The statues of the biblical Ammonites
The kingdom of the biblical Ammonites is mentioned a handful of times in the Hebrew Bible. Possibly the most memorable instance is in 2 Samuel 11, when King David sends Joab and his army to besiege Rabbath-Ammon, their capital city, while he stays in Jerusalem and meets Bathsheba.
But the kingdom of Ammon had a rich history of its own, arising in the early tenth century BCE in the highlands east of the Jordan Valley. The Amman Citadel, an immense archaeological mound in the middle of modern-day Amman, Jordan, was where the Ammonite royal palace stood. To the south were Ammon’s sister kingdoms, Moab and Edom, and biblical Israel and Judah were across the Jordan River to the west.
These kingdoms shared in common a variety of cultural traits. But only Ammon produced a significant number of monumental stone statues. Made up of both royal statues and statues of gods, this collection speaks to the biblical Ammonites’ distinctive ideas about the representation of power, as well as its interaction with the great empires of the ancient Near East. In the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, archaeologist Katharina Schmidt provides a fascinating introduction to these statues in her article “Hard Power: The Stone Statues of Ammon.”
For a kingdom that was relatively small geographically, the Ammonites’ production of about 40 pieces of statuary in Rabbath-Ammon is striking, especially in contrast to the near-total lack of such figural representation from the neighboring kingdoms of Moab, Edom, Israel, and Judah. The extent of excavation in the region is sufficient to demonstrate that this disparity cannot be due to chance alone; rather, stone statuary was a distinctive form of Ammonite artistic expression.
Many of the statues, which include full figures as well as separate torsos and heads, were discovered in the vicinity of the Ammonite palace on the eastern side of the Amman Citadel. Identification of the specific individuals depicted is largely impossible; only one bears an inscription on its base, identifying the figure as the Ammonite king Yerah‘azar. In lieu of such explicit markers, we must rely instead on the features depicted on the statues. For example, royal statues depicting high-status men appear with a distinctive diadem around the head, and typically hold a lotus stalk in their left hand. The distinctive “Ammonite Robe,” a two-piece garment consisting of a broad decorated scarf and a long belted skirt, is another characteristic feature. Statues of gods bear their own distinctive marker: a tall crown with side volutes similar to the Egyptian atef crown.
Certain thematic elements demonstrate the biblical Ammonites’ engagement with the great empires of the ancient Near East. The lotus flower, originally an Egyptian motif, was long used as a symbol of royalty in the region, even by Assyrian and Aramean rulers. Likewise, the use of the atef crown to designate a figure’s divine status was a widespread Near Eastern practice dating back at least as far as the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1550 BCE).
The most imposing piece of Ammonite statuary is an enormous 2-ton basalt statue standing nearly 7 feet tall. It was discovered out of context at a Roman-era theater just south of the Amman Citadel. Although the statue is worn, the hallmark royal details, such as the left arm held up in front of the chest and the distinctive royal garment, remain visible. Massive, oversized statues of this kind are yet another point of connection between the biblical Ammonites and the great empires of the Near East.
In addition to men and gods, women too are depicted in the statuary of the biblical Ammonites. Particularly interesting are the double-faced female heads, which have holes drilled vertically through them so that they could be mounted on pegs and attached to window balustrades. Non-royal men also are depicted, typically with short, curly hair and no beard, which distinguishes them from the royal figures.
As Schmidt notes, these statues served the biblical Ammonites as an expression of their wealth and connections. During the period of Assyrian hegemony in the Iron Age II (c. 1000–612 BCE), Ammon was the only southern Levantine kingdom that never rebelled against Assyria and reliably paid tribute. This allowed the city of Rabbath-Ammon to flourish while its leaders maintained close ties to powerful kings and elites throughout the empire. Along with these relationships came the transfer of artistic traditions and norms, with the Ammonites developing a unique style of monumental figural art that drew on foreign cultural elements and incorporated them into their own locally distinctive representations.
For a deeper dive into the statuary of the biblical Ammonites, read Katharina Schmidt’s article “Hard Power: The Stone Statues of Ammon,” published in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Read the collection Ancient Israel’s Neighbors—The Transjordanian Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab, and Edom,
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