Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Anja Ludwig, Kameldarstellungen aus Metall im vorislamischen Südarabien. Eine archäologische Fallstudie zu den Kulturkontakten zwischen Arabia Felix und der Mittelmeerwelt. Jenaer Archäologische Schriften, 1. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2015. Pp. xx, 124. ISBN 9783954901210. €69.00.

Reviewed by Francesco G. Fedele, Italian Archaeological Mission to Yemen, c/o Monumenta Orientalia, Rome (fedele0@yahoo.it)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is appended below.]

Imagery often provides a privileged avenue into the relatively elusive realm of the significance of animals in people's minds and human culture. This is certainly true of dromedary figurines from ancient Yemen, and particularly those made of metal, considering the special relationships between camels and human society in Arabia and Yemen's distinctive cultural record. These diverse but interrelated subjects—the dromedary, its portable representations in a valuable medium (in this case, mostly bronze), and their underlying meanings—provide the substance for Anja Ludwig's erudite and meticulous book, which inaugurates the archaeological monographs of Jena's Friedrich Schiller University edited by Eva Winter. Beautifully produced, as one expects of German archaeological books, this volume is a 'slightly revised version' of the author's dissertation defended at Jena in 2010, with almost no subsequent updating. This cut-off date must be borne in mind.

The book is divided into three parts, preceded by an eleven-page bibliography and followed by a general summary (113–114) and two appendices of transliterated and translated inscriptions (115–123). The first part or 'Introduction' (1–24) is a lengthy compilation of such disparate subjects as Yemen's geography and ancient history, the evolution and domestication of camels, the human use of the dromedary (the only camel species further dealt with in the book), and the so-called incense road between Yemen and the Mediterranean. Ludwig's dense account on this last subject (p. 17–23) is the best part of the introduction, which in spite of the innumerable previous treatments manages to be well-informed and critical. Her review of dromedary domestication, on the other hand, stands out as unsatisfactory.

Admittedly, this is a complex issue. The author's treatment might still provide an interesting historical overview for the non-specialist, but, giving equal weight to the current and the obsolete, it is in fact acritical as well as outdated. Evenhandedness is ill-advised here. Ludwig's accepts that dromedary domestication has roots as far back as the third millennium BC, with its specialization as beast of burden and mount simply being a later development. Although cited, not enough attention was given to the work of Hans-Peter and Margarethe Uerpmann (Journal of Oman Studies 12, 2002, 235–260; see also subsequent works), who argue for a post-1000 BC date on the basis of zooarchaeological evidence from the UAE. Equivalent evidence for other parts of Arabia is still very limited, but Yemen has entered the scene,1 and the last ten years have seen an outburst in camel domestication studies based on the broadest evidential base ever, from archaeological bone to molecular genetics.

Particularly significant since 2010 has been Peter Magee's innovative scenario on how the dromedary was refashioned as a specialized desert-travel vehicle, while anything about textual evidence is now superseded by Martin Heide's comprehensive work.2 Ludwig's mention of Magee's 2015 article, cited as 'in press', was clearly only a last-minute and cosmetic addition; this sporadic reference is even more surprising when Magee's book, The Archaeology of Prehistoric Arabia, which contains masterly sections on the dromedary and its cultural-historical impact, is ignored.

To round off the background information on people and camels, a second part of the book is devoted to texts and related philological issues ('The dromedary in Old South Arabian sources'). The centrepiece is a two-page corpus of annotated inscriptional entries concerning camels. The occurrence of dromedary-related words and constructs is competently summarized (see also page 104). Integral to this part is the material compiled in the two appendices, for which Ludwig relied heavily on Alexander Sima's Tiere, Pflanzen, Steine und Metalle in den altsüdarabischen Inschriften (2000) and benefitted from the advice of Walter Müller, Norbert Nebes and Peter Stein. The first deals with the dedicatory inscriptions (31 texts mostly from statuette supports); the second with 12 inscribed stelae presenting camel imagery.

The book's core is Part 3, the archaeological catalogue, quite obviously the longest and most original part. It comprises a detailed classification and survey of 115 dromedary figurines and images, followed by their assessment and elucidation from a range of perspectives. The starting point was the 'Daum Collection' of 67 bronze figurines in the Five Continents Museum in Munich, plausibly the largest such collection worldwide and never before presented in full. Additional figurines were studied in five other museums or derived from the literature, including those from 'Azza 'Alī 'Aqīl and Sabina Antonini's Repertorio Iconografico Sudarabico (Vol. 3, 2007). Seven finds from outside South Arabia are included: two from Qaryat al-Fāw's temple (southwest Saudi Arabia), important for their context; a bronze (?) statuette and three lead pendants from ed-Dūr in the UAE, where lead was demonstrably worked; and an identical lead pendant from the Jawf region of northern Saudi Arabia (which Ludwig, p. 99, mistakes for the Yemeni Jawf). In addition, three copper alloy objects with camel figures (an inscribed plaque, a ladle, a bowl) and a hoof-shaped fragment from major Yemeni sites are described.

The total—111 pieces comprising statuettes (100) and pendants (11, of which one probable)—represents all the known metal dromedary figurines in existence from pre-Islamic South Arabia and its borderlands as of 2010. The catalogue lists information about the sizes, conditions, museum numbers and previous editions (if any) for each object, and provides remarkably consistent morphological descriptions. 83 figurines and the fragment are reproduced in colour photographs (those of the pieces in Munich are impeccable); the borrowings from 'Alī 'Aqīl and Antonini are good reproductions of the black-and-white originals. As the only such corpus, this catalogue is invaluable. The iconography, however, could rather easily have been improved. Sketches to clarify inscriptions accompany a couple of photographs, but it is a pity that Ludwig did not manage to make at least line drawings of the remaining material, and particularly finds from older works. More figures would have been helpful to the non-specialist as well as to readers working outside the best-stocked research libraries. Save for two maps, an 1898 depiction of camel species, and an illustration of bronze casting, all figures in the book are outline tracings merely aimed at typological classification.

The classification of figurines is an ambitious goal of the book. Ludwig's ideal would be a system that reflects chronological order: impossible per se, as the vast majority of objects lacks context. She therefore turns for inspiration to classical Greece, as mediated by the German art-historical tradition (Winckelmann is quoted verbatim on page 32). Her chosen model, Bernhard Schmaltz's study of the metal figurines from the Kabeirion sanctuary at Thebes, in Boeotia (Das Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben, 6: Metallfiguren aus dem Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben. Die Statuetten aus Bronze und Blei), represented in 1980 some of the best scholarship on zoomorphic figurines from the 'ancient' world. The result is a subdivision into three 'groups': Group 1 or 'Geometrizing', conforming to an idea of geometric form; Group 2 or 'Archaizing', consciously imitating an old-fashioned style; and Group 3 or 'Classicizing', which, concerning South Arabia, Ludwig would indeed define in its literal sense as imitating a 'classical', Graeco-Roman style through a sense of movement and greater 'naturalness'. Overall, no less than 12 'variants' are proposed. As Ludwig says, 'The ordering here presented depends on the hypothesis of a chronological distribution in analogy to the formal and stylistic development of Greek bronze animal figurines, especially horses and bulls' (31).

The first two groups are in fact variations on a continuum, representing so to speak a tradition of fixity, whereas Group 3 appears to be a new departure reflecting stylistic connections with the Mediterranean world (as already shown by Antonini). The turning point would fall around AD 1, Ludwig suggests, when the peaking trade with both India and the Mediterranean made South Arabian craftsmen directly aware of Greek and Roman products. Importantly, the appearance of this—presumably later—style ties in with the theme in the book's subtitle: an understanding of cultural contacts between 'Arabia Felix' and the Mediterranean, particularly in the fields of aesthetics and imagery. This subject, a major contribution of Ludwig's monograph, is addressed on pages 106–112.

Ludwig is perfectly aware that this art-historical, subjective approach is 'quite influenced by today's perspective'. She is also aware of the possibility—probability even—that workshops producing figurines in different variants may have coexisted. Indeed, we know virtually nothing of the sources of variation in our archaeological dataset: whether variability was predominantly controlled by time, place of manufacture, cultural fashion, or individual taste. Nevertheless, she believes that a general trend existed and that a two-stage aesthetic development, social-economic in origin (as outlined above), can be recognized.

