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Anthropomorphic stele

by Nathalie Hager
This stone marker depicts an abstracted human. How should we interpret one of the Arabia's earliest artifacts?
Anthropomorphic stele, El-Maakir-Qaryat al-kaafa near Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, 4th millennium B.C.E. (4000-3000 B.C.E.), sandstone, 92 x 21 cm (National Museum, Riyadh)
Anthropomorphic stele, El-Maakir-Qaryat al-kaafa near Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, 4th millennium B.C.E. (4000-3000 B.C.E.), sandstone, 92 x 21 cm (National Museum, Riyadh)

An anthropomorphic stele from Ha'il

This
stele
is tall, measuring approximately three feet high. But it is not just vertical height that makes this free-standing stone sculpture appear human, or anthropomorphic.
While both sides are sculpted, emphasis is on the front, particularly the face, chest, and waist: a trapezoidal head rests directly on squared shoulders with the outline of a face framing two closely-spaced eyes and a flattened nose; on the robed figure’s torso a necklace hangs with two cords diagonally crossing the body with an awl (a small pointed tool) attached; and at the waist, a double-bladed dagger hangs from a wide belt that continues around to the back. The sculpture is simple, even abstract, but clearly represents a human figure.
Three anthropomorphic stelae dating to the 4th millennium B.C.E. found in northwest Saudi Arabia, near Ha’il and in Tayma (photos: DiverseMentality, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Three anthropomorphic stelae dating to the 4th millennium B.C.E. found in northwest Saudi Arabia, near Ha’il and in Tayma (photos: DiverseMentality, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Found in a small village near Ha’il in northwest Saudi Arabia, this anthropomorphic (human-like) stele was one of three discovered in the region. The trio join a corpus of more than sixty low-relief sculptures in human form dating to the fourth millennium B.C.E. and discovered across the Arabian Peninsula in the last four decades. Despite the vast territory in which they were found (some 2,300 kilometers, stretching from Jordan in the north to Yemen in the south) these stelae (the plural of stele or in Latin, stela) share certain features and characteristics. How can this be?
Map of the Arabian Penninsula
Map of the Arabian Peninsula

Arabia’s prehistory

While today Saudi Arabia is known for its desert sands and oil reserves, in prehistoric times the environment and landscape were dramatically different—more fertile and lush, and readily accessible to humans: early stone
petroglyphs
depict people hunting ostriches, a flightless bird that hasn’t been able to survive in the region for thousands of years.
It was during the Neolithic period, from the sixth to the fourth millennium B.C.E. when the Arabian Peninsula was more like a savannah than a desert, that small groups of hunter-gatherers gradually shifted their economy from predation to production by domesticating such herd animals as sheep, goats, and cattle, and settling in oases and mountainous regions linked to one another by caravan trails. Due to changing climactic conditions these settlement sites were often only temporary—occupied seasonally but repeatedly, and probably for centuries—yet it was this constant need for movement that stimulated communication between regions and interaction among its societies. But more than just people moved along Arabia’s caravan trails: ideas and objects travelled too.

Figural representation in pre-Islamic Arabia

On a rock wall at Tabuk, close to the Jordan-Saudi Arabia border, two human silhouettes dating to the late Neolithic period show the same cord, awl, and double-bladed dagger as the Ha’il stele. In Riqseh, in southern Jordan, a broken stele has been found with a similar awl and dagger. While in Southern Arabia stelae are considerably smaller than in the north (some reach only 40 centimeters high), examples from Rawk in Yemen display the same characteristic lack of detail as the Ha’il stele. This evidence of stylistic influence, coupled with the presence of exogenous materials (materials that originated elsewhere), confirm that during the Neolithic period objects were circulated and exchanged across wide swathes of territory.
What is just as interesting as this common visual repertoire is the shared anthropomorphism: each stele represents an upright male figure carved in stone—remarkable, for it is figural representation in a land thought for so long to have none. Indeed, for many, the history of the Arabian Peninsula began with the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E. when artistic expression was focused on the written word and human form was largely absent. But what the Ha’il stele reveals—what the full corpus of anthropomorphic stelae show us—is the existence of a pre-Islamic Arabia in which the human figure dominates.
Anthropomorphic stele, El-Maakir-Qaryat al-kaafa near Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, 4th millennium B.C.E. (4000-3000 B.C.E.), sandstone, 92 x 21 cm (National Museum, Riyadh)
Anthropomorphic stele, El-Maakir-Qaryat al-kaafa near Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, 4th millennium B.C.E. (4000-3000 B.C.E.), sandstone, 92 x 21 cm (National Museum, Riyadh)

