©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Pendants in the Form of the Human Head, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 24 May 2019.
Pendants in the Form of the Human Head
The human head is the most common of all amber pendant subjects and enjoyed the longest duration, from the late eighth to the late fourth century B.C. From the beginning, they appear to follow a much older convention, whereby one part of a figure is sufficient to represent the whole. The symbolic meaning of the detached head as a pendant varies according to its type and use, but the head always represents a demon, hero, or divinity.
In this catalogue, I refer to this type as “head-pendants.” These can be divided into four basic schemata: a frontal face that is plain on the reverse; a complete head (the neck or a part of the neck is included, and the pendants are made to hang frontally); a frontal head with the neck included, but a plain reverse side; and the profile head with the neck included, the reverse plain, and the pendant made to hang in profile. Female subjects (humans or anthromorphs) with dressed hair, ornaments, or head coverings, and satyrs are found in all four schemata. Heads of indeterminate sex (probably representing youths or sphinxes), Herakles in a lionskin helmet, and bearded male heads with human ears occur only in the form of a frontal face with no neck, like a mask, the strongest form of the facing head motif. This is also the case with the rarely represented gorgoneion, the frontal face that precedes the appearance of the whole Gorgon in ancient art.
All head-pendants of Greece and ancient Italy used in adornment have ancient small-scale antecedents in the art of Egypt, the greater Near East, including the Syro-Phoenician area, and the Aegean, as well as in the image making of Ice Age Europe. The antecedents are of the utmost significance for the amber head-pendant: it should be seen as a late manifestation of a millennia-old tradition of wearing minature decapitated heads, or heads pars pro toto, made in materials of high value on the head, around the neck, or on the upper torso (and much more rarely elsewhere on the body).
The earliest surviving head-pendants in amber date to the late eighth century, but they became more widespread during the second half of the sixth century, the same period in which the subject of a detached head was popular in other media, from architectural decoration to vessels and coinage. The format of the earliest documented en face amber head-pendant is very like that of the earliest Sumerian and Egyptian detached heads. The Sumerian profile heads used in inlays (various materials) date concurrently with the earliest Sumerian ornament-amulets in the form of frontal heads and faces. The frontal heads are in two basic types, those without horns (identified as goddesses) and those with bull horns (identified as gods). The earliest Egyptian amulets in the form of detached heads are flat-backed, front-facing heads and are exclusive to the late Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate period. Carol Andrews summarizes their appearance: short beard, prominent ears, and a suspension projection on the top of the head; and predominately of cornelian. They are “intended to give its wearer the use of the senses in general.” Related to this type is another: human-head scaraboids current from the New Kingdom onward. The enhancement of the scarab—the amulet par excellence of new life, regeneration, and resurrection—with a human face augmented its properties. Mycenaean objects with detached heads include engraved gems and metal vessels. A signal Minoan work is the bead in the shape of a human head in the Jewel fresco at Knossos. The heads of female and male figures made of faïence (glazed composition) from Apadana, Mari, and other sites in Mesopotamia dating to the late second millennium must have had great influence on the development of the head-pendant as ornament and amulet.
Antecedents for the amber head-pendants from Etruscan tombs are the protomes embossed in North Syrian metalwork, such as those on the bronze paterae and cups interred in the Barberini Tomb at Praeneste (those on the cups are winged); the faces of possibly Syro-Palestinian Tridacna squamosa shell figure-vessels, alabaster and stone cosmetic palettes, and ostrich-egg and other Oriental oinochoai; the human heads on Etruscan bucchero vessels with relief decoration; and the two types of ivory faces from the Barberini Tomb (the bearded faces and the single, perhaps female face).
The female heads on some late-eighth-century Cretan and Cycladic gold objects may be the direct ancestors of the earliest amber head-pendants. These include the frontal heads attached to a crescent-shaped gold pendant from the Khaniale Tekke Tomb from near Knossos, and three gold “buttons’” from a tomb at Megara (and a related pendant from Naxos in Berlin). Contemporary with these gold ornaments are the earliest surviving amber head-pendants: a pair of indeterminate sex from the sacred deposit at the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and three undocumented faces from Italy (perhaps Vetulonia): that of a youthful female (?) figure whose hair is braided back from the brow; an unbearded, helmeted figure; and a female divinity (possibly) who wears an elaborate bird headdress.
