20

I find the Ubaid lizard-people figurines visually captivating. But for obvious reasons it's difficult to search for information about them online without wading chest deep through pages of ancient aliens garbage, for little reward. So far I've managed to find pictures of several different figurines, that they were excavated at Ur, and that they date from the Ubaid period, and that they may present evidence for several varieties of body modification - though I don't know how solid that last one is.

What else do we actually know about these odd and arresting figures? Are there theories as to their origins, and significance within Mesopotamian art or religious belief? Are the majority female, as seems to be from the pictures, and what are they wearing and holding?

lizard statues

2
  • 1
    A link to further information would be helpful; I've never seen these and would like to learn more.
    – MCW
    Apr 17 '19 at 8:36
  • 3
    @MarkC.Wallace I've added a link to a downloadable version of Aurelie Daems' excellent paper A Snake in the Grass. Reassessing the ever-intriguing ophidian figurines to my answer. That should help get you started and includes a very handy bibliography. Apr 17 '19 at 12:03
20

There are many theories & interpretations, but relatively little evidence to support most of them. Of course, there are no written sources from the Ubaid period to support them.

You are absolutely right that there hasn't been a great deal of published material on the subject. However, a good, and relatively recent (2006), paper on the subject is A Snake in the Grass. Reassessing the ever-intriguing ophidian figurines by Aurelie Daems in Beyond the Ubaid: Transformation and Integration in the Late Prehistoric Societies of the Middle East, Edited by Robert A Carter & Graham Philip, pp 149-161, (published by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and currently available as a pdf file on their website).

That volume also has other papers that you might find of interest, including one on Ubaid head-shaping, which is particularly relevant to these figurines.


The one you have at bottom left (and top right) is interpreted as holding / nursing a baby. A similar figure, in this case missing the head, can be seen in this example from the British Museum:

Ubaid figure of woman nursing a child

  • Image Source British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Figures generally appear to be naked. The marks on the bodies may indicate tattoos or ritual scarification, or a combination of the two (or something else entirely).


We have figures representing both males and females, but sexual dimorphism is less evident in figures of the Ubaid period (in stark contrast to figures from earlier periods). You have male figure in the bottom-right of your picture.

The Ubaid figurines tend to show male and female figures with similar proportions, and rather than emphasising the differences between the sexes they tend to emphasise the forms of body ornamentation (assuming the marks do actually represent tattoos or ritual scarification), and cranial deformation common to both.


We seem to be on much more secure ground when it comes to explaining the shape of the heads of the figurines.

These almost certainly represent skulls that were bound in infancy to deliberately modify the shape (a practice known from many other cultures, and which is still practised in Vanuatu, for example). We have good osteological evidence for the practice from excavated human remains from the period.


The practice of intentional cranial deformation by binding the skull in infancy is strongly supported by skeletal evidence from a number of fifth-millennium sites in the region. These sites include

  • Değirmentepe (Özbek, 2003)
  • Arpachiyah (Molleson and Campbell, 1995)

In addition, we may have evidence from Eridu (Lorentz 2010, p128), although this is a little less certain due to the fragmentary nature of the remains.

These examples, illustrating cranial deformation, were excavated at Şeyh Höyük, and are now in the collection of the Ankara Museum:

Ubaid skulls

  • Figure 9.3 in Kirsi O. Lorentz: Ubaid Headshaping: Negotiations of identity through physical appearance published in Beyond the Ubaid: Transformation and Integration in the Late Prehistoric Societies of the Middle East, cited earlier

For brevity, I'll mention just two studies here:

Özbek's 2003 study of the skeletal remains from 31 individuals at Değirmentepe, which provided solid evidence for artificial cranial deformation, probably achieved by binding the skull in infancy.

Özbal's study, also in 2003, revealed 13 skeletons showing evidence for deliberate cranial deformation. In this case, the practice was observed across all age-ranges from the sample. The evidence strongly suggested that the required deformation was achieved by binding the head with bandages. This caused flattening or compression of the frontal bone of the skull. (Özbal 2003).

(I'd also highly recommend the paper by Molleson & Campbell, although I should declare an interest since Theya Molleson was my tutor when I studied human osteology as part of my Archaeology master degree)


In addition, you might find the 2011 PhD thesis, The Social Life of Human Remains: Burial rites and the accumulation of capital during the transition from Neolithic to urban societies in the Near East by Gareth David Brereton of UCL, of interest. He mentions these and other figurines of the period, together with the evidence from burials as discussed above.


Sources

Although written back in 1968, Peter Ucko's book Anthropomorphic figurines of predynastic Egypt and neolithic Crete with comparative material from the prehistoric Near East and mainland Greece. (Royal Anthropological Institute Occasional Paper No. 24) remains one of the standard texts for this subject, although the Ubaid figurines form only a small part of the study. I'm not aware of any copies available online though.

The following sources are much more up-to-date.

8
  • 1
    Excellent, thanks. Aside from the cranial deformation, which sounds like it's pretty much cinched going by those remains, is there any reasonable speculation as to why they're so reptilian? (Going by the bug-eyes, snouts, and open nostrils, in the homeland of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish.) Or is there just not enough context available to say anything much about that? Secondarily, if you know, are those odd holes below the lips believed to be anything in particular? Piercings?
    – Flux
    Apr 17 '19 at 3:31
  • 3
    @Flux There are lots of guesses about the appearance, but the truth is that we simply don't know. It could just be that was the artistic style of the time. It may have something to do with the function of the statuettes (we don't know what that was). Without texts or some other evidence it's all just guesswork. Since the soft tissues don't survive, the suggestion that the marks are tattoos or scarification are also guesses (in that case, based on evidence from ethnographic parallels, but still guesses). Apr 17 '19 at 3:40
  • 1
    This is plausible for cranial features, but the facial ones? Why no parallel to Egyptian gods with animal heads, chimeras? Apr 17 '19 at 4:33
  • @LangLangC In Egypt we have supporting evidence from other sources (texts especially) to support interpretation. These figures are much earlier and we have no such supporting sources. We don't know the relationships with what went before or with what came later. Like I said, apart from the cranial deformation, for which we have osteological evidence from contemporary burial sites, we simply do not know. There are lots of guesses, but no evidence to support them. Apr 17 '19 at 4:45
  • 3
    @LangLangC You might find the suggested, tentative, links to other regional styles in the paper by Aurelie Daems, that I've just added to my answer, of interest. Apr 17 '19 at 12:09
1

I can't add much to sempaiscuba's excellent answer, except to mention one interesting interpretation/hypothesis--well, interesting to this layperson anyway:

Stephen Oppenheimer's book Eden in the East (1998, pp76-7) suggests that the figures represent visiting Austronesians from island South East Asia. The markings on the figures could represent tattoos and scarification, both of which are well-known in that region (though scarification has a more limited distribution than tattoos).

If the figurines were made by locals trying to depict exotic-looking foreigners, rather than brought by the visitors themselves, the slanted eyes and other facial oddities could be an attempt at Asian features.

While this interpretation might seem far-fetched, the Austronesians--the ancestors of the Polynesians among others--were amazing sailors. Their languages made it as far as Madagascar (!), which is harder to reach from South East Asia than the Persian Gulf. If you sailed along the Indian Ocean coast, you'd hit the Gulf long before you went down the east coast of Africa to Madagascar. The alternative way to reach Madagascar is to strike out across open ocean at random in the hope of finding something, which admittedly the future Polynesians would eventually learn to do, but seems less likely/sensible in the early period the figurines are found in.

There's also quite a bit of mystery around the Sumerians' origins. Their language is an isolate, unrelated to any of the local languages or indeed any language family we can find. They may have migrated to the region from elsewhere.

Incidentally--if I can venture some personal opinion--the black bitumen wigs on those figurines make me wonder about that mysterious name the Sumerians called themselves, the 'Black-Headed People'...

At any rate, it makes more sense than lizard people.

(My sources for the statements about Austronesians and Sumer are, uh, Wikipedia and various popular history books, since they seem generally well-accepted; see here for Sumer - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumer For specific hypotheses about where the Sumerians came from, you'd have to see individual authors.)

Note that Oppenheimer only devotes about a page to the figurines in a 560-page book, as part of a much bigger argument about the prehistory of South East Asia. Much of his argument is about the drowned subcontinent of the Sunda Shelf, which may sound perilously close to Atlantis whackery. But he's a proper academic who holds a minority/maverick view similar to Solheim: that the Austronesians have been in ISEA much longer than orthodoxy believes, that their homeland may have been the true 'cradle of civilisation', and that they may have scattered in all directions when their homeland flooded due to sea level rise, thus contacting many other regions east and west. His book is a bit dry and dense but well worth tracking down for the fascinating ideas in it, especially the section on mythology, even if you disagree with the evidence and conclusions.

2
  • Thanks Lars for adding the link to Baer's (rather ambivalent) review.
    – Zen Shrugs
    Mar 25 at 5:04
  • The Austronesian theory is pretty unlikely. They definitely made it that far eventually (e.g. Madagascar ca. 400 CE-1000 CE and providing the source in mainland Africa for crops like bananas post 100 CE), but ancient DNA and archaeology pretty definitively rules out the possibility in the 3rd and 4th millennia BCE when these statutes were made.
    – ohwilleke
    May 13 at 7:22

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.