler; and reciprocity aimed at both a flourishing afterlife for the deceased king and a favorable succession and prosperous rule for his son and successor to the throne (Burnett forthcoming). The similar scale and material of the Amman Theatre Statue and the drooping lotus signifying a deceased Ammonite king in this statue and the YrḥꜤzr statue indicate the Amman series of male statues likewise served a royal ancestor cult, in this case for the Ammonite kingdom.
Additionally, artistic parallels in Egyptian statuary and Levantine carved ivories indicate the combination of the (originally Egyptian) arm position of the standing Amman figures with the drooping-lotus emblem portrays a divine figure (Burnett forthcoming). In other words, the Amman Theatre Statue and YrḥꜤzr statue indicate not only that these deceased Ammonite kings lived on and received offerings after death but also that they attained in death a divine status that offered symbolic, if not supernatural, benefit to their living successors on the throne and to those living under their rule.
Abou-Assaf, A. 1980. “Untersuchungen zur ammonitischen Rundbildkunst.” Ugarit-Forschungen 12: 7–102.
Aufrecht, W. E. 2019 A Corpus of Ammonite Inscriptions. University Park, Pennsylvania: Eisenbrauns.
Burnett, J. S. 2016 “Egyptianizing Elements in Ammonite Stone Statuary: The Atef Crown and Lotus.” In 9 ICAANE: Proceedings of the 9th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East (June 9–13, 2014, University of Basel). Volume 1: Traveling Images, edited by R. A. von Stucky, O. Kaelin, and H.-P. Mathys, 57–71. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
Burnett, J. S. In press. The Amman Theatre Statue in Its Iron Age Contexts. With contributions by R. Gharib and D. Parker. Annual of the American Society of Overseas Research. Boston: American Society of Overseas Research.
Burnett, J. S., and R. Gharib. 2014–2015, “An Iron Age Basalt Statue from the Amman Theatre Area.” Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 58: 413–421.
Daviau, P. M. M., and P.-E. Dion. 1994 “El, the God of the Ammonites? The Atef-Crowned Head from Tell Jawa, Jordan.” Zeitschrift des Deutschen PalästinaVereins 110: 158–167.
Horn, S. G. 1973. “The Crown of the King of the Ammonites.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 11: 170–180.
Lewis, T. J. 2019. “Bar Rakib’s Legitimation and the Problem of a Missing Corpse: The End of the Panamuwa Inscription in Light of the Katumuwa Inscription.” Aram 31: 349–74.
Loon, M. van. 1986. “The Drooping Lotus Flower.” In Insight Through Images: Studies in Honor of Edith Porada, edited by Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, 242–252, pls. 59–61. Bibliotheca Mesopotamica 21. Malibu: Undena Publications.
Niehr, H. 2014. “The Katmuwa Stele in the Context of Royal Mortuary Cult at Samʾal.” In In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East, edited by V. R. Herrmann and D. J. Schloen, 57–60. Oriental Institute Museum Publications 37. Chicago: The Oriental Institute.
Routledge, B. 2004. Moab in the Iron Age: Hegemony, Polity, Archaeology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Voos, J. 1988. “Studien zur Rolle von Statuen und Reliefs im syrohethitischen Totenkult während der frühen Eisenseit.” Ethnographisch-archäologische Zeitschrift: 347–362.
Joel S. Burnett is professor of Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic languages in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. He is a biblical scholar and historian of ancient Near Eastern religion. His areas of research center on the history and religion of ancient Israel and Transjordan, the Book of Psalms, and the Pentateuch. A native of South Carlina, Burnett studied at Wofford College (BA, German), Princeton Theological Seminary (MDiv), and Johns Hopkins University (PhD, Near Eastern studies). He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters and the following monographs and essay collection: A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (Society of Biblical Literature, 2001); Diachronic and Synchronic—Reading the Psalms in Real Time: Proceedings of the Baylor Symposium on the Book of Psalms(coedited with W.H. Bellinger and W. Dennis Tucker; T & T Clark International, 2007); “Where is God?” Divine Absence in the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2010); The Amman Theatre Statue in Its Iron Age Contexts (With contributions by Romel Gharib and Don Parker; American Society of Overseas Research, in press); and Religions of Iron Age Transjordan (Brill, in progress). Burnett enjoys music, outdoor exercise, and traveling with his wife, Jamie.