Bovine Head

54. Pendant: Bovine Head

Accession Number77.AO.81.20
Date500–400 B.C.
DimensionsLength: 35 mm; width: 24 mm; depth: 13 mm; Weight: 5.8 g
SubjectsAnimals; Amulets; Egypt
View in Collection


–1977, Gordon McLendon (Dallas, TX), donated to the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1977.


The horns of the pendant are broken off, with only stubs of exposed, unweathered amber remaining. The breaks on the horns appear to be modern. A large chip on the right ear and small chips on the fronts of the ears and nares also appear to be recent. The older degradation of the surface has resulted in overall pocking, flaking (especially on the forehead and the reverse of the pendant), and yellow-ocher material that is thickest in the larger craters and crevices, such as the interiors of the ears and the line of the mouth. Cracks are found under the chin and along the forehead, brow, and eyes. The cortex varies from brown to dark red-brown in ambient light. In transmitted light, the amber is translucent and a deep reddish orange, and extensive shallow cracking is apparent. There are no visible inclusions.


Viewed in profile, this piece is slablike. Viewed frontally, the head’s rectangularity is emphasized by the width of the muzzle and the flatness of the mouth’s lower edge relative to the breadth of the head. The face, nose, and muzzle are smooth and almost level in plane, with the edge of the nares protruding just above this surface. The upper lip overhangs the lower, a groove separating the lips. The top of the pendant is flat; in front is the suspension spool and behind is the back of the animal’s head. Judging from the remains of the breaks, the horns appear to have been about 1.5 mm in diameter at the base, likely curving outward and then upward. The eyes are high on the head, smallish, and plastically rendered, with the right eye in higher relief than the left. The ears, drooping downward, are shaped like short, broad leaves. The left ear is turned backward and is slightly more almond-shaped. The helixes are articulated by raised ridges; the ear openings are recessed. The decorative suspension spool may have replaced the forelock. The reverse side of the pendant, which includes the chin and throat, is nearly flat.

The face’s slight asymmetry suggests that the pendant may be close in form to the original shape of the amber lump from which it was carved. A 1.5 mm perforation passes laterally through a bead-and-reel device even with the poll of the horns. The suspension device is slightly concave from end to end and is divided into approximately three beads by two grooves. A horizontal groove separates the device from the head. With the device carved into the forward part of the head, the pendant, when suspended, would lie flat, with the chin flush against the surface upon which it lay.


The physiognomy of 77.AO.81.20 is described as much by subtle changes of surface modeling and plastic form as by linear definition. This pendant compares favorably with two other schematic bovine-subject ambers, one in the British Museum (BM 79)1 and another on the London art market. All three, despite their differences in style and morphology, present as hanging, detached heads seen from above. The poll and horns are at the top of the pendant and the muzzle at the bottom. They are flat, and their appearance suggests that they were worked from thin amber nodules. The undersides of all three are plain.

The sculptural description of 77.AO.81.20 relies on smooth planar transitions and modeling by abrasion; the others are more harshly worked, with greater use of the graver.

Bovine subjects, not counting two couchant man-headed, bull-bodied pendants in London and Paris,2 are uncommon subjects in the corpus of pre-Roman figured amber. In addition to the three taurine head-pendants, six other amber carvings with bovine subjects are extant. They represent standing or recumbent bulls, cows, and calves. In every case, the head is reverted. The composition of these animals and animal groups follows a time-hallowed couchant type, one of the earliest animal composition types in the Near East.3 The earliest example is the calf from the mid-seventh-century B.C. Tomb VI grave at Satricum.4 Dating to the end of the sixth century is the recumbent bull (or cow) from Tomb 102 at Braida di Vaglio.5 Three fifth-century examples include a double-subject amber (a recumbent cow or calf and a scallop shell) in Bologna,6 a pendant of a recumbent cow with a milking calf (art market, New York), and a recumbent cow (once in the Gavin McKinley collection).7 The bow decoration of a fibula from Belmonte Piceno (a calf or cow attacked by a lion) is related.8

To confirm the sex and age of bovine-subject ambers is essential for understanding why the subject was carved in amber and how such ambers were used, whether during the wearer’s lifetime or for funerary purposes. The symbolism of the bull is age-old and is connected to hunting and conquering the animal, to its fertility, and to its guardian role in herd protection. Bull images might be clanic or mythic and symbolize a divinity, hero, king, pharaoh, or other ruler. Bull amulets can be classified as amulets of assimilation, conferring directly to the wearer the strength and virility of the animal, or of protection (especially if the subject was thought to symbolize a divinity).9 Bull subjects were appropriate not only for a divinity or royalty; they also may have been specifically appropriate for an infant. As D. Plantzos, citing Menander, wrote, “A gold-plated iron ring with a device of ‘bull or goat’ helps to identify a baby.”10

