Phoenician Art

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Records of inscriptions from the ancient Eastern Mediterranean show that the Phoenicians were famous for their crafts and artistic work in metal, ivory, glass, terra cotta, wood and stone in addition to weaving and dyeing purple wool and fabrics. However, they were not given fare recognition by critics because Phoenician art borrowed from the mix of civilizations they interacted with through their trade.

Phoenician artisans were more concerned with what the object looked like rather than its strict stylistic orthodoxy. Phoenician art served many purposes which include religious, trade or others but was meant to appeal to a visual impact and communicate ideas.

Phoenician objet d'art that we find today is comprised of rather small objects. Most are made of gold, ivory, semiprecious stones, silver, glass, bronze and terra cotta. Also, large stone objects survive. Less durable items such as carved wood and fabric are almost very rare or not to be found at all.

Most of what survives, as in many other civilizations, pertains to burial or funerary context. Grave supplies include jewelry, scarabs, amulets, terra cotta, amulets, metal bowls, ivory boxes, cosmetic items, and possessions that denote rank and status and last but not least stone sarcophagi (Moscati 1988: 292-99, 328-53, 370-93,394-403).

Phoenician art is found both in temples and in tombs. However, this should not be taken to mean that there art was created for the dead or to the worship of gods. A lot still remains to be discovered even when most of what has surfaced comes from the latter which often is the repository of art that might not have survived.

Phoenician trade was instrumental in the expanse to which Phoenician art had reached. Around 1000 BC, Phoenician goods were to be found around the far corners of the Mediterranean and influenced the cultures of these areas such as the Greeks, Etruscans, North Africans and Iberians just as much as the Assyrians and the other Semites.

Very few archaeological sites in Phoenicia, the motherland, were adequately excavated with the exception of Sarepta (Pritchard 1978). Therefore known Phoenician art come from the diaspora of Phoenician colonies and trading posts. It is found in quantity at well excavated Phoenician sites in Spain, Sicily, Sardinia and Tunisia. These artifacts, most dating to the seventh through second centuries BC., though they differ from those made by eastern Phoenicians, which date mainly from the ninth to eighth centuries BC. Further, Phoenician art is often conservative in nature and the same motifs are reproduced in similar ways for centuries.

Eclecticism is the identifying hallmark of Phoenician art. Its unusual combinations and modifications of motifs and designs borrowed from a variety of foreign styles and designs The eclectic Phoenician usage is unique because other cultures and traditions would not use or depict a motif out of context of a certain religion as did the Phoenician.

Phoenician artists often used elements of Egyptian, Assyrian, or Greek in their designs. This carried over to color selection and combination. Phoenician artists sometimes imitated specific foreign styles rather than modifying them. This makes it difficult to recognize which is copied Phoenician and which is authentic. Cultures of the region borrowed from various sources outside their own and the Phoenicians did so more


Phoenician work on ivory objects have been found all around the Mediterranean, the islands and the inland domains of the ancient empires in palaces, tombs and sacrifices in temples. Ivory-carving was a long established craft in the Eastern Mediterranean and ivory was considered a precious commodity. Many discoveries in Egypt, Assyria, Cyprus, Carthage, Malta, and Sardinia confirm this.

The ivories from all these sites include furniture such as chairs, thrones, footstools and beds. Smaller items of ivory, such as boxes, handles for fans or fly-whisks, cosmetic implements, and even horse blinkers and harness trappings. Paint, gold leaf, and inlaid stones, glass and paste made many of these Phoenician ivories bright and colorful. Also, toilet articles such as combs, mirror handles and plaques from small boxes are other forms of there work in Ivory.

Ivory objects are better known than metal objects of silver, bronze ones between the ninth and seventeenth centuries. However, nineteenth century objects were unearthed in sanctuaries and tombs in Italy, Greece, Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus. It should be noted that center of production were identified in Cyprus and in Etruria (Markoe 1985: 7-8, 11, 27, 68, 141-42). Homer praises Phoenician bowls in the Iliad (chapter 23, lines 741-44; Lattimore 1962). They were decorated with pictures of animals or mythological creatures, hunting scenes, duels between men, between animals, and between men and animals, as well as soldiers marching in processions or engaging in battle or siege, Egyptian influence in the form of Pharaohnic dress, gods, and other "Egyptian" decorative styles.

Items carried personal names in Phoenician, Aramaic, Greek and Cypriot syllabic. Sometimes these were names of the craftsmen or owners. Phoenician craftsmen sought to create a design rather then disseminate a message or some sort of meaning. These provided an international look for these items

Frequently the handle takes the form of the long, curving neck and head of a bird, such as a swan or ibis, with the bird's wing incised onto the razor's shoulder. Early razors are undecorated or (especially in Sardinia) ornamented only with patterns of dots or abstract or floral designs. In the fourth century and later, the bodies of many razors were incised with representational motifs, usually animals, humans and divinities, ants are also common, plants such as the lotus, the palm (palms frequently occur on sacrificial stelae) and other, more abstract floral decorations. The shaving crescent was decorated separately, sometimes with geometric or floral motifs, less often with representational motifs. The motifs on razors are also found on other minor arts, such as scarabs and jewelry, and on sacrificial stelae.

The Greek gods Heracles and Hermes are also represented on Carthaginian razors (Heracles twice, Hermes once). The Carthaginians in particular borrowed many Greek motifs and religious symbols and copied Greek artistic conventions starting in the fifth century BC, a century of much contact and conflict between the two peoples, especially in Sicily.

Other Phoenician cities inherited some Greek-inspired iconography from Carthage and also borrowed ideas directly from their Greek neighbors or imitated Greek goods acquired through war, travel and trade.

Stone Stelae

Stone sacrificial monuments -- stelae and cippi -can, more reliably than objects in other media, be identified as the products of Phoenician craftsmen since they occur in uniquely Phoenician cemeteries and are not easily portable. The cemeteries were repositories for the cremated remains of infants, children and animals. To date, nine tophets have been excavated in North Africa, Sicily and Sardinia. Most have monuments and burials. At Carthage the taller shape (stela) in limestone replaces the cubic shape (cippus) usually carved of sandstone and sometimes stuccoed and painted. At other tophets variations of the cubic form predominate. As a vastly influential city, Carthage served as a source of artistic inspiration to other Phoenician cities in the west until quite late. By the late third century, however, carvers of Carthaginian stelae had ceased to innovate and to borrow foreign motifs. Some motifs were borrowed from Egypt, others were entirely local, and many, at least after the late fifth century BC, were based on Greek models. Artisans in various cities preferred different shapes of monuments and favored certain motifs over others, sometimes executing the designs differently. Sulcis in Sardinia favored the motif of a woman holding a tambourine (Bartolini 1986). Many Carthaginian craftsmen preferred incision to relief, whereas Italian carvers worked more frequently in relief.

Certain motifs were widespread, however, and occur at all or most tophets. The Sign of Tanit, named by modern scholars after the goddess mentioned along with Ba'al in dedicatory inscriptions on some stelae, decorated the earliest monuments and remained popular throughout the first millennium. The motif probably depicts the goddess with her arms raised in greeting. In the late fifth or fourth century BC the caduceus motif, probably representing the wand of Greek Hermes as conductor of souls to the underworld, appeared on stelae from many sites, perhaps under Carthaginian influence. Craftsmen at Carthage in particular adopted many Greek decorative and representational motifs at this time.

The raised hand, Sign of Tanit, and caduceus wand are among the most common motifs on late Carthaginian stelae and are often depicted together, perhaps in a symbolic shorthand illustrating worshiper and goddess in the ritual setting of tophet -- sacrifice. The quality of these stelae, aside from the general artistic decline in late Carthaginian monuments already noted, varies greatly. Carvers of stelae copied single motifs and whole groups of motifs from the same models or pattern books, with widely differing results depending on the skill of the individual artisans. A number of stelae must have been prefabricated.