The next generation of frontal heads and faces includes the numerous seventh-century precious-metal objects made in East Greece and Etruria. These include objects where the face is the single image, and others on which the face or detached head is one of many. Two objects exemplify the pervasiveness of this imagery: a pair of Etruscan armlets from Vetulonia, where the two terminal registers are made up of trios of faces (perhaps those of sphinxes), and an electrum temple pendant from Cameiros, a complex work that includes two frontal heads at the top. Numerous bone and ivory protomes from East Greece and Sparta date to this period. Although they are not independent works, the amber faces set into ivory and bone reliefs—a Laconian ivory sphinx and a pair of Laconian winged fertility divinities, flanked by smaller figures—should be mentioned. The detached female heads protecting a number of sanctuary-dedicated Greek bronze vessels of the seventh century are related in both subject and function: the female protective goddess represented on a vessel support from Olympia is probably the same divinity as the one gazing outward from the Rhodian metalwork and the early ambers. In addition, noteworthy seventh-century analogues for the gold, ivory, and amber heads are those represented in early electrum coinage.
Although there are many instances of detached heads in seventh-century art, especially in East Greece, Crete, and Etruria, the subject was more widespread during the next century. The prominence of the detached head in Etruscan imagery, such as the so-called Canopic heads on the “metopes” of Caeretan dolii, or terracotta architectural decorations (on antefixes and raking simas), indicate the significance of the subject.
The importance of the detached head in early-sixth-century Italy is indicated by the variety of materials in which it is found, the range of its use, and its geographic distribution. The amber head-pendants of the sixth century gained currency at the same time that the subject was more frequently employed in other media: in Greek vase painting; in early Greek facing head coinage; on contemporary gemstones; as precious metal adornment worn directly on the body (as on a necklace) or attached to dress, or ritual headgear; as an attachment on bronze vessels; in architecture, as antefixes and on the raking sima; as the subject of terracotta votives; and for small votive (?) bronzes. A key amber of this period is the early-sixth-century amber head of a female figure wearing a slope-sided hat (a siren or sphinx) excavated from an amber-rich grave, Tomb 96 at Chiaromonte-Sotto la Croce.
Further study of the female heads on Etruscan Orientalizing metal reliefs and Etruscan bucchero, and on Greek and Etruscan vessels, thymiateria, and lamps; as well as of the bearded male heads and demonic figures of “Phoenician” glass pendants—and their relationship to the early amber heads from Italy—should reveal a related purpose and iconography. They all must represent danger-averting divinities, heroes, and fantastic beings.
Amber head-pendants of the second half of the sixth century were made during a period of considerable amber availability in Italy, but most are small, from 10 to 50 mm. Notable examples are the six female faces from a tomb at Eretum: a frontal head-pendant of a woman from Certosa; two frontal female head-pendants from Tomb 102 at Braida di Vaglio (Basilicata); the Getty Head of a Female Divinity or Sphinx (cat. no. 10); and two heads (possibly female) in the Louvre. The earliest of the profile amber head-pendants date to the second half of the sixth century. From this point onward, until their virtual disappearance in the last quarter of the fourth century, female subject head-pendants in both profile and frontal format coexist.
Just after the mid-sixth century, the first male head-pendants appear, first satyrs (in both facing and profile formats) and then, a few decades later, faces of the Cypriote-type Herakles and a type of unbearded males with human ears. The latter two types are uncommon. There are no male heads with bull’s horns, a not uncommon subject in other media. The earliest examples of satyr-subject head-pendants are the Getty Head of a Satyr (82.AO.161.1; cat. no. 13) and a trio (found together) in a New York private collection. The satyr-subject head-pendants precede ambers representing full-bodied Bacchic revelers (perhaps all satyrs) by at least a decade, if not more, in the early fifth century, and continue to be a popular subject until the early fourth century, when figured ambers ceased to be made. From their earliest appearance in Greek art, and enduring in popularity throughout late antiquity, satyr heads were considered especially efficacious in averting danger, evil, and particularly the evil eye. In Italy and in Etruria especially, they were frequently employed as antefixes, often coupled with female heads, usually identified as maenads. Satyrs, in Etruscan art of the sixth century and onward, were present in sacrifice scenes, and, as Jean-René Jannot points out, it is not clear whether this alludes to a cult of Dionysos or to one of nature more generally.