Arabia: an open peninsula at the crossroads of trade

Archaeology is a relatively new field of study on the Arabian Peninsula: surprisingly, it is only within the last forty years or so that scientists have been able to shed light on Saudi Arabia’s early material culture to recognize a historical and cultural past largely ignored and previously believed to hold no importance at all.
Before Arabia traded in incense, before Islam (when Muslims traveled in pilgrimage to Mecca), during the Neolithic period early caravan trails expanded into an intra-regional network that eventually spread externally into contact between Eastern Arabia and Mesopotamia. It was this early contact that positioned the Peninsula, in the Bronze Age and through Antiquity, as the center of an active and interconnected Ancient World—a commercial and cultural crossroads bridging East and West—linking trade and pilgrimage routes that reached from India and China, to the Mediterranean and Egypt, Yemen and East Africa to Syria, Iran and Mesopotamia.

Interpreting the Ha’il stele

Despite apparent visual similarities it would be a serious error to assume that the meanings and symbols of each stele were everywhere the same—each region, village, and tribe is believed to differ in custom and to have developed strong local traditions. To avoid the risk of assigning generalized meanings to distinct anthropomorphic stelae excavated across the Arabian Peninsula, scholars have increasingly focused on local culture in their analysis of material history. In other words, they have looked beyond what appears to be a common style to conduct a fine-grained analysis of each stone’s unique context of local social and ritual practices. With this in mind, how are we to interpret the Ha’il stele, one of the Arabian Peninsula’s earliest known artifacts?
Archaeologists believe that the Ha’il stele was probably associated with religious or burial practices, and was likely used as a grave marker in an open-air sanctuary. While we do not know who produced the stele (just imagine a specialist stone carver working among mobile pastoral herders), we continue to be intrigued by the quality of the carving and its minimalist, yet expressive, representation of the human figure.

Postscript: the global phenomenon of the stele

While carved or inscribed stone stelae were used primarily as grave markers, they were also used for dedication, commemoration, and demarcation. Stele is the term used most often in the Mediterranean World, yet similar objects called by other names and dating to most periods have been found throughout the world including the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, China, Islamic lands, and Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and South America.
Some Smarthistory examples:

Additional resources:
Rémy Crassard and Phlipp Drechsler, "Towards New Paradigms: Multiple Pathways for the Arabian Neolithic.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 24 (2013), pp. 3-8.
Ute Franke, “Early Stelae in Stone," Roads of Arabia: The Archaeological Treasures of Saudi Arabia, edited by Ute Franke and Joachim Gierlichs (Tubingen: Wasmuth Verlag, 2011), pp. 68-71.
Tara Steimer-Herbert, “Three Funerary Stelae from the 4th Millennium BC,” in Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, edited by Ibrahim Al-Ghabban, Béatrice André-Salvini, Françoise Demange, Carine Juvin, and Marianne Cotty (Paris: Somogy Art Publishers: 2010), 166-169.

Essay by Nathalie Hager

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Stele is the term used most often in the Mediterranean World, yet similar objects called by other names and dating to most periods have been found throughout the world including the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, China, Islamic lands, and Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and South America.

    Does it perhaps pose some academic risk in the long run to use the word Stele in so universal a sense? I wonder if over time, students of Art History and the world, could come to attribute artificially concocted similarities to all so called "Stele", albeit unconsciously if "Stele" is the term that we use in textbooks to describe them all (from all over the world). I assume that when the author said there are "other names" used to describe these "Stele" "found throughout the world", that the author meant amongst scholars and academia, and not (as was done in this essay), the term used to teach students Art History 101 classes. Thus, I wonder if the Art Historian community would benefit from using the "local" term when instructing, or if none such "local term" existed, to invent one using the best educated guess that said Art Historians can muster up? As opposed to one, single, universal usage of the word "Stele."
    (10 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Robin
      AH1001 (for me) included definition of "stele" as just an upright stone tablet with images/writing on it. The word seems as innocent as "figurine" or "pendant," not like saying "reliquary" or "casket" to describe a lidded box...would it be better to call it a figurine even though it's flat? Maybe compare/contrast with the votive figures from Babylon? Just as an object it actually is more similar to them or even to the Lewis chess set pieces than to the other steles (sp) that have multi-character scenes on them (Hammurabi or Naram-Sin), but it's big and it's stone and it's flat... Are you thinking of a particular mislead that could come out of calling it that? I'm actually more bothered by why that's supposed to be a dagger.
      (7 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Inger Hohler
    This article refers to the stelae as "human" or similar up until almost the last paragraph, where it says "each stele represents an upright male figure carved in stone". What is the evidence that the stelae shown are to be regarded as male and not deliberately gender-less or ambiguous? I would have thought that If the lack of female physical attributes disqualify them as females, then would it not be equally reasonable to say that the lack of male physical attributes disqualify them as males? I've compared the stelae to the rock art of Saudi Arabia. Many of the rock images show humanoid figures denominated as female, based lack of phallus - but then there are other images beside them which do show something that could be a phallus. In fact, none of the rock images showing "women" had signs of breast, not even those having an indentation instead of a phallus. Awls and knives aren't tools wielded exclusively by males in any culture I have heard of. Both are widely used in the production of garments made of animal hides, a craft usually seen as "women's work" among the arctic people, at least. I know that the rock images cannot be reliably dated, so we cannot tell if the images were contemporary with the stelae.
    (12 votes)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user Cathy Erickson
    Do they have any other reasons for thinking these were possible grave markers? Could it be possible that these were more of family crests, or a sculpture of someone?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Almost anything is possible, and we tend to interpret things we don't know based on things familiar to us. A stone carved like a human being could be merely a statue (there are many), it could be a property marker or milestone alongside a road (there are some of those, too), but in our current world, most carved stonework is found on or near graves. So this works, too, and perhaps better than other ideas.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user kheley
    How are we sure on what the paintings in the caves stand for? What if all the meanings were different back then?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      You have a good point. We can't be sure, but we can look at a painting and make a pretty good guess that one attempts to depict (or stand for) a human being and another attempts to depict (or stand for) a land animal or another for a bird. In the end, though, it involves some guesswork.
      (2 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Zhengyao H
    What is the "exogenous material" mentioned in the essay
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jackhahn
    how was it possible to find such fragial masterpeices ??
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      they're made of stone, so aren't necessarily fragile. they're found in a desert, where things tend to last on and on and on, so long as they're not living. They're found because people either stumble onto them when doing other things (as were the Dead Sea Scrolls) or go out looking for them (like the way dinosaur bones are found), so it's all possible.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user alexis.yantis
    how come the art couldn't live for 100 years?
    (1 vote)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user zera
    Stele from Ha’il has less human like attributes as compared to other two. Perhaps the other areas (around Jordan) were more artistically advanced ?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user tolga okutucu
    Is there any research or at least hypothesis about these artifacts may be idols, related to pre-islamic worship practices? In Kur'an (Enbiyâ Suresi 58. Ayet) it's told how İbrahim broke all the idols in Kabe and spared the biggest one. And in islamic belief after breaking down all the idols he hung the axe on the neck of the main idol.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Thomas Gregg
    I don't think it advisable to show petroglyphs depicting hunters on horseback in this section. Horses were not domesticated in the Steppe until about 3,000 years later than the dating of the stelae.
    (1 vote)
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