Alternatively, if the ambers depict a cow rather than a bull, the representation may incorporate other symbolic aspects and divine allusions. From earliest times in Egypt, the cow was considered to embody “all the most admired aspects of motherhood: she was fertile, protective, and provided sustenance for her young,” and “from an equally early period, she was associated with Hathor, and later with Isis and the sky goddess Mehweret.”11 Amulets of a thin frontal bovine head with strongly curving lyre-shaped horns, first found in pre-Dynastic graves, are usually identified as cows’ heads; they are associated with Bat or Hathor, who by the Middle Kingdom had completely assimilated the former and all her attributes.12 From the Eighteenth Dynasty until the end of dynastic history, these amulets were used to depict Hathor.13 As Carol Andrews notes, “Hathor-head amulets made of gold may be a punning reference to her epithet, ‘the golden one.’”14

In the ancient Near East, the cow-and-calf motif is common from the Old Babylonian to the Neo-Assyrian period and has antecedents in earlier Near Eastern art, significantly in Sumerian art. It often appears to be a divine symbol and has been interpreted as an emblem of Ishtar or, perhaps more probably, of Ninhursaga, and was represented in apotropaic monumental sculpture at least in Urartu.15 A rare Egyptian amulet type of the couchant calf, made of red-glazed faïence or cornelian, is possibly an amulet of rejuvenation.16 A newborn calf in Egypt is the symbol of the infant sun.17 A male kriophoros, or calf-carrier, in Greek art may represent two solar subjects, Apollo and the dawn.

In the opinion of this author, the softly modeled Getty pendant represents a cow rather than a bull. If this golden, sun-bright pendant carried with it a Hathoric association, the maternal and protective aspects of the amber object would have been emphasized, for Hathor was the celestial mother of the sun calf, protectress of the necropolis, goddess of love and music, nurse of the pharaoh, and consort of Horus.18


  1. , pp. 81–82, no. 79, pl. XXX (said to come from Armento). In style, this object is very like the pectoral ornament heads from Roscigno: see ; ; and .
  2. The man-headed, bull-bodied carved ambers may represent the same kind of creature known in the Near East, a sun and fertility deity. Since amber had solar, fertility, and water-origin aspects, the bull-human anthromorphs would have been doubly powerful if they incorporated ancient Near Eastern aspects. For the pendant in London, see , p. 77, no. 68, pl. XXVII; for the very similar but smaller amber in Paris, A. de Ridder, Musée Nationale du Louvre: Catalogue sommaire des bijoux antiques (Paris, 1924), no. Bj 2123.

    Generally speaking, bovine subjects are not especially popular in Archaic and Early Classical–period Greek, Etruscan, and Italic jewelry. When they do appear, bulls walking, running, savaging other animals, or represented as prey are more common than cows or calves in the repertoire of gems, finger rings, and other precious metal objects.

  3. The oldest recumbent animal composition known to me is the Natufian stone young ungulate of ninth- to eighth-millennium date found at Umm ez-Zuweitina (Jerusalem, Rockefeller Archaeological Museum). See R. Neuville et al., Le paléolithique et le mésolithique du désert de Judée (Paris, 1951), pl. 14; and A. Spycket, La statuaire du Proche-Orient ancien (Leiden and Cologne, 1981), p. 26, pl. 17. See also , p. 436, n. 1169.
  4. .
  5. , p. 40, no. 131, pl. XLV.
  6. Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico (unnumbered). The find is from Tomb 144, from the 1878 find in the area of the Giardini Margherita. See , pp. 126–27; and , p. 662, figs. 48–56. On the back is a representation of a cockleshell (Cardium edule). One other carved amber pendant in the form of a shell (another cockleshell imitation?) is documented from the large pectoral ornament of Tomb 102 at Braida di Vaglio: see , p. 40, no. 128, pl. XLV. That Tomb 102 has both bovine- and shell-subject pendants in the long necklace is significant in light of the proposed subject of the Bologna amber. Cardium edule is an early amuletic form in Egypt, and one that has a long life in the circum-Mediterranean area.
  7. I am indebted to the late Gavin McKinley, London and Capetown, who generously encouraged my study of the pendant.
  8. The lion-calf bow decoration was found in the same tomb with two other equally unique fibulae decorations, one representing a pair of addorsed lion foreparts and the other a lion and lioness or a lion attacking a deer. See , pp. 675–76, figs. 484–86, 489, pl. 8 AC.
  9. , p. 61.
  10. , p. 19. See Menander, Epitrepontes 388–90.
  11. , p. 61.
  12. Ibid., p. 62.
  13. Ibid., p. 20.
  14. Ibid.
  15. , p. 53. A unique Old Kingdom glazed steatite amulet of a cow with its head turned back to its milking calf may be directly related to ancient Near Eastern typology. , p. 62, writes that it was found in a male burial and that it may have been intended to provide the deceased with a supply of milk to drink in the afterworld.
  16. , p. 61.
  17. , pp. 22–24.
  18. , p. 20.


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