The other identifiable male subjects of head-pendants include the unbearded Herakles in a lionskin helmet. Other male types are images of bearded males with naturalistically shaped ears, and a number of unbearded faces of indeterminate sex that seem to represent youths. The latter, though nameless, probably represent heroes or divinities appropriate to the material of amber. Apollo is a good candidate; the god was worshipped as the Averter of Evil (Greek: Alexikakos, Apotropaios), the Protector (Epikourios), and the Purifier (Katharsios).
Eye size varies among the earliest head-pendants of the seventh and sixth centuries: in some the eyes are naturalistically scaled; in others they are huge, staring, and rimmed with heavy lids. From the fifth century onward, large, “old-fashioned” staring eyes are the norm for both profile and frontal head-pendants, with the exception of a few classes, notably one attributed to Canosa and another to Campania.
From their earliest appearance, female head-pendants wear their hair elaborately dressed. In addition, they wear one or more kinds of head decoration or covering, sometimes in complex combinations: bands, crowns, caps, hats (various styles of poloi and various cone-shaped styles), a kekryphalos, or kerchief, wrappings made from strips of cloth (sometimes over hats), and veils or other drapery-type head coverings. Not only are the facial types and artistic styles diverse, the grooming and adornments also differ. Headgear, hairstyles, and jewelry vary, and the ambers in the Getty collection include most of these variants. A number of the female head-pendants, in various kinds of dress, are carved with a wing or wings. Among the earliest is a large profile head (76.AO.85.2, cat. no. 15). The winged head-pendants vary in type. Some, such as 76.AO.85.2, represent a youthful female. Others, such as 77.AO.81.5 (cat. no. 23), represent a heavier-faced, mature, and unsmiling type.
Most amber female head-pendants wear headgear in the Archaic Ionian Greek or Etruscan fashion, as most modern students of the material have commented. The figures are dressed in the manner of the elite—sometimes they are clearly divine or heroic figures, sometimes actual persons; in other cases, they represent persons in ritual roles as votives, celebrants, and offerants. Parallels are found in Greek, Campanian, and Etruscan art (for both style and dress), and the dress and style of the figures represented in the head-pendants are comparable to those of the women painted in Etruscan tombs and on vases; molded in relief on Etruscan bucchero or terracotta antefixes; engraved on Etruscan mirrors; or made into small bronzes, many of which are votives.
The findspot and context of only a small percentage of the hundreds of facing and profile amber heads that have come to light since the nineteenth century are documented, and of these, even fewer were excavated under controlled conditions. Seventh-century examples are few but are recorded as coming from sanctuaries where they were dedicated to the Greek divinities Aphrodite, Artemis, and Apollo Daphnephoros. The recorded examples of sixth-to-fourth-century date almost all came from female grave contexts (those of women or children), and in only one case from an Italic sanctuary, that of the goddess Mefite (a goddess with kourotrophic and chthonic powers), who is identified with Aphrodite/Venus.
The identities of the various female figures represented in the amber head-pendants are still an open question. A number of proposals have been put forward, all with the apparent assumption that in every case, similar-looking heads represent the same being. A female goddess, a protective genius, or a maenad—these are some of the hypothesized identifications.
In the view of this author, amber head-pendants represent a variety of beings, including divinities, supernaturals, and demons, and the identities are not fixed. The material of the head-pendants, the amber, seems to preclude identifying them as images of their owners, or even of mortal mourners. Although it is unlikely that the head-pendants represent votives, supplicants, or offerants—identifications often made for related figures in other media, such as Etruscan bronzes—it is still possible that they may do so in light of ethnographic analogies. Amber female head-pendants were made over centuries and descend from different iconographic types. The same image type may have been used to represent different beings, depending on the circumstances. In the case of buried heirlooms or prestige gifts, it is possible that a treasured piece may have had several owners and even different identities over time.