Ludwig's classification effectively gives a measure of the variability inherent in the figurine corpus. However, while I acknowledge the value of her approach, I cannot altogether avoid feeling that an independent taxonomic attitude would have been a welcome step forward in Arabian studies, particularly if it tried to avoid classificatory criteria which might be unsuited to the Arabian sphere. Furthermore, Ludwig is a 'splitter', and a 'lumper''s preferences would have led the analysis to entirely different results. However, classification is somewhat peripheral to Ludwig's main conclusions and interpretations, which remain unaffected.

The discussion and evaluation of the catalogue occupy pages 88–112. Two fundamental questions are addressed: 'Why make camel figurines?', and chronology. To answer them, Ludwig deploys the broadest array of tactics, loathe to leave anything out. She is very good at extracting meaning, context and order from an archaeological record which is largely mute in those respects. The chief problem is the lack of primary context or even provenance, the site of origin being known for only nine or ten finds (including ed-Dūr and the Saudi Jawf) and the context for two. Fortunately, the metal animal was not the entirety of the meaningful object, as statuettes were set standing onto stone bases customized with personal inscriptions. If most statuettes are uninscribed, the inscriptions on their pedestals and those recorded on separate media (such as dedicatory stelae) are of paramount importance both for their content and precisely because their site and context are often known. This is why the appendixes are such a vital part of the book. A marginal note: the inscription on a figurine from Qaryat al-Fāw is recorded differently in the catalogue (no. 65) and on page 119 (after Barbara Jändl).

The results confirm and expand on pre-existing views. It emerges that the bronze dromedaries were either designed as votive offerings in temples, with a petition to a deity for protection of the animals and their owner, or as ex voto offerings, thanking the deity for answering the dedicant's prayers (90–96). The majority of the votive offerings were apparently presented by private individuals of no particular ranking, since only two dedications (out of 28) mention a king or tribal leader (30). The known archaeological contexts point to a temple association: al-Huqqa north of San'ā', not mentioned as such by Ludwig, and Qaryat al-Fāw. A discussion of these temple contexts would have been welcome. Only indirectly—Ludwig's certainty notwithstanding—might a stray inscribed figurine be traced to a deposition in the Bayyin temple at Haram (Yemeni Jawf).3 Echoing previous authors, Ludwig hints at an opposition between metal and terracotta figurines, the latter apparently associated with graves and never attached to supports (89–90 and footnote 397). This subject could have been developed further; detailed examination in the future might indeed produce interesting results.4

Particularly impressive are the comprehensiveness and depth of Ludwig's analysis of the roles of dromedary figurines in the ideology of Old South Arabians, which she explores from every possible angle. The highlight, and a highly valuable part of the book, is an extensive account of the 'Amīr tribe and their only god, dhū-Samāwī, 'he of heaven' (91–98). The 'Amīr inhabited the largely desert region between present-day northern Yemen and Saudi Arabia and developed a unique, all-encompassing association with dromedaries. Ludwig raises the possibility that the 'Amīr not only worshipped dhū-Samāwī in a human form, as 'bedouins' elsewhere do, but, being camel breeders and cameleers, conceived of him in the particular form of a dromedary rider. She even suggests that the rider statuettes (her catalogue lists 16 or 17) might portray dhū-Samāwī himself. She extends this hypothesis to ridden camel images on funerary stelae (Appendix 2; cf stelae typology on page 96), with the rider being the god and not the deceased as hitherto assumed—a provocative contention.

The presence of ridden figurines leads Ludwig to discuss the dromedary as a mount and to look at saddle types for chronological illumination (104–105). Walter Dostal's influential studies from the 1950s–1960s are reviewed. The contribution to figurine dating is perhaps limited. However, one cannot avoid remarking that a more critical stance towards purported saddle-type 'evidence' and the cameleer-as-warrior arguments would have been helpful. The reader of this review is directed to Michael Macdonald's cogent clarification.5

Taken together, inscriptions, palaeography (albeit only loosely), comparisons with camel imagery on other media, and the assumed association with the climaxing of incense trade at the turn of our era, lead Ludwig to envisage a 2nd century BC to 4th century AD range for this production (with due note of unpublished finds from the German excavations at Sirwāh, 112). A single thermoluminescence testing on figurine no. 60, reported as '185 AD (+/-)', would confirm this age. The production of metal imagery thus appears to be a relatively late development in the history of figurine craftsmanship. Is it historical fact, or does it only reflect present knowledge?

