15 • An Elephant in Stone

15 • An Elephant in Stone

Mesopotamia; 3,400–3,000 BC
20 cm long × 15 cm high; Limestone

Although there is evidence that elephants once roamed Western Asia as far back as the 3rd millennium BC – tusks, teeth and some skeletal remains have been found between the Levant and South-West Iran – representations of them are scarce and it seems somehow unlikely that a creature so powerful and imposing roaming free would attract so few depictions.

Those that we do have are highly stylized and most feature bulk as the central characteristic, which could suggest the artist not knowing the creature well enough to illustrate any detail, created perhaps from the descriptions of travellers. This does not explain the excavated remains, however, and although there is a suggestion Indian elephants were artificially introduced around 3,500 ,0, there remains much mystery under which these objects are shrouded, though this makes them no less fascinating or appealing.

A small cluster of sculptures such as this one are known and although each is slightly different, they share many characteristics. All are carved from limestone, with eyes drilled through the upper part of the trunk, they have coiled ears and their tail and trunk fall straight to hang between pillar-like legs. They are perfect representations of strength and stability, and the fact these creatures remain with us 5,000 years later, despite the overbearing impact of mankind, is testament to how accurate a portrayal it remains.

For a similar sculpture see D. Adams, E. Bunker, T. Kawami, R. Morkot, D. Tawil, When Orpheus Sang, An Ancient Bestiary, Les Livres d’Art, 2004, no. 26.