BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Power Set in Stone 

The statues of the biblical Ammonites 

stone head sculpture with a piece of nose broken off

The large, distinctive crown on this and other statues of gods appears to indicate the figures’ divine status. This may be Milkom, the chief god of the biblical Ammonites. Courtesy Photo Companion to the Bible, 2 Samuel.

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.


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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.

One of the royal statues of the biblical Ammonites depicts King Yerah‘azar in typical regalia: a diadem around the head, a lotus stalk clutched to the chest, and a traditional Ammonite robe. An inscription on the base of the statue identifies the figure. Courtesy Photo Companion to the Bible, 2 Samuel.

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.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “Hard Power: The Stone Statues of Ammon” by Katharina Schmidt in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Read more about the Ammonites in Bible History Daily:

Who Were the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites in the Bible?

Subscribers, read more in the BAS Library:

Rabbath of the Ammonites

What Ever Happened to the Ammonites?

Read the collection Ancient Israel’s Neighbors—The Transjordanian Kingdoms of Ammon, Moab, and Edom,

 


1 Responses

  1. Patrick Tilton says:

    The book of GENESIS would have us all believe that the Ammonite people — as well as the Moabite people — were brought about through Father-with-Daughter incest, following the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the death of Lot’s wife due to her looking back on the devastation and becoming transformed into a pillar of salt. Because Lot and his surviving daughters — girls whom he had been willing, earlier, to give to the inhospitable men of Sodom who demanded he send out his angelic guests for them to ‘know’ — did not go to the inhabited town of Zoar, opting instead to shelter in a cave, those two daughters mistakenly thinking that they and their father were the only surviving people in the world following that rain of fire and brimstone, and so — according to GENESIS — they got their father drunk on consecutive nights and, in that cave, got him to impregnate them. This is supposed to have led to the incestuously-begotten boys Moab [“from father”] and Ben-Ammi [“son of my people”], the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites, respectively.
    Did the Moabites and Ammonites themselves believe that they were descended from Father-Daughter incestuous unions? Frankly, I doubt it. I suspect that the Israelite author(s) of GENESIS sought to denigrate their hated neighbors, and concocted bogus ‘origin’ stories, defaming them as having been the result of Incest — the same tactic used against the Canaanites, who were supposedly descended from the Mother-Son incest perpetrated by Noah’s wife with her son Ham, leading to Noah — who had gotten himself drunk after the Flood narrative — cursing the incestuously-begotten lineage of Canaan. The Canaanites, too, most probably didn’t believe in the Israelite myth of their incestuous begetting. It was a propaganda move to ‘justify’ annexing Canaanite territory by a rival tribe — the covetous Israelites.
    That’s what I think was going on with the pseudo-historical ‘origin’ stories about Canaan, Moab, and Ammon. After-the-fact myth-making to justify a land-grab by the people of Israel.

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1 Responses

  1. Patrick Tilton says:

    The book of GENESIS would have us all believe that the Ammonite people — as well as the Moabite people — were brought about through Father-with-Daughter incest, following the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the death of Lot’s wife due to her looking back on the devastation and becoming transformed into a pillar of salt. Because Lot and his surviving daughters — girls whom he had been willing, earlier, to give to the inhospitable men of Sodom who demanded he send out his angelic guests for them to ‘know’ — did not go to the inhabited town of Zoar, opting instead to shelter in a cave, those two daughters mistakenly thinking that they and their father were the only surviving people in the world following that rain of fire and brimstone, and so — according to GENESIS — they got their father drunk on consecutive nights and, in that cave, got him to impregnate them. This is supposed to have led to the incestuously-begotten boys Moab [“from father”] and Ben-Ammi [“son of my people”], the eponymous ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites, respectively.
    Did the Moabites and Ammonites themselves believe that they were descended from Father-Daughter incestuous unions? Frankly, I doubt it. I suspect that the Israelite author(s) of GENESIS sought to denigrate their hated neighbors, and concocted bogus ‘origin’ stories, defaming them as having been the result of Incest — the same tactic used against the Canaanites, who were supposedly descended from the Mother-Son incest perpetrated by Noah’s wife with her son Ham, leading to Noah — who had gotten himself drunk after the Flood narrative — cursing the incestuously-begotten lineage of Canaan. The Canaanites, too, most probably didn’t believe in the Israelite myth of their incestuous begetting. It was a propaganda move to ‘justify’ annexing Canaanite territory by a rival tribe — the covetous Israelites.
    That’s what I think was going on with the pseudo-historical ‘origin’ stories about Canaan, Moab, and Ammon. After-the-fact myth-making to justify a land-grab by the people of Israel.

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