Those mentioned above are not the only subjects treated in this rich and wide-ranging book. The author states on page 1 that 'the aim of this work is to examine South Arabian dromedary figurines as the centerpiece of attention and to explore them in terms of style, chronology, and significance of the dromedary'. She aspires to 'link together all the important areas of dromedary research' as never before. At a relatively slim 140 pages, and in spite of minor limitations, this volume amply fulfils this goal. It is the first book exclusively devoted to camels in metal imagery from 'greater' Yemen, and in this field it will remain the standard on which any future treatment must be based. Given the dim prospects for new fieldwork in Yemen, more finds from suitable contexts cannot be expected anytime soon. But the book is much more: it is essential reading for anyone interested in the people-camel relationships, cultic ideology and imagery of ancient South Arabia. Through a rich trove of information culled from very many sources and insightful new observations of her own, Anja Ludwig has written a work of value even in well-trodden fields, insightful by sheer diligence, the many facets of her material quietly explored with a methodical and inquisitive mind.

Table of Contents

Danksagung (p. v)
Abkürzungsverzeichnis (p. ix–xix)
1. Einleitung (p. 1–24)
Geographischer und zeitlicher Raum
Evolution des Kamels
Eigenschaften der Kamele, Handhabung und Nutzung
Der Weihrauchhandel – Das Kamel als Lasttier und die Verbindung zur antiken Mittelmeerwelt
Das Kamel als Reittier
2. Das Kamel in den altsüdarabischen Quellen (p. 25–30)
Die verschiedenen Begriffe und ihre Verwendung
Kamele in Weihinschriften
3. Archäologisches Material (p. 31–112)
Typologie der Kameldarstellungen [including 'Die Gruppen' = Katalog, p. 34–87]
Auswertung des archäologischen Materials
Herkunft der Materialien
4. Zusammenfassung (p. 113–114)
Annex 1: Die Weihinschriften (p. 115–121)
Annex 2: Stelen mit Kameldarstellungen (p. 122–123)
Abbildungsnachweis (p. 124)


1.   Fedele F. G. 2014, Camels, donkeys and caravan trade: an emerging context from Barāqish, ancient Yathill (Wādī al-Jawf, Yemen), Anthropozoologica 49, 177–194. Idem 2016, New data on domestic and wild camels (Camelus dromedarius and Camelus sp.) in Sabaean and Minaean Yemen, in Archaeozoology of the Near East IX (eds) M. Mashkour & M. Beech, 284–310, Oxford, Oxbow [read in November 2008 at the Ninth ASWA Symposium, Al Ain (Abu Dhabi), and published with an 'Update 2016'].
2.   Heide M. 2011, The domestication of the camel: biological, archaeological and inscriptional evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and traditional evidence from the Hebrew Bible, Ugarit-Forschungen 42, 331–382; and in preparation (personal communication March 2016). Magee P. 2014, The Archaeology of Prehistoric Arabia. Adaptation and Social Formation from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, Cambridge University Press, chapters 7 and 9. Idem 2015, When was the dromedary domesticated in the ancient Near East?, Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 8, 252–277.
3.   As inferrred from its text. See—ignored by Ludwig—Robin C. 1992, Inventaire des inscriptions sudarabiques. 1: Inabba', Haram, al-Kāfir, Kamna et al-Ḥarāshif, Paris, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres & Rome, IsMEO, 9–126 (Haram), 47–48 (this temple).
4.   On terracotta dromedaries see now O'Neill D'arne. 2014, First millennium BC South Arabian terracotta figurines from the Marib oasis and Sirwah, Yemen, Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 7, 324–366.
5.   Macdonald M. C. A. 2015, Was there a "bedouinization of Arabia"?, Der Islam 92, 42–84.

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