'Eye Idols' from Tell Brak, Syria
The Fitzwilliam Museum has four Eye Idols (WAE.3–6.1966), which are displayed in the Ancient Near East gallery (Gallery 23).
What is an Eye Idol?
Although they date from roughly 3200 BC, Eye Idols look remarkably modern. Simple and abstract, they represent the human form with a flat trapezoidal body and oversized eyes. Hundreds of these figurines were found in a monumental building known as the 'Eye Temple' in Tell Brak, north-eastern Syria. The idols vary in size from about 3 to 6 cm in height, and are made of either white or black alabaster.
Where were they found?
Because of the huge numbers of idols found, the monumental building where they were found has been called the 'Eye Temple.' The interior decoration was lavish — the altar was decorated with a frieze made from colourful stones, silver nails and gold foil, and on the floor and walls were mosaics made from coloured clay cones. Eye imagery and designs are found in the frieze and carvings in the temple, suggesting that the eye was a powerful magical and religious symbol.
What were they used for?
The large number of Eye Idols found and their size suggests that they were left in the temple as votives (gifts to the gods), perhaps representing the people who dedicated them as offerings. The decoration of the idols varied, and it seems that they may have been personalised; those on display in the Fitzwilliam are examples of the simplest type, but others have carved lines and zig-zags on their bodies depicting clothes. There are even examples of group idols representing more than one figure — some of which have a smaller 'child' figure carved onto the front. Eye Idol from Tell Brak (WAE.5.1966)
Are they unique?
Although Tell Brak is in north-eastern Syria, both the decoration and plan of the Eye Temple resemble that of south Mesopotamian temples, such as those in Uruk and Eridu. Eye symbolism was also popular in Mesopotamia around this time, and eye designs have been found on objects from the Royal Cemetery from Ur as well as in temples. The Eye Idols of Tell Brak, however, are completely unique and have no parallels, in either Syria or Mesopotamia. Eye Idol from Tell Brak (WAE.6.1966)
Want to know more?
Cambridge University is currently running excavations at Tell Brak and an outline of the latest work can be found at www.arch.cam.ac.uk/projects/tellbrak.html.
Eye Idols from Tell Brak are also on display in the British Museum, and are featured in the British Museum's online database, Compass.
D. Collon, Ancient Near Eastern Art (London, 1995), 47, fig. 26. M.E.L. Mallowan, 'Excavations at Tell Brak', Iraq 9 (1947), 32–8; 150–9; 198–210.