Friday, July 31, 2020

The art of ancient Yemen: Arabia Felix to the Romans

Ancient Yemen was composed of a number of regional kingdoms including the Minaeans in the north in Wādī al-Jawf, the Sabeans on the southwestern tip, stretching from the highlands to the sea, the Qatabānians to the east of them, and the Ḥaḑramites east of them.  They were all engaged in the spice trade, especially frankincense and myrrh. They left behind many inscriptions in the monumental ancient South Arabian script or Musnad, as well as numerous documents in the related cursive Zabūr script.  Scholars disagree about their origins with some claiming these kingdoms arose about 1200 BCE.  Others say they did not begin to flourish until the 8th century BCE and lasted until they were conquered by the Himyarites.  The Himyarite Kingdom conquered neighbouring Saba' for the first time in c. 25 BCE, Qataban in c. 200 CE, and Haḍramaut c. 300 CE. The Middle Saba' kingdom rose in the early 2nd century CE with its capital established at Ma'rib. Himyar's fortunes relative to Saba' changed frequently until it finally conquered the Sabaean Kingdom again around 280 CE. Himyar then endured until it finally fell to invaders from the Kingdom of Aksum in 525 CE.

Arabia Felix was one of three regions into which the Romans divided the Arabian peninsula: Arabia Deserta, Arabia Felix, and Arabia Petraea with Arabia Felix representing the southwest corner of the peninsula.  In 26 BCE, Aelius Gallus under Augustus's order led a military expedition to Arabia Felix, but after some beginning successes he was obliged by the unhealthy climate and epidemic to desist in the conquest of the area.  The ancient city of Eudaemon (modern Aden) was a  transshipping port in the Red Sea trade but by the first century CE it was by-passed to eliminate the costs associated with these middlemen.

The early archaeologist most associated with excavations in ancient Yemen was an American, Wendell Phillips.  Phillips was born in Oakland, California in 1921. His mother, Sunshine, was a gold prospector in California. His family was poor, and Phillips worked various jobs as a youth, including serving as a guide on Treasure Island during the San Francisco World's Fair. He suffered from polio as a young man and recovered in his early 20s.

Phillips graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1943 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in paleontology. His studies had been interrupted by World War II, in which Phillips served in the Merchant Marine before returning to college. Also during his college years, Phillips participated in fossil-hunting expeditions to Arizona, Oregon, and Utah, and corresponded with archaeologist William F. Albright, who later accompanied Phillips on his first archaeology expedition.

In the late 1940s, Phillips acquired funding from the University of California to organize a broad archaeological exploration of Africa. Though Phillips was inexperienced as an archaeologist, his used his charisma and persuasion skills to lead a team of approximately 50 scholars and technicians, equipped with trucks and an airplane. The expedition lasted 26 months and covered the entire length of the continent between Egypt and South Africa, receiving significant publicity in the United States. A highlight of the expedition's findings were jaws and teeth of a hominid from the Swartkrans site in South Africa.

Phillips's next expedition was in 1951 to the Arabian peninsula to explore the ancient city of Timna, a center for the incense trade in the ancient world. At Timna, Phillips's team excavated through layers of strata, allowing them to develop a timeline of the city dating to the 8th century BCE. An excavation at the House Yafash uncovered twin bronze lions and an alabaster figurine referred to by the team as "Miriam". The excavation also uncovered many utilitarian objects from daily life and funerary objects from a cemetery at Timna. Excavations included the Marib Dam, which was the largest of ancient times, and the Awwam Temple, which was one of the most important temples of the Sabaean people. Phillip's work was eventually brought to a halt by hostility from local Bedouin tribes.  At one point Phillips was even taken prisoner.

During his time in the Middle East Phillips became acquainted with the Sultan of Oman, who granted him the mineral rights to a modest oil producing region of his country, two offshore oil concessions, copper mining rights, and offshore fishing rights, the foundation for Phillips Middle east American Oil Company in 1954. Phillips traded some of his original concessions for more profitable mineral rights in Venezuela, Indonesia, and Libya.  By 1975, Phillips was the largest individual holder of oil concessions in the world, with a net worth in 1975 United States dollars of $120 million.

Here's a video on YouTube about his exploits:

Phillips' estate eventually donated the artifacts he recovered from Timna and Ma'rib to the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art.  I thoroughly enjoyed "Unearthing Arabia,"a fascinating exhibit at the Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2015 although at the time they did not allow photography of the objects. I have included the museum's image of the famous bronze erotes riding striding lions, though.

Arabia Bronze head of a youth in the Classical style with corkscrew hairstyle popular in ancient Saba 2nd century CE Ghayman, Yemen photographed by Mary Harrsch at the British Museum

Arabia Female Sculpture from ancient south Arabia 900 BCE - 600 CE photographed by Mary Harrsch at the British Museum

Arabia Fragment of a pediment depicting a nude fertility goddess and mythological creature South Arabia (Marib) 2nd century CE alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Walters Art Museum

Arabia Funerary Head-Stela of a Bearded Man South Arabia 5th-2nd century BCE Calcite-alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Walters Art Museum

Arabia Head of a man Qataban (Arabia Felix) 3rd-1st century BCE Alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Seattle Art Museum

Arabia Stela with bust of a priestess South Arabia 1st century BCE - 1st century CE calcite alabaster photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Walters Art Museum

Bronze Man of the Kingdom of Saba' (800 BCE - 275 CE) at The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor PHGCOM

Bronze erotes mounted on striding lions 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery

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