Ain Sakhri lovers figurine

Contributed by British Museum

Figurine of two lovers found in a cave at Ain Sakhri. ? Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

This is the oldest known representation of a couple making love in the world. It was found in a cave in the Judean desert. The pebble depicts a couple face to face. One person has wrapped their arms around the shoulders of their lover in an embrace. The knees of one of the figures bend up over the legs of the other. The pebble has been ingeniously carved so that, whichever way you look at it, the shape of the figurine is phallic but the genders of the couple are not revealed.

What was the sculpture used for?

The people who made the figurine are known as Natufians and are among the first people to domesticate sheep and goats. Selectively breeding animals required an understanding of the male role in reproduction and the sculpture's phallic shape may reflect their interest in fertility. Was this work of art used for rituals focussed on fertility or is it simply a reflection on human love?

The Natufians were hunter-gatherers whose lifestyle gradually led to farming

The difference between art and artefact

An artefact is something from a particular time that stays in that time like a piece of pottery and it becomes like a relic of that time. An artwork is something that is from a time but is also eternally in the present moment and I think you can definitely say that this sculpture is in the present moment.

That to me is the great strength of making artwork, you are making essentially emotional time machines. You’re making an object of meditation that will communicate with people in 10,000 years time (were it to survive) in a very direct way – I mean certain things are beyond time!

Marc Quinn, Artist

Who were the Ain Sakhri lovers?

A work of art may be appreciated across cultures and millennia because it expresses something which we can recognize on our own terms.

Whether we see the Ain Sakhri lovers as a piece of erotica, a tender expression of homosexual or heterosexual love, a symbol of fertility, masculinity or a metaphor for creation, depends on our own background and beliefs. As we enjoy the ingenious composition and skilful artistry, we connect our present to its deep past and a period of significant transformation in human history.

11,000 years ago the Natufian people of the Middle East lived by hunting gazelle with their pet dogs. Gazelle have fixed territories so where it was also possible to collect seasonally abundant figs, acorns, pistachios, as well as wild lentils, chick peas and wheat grains, these hunter gatherers could stay longer in one place allowing some permanently occupied villages to develop.

Although it was probably only a temporary shelter, even the toolkit from the cave of Ain Sakhri includes little flint blades which slotted into the wooden handles of reaping knives. By gathering wild wheat and barley, Natufian gatherers were preferring strains which did not release their grains in the slightest gust of wind.

This accidental process of selection began the slow genetic modification of cereals which enabled the growing of crops Sheep, goats, cattle and pigs were also gradually domesticated from wild species for farming. Like Adam and Eve, the lovers’ descendents, particularly the women, faced a future of hard labour in fields.

Jill Cook, Curator, British Museum

Comments are closed for this object

Comments

  • 1 comment
  • 1. At 17:36 on 14 October 2010, David Britton wrote:

    The figurine of the two lovers rate the number one position surely

    Complain about this comment

Most of the content on A History of the World is created by the contributors, who are the museums and members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC or the British Museum. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site’s House Rules please Flag This Object.

About this object

Click a button to explore other objects in the timeline

Location

Khareitoun, Judea

Culture
Period

11,000 years old

Theme
Size
H:
10.2cm
Colour
Material

View more objects from people in London.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.