Terracotta Eye Idol Northern Syria 3300-3000 BCE

Brief IdentificationEdit

The 25 centimeter terracotta was discovered at Tell Brak in Northern Syria.  There were hundreds of theses "eye idols" excavated in the Eye Temple in 1937 by Max E. L. Mallowan.  The terracotta dates back to 3300-3000 BCE during the late Uruk period [See Louvre Museum]. 

According to the Louvre Museum website: "This relatively large pottery has a bell-shaped body and a cylindrical neck topped by two perforated circles.  It's flat base shows it was meant to be freestanding.  The beige clay is covered with a thick orange-red slip, which is still shiny under the concretions." 

Technical EvaluationEdit

During the Uruk period, "mass production was introduced for manufacturing some kinds of pottery, using technological innovations such as mold manufacture and wheel-throwing." [See Pollock 1999, 5]  However, there is no evidence to suggest that the eye idol was mass produced, just every day house hold items such as clay pots.  "Writing - the premier accounting and recording technology - was invented toward the end of the period (Uruk)." [See Pollock 1995, 5]

This terracotta was found during excavation, in Northern Syria.  It currently resides in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. 

Local Historical ContextEdit

"The so-called, 'spectacle-idols' were an older form of the symbol from which the eye-idols were evolved.  The former, however, differ from the latter in several particulars, such as the rounded or convex form of the body which was made to stand upright, the lack of any neck in the majority of examples, the holes perforated to represent the eyes which in the eye-idols were rendered by a coloured filling, and because in addition to alabaster they were sometimes made of serpentine, shale, or terra-cotta, and, above all, by the fact that they were discovered at numerous widely seperated sites, whereas Brak is the only place where eye-idols have come to light.  The connexion between the two types is, nevertheless, undeniable and is now generally acknowledged, so much so that many writers now class them together indiscriminately, and discuss them as a single group." [See Van Buren 1955, 166]  "Some of these "eye idols,"which vary in size, depict a single figure.  It seems likely that they were deposited in the temple as votive offerings and may represent stylized images of worshipers." [See Rakic 2010, 42]

"The wide distribution of eye idols/spectacle idol/hut symbols suggests a rare set of religous beliefs across the region (Mesopotamia) between 4200-3850 BCE." [See Stein 2012, 140]

There is some speculation that the spectacle idols, not eye idols, may not have been a religious artifact.  Henri Frankfort believes they could have been used as lids or as standard weights.  Furthermore, Catherine Breniquet suggests that they "could well be instruments used in spinning, placed in front of the seat operator.  The holes were used to seperate two or three single threads, which were then twisted together." [See Louvre Museum]

During the time of Mesopotamia , rulers spoke to the gods on behalf of the people.  "The ruler, as representative of the people, will have been responsible for making offerings on their behalf to the god(s) of their city, without which the gods' favour could not be retained." [See Postgate 1992, 263]

The widespreaddistribution of eye idols/spectacleidols/hut symbols at Hacınebi, Hamo-ukar, Brak, Gawra and other sites (fig. 8)suggests a shared set of religious beliefsacross the region (Gibsonet al.2002:59,fig. 17; Mallowan 1947; Reichel 2009:81; Steinet al.2006: 216, fig. 8; Tobler1950) that may have originated as early as the LC2.


Ancient Mesopotamia with current boarders [See]

World-Historical SignificanceEdit

"Eye idols are scattered over a vast region bounded by southeast Turkey (Arslantepe) to the north, Syria (Hama) to the west, and southern Mesopotamia (Telloh, Uruk, Ur) and Iranian Khuzistan (Susa) to the south. These objects are characteristic of the Proto-urban period in Uruk (3700-3100 BC) during which the first cities appeared." [See Louvre Museum]

For the religious interpretation of the terracotta, "we are, nevertheless, left in perplexity whether the manifold 'eyes' symbolized a single supreme Eye-god or a vast number of lesser eye-divinities.  The explanation of the varying manner in which the 'eye' is delineated is said to be because it is not a natural human eye which is depicted, but a symbol, and thereby the god." [See Van Buren 1955, 168]

There is still debate today as to whether the terracotta is a religious figure or just another tool used to further civilization in society.


Pollock, Susan. Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and economy at the Dawn of History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Rakic, Yelena. edit. Discovering the Art of the Ancient Near East: Tell Brak. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 2010.

Stein, Gil J. "The Development of Indigenous Social Complexity in Late Chalcolithic Upper Mesopotamia in the 5th-4th Millennia BC-An Initial Assessment." Origini. 2012: 125-51.

Van Buren, E. Douglas. Iraq: New Evidence Concerning an Eye-Divinity. British Institute for the Study of Iraq, 1955.

"Ancient Mesopotamia: This History Our History," accessed April 23, 2013, .

Louvre Museum, "Eye Idol,"