©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Rams’ Heads, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 24 March 2019.
The subject of a ram or ram’s head for adornment, amulets, and amuletic jewelry is age-old, and the animal is one of the earliest to appear. Rams’ heads are among the most numerous of pre-Roman amber subjects and range considerably in style. The earliest ones can be dated to the third quarter of the sixth century B.C., but the first documented examples date to the last decade of the sixth. There are a number from fifth-century contexts and a group from the fourth century. Some, such as 76.AO.82 (cat. no. 39), are minor masterpieces of Archaic art, while others are vaguely blocked out and defined with schematic scratchings. The differences among the rams’ heads throughout the period of their production suggest that they were made by any number of carvers, some highly skilled, others not, for acquirers from all parts of the Italian peninsula and areas within close sailing distance. The findspots include central and south Italy, two sites in ancient Illyria, and Alalia (Corsica). Many others that can be dated by style to the sixth and fifth centuries have come to light without secure documentation. Of the examples in the Getty collection, three (76.AO.82, 76.AO.83, and 77.AO.81.7; cat. nos. 39, 40, and 41) are dated here by style to the sixth century, and ten examples to the fifth (cat. nos. 42–50 and 52).
Amber rams’ heads are usually found in pairs or larger numbers, along with other amber objects, figured and plain pendants, beads, and fibulae. In the sixth century, rams’ heads were the most numerous of all figured subjects in amber. They were joined with korai, female head-pendants, birds, heads of lions, boars, gazelles, and horses, and floral and shell subjects. Ram subjects in amber are not documented in the company of human or humanoid male subjects, satyrs, Dionysos, Herakles, or any of the other unnamed bearded or unbearded males represented in amber. Rare, too, is the interment of ram subjects with demonic subjects. Two exceptions are the rams’ heads from Tomb 102 at Braida di Vaglio, which included a sphinx, and the rams’ heads in the Petit Palais, Paris, from the Sala Consilina burial, which included a range of flying figures, perhaps harpies or sirens.
The parallels for the amber heads in other media have led to the conclusion that the earliest amber rams’ heads were made in the second half of the sixth century, in an ambient where Greek specialists (Laconian, Ionians, Islanders, and other Eastern Greeks) were working, but the locations are elusive. Comparanda for the sixth-century amber rams’ heads range from the rams on the handles of Greek bronze vessels, especially Laconian ware, and on other kinds of Greek bronzes, statuettes, mirrors, and other utensils; the sheep subjects engraved on Ionian Greek gems; a singular silver ram pendant in New York; the pairs of rams on a silver East Greek oinochoe found in Lydia; and the rams’ heads struck on coinage from Cyzicus, Cyprus, Lesbos, Delphi, and Melos. Plastic vases in the form of recumbent rams and ram protomes, the small plastic ram protomes on Greek and Etruscan ceramics, and the drawings of rams on black- and red-figured vases of various fabrics also provide a mine of further comparanda.
Most of the amber rams’ heads appear to date to the fifth century. Parallels include gold works dated by specialists to the late sixth century, but which may be later. These include a Greek gold ram’s-head pendant from Eretria in Berlin, and a gold fibula with the tip in the form of a ram’s head from Ruvo in London. The amber rams’ heads dated to the second half of the fifth century have several good comparisons in precious metals, among them a gold necklace with nine rams’ heads excavated from a tomb of circa 450–425 at Roccanova and the spiral earrings ornamented with rams’ heads worn by the nymph Arethusa on Syracusan tetradrachms of 405 B.C.
The best evidence for early-fourth-century amber rams’ heads comes from a sporadic find at Cumae and three graves from the Andriuolo necropolis at Paestum, the latter datable to circa 380–370 B.C.[5bis] In each case, rams’ heads were all part of necklaces that also included female heads. Both types are schematic.
An important antecedent for the joining of rams’ heads and other figured elements in jewelry is the “Island Greek” or Lydian (perhaps) crescent-shaped gold pendant from Aydin (Tralles) of about 600 B.C. In addition to rams’ heads, this pectoral pendant includes the figure of Potnia Theron with snakes, rosettes, and sun disks, and griffins’, lions’, and bulls’ heads. Potnia Theron is the divinity who oversees plant life, the creatures and demons of the earth, the chthonic realm, and the sky. The Aydin pendant thus might be read as the ontological statement of a divinity of great fecundity and protectiveness. Despite the difference in scale, the role of the ram here is similar to that of the ram protomes of the large stone perirrhanterion, the ritual purification basin from the Isthmian sanctuary of Poseidon: the bowl is held up by women standing on lions, holding them by leash and tail, interspersed with large rams’ heads. A ritual object such as the seventh-century terracotta lamp from a Gela sanctuary (the rams alternate with female protomes) may be an excerpt of such an ontological declaration.
