Tel Gamma, Clay Figurine

Itamar Weissbein
04/08/2020
Final Report
In the winter of 2014, a fragment of a ceramic figurine was found at Tel Gamma (Tell Jemmeh; map ref. 14718/58864) by Rachel Lief, a tourist from California, who gave it to the Israel Antiquities Authority in October 2018. It was photographed by Y. Yolowitz and shared for publication by S. Ganor.
Tel Gamma lies on the southern coastal plain (northwestern Negev). The figurine (max. preserved length 5 cm, max. width 3.3 cm, max. thickness 2.5 cm; Fig. 1) was found on the surface in the southwestern corner of the summit of the tell. It is made of light yellowish clay on the outside; the core is reddish with white inclusions. It consists of an oval plaque broken at the bottom, with a curved back. The front of the figurine is flat, and the upper part features a female head in relief, but it is worn. On the edge of the front of the plaque are a depression and a ridge, apparently created by the edges of the open mold used to press the figure onto the ceramic plaque.
The face is surrounded by long hair, which descends from a clear parting above the forehead and is gathered into three tassels on either side of the head. The facial features are quite worn, but the eyes and the eyebrows can be discerned, as well as the general form of the upper part of the nose and the ears, which are not covered by the hair. Below the face is a curved protrusion bearing a cross-like incision—apparently a representation of a pendant worn around the figure’s neck. The body is not clearly represented; below the head are two rounded protrusions, one above the other, but their significance is unclear.
Figures with similar characteristics were found at Tel Gamma in the two main excavations at the site: by Petrie in 1926–1927, and by the Smithsonian Institute in 1970–1990 (Petrie 1928: Pl. XXXV:8–10, 16, 21, Pl. XXXVI:39, 40, 42–44, 46; Ben-Shlomo, Gardiner and Van Beek 2014: Fig. 17.2:a–c, 17.3:a–d). One of the figurines found by Petrie bears a particularly close resemblance to the one described here, both in its hairdo and the pendant. However, the figurine from Petrie’s excavation is somewhat larger, and thus they were not made in the same mold (Petrie 1928: Pl. XXXV:33). The figurines found in clean contexts in the Smithsonian Institute excavation were discovered in strata associated with the Iron Age IIC (end of the eighth–early seventh centuries BCE) in Area IV (Ben Shlomo, Gardiner and Van Beek 2014:807–808). It seems that the figurines found in Petrie’s excavation come from late Iron Age strata (Petrie 1928:17).
Judging by the parallels, the figurine fragment found on the surface at Tel Gamma represents a female. It is either the upper part of a plaque figurine or the fragment of a head that had once been fitted to a body with a peg (Ben-Shlomo, Gardiner and Van Beek 2014:809–810); the thickness of the figurine and the lack of a body make the latter possibility more likely. If so, the entire object is the figurine’s head, and the peg that was once at its base broke off. Petrie presents several examples of similar heads with a preserved peg (Petrie 1928: Pl. XXXVI:40, 42, 43). Other examples have head still attached to the body (Petrie 1928:17, Pl. XXXV:6, 11, 14, 21), clearly revealing the disproportionately small size of the head compared to the body, as was apparently the case with the figurine under discussion here.
The figurine uncovered at Tel Gamma belongs to a large group of mold-made female figurines with heads, which appeared in Philistia during the Iron Age II. In complete examples the figure is sometimes depicted supporting her breasts, pregnant or holding a baby (Ben-Shlomo 2010:75–76). Figurines similar to the one from Tel Gamma have been found e.g. in Iron Age IIC strata in Ashqelon (Cohen 2011: Cat. Nos. 69, 71–76; Press 2012: Cat. Nos. 45, 46, 49), at Tel Sera‘ (Oren 1993:1333), and at Horbat Hoga (Kletter 1996: Fig. 7:1). Female ceramic figurines from this period were found in other regions of the country as well: on the Phoenician coast, in the northern valleys and in Judah (‘Judahite pillar figurines’). Based on design and contexts of provenance, these figurines are usually interpreted as fertility goddesses used mostly in domestic rites (Kletter 1996; Paz 2007; Ben-Shlomo 2010:75–78).
 

 
Ben-Shlomo D. 2010. Philistine Iconography: A Wealth of Style and Symbolism (OBO 241). Fribourg–Göttingen.
 
Ben-Shlomo D., Gardiner R. and Van Beek G. 2014. Ceramic Figurines and Figurative Terra-cottas. In D. Ben-Shlomo and G.W. Van Beek eds. The Smithsonian Institution Excavation at Tell Jemmeh, Israel, 1970–1990 (Smithsonian Contribution to Anthropology 50). Washington, D.C. Pp. 804–827.
 
Cohen S.L. 2011. Terracotta Figurines. In L.E. Stager, D.M. Master and J.D. Schloen 2011. Ashkelon 3: The Seventh Century B.C. Winona Lake. Pp. 441–472.
 
Kletter R. 1996. The Judean Pillar-Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah (BAR Int. S. 636). Oxford.
 
Oren E.D. 1993. Seraʻ, Tel. In NEAEHL 4. Pp. 1329–1335.
 
Paz S. 2007. Drums, Women, and Goddesses: Drumming and Gender in Iron Age II Israel (OBO 232). Fribourg–Göttingen.
 
Petrie W.M.F. 1928. Gerar (BSAE XLIII). London.
 
Press M.D. 2012. Ashkelon 4: The Iron Age Figurines of Ashkelon and Philistia. Winona Lake.
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