Horse’s Head in Profile

55. Pendant: Horse’s Head in Profile

Accession Number77.AO.81.6
Date500–400 B.C.
DimensionsHeight: 37 mm; width: 36 mm; depth: 18.5 mm; Weight: 10.8 g
SubjectsAnimals; Amulets; Dionysos, cult of (also Satyr); Etruscan culture; Inclusions; Magic
View in Collection


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


The amber is intact, but the surface is in poor condition, degraded and grainy, with some old and weathered chipping and loss of surface detail at the tips of the ears and the base of the neck. On the reverse are small recent and larger old chip losses. The surface is blotchy red-brown, overcast by patches of light yellow and a rusty orange alteration surface layer. In transmitted light, the interior is a pale ruby color. There are no visible inclusions.


The pendant, depicting the head and upper neck of a horse facing to the left, is plain on the reverse and worked on the obverse, with the design flowing onto the contiguous surfaces. The ventral termination occurs at the point just above the larynx, and the dorsal termination is at the base of the mane.

The ocular orbit bulges from the continuous raised line of the eyelids and is fullest at the center and depressed at the canthi. The leaflike left ear points straight upward and overlaps the partially represented right ear. The helix of the left ear is indicated by a raised line, while the opening is recessed. At the forehead, a small protrusion represents the forelock; one strand of hair, marked by a shallow groove, is indicated below and to the right of the suspension hole.

From the lower edge of the forelock to the tip of the rounded nose, the line of the face is almost straight. The muzzle and nares sweep up around the large circular indentation of the nostril. Below the eye is the protrusion of the cheek, gently undercut to emphasize the bulge of the nares. The line from the jaw to the mouth bows gently outward and is fullest through the cheek.

Behind the head is the fall of the mane, the hair rendered by eight unevenly spaced vertical grooves set at a slight diagonal angle parallel to the slant of the head. The edge of the mane is rounded but uneven and is set off from the flank by a groove. Between the mane and the head is a triangular section of amber representing the chest of the horse. The head is turned slightly toward the front.

The oblong contour, concave reverse, and convex obverse imply the shape of the original amber nodule. At the lower edge of the mane is a grooved indentation probably created by the removal of a fault. Rare evidence of the use of a pushed or driven tool is seen in the channel under the chin, which retains a succession of rippled cuts along the bottom, typical of a gouging tool. A 4.5 mm perforation for suspension passes through the front of the poll and exits behind the ears. Between them, cleverly worked into the design, is a stopped bore, likely a mortise for some kind of addition. When the pendant is suspended from the perforation, it is diamond-shaped, with the muzzle angled downward and the large, almond-shaped eye tilted upward.


This head represents a horse as if in movement. Although it differs somewhat in style and type, it is of the same general form as three of the five other known amber pendants of horse subjects, a pendant in New York,1 a pendant in a London private collection, and another on the Swiss art market.2 Each one includes the head and neck of the animal in profile, with the head brought close to the body, the inside profile adjacent to the neck, and the neck arched. The animal is couped just above the jugular notch. Each example is perforated so that the horse’s head is in a natural position of movement.

77.AO.81.6 is discussed here as the head of a horse, but on the analogy of the representation of some hippocamps in Etruscan art particularly, it may in fact be the head of a hippocamp (see the entry for , cat. no. 29).

Two other horse heads are each of a different type. One is from a controlled excavation, Tomb 955 at Lavello-Casino, a “princely” tomb that provides important information about the context of figured ambers in the Basilicata. The woman buried in the fifth-century B.C. tomb was adorned with rich hair and body ornaments, including a girdle with five amber pendants. The largest is a pendant in the form of the foreparts of a rearing bridled horse, three others are illegible, and the fifth is a large female profile head-pendant.3 The other horse subject is a pendant in London (British Museum 62, identified by Donald Strong as a grotesque head).4 The Getty, New York, and London private collection pendants all have a double incised line at the bottom of the head, which emphasizes their bustlike format, and perhaps their meaning.5

