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Close encounters with an ancient world

Close encounters with an ancient world

With their enigmatic faces and staring, bitumen-accented eyes, they look like aliens from some other world, and in a way, they are, for they have come to us from across nine millennia. The figures, two full-length statues and a double-headed bust, each about 3 1/2 feet tall, are from a cache discovered in 1985 after a bulldozer cutting a road in Jordan exposed an ancient archaeological site. Broken into thousands of fragments, the figures were far too delicate to be excavated on the site, and so the entire block of earth in which they were entombed was dug up and shipped to the Smithsonian's Conservation Analytical Laboratory. There, in a process spanning a decade, conservators painstakingly reassembled them. They are now on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Of the artists who made them, we know that they lived by farming, as well as hunting and gathering. They employed advanced Stone Age tools and were technically adept at making and working with the lime plaster from which the statues are fashioned. And the figures themselves? Perhaps they represented ancestors, or heroes, or gods or goddesses from some spirit world. We only know that after 9,000 years, their haunting faces, like archetypal figures from our collective past, have the power to speak to us still.

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