Roger Moorey’s recent words about the identity of terracotta idols are pertinent to this vexing issue. In his Schweich lectures, he proposed that anthropological research
in the first place highlights the fact that figures of similar appearance may have represented different beings, natural or supernatural; that the same type of figurine might have multiple functions, and that in one assemblage the same type might have had more than one function. In the second place, it indicates that terracotta anthropomorphic figurines do not have to conform to the tendency to regard them as necessarily representative of supernatural beings. . . . They may have embodied aspects of prevailing ideologies, whilst also reflecting contemporary society by encoding a variety of ritually significant knowledge relevant to the world of man and nature. . . . in light of ethnographic analogies . . . clay figurines do not have to conform to our expectations for them to be representations of supernatural beings or forces rather than of living human beings acting as votaries or worshippers or perhaps of dead human beings as ancestors or ghosts.
Attributes may have modified the basic types into more individualized representations. The addition of a wing or wings, a diadem, or a necklace might signal an aspect of divinity or demon and act as a determinant. Just as is the case with votive terracotta heads, the types might be adjusted by additions or adjustments. Identical terracotta votives may in one circumstance represent the offerant, in another, the divinity, and in still others, both at the same time—since the gods were represented in human form.
That the amber head-pendants are made from a potent material traditionally employed for divine, demonic, and heroic subjects, a material valued for its protective, apotropaic, and regenerative aspects, seems to limit the range of possible identities to certain female divinities; nymphs; protective geniuses; guides or psychopomps; demonic anthromorphs such as a sphinx or siren; spirits or souls; and, possibly, magical subjects like Medea or Circe.
What is critical is how these head-pendants might “work.” The bodiless heads and faces were pars pro toto of the full body, and thus held special power. A head alone could convey the hieratic implications of the complete body. The facing head and the frontal eye—an excerpt of the facing head—were highly potent foci and functioned apotropaically. The glaring eye, guarding against danger and averting evil with its “terrifying gaze” (phobon blepon), underscores the protective role of the image. The number of head-pendants with large (disfiguring) holes in the faces may be critical evidence for one kind of use and identity. It is possible that they were disfigured by drilling in order to nullify the possible negative powers of the image.
The identifiable pendants of Herakles are of the Cypriot type and underline the renowned potency of the immortal hero divinity: Herakles is a savior and a healer, a protector of springs, and a danger-averting deity (in Etruria, his close connection with Uni clearly establishes him thus). In each of the amber Herakles heads, he is frontal and wears the skin of a lion, a symbol of his strength, prowess, and deadly force. His glaring eyes emphasize his affinity with wild and dangerous fauna: he could be deinon paptainein (terrible to behold). In the one instance where the context of the Herakles head-pendant is known, its figured amber counterpart is a satyr, servant of Dionysos. This juxtaposition of ambers parallels the subjects of the main gate at Thasos, Herakles on one side with drawn bow and Dionysos on the other with the thyrsos. The two dangerous gods acted as guardians of the city.
An electron amulet of Apollo might well connect his fiery missiles with amber’s solar origin. With Herakles and Artemis, Apollo’s twin, the three bow-bearing gods were, for good and ill, death dealing. The divine twins were sharp shooters in their murder of Niobe’s children; the twin gods could also deliver peaceful deaths to the elderly. What better all-around amulet than one that could protect, ward off death and danger, promise rebirth, and heal? (Apollo’s son is Asclepius; fiery amber could function sympathetically to ward off fever; Apollo is one of the deities powerful both for the living and the dead.)
The dual natures of deities like Herakles and Dionysos, or Artemis and Apollo, are often played up in their iconography: their power to protect is directly related to their powers of destruction. In Italy, and in Etruscan religion, the deities powerful for this life, the transition to the afterworld, and the afterlife itself were critical to funerary imagery. A special role was reserved for those deities with light and rebirth aspects. Erika Simon illuminates this eloquently: “Thus also the Etruscans wished their dead to have light. They gave them amulets with astral symbols and painted the holy laurel grove of Apulu/Usil on the walls of their tombs.”