Small Things

“Monumental” is how I would describe much of the exhibition, Roads of Arabia, with its colossal stone sculptures to the massive gilded doors of the Ka’ba, putting the small things at risk of being missed. So I want to draw your attention to three pint-sized artworks for the next time you visit the exhibition.

Male figurine, 2500–2000 BCE. Probably Mesopotamia. Lapis lazuli. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1177.

Male figurine, 2500–2000 BCE. Probably Mesopotamia. Lapis lazuli. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1177.

This small figurine (cat. no. 39) in Gallery 1 (Osher Gallery) was discovered by chance on the island of Tarut in northeastern Arabia. It represents a seated man, wrapped in a cloak; his deep-set eyes, long hair, and beard are characteristic of statues of worshipers associated with Mesopotamia. The figure is carved in lapis lazuli, a highly-prized semiprecious stone imported from a region in present-day Afghanistan.

Scarab, 1st millennium BCE. Egypt. Tin-glazed earthenware and gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2227.

Scarab, 1st millennium BCE. Egypt. Tin-glazed earthenware and gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 2227.

The scarab (cat. no. 185) in Gallery 2 (Hambrecht Gallery) was brought into Qaryat al-Faw in southern Arabia from Egypt. The scarab is made of tin-glazed earthenware and set into a gold mount. The back side (flat side) has Egyptian hieroglyphs that unfortunately have not been deciphered. And standing only 1.5 cm (less than an inch) tall, this object is the smallest artwork in the exhibition.

Dinar, 778–779. Saudi Arabia; Darb Zubayda, Ha’il site. Gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1/A H.

Dinar, 778–779. Saudi Arabia; Darb Zubayda, Ha’il site. Gold. Courtesy of National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, 1/A H.

And finally in Gallery 3 (Lee Gallery) is a group of ten coins made of gold and silver. They were found along one of the major pilgrimage roads, and each was minted outside of the Arabian Peninsula; one as far away as Samarqand, in present-day Uzbekistan. Each gold coin is called a dinar and has a specific weight equivalent to 4.25 grams (0.15 ounce); each silver piece is called a dirham and has a specific weight equivalent to 3.0 grams (0.10 ounce). Dinar and dirham coins remained official currency until the early 20th century.

Though small, these objects testify to the Arabian Peninsula’s role as a cultural crossroads over the thousands of years that this exhibition covers.