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Ancient figurine lifts horses' profile.

While excavating an ancient Syrian city last September, archaeologists unearthed a 4,300-year-old clay figurine that stands as the oldest known sculpture of a domesticated horse, according to an announcement this week by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

The discovery suggests that horses played a more important role in the rise of early civilizations than researchers have often assumed, contends Thomas Holland, an Oriental institute archaeologist. He directed the team that found the skillfully crafted figurine at Tell Es-Sweyhat, about 200 miles northeast of Damascus. Other evidence points to the domestication of horses in central Asia at least 6,000 years ago (SN: 6/2/90, p.340).

The meaning of the horse sculpture to its makers and the predominant function of horses in their culture remain unclear, asserts anthropologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. Zarins did not participate in the dig, but he has examined the equine find.

"This is without a doubt the best early example of a domesticated horse sculpture," Zarins maintains.

Holland and his associates place the manufacture of the 5-inch-long, 3-inch-high figurine at about 2300 B.C., based on carbon-14 dates and pottery styles at Tell Es-Sweyhat.

Two signs of domestication appear on the pale-green sculpture, Zarins says. A hole bored through the muzzle may represent the position of a bit to hold reins or a nose ring for leading the horse by hand. And the mane, formed by strips of molded clay, lies flat in a manner unique to domesticated horses, he maintains.

The figurine's long, full tail distinguishes it from donkeys, which were domesticated in the Middle East around 3500 B.C., Zarins notes.

Modeled as a stallion with enlarged genitals, the sculpture may have been used in ceremonies to ensure the fertility of horses, much as full-bodied female figurines found at the same site appear to have been intended to promote healthy human births, Holland suggests.

Holland and Zarins agree that residents of the site probably concentrated on breeding horses with donkeys to produce mules, which kings and other royal officials considered most desirable for pulling chariots. Horses also may have pulled chariots, the scientists hold. Investigators found several model chariots at Tell Es-Sweyhat last year.

Other finds included a complex of public buildings with wall paintings, bronze tongs, and one-handled storage jars nearly identical to a third-millennium B.C. jar found on Cyprus. This indicates that the ancient city, located in Mesopotamia, traded with Mediterranean peoples, Holland says.

Tell Es-Sweyhat may be either of two cities mentioned in cuneiform writings from the nearby Ebla empire, he notes. The site served as a key trading post between Ebla to the west and the Akkad empire to the east. Previous excavations suggest the city was destroyed around 2200 B.C. by Akkadian warriors.
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Title Annotation:4,300-year-old horse figurine found at Tell Es-Swey-hat, Syria
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jan 9, 1993
Words:465
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