The Getty horse’s head is an artistic combination of a patterned representation and subtle modeling, suggesting that the carver integrated firsthand knowledge of the animal into an established prototype. The amber can be compared to Greek and Italian sculpture and vase painting of the Archaic period. The shape and proportion of the almond-shaped eye (like all amber carvings, it is characteristically without an incised pupil), the large fleshy nose with round nostril, and the form of the mane and especially the poll may reveal the artistic heritage of the Getty amber. The horse is of the type first seen in Orientalizing Greek vase painting of the seventh century, for instance the horses in the lion-hunt scene on the Chigi vase (a proto-Corinthian olpe from Veii) or on the Melian-ware amphora in Athens decorated with a representation of the Wedding of Herakles.6 Its lineage can be traced to horses on Etrusco-Corinthian vases, and it is not far from horses and hippocamps painted on Etruscan black-figure wares. Sculptural comparisons from Etruria and South Italy especially demonstrate its Italian heritage, among them the bronze horse and rider from Grumento, of the mid-sixth century;7 a bronze horse of the late sixth century, said to be from Locri, in New York;8 and a hand-modeled terracotta of a horse (likely a patrice, or model for a mold) in Basel from around 600 B.C.9

The horse’s head is a popular subject in sixth-century Greek and Etruscan vase painting and in Etruscan bucchero; it is found on coins, gems, bronze work, and funerary reliefs. Horses’ heads are one of the many shapes of East Greece aryballoi.10 Horses’ heads are often paired on bronze and bucchero objects.11 (Some seem to be of hippocamps rather than horses.) Some scholars believe that the large, bridled horses of one class of Attic black-figure amphorae (peaked from the end of the seventh century to the middle of the sixth) are the predecessors of the Panthenaic prize amphorae for equine events,12 but they may have played roles in other ceremonies or in funerary ritual.

The most likely explanation for the horses’ heads that encircle bucchero oinochoae and other shapes is that they had a funerary meaning. The number of vases, including plastic vases in the form of horses’ heads, that have come from tombs suggests a direct connection between the subject, the tomb, and afterworld concerns, a possibility that deserves further attention. (This is not to deny the importance of the horse as a status symbol, its class and clanic associations, on the importance of horses in the elite culture of South Italy particularly.) The meaning of the horse’s head in other contexts may shed light on the subject’s “activity” as an ornament or amulet. On an Early Corinthian alabastron from Rhodes, what is the role of the curiously inserted large horse’s head behind a centaur who grasps the arm of a woman? Does the scene represent Cheiron and Chariklo?13 Horses’ heads appear on some large early-fourth-century Metapontine terracotta reliefs of Dionysos-Hades reclining with a kantharos in hand (he is also joined by Kore and Iacchos): here the context of the horse’s head is directly connected to the cult of Dionysos-Hades.14

In the ancient Near East, the horse’s head, as Jeremy Black and Anthony Green point out, occurs as a divine symbol on a seal of second-millennium date and on Neo-Assyrian seals, as well as on a kudurru of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar I (r. 1125–1104 B.C.), where a horse’s head may represent a constellation. In the Neo-Assyrian period, the horse is the animal of the sun-god Šamaš (Utu), based on the associated winged disk.15

Why an ornament or amulet in the form of a horse’s head? The subject is ancient: among the oldest known amber amulets from the Baltic is an equine (or elk’s) head amulet of the Neolithic period.16 The single horse’s head is a rare subject in Egypt, the Aegean Islands, and Greece, which makes the subject’s appearance in the Phoenician world stand out. A significant find from Orientalizing Italy is a Phoenician ivory protome in the form of a bridled, teeth-baring horse, which was included in the furnishings of the Barberini Tomb at Praeneste.17