Rams’ heads are also a popular subject of “Phoenician” glass pendants and the subject of one uncommon type of Egyptian scaraboid, a blue frit amulet of the earlier sixth century made at Naukratis. The blue frit scaraboids are unusual in their treatment as seals with representational motifs or inscriptions on the flat sides. Their distribution is significant: Greece, the Black Sea, Magna Graecia (Taranto), and one example from Cerveteri. Related Egyptian amulet types, representing the king of the gods, Amen-Re, are the flat-backed amulets of a ram’s head with a disk and uraeus, or uraeus alone, in hollow gold and lapis lazuli as well as glazed-composition and frit, a feature of burials from the Third Intermediate period onward. Such is the role of the rams’ heads flanking the neck on the pair of glazed-composition flasks found in the “Isis Tomb” at the Polledrara cemetery at Vulci (British Museum GR 1850.2-27.57): the pair of rams’ heads invoke Amen, and the hieroglyphic inscription expresses greetings for the New Year, a potentially dangerous time of transition, just as was death.
Archaic representations of ram’s-head pendants in use include sculpted and painted examples, worn by both females and males, both deities and mortals. Some examples are telling: the terracotta statuette of an enthroned chthonic (?) female deity from Agrigento wears three superimposed pectoral strings with bull, ram, and satyr heads. The subject of a terracotta urn lid (from the Monte Abatone necropolis, Cerveteri) is a reclining woman, who wears a necklace with seven pendants, two of them rams’ heads. The male banqueter painted in the pediment of the main wall of the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing at Tarquinia wears three ram pendants on a carrier. In addition, several necklaces (one with three lions’ heads) hang from branches in the grove of the first chamber of the same tomb. The rams’ heads (amber) worn by the Monte Abatone figure are painted reddish in color, the same color of the two tiny beads at the top of the necklace, in contrast with the yellow-orange (perhaps gold) central pendants. The three rams’ heads worn by the male banqueter in the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing are the same reddish color as his skin and contrast in color with the yellow and white limned vessels (perhaps of shiny bronze or silver) held by the participants. The ram’s-head necklace in the first chamber is also painted a reddish color, in contrast with the yellow-orange palmette and lion pendants (also gold, perhaps) in the murals of the first chamber.
Erika Simon interpreted the trees of the first chamber of the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing as a sacred grove of Apollo (and the trees as laurels) as further evidence supporting her larger argument concerning the importance of Apollo in the funerary art and customs of Etruria (in contrast to his Greek nature). If, indeed, the grove is Apollo’s and the animal head necklaces hanging from the trees are of amber, this could be taken as further evidence of the connection between amber, Apollo, and life in the tomb as well as the funereal realm. Although the rams’ heads depicted in southern Etruria predate by several decades the Delphic coin types with confronted pairs of mounted rams’ heads (perhaps pendants rather than rhyta), the coins may substantiate the Apollonian connection. Alternatively, it is possible that the tomb is Dionysian, as Sybille Haynes argues. Stephan Steingräber points out its Dionysian aspects. The ram has always enjoyed favor as a potent symbol because of the animal’s legendary strength and virility (and hence its creative powers), and its characteristics as a leader and protector of his flock. In the ancient Near East, and from earliest times throughout the Mediterranean, the ram was associated with powerful divinities and heroic figures, wealth and the elite, and sacrifice. In south Italy, ivory figurines of recumbent animals, including the ram (decorations of fibulae, for the most part), were excavated at Motte delle Timpone (Francavilla Marittima). At Argos and Perachora in Greece, ivory ram figurines have appeared in sanctuaries devoted to Hera (Argos and Perachora) and at Ephesus in that of Artemis. The greatest number of ivory rams has come from the sanctuary of Ortheia (Artemis Orthia) at Sparta. In each case, the ram is linked with a powerful female divinity and a potent and high-value material. The series of early-sixth-century bronze Laconian hydriai (a shape that might be directly connected with women), with vertical handles animated by female heads, recumbent rams, and lions, could be other instances of this affiliation. The fourth-century necklaces with rams’ and female heads from Paestum, the last gasp of pre-Roman amber carving, may reflect the same pairing.
The traditional importance of the ram’s head as a subject in the ancient Near East is exemplified by two lapis lazuli pendants dating to the third millennium, possibly from Iran, and by a calcite Jemdet Nasr period amulet-seal of circa 3000 B.C. In Egypt, the ram was connected to several key deities. The ram with downturned horns was a symbol of the god Amun, and when he wore the solar disk between his horns or incorporated other solar iconography, the ram’s head was one of two guises of Amun Ra (the other was a goose). A ram’s head in amber, the subject enhanced and focused by the material from which the amulet was made, would put its wearer under the protection of the deity represented, who would by assimilation gain access to its particular powers.
The ram, the most highly valued and sexually potent of domestic animals, was from earliest times the most prestigious sacrificial victim. Greek drinking vessels (rhyta) in the form of rams’ heads are the most numerous by far and had an ancient ancestry. In Greece, the ram’s-head rhyton, as first argued Hans Hoffman, is associated with tragic heroes (he who must die, i.e., be sacrificed himself).
A ram’s head might have been worn to show the patronage of, or devotion to, a deity. For a Greek or an Etruscan, a ram’s-head pendant may have been an exotic, “Oriental” magical amulet, a talisman of protection, one that symbolized the power or knowledge of Egypt, the Punic world, or the Near East.
In the Greek-speaking world, the most famous stories of the ram’s apotropaic powers concern acts by Hermes, the Olympian responsible for the increase and protection of flocks. At Tanagra, Hermes averted a pestilence from the city by carrying a ram around its walls. A series of ram-bearer statuettes found at Medma (Calabria) attest to the widespread influence of the cult of Hermes in the West. It was Hermes, too, who sent the golden ram that flew Phrixos to safety in Colchis. The magic of the volant ram did not cease at its sacrifice: the Golden Fleece displayed in the grove of Ares was believed to be magical. Throughout Greek culture, the ram figures prominently as a metaphor of strength and courage (thus the association with Ares). Accordingly, Homeric heroes are likened to thick-fleeced lambs (Iliad 3.197). In Attic vase painting, rams are sometimes represented in an explicitly sacrificial context. More commonly, the context is heroic, with the ram’s sacrificial role implicit only. Such is the case in the story of Phrixos, or of Odysseus. Both the ram that carried Odysseus from the Cyclops’s cave (Odyssey 9.436ff.) and Phrixos’s mount are sacrificed as soon as they have finished their tasks. Their sacrifice is part of the story. The emblematic power of the Golden Fleece recalls the story of Atreus and Thyestes: the kingdom belonged to him who owned the golden lamb.
Almost all of the small-scale individual rams’ heads have been found in graves or, in the case of their representation in art, in funerary settings. This is critical to a better understanding of the subject in adornment. Although ram’s-head adornments might be hung from trees in a painting, and worn by both male and female reclining figures, the amber heads from documented contexts have come exclusively from female tombs. It is likely that in each burial, the rams’ heads functioned as ornament and amulet, the subject and material combining to create an elite object, a potent ornament, one with a battery of allusions—religious, divine, heroic, mythic, magical. It may also have worked in aggressive magic or medicine. Many Late Antique gems are engraved with a ram-headed god, one wearing the symbol of the sun (based on Amun Ra) and are specifically connected with the uterus. Such amulets were thought to check any morbid condition, to prevent conception, or to favor and facilitate parturition.
The solar aspects of amber may well have underscored the connection of the pendant subjects with regeneration, with the Egyptian ba, with solar divinities, with heroes (Odysseus, Phrixos, or Jason), or with a magical figure such as Medea. The Aydin (Tralles) pendant suggests the place of the ram in the universe of a powerful female nature divinity. Of the Olympian gods, if Apollo (the solar divinity) were brought to mind (and to work) by the ram’s head, then perhaps there was an association with his son Phaeton and the Heliades—whose shining tears shed in mourning for their brother Phaeton were hardened by the sun and turned into amber. If Hermes was evoked, it might not only allude to his legendary magical act at Tanagra, but his role—and the ram’s—as psychopompos. As this survey reflects, the subject of ram imagery in ancient art deserves continued study.