Olivia Schmalfuss ’20 was the Martie Young Curatorial Intern for Asian Art in 2019–20.

I was privileged to begin working in the Johnson Museum’s Asian art department in 2019. As an Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies major with a penchant for the Bronze Age, one of my first assignments was to study the dozens of artifacts given by a notable Cornellian to see what I could learn. The task required a combination of hard work and serendipity.

The beloved Cornell English and literary professor and author M. H. “Mike” Abrams and his wife, Ruth, were avid collectors and donated many impressive pieces to the university and the Museum over the years. Among their many gifts to campus is a brilliant mosaic from Roman-era Syrian Antioch now displayed prominently in the west entrance of Goldwin Smith Hall. After Professor Abrams’s death in 2015, his heirs donated many more pieces to the Johnson. This gift consisted of a variety of ancient artifacts, from Iron Age “Luristan” bronzes from Iran to figurines from the Roman Empire, to Indian paintings and European prints and ceramics from China, among other things.

Only scant information about the identity and provenance of some of the ancient Near Eastern pots and terra-cotta figurines existed, many of the artifacts having been purchased from a private collector decades before. The best guess was that they were Hittite, perhaps from southern Turkey.

The lack of context was certainly a challenge. I was alternately inspired by how much information can be gleaned from subtle observations on color, texture, and shape, and at the same time frustrated that my only clues were the aesthetics of the pieces. It was a lesson in acceptance. Researchers rarely have all of the data they hope for and can only occasionally answer all the questions they are asking. At the same time, we can celebrate all the answers and information that can be gained, all the new questions that develop, and enjoy the surprises that are discovered in the process.

In dozens of thick, heavy books taken between Olin Library and the Museum I looked for comparative pieces in archaeological field journals and excavations reports going back a century or more. But I could find no correlations between the styles and types from the Abrams’s 2015 gift and the excavation reports of Hittite sites. But if not Hittite, what culture produced them and when? Confounding the problem was the broad geographic and temporal extent of the Abrams family travels across the globe, from China to Mexico, collecting objects from the Bronze Age to the sixteenth century. Where should I begin looking for information on small, gray pottery pieces with few distinguishing characteristics?

I searched Near Eastern excavation journals in hopes of finding pots and jars at least from a similar geographic area to the Hittites. I looked through dozens of manuals on pottery typology and online image sources. The “Ceramic Analysis” class I took with Professor Lori Khatchadorian during my sophomore year was invaluable to my research. The pots were certainly not identical, but there were enough commonalities to consider them a unified type: small, globular bottles, fired in a reduced atmosphere, with parallel lines spiraling upward toward a narrow neck and thick lip. These striations encircling the vessel were likely produced by rubbing a small stone or other firm smoothing object against the clay while they were spun on a fast wheel, a common technique known as burnishing. For these and a few miniature open-mouthed jars of a similar type, the burnished striations that spiraled around the ceramic were the most distinctive feature.

Most excavation reports provide profile sketches of the ceramics excavated at the site. However, striations, textures, and colors are not generally included in the sketches which highlight shape and size alone. A precious few excavation reports will include black-and-white photographs of a few selective examples, but texture, striation, and color are difficult to discern. The specific shapes of the jars and bottles in the Abrams gift were quite common throughout the Near East for several millennia and came in a range of colors, textures, sizes, and contexts. I could not rely on shape and size alone.

Eventually, it was a written description rather than an image that successfully oriented my search. While looking through the excavation report for Selenkahiye in Northern Syria edited by Maurits Van Loon of the University of Chicago,1 the wonderfully descriptive term “gray spiraled burnished ware” caught my eye. Corresponding sketches and photographs within the report confirmed that such ceramics were formed in the same range of shapes and sizes as the Museum’s group. Van Loon dated these jars and bottles between 2400–2000 BC, at least six hundred years prior to Hittite cultural influence in the area and perhaps just before Amorite presence became widespread throughout Syria (around 2100 BC).

Some of the more elongated shapes were known as “Syrian bottles.” These small vessels were all found in funerary contexts and it is assumed that they held precious oils or perfumes for the deceased. These types of wares were particular to the region between Hama, Syria, and the Middle Euphrates, Balikh and Khabur Valleys. Similar pieces were found during excavations at Tell Chuera and Tell Brak and have also been called metallische ware and stoneware.

I moved on to the figurines. The terra-cotta statuettes were crudely made, hardly taller than my hand. The shapes of the figurines’ heads are each unique, perhaps imitating an ancient hairstyle or headdress. The legs are not defined, but instead are like pillars, perhaps mimicking long robes. Along with the humanlike figurines were animal-shaped terra-cottas depicting bulls and perhaps sheep. Were they idols, or children’s toys? Perhaps they were simply four-thousand-year-old knickknacks from a Chalcolithic curio cabinet.

I searched to see what archaeology could tell us about their context. Several similar figurines were published from the same sites as the Syrian bottles, though they seemed to have a much wider, more ubiquitous spread. I found similar examples from excavations at Hama, Tell Es-Sweyhat, Tell Mardikh (Ebla), and Selenkahiye. They were also from a similar period, though they appeared earlier and lasted a few centuries longer (ca. 2500 BC–1700 BC). However, they were not from a similar context. While the small gray spiral burnished ware bottles were found in burials, the figurines were more often found in household courtyards or public spaces or discarded in household trash. Steering me away from thinking of them as idols or cult objects was the fact that they were rarely found near temples, and even then, only in household areas rather than cult centers. They were also unceremoniously discarded in trash heaps or abandoned in a courtyard. Though it is unclear what their exact purpose or meaning may have been, they were likely items of everyday use.

Though we may never know the exact details, it is clear that they all originate from sites in northwestern Syria. A possible location may be one of the sites in the Lake Assad area which underwent emergency excavations prior to the construction of the Tabqa Dam in 1973. Knowing that several sites would be flooded and covered by the new man-made lake, the Syrian government encouraged international archaeological teams to conduct rescue excavations to salvage whatever data and artifacts they could before the completion of the dam. Laws were even temporarily adjusted to allow for international researchers to keep up to fifty percent of excavated materials and transport them to their home nations. These sites were excavated in the 1960s and ’70s. Many of the objects in the Abrams gift are similar to the objects found during these excavations, though there is no evidence directly relating the objects to these specific rescue excavations.

My research culminated in an installation of the Syrian items given by the Abrams family on the Museum’s fifth floor, to provide a unique glimpse into northern Syrian life from more than four thousand years ago. These objects allow us to see and explore a range of human interests and behaviors during this period, from the day to day whimsy of the figurines to ceremonial burial practices in the jars and bottles. There are so many more questions a researcher could ask of these objects, and perhaps even find a few answers. The Johnson Museum is privileged to house and display these items both for public enjoyment and to promote more research and understanding of our ancient past.


1. Maurits N. Van Loon, Selenkahiye: Final Report on the University of Chicago and University of Amsterdam Excavations in the Tabqa Reservoir, Northern Syria, 1967–1975 (Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut Te Istanbul), 2001, pages 5A.233-5A.263 and plates 5A.23-5A.35.