Worn in life, the amber horse’s head as pendant may have functioned as a sign of status: the horse, horse ownership, and the cavalier in the ancient world were markers of the political-religious elite. The horse might have acted as a metonym, naming the wearer as beautiful, or it might have alluded to the power of the horse-tamers of religio-mythological realms, or more directly to a heroic ancestor. As a permanent amulet, used in direct or aggressive magic, a horse’s head might have conferred on its wearer the qualities affiliated with the horse or horse ownership, or the qualities of a deity or hero whose attribute was equine. A shining golden horse carved from solar amber could recall the great steeds that drew the chariot of the sun across the sky. Through magical assimilation, the wearer would be linked to Apollo, Eos, or Phaethon, for example. The link between the chariot of the sun, the new sun, and new life would follow on and link it to the age-old beliefs about the solar aspects of amber. Phaethon, Apollo’s son, never suffered old age, instead became immortal, and was mourned in perpetuity by his sisters, who wept tears of amber. Eos, or the Etruscan Thesan, is the manifestation of the morning sun and aggressively abducts and pursues young men, who, too, will deny death. Thesan is an important solar and kourotrophic deity in Etruscan religion, and as A. Carpino reminds us, Thesan’s love “could result in the attainment of immortality—the triumph over death.”18 In death, as a badge, a horse’s head might also have brought to believers a lasting tie with the cult of Dionysos-Hades, securing the powers of the divinity for an individual’s salvation after death.

A horse’s head made from amber may have had added powers in warding away pain, for the horse was one of the many amulet types prescribed in Late Antiquity for abdominal pain19 (which could include womb pain). As such, it would work in a “like banishes like” manner. An amber horse’s head might ward off particular demons and dangers not only in life, but also after death, in the grave and on the voyage to the afterworld. If amber by itself could bring light into the tomb and symbolize the sun’s regenerative power, a horse might bring it with the speed of the gods. At the very least, a horse’s head could continue its protective and danger-averting functions, perpetually guarding the tomb.


  1. Metropolitan Museum of Art 24.97.117: , p. 32, fig. 103.
  2. The other two heads are unpublished.
  3. In Tomb 955, Lavello-Casino, the horse pendant was found on the front of the skeleton’s pelvic area (she was placed on her back, with her legs drawn up, and turned to her right, as if in a seated position. The other large carved amber found in the Lavello-Casino burial, an unparalleled type of female head-pendant, was strung to the right of the horse pendant. For the female head-pendant, see the superb study by . For the grave, see ; and , p. 82.
  4. , pp. 74–75, no. 62, pl. XXIV.
  5. The same line (common on coins) is found on a few female head-pendants, including two of the heads from Tomb 164 at Banzi: see , pp. 122–23.
  6. The olpe is in Rome (Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia VG 22679). The Melian amphora from Melos is in Athens (National Archaeological Museum 354).
  7. British Museum GR 1904,0703.1: , p. 686, no. 113; and C. Rolley, La sculpture grecque, I: Des origines au milieu du Ve siècle (Paris, 1994), pp. 123–24.
  8. Metropolitan Museum of Art 58.180.1.
  9. Antikenmuseum, Collection Ludwig BO 153: A. Bignasca in Orient und frühes Griechenland: Kunstwerke der Sammlung H. und T. Bosshard, ed. P. Blome (Basel, 1990), pp. 115–16, no. 172.
  10. See Jean Ducat, Les vases plastiques rhodiens archaïques en terre cuite, fasc. 209 (Paris, 1966), pp. 107–12, pl. XV.
  11. R. De Puma, , United States of America, fasc. 31, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, fasc. 6 (Malibu, 1996), pl. 304 (with extensive bibl.).
  12. For recent discussion of horse’s-head amphorae, see , p. 45, n. 4 (with references).
  13. Rhodes, Archeological Museum 11150 (from Tomb 277 at Ialysos): , Italy, fasc. 9, Rhodes, pl. 2.9; see also discussion and illustration in , pp. 16–17, n. 97, fig. 13.
  14. Metaponto, Museo Archeologico Nazionale 135679 (from the Metaponto theater votive deposit, first half of the fