Addorsed Sphinxes

28. Plaque: Addorsed Sphinxes

Accession Number78.AO.286.2
Date575–550 B.C.
DimensionsHeight: 29 mm; width: 62 mm; depth: 15 mm; Weight: 16.7 g
SubjectsColor; Egypt; Jewelry; Sphinx
View in Collection


–1978, Gordon McLendon (Dallas, TX), donated to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1978.


The plaque is intact except for two losses: a large chip on the reverse, at the bottom of the right-hand perforation, and a portion of the obverse wall of the left-hand perforation, just below the jaw. The surface of the flat bottom is much less degraded than that of the rest of the object, which is in poor condition, with a uniformly degraded top layer that is granular and friable. Dirt and white-gray encrustations adhere to the surface on all sides, especially inside the top of the left-side bore. No inclusions are visible. Where the surface is intact, the amber’s color varies from sandy yellow to gray-brown; in the numerous areas where the internal material is exposed, it is rich brown. Held against the light, the amber is orange.


Addorsed sphinxes, in repose and reguardant, decorate the rectilinear plaque, which is carved in the round. The thin slab of amber is modeled in low, flat relief on the obverse, reverse, and sides; it is smoothed almost flat on the bottom.

Despite the poor condition of the pendant, the salient features of the two sphinxes are still decipherable. Engraved lines in the lower central part of the composition are the remains of divisions between the vanes of the primary feathers. On the top side, the hatted heads (the hats may be flat petasoi) and the details of the wing tips are clearly visible. On the lateral sides, indistinct details of the heads and the indentations for the necks, the breasts, and the legs remain. On the reverse, the backs of the hair, the contours of the upper sectios of the wings, the lower bodies, and the legs are still visible. The hair of each is fashioned in a shoulder-length cut, the Etagenperüke, or stepped wig, and it is visible on the obverse, the short sides, and the reverse. The large frontal faces are in higher relief than the bodies. The heads are wide and flat at the top and are large in proportion to the bodies and wings: each head measures over one-quarter of the width and over half the height of the composition.

The sphinxes have broad, flat brows, the suggestion of long, prominent noses, high and wide cheeks, wide jaws, narrow but prominent chins, and small mouths. The distance from the parting of the lips to the apex of the chin is short. The better preserved of the heads (at right) is carved with bulbous, slanted eyes, the outer canthi just slightly higher than the inner ones.

Little can be determined about the manufacture due to the poor state of conservation. The plaque appears to reflect the shape of the original piece of amber, for the level of relief varies over the obverse, the reverse, and the sides. The obverse has a greater depth of relief than the other sides. The upper contours are asymmetrical, and the bottom is uneven.

Two large tapered perforations located 7 mm from either end were bored on the same vertical line as the medial line of the creatures’ heads. At the top, the holes are 4.5 mm in diameter, and at the bottom, 6 mm. The fragment of a bronze(?) tube, constructed from a roll of thin sheeting (0.3 mm thick), remains in one perforation, and the residue of a metallic corrosion product is found in the other. This strongly suggests that both holes were similarly lined. In the depression between the wings at the top is a stopped bore, 5 mm deep and 3 mm in diameter (for an addition?).


This amber plaque has no parallel in subject or form. The sphinxes, while related to various Greek and Etruscan types, have no close analogues. When the piece was new, the natural translucency and color of the amber would have been augmented by the internal reflections of the metallic sheaths lining the two vertical perforations. These perforations must each have carried a filament, and because of this it does not seem likely that a suspension device was inserted into the stopped bore on the top edge. An additional decorative element (of amber or another material) was almost certainly placed there instead. The direction of the through-bores and the figural design imply that the plaque functioned in a horizontal position, perhaps as part of a larger object, hanging from a pin, head ornament, or necklace (in front, or in back as a counterweight).

Metal-lined perforations are not found on any other figured amber objects but are common on many fibulae and on many other kinds of amber objects. The technique is an old one and is known in eighth-century B.C. Greece, with examples from Lefkandi, Tekke, and Salamis.1 Seventh-century examples are the fibulae and other kinds of amber objects from the opulent burials of Verucchio and Cumae.2 The metal linings not only offered protection from abrasion and breakage, but also added to the brilliance of the amber, exploiting its natural clarity, brilliance, and luminosity.

The sphinxes of the plaque exhibit many conventions of seventh-century representations: large triangular faces projecting from small squat bodies, a stepped hairstyle, and low, flat hats. The style of 78.AO.286.2 is a complex blend, one that shows connections to earlier North Syrian objects3 and to even earlier Mycenaean ivory-carving traditions. The latter is demonstrated by comparison with early sphinx-subject ivories from Mycenae and Athens.4 The low-relief carving and squared-up sphinxes of 78.AO.286.2 are similar to a number of small seventh-century B.C. ivories from Greece and Italy, from Ephesus, Sparta, and Perachora, and from Comeana.5 However, perhaps the best analogues are the relief metope-sphinxes of certain Cretan amphorae and terracotta pinakes of the seventh century.6 There is also an unmistakable relationship between 78.AO.286.2 and some Archaic Campanian sphinxes of later date: the bicorporal sphinxes of horseshoe-shaped terracotta plaques from Capua (of circa 575–550 B.C.; a notable example is in Copenhagen)7 and three small bronze sphinxes (one in Boston and two in Baltimore, possibly from the same bowl) thought to come from Cumae.8 These similarities may be taken as evidence that the maker and/or model of 78.AO.286.2 had a lasting influence in Campania. A sixth-century date for 78.AO.286.2 can be extrapolated from the other amber objects said to have been found with it, including the Getty Hippocamp, (cat. no. 29).9

A double sphinx is a nonnarrative subject, unlike the single sphinx, the devourer, which might call up the story of Oedipus. The double sphinxes may have held special force, since they look backward and forward, left and right, perhaps doubling the power of a single sphinx. The motif of a double sphinx had a venerable history as a potent subject in the circum-Mediterranean area. Generally, repetition is an age-old formula for increasing the potency of any amulet, spell, or curse.

Generally related in form to 78.AO.286.2 are the Egyptian amulets in the form of addorsed lions and of back-to-back foreparts of bulls and rams, the latter having a full moon with a crescent nestling between their backs.10 Contemporary with 78.AO.286.2 is one variant of the Egyptian addorsed lions amulet type. The suspension loop was placed between the animals’ backs in such a way that it resembles a sun disk, suggesting an underlying connection with Rwty, “over whose back the sun rose each day.”11 Might the stopped bore on the top of 78.AO.286.2 have once supported an added image (perhaps a device in the form of a solar disk or other symbolic element)?

There is no evidence for the preburial function of the amber (the condition prevents any conjecture about signs of wear). If it were worn in life, 78.AO.286.2 may have functioned in a way parallel to that of the Egyptian addorsed animal and sphinx amulets. The amber may have brought to the wearer the underlying savagery of the lion, as the sphinx subject did in Egypt. (Since at least the Middle Kingdom, the single-sphinx amulet had been understood to link the wearer with the pharaoh’s protective power and authority and the lion’s power.) The doubled sphinxes could have invited the protective and propitious powers of the composite creature. Double sphinxes of amber might double the curse of “fighting fire with fire.” Certainly, the inherent potency was magnified and focused, and the object more efficacious, when amber was carved with such a time-honored potent subject. In the grave, 78.AO.286.2 would have played a powerful guardian role: the sphinx who escorts the dead, the watchdog who punishes those who disturb the dead, could also protect the “house” of the grave.12


  1. For the technique and its eighth-century B.C. history in Greece, see introduction, n. 48 and n. 50.
  2. For the Verucchio material, see . For the amber objects from Cumae, see , pp. 23, 32. The relevant fibulae and ring pendants that I have studied firsthand include those in the Getty Museum, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a Geneva private collection. I owe both the discovery of the metal tubes and observations about their probable original effects to John Tucker.
  3. Compare, for example, eighth-century B.C. North Syrian harness attachments ornamented with a frontal nude female under a sun disk: see J. J. Orchard, Equestrian Bridle-Harness Ornaments: Ivories from Nimrud I, 2 (Aberdeen, 1967), pls. XX–XXI, XXVIII–XXXII.
  4. For the ivory sphinx from the Athenian Acropolis (Athens, National Archaeological Museum 2486), see , no. 493, pl. 53. For the Mycenaean sphinxes on the lid from the House of the Sphinxes (Athens, National Archaeological Museum 7525), see ibid., no. 138, pl. 12.
  5. For the ivory sphinx from the Sanctuary of Hera Limenia, Perachora (Athens, National Archaeological Museum 16519), see T. J. Dunbabin et al., Perachora II (Oxford, 1962), p. 403, pl. 171; for the sphinx from Ephesus, , pp. 194ff., figs. 135, 154; and D. G. Hogarth, Excavations at Ephesus: The Archaic Artemisia of Ephesus (London, 1908). For the sphinx from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta, see ; and . For a recent discussion of Laconian and Laconian-influenced sphinxes, see S. Descamps-Lequime, “Une sphinx en bronze: Élément de décor d’un trône archaïque?,” in , p. 116. For a miniature sphinx from Poggio Civitate (Antiquarium 71–198), see , pp. 75, 78, n. 219; and N. Spivey, Etruscan Art (London, 1997), p. 27, no. 28. For the fragmentary ivory sphinx from Comeana, see , p. 262, no. 328.
  6. Compare the metopes with pairs of sphinxes on Cretan amphorae. For the relief amphorae, see W. Hornböstel, “Kretische Reliefamphoren,” in Dädalische Kunst auf Kreta im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr.: Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Hamburg, 1970), pp. 56–59; and J. Schäfer, Studien zu den griechischen Reliefpithoi des 8.–6. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. aus Kreta, Rhodos, Tenos und Boiotien (Kallmünz, 1957); for the sphinxes, P. Müller, Löwen und Mischwesen in der archaischen griechischen Kunst (Zurich, 1978). For the Cretan terracotta pinakes, see P. Blome in Orient und frühes Griechenland: Kunstwerke der Sammlung H. und T. Bosshard (Basel, 1990), p. 50, no. 78.
  7. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 157 (from ancient Capua): T. Fischer-Hansen et al., Campania, South Italy and Sicily: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Catalogue (Copenhagen, 1992), p. 196, no. 148.
  8. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 51.2469, Frederick Brown Fund (circa 540 B.C.): , p. 37, no. 35, with reference to the two bronze sphinxes in Baltimore (see also D. K. Hill, Catalogue of Classical Bronze Sculpture in the Walters Art Gallery [Baltimore, 1949], p. 122, nos. 280–81, pl. 54).
  9. Many other beads, pendants, and fragments, all unpublished, were part of this donation.
  10. For the relevant amulet types and their functions, see , pp. 78–79, 89–90.
  11. Ibid., p. 90.
  12. , pp. 69–70, 171.


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