Terra cotta Masks and Protomes

Terra cotta masks and protomes form a rare category of Phoenician art that spans the Late Bronze Age through the first millennium BC without major chronological gaps. Most masks, and some protomes, have suspension holes at the top or along the sides. Masks dating to the Late Bronze Age are found at Hazor, Beth Shean and Gezer. By the seventh century BC some Levantine masks began to copy Greek attributes. There are Greek parallels for these masks, especially at the sanctuary of Artemis Ortheia in Sparta. These were taken to be the inspiration for the western Phoenician masks until so many examples, including ones earlier in date, were discovered in the cast (Culican 1975: 55-64). Discoveries of masks in the Levant have not, however, closed the argument, and scholars still debate how the idea of masks and the types of masks were transmitted.

Protomes, largely from the west the first millennia in urn BC, are also widely discussed, since their makers seem to have borrowed Greek attributes from different sources: Ionia, Rhodes, Cyprus and, in particular, Sicily (Culican 1975: 75-77; b Stern 1976:114; Markoe 1990:14-16). The impetus for making masks or protomes that "look Greek" may be especially complex. Craftsmen in more out-of-the-way places like Ibiza seem to have received their Greek-looking masks, or mask molds, from Carthage and subsequently to have modified them to suit local tastes.

"Handsome" (or normal) types vary greatly; at their finest they resemble naturalistic sculpture. Grotesque masks were some wrinkled ("old"), some unlined ("youthful") grin or grimace in fairly standardized patterns. Normal and grotesque masks are mirrored in miniature by small amulets in various media depicting male heads intended to be worn on necklaces. One category of mask copies a Greek Silenus (a semi-divine figure with the ears, legs and tail of a horse, usually associated with the god Dionysus) or satyr (follower of Dionysus with the ears, legs and tail of a goat). Phoenician artists copied a wide variety of such faces, imitating Greek types of the Archaic period (circa 600-480 BC) for centuries, long after Greek artists had ceased to manufacture them. Female masks and protomes are all of the "normal" type rather than the grotesque. They usually fall roughly into two categories: one type has an Egyptian hairstyle; the other has Archaic Greek facial features (an oval face, almond eyes and a faint smile) and wears a veil. Carthage seems to have been the source of a number of mass-produced protomes or molds of both types found in Sardinia and Ibiza. At Ibiza there also occur protomes which, although they dimly reflect the original Greek-looking type, have become a truly local product. Terra cotta masks have been variously interpreted as death masks. Tomb guardians or apotropaic devices were personifications of death. Copies of larger masks were worn by adults in religious rituals, and actual masks, either worn by children or adolescents in sacred dances, or put onto the faces of infants or children before they were sacrificed. Both male and female images were probably functional ritual objects as well as symbolic images. Most masks are too small to have been worn by adults but may be copies of actual masks worn in dances or rituals. The suspension holes on masks and some protomes also could have permitted their attachment to temporary statues as heads. We cannot be certain of the meaning of these Phoenician masks, however. Even if they imitate masks actually worn in rituals or represent heads attached to poles in Greek fashion, we can neither reconstruct the rituals nor identify the statues. Like so much of Phoenician art, these terra cotta faces tantalize us with what we can guess, but still do not know.

Phoenician Craftsmen and Craft-Organizations Unfortunately, no accounts survive describing the Phoenicians' own opinion of their art and artists, their sources of raw materials, the relationship of patrons and artisans, the nature of workshops or guilds, or even the tools and techniques they employed. We can often determine probable sources of raw materials and can sometimes pinpoint the immediate origin of the material used to make a specific object or class of objects (see Barnett 1975: 168, on the ivories from Nimrud). Many other questions also remain unanswered. How did patrons commission works? Who designed patterns? How was the work assigned? Even the role of the craftsman in Phoenician society is unclear (for comprehensive lists of suggestive questions concerning bronze technology and craftsmen, see Doeringer, Mitten and Steinberg 1970: viii-ix).

I use the simple definition of Mallowan and Georgina Hermann (1974: 35-36): a group of craftsmen working together, presumably under one or more leaders or masters Craftsmen from one workshop ended working objects in similar ways. It is possible to recognize different workshops by identifying similarities between groups of objects in technique of manufacture and in that elusive and rarely defined quality, "style." In the case of carved ivory, Richard Barnett has suggested that there may have been ivory workshops in all the richest cities of the Levantine coast (Barnett 1982: 55). Phoenician ivories are numerous and they have been the subject of scholarly study for a long time. Researchers have identified the work of individual craftsmen more often in the corpus of ivories than among objects in other media. They have also recognized series of artifacts from a single workshop or group of associated workshops, and individual motifs or even entire works of art in ivory based on shared pattern-books or models.

Variations in quality of carving and minor deviations from standard iconography probably indicate different hands. Barnett has suggested that similarities in motifs on groups of ivory panels found in a number of Levantine cities of the ninth and eighth centuries BC denote that similarly-decorated ivory furniture was in widespread use. Isolated finds of related single panels that seem unlikely to have belonged to furniture may indicate that craftsmen produced the same panels for a variety of purposes (Barnett 1975: 129). The repeated motifs and themes suggest that ivory-workers from different workshops shared or copied each other's patterns. Series of ivories exhibiting similarities down to the smallest detail also probably indicate that carvers worked from pattern books or models.

Stone sacrificial stelae form another body of data in which it is possible to detect common workshop styles and shared patterns. Carthage has yielded the largest corpus of such carved stone stelae. This important western Phoenician City seems to have served as an artistic center from which other cities borrowed motifs and conventions. Carthaginian stelae, too heavy to be easily moved, were copied mainly within North Africa (as at Hadrumetum [Soussel and Cirta [Constantinel), while more portable objects such as razors and terra cotta heads (or molds to make them) reached Italy and Spain. In general, the stone monuments are particularly useful indicators of entirely local Phoenician techniques of production and choices of motifs (see Moscati 1973). Late monuments with very repetitive themes from Carthage and from some Italian sites (for example, ones from Sulcis in Sardinia, depicting women holding tambourines) were probably so familiar that carvers did not require a pattern.

Artists borrowed individual motifs and even whole scenes from one another, not only within the same media, but also between media. Eastern Phoenician ivories and metal bowls of the early first millennium BC share motifs, as do later stone stelae and metal razors in the west. Similarly, Greek metalwork and pottery shared motifs in the Orientalizing Period (seventh century BC) and later (Doeringer, Mitten and Steinberg 1970: 103-6). Phoenician jewelry scarabs and amulets are particularly rich sources of representational motifs that recur for centuries in carved ivory and stone, worked metal and modeled clay throughout the Phoenician world, east and west.

Phoenician artists freely borrowed the imagery of other cultures and allowed themselves considerable leeway in depicting their own motifs and those of others. Yet Phoenician art was also traditional and conservative. This brief overview of Phoenician art cannot do justice to the wide variety of artifacts preserved in many different contexts or the rich iconography from which Phoenician craftsmen drew. I hope to have illustrated the kinds of questions we can ask of Phoenician art and some of the answers we can glean from the surviving evidence.

The foreign owners of some Phoenician art would have understood its iconography, while others would merely have enjoyed the appearance of a design or appreciated the materials a craftsman had chosen and the care expended in making an object. Some of the art was confined to a more purely Phoenician, ritual context and reflects religious beliefs and documents cultic practices we are only beginning to comprehend. In all cases, our appreciation of Phoenician art is greatly enhanced by our awareness of its varied contexts.

Shelby Brown, Biblical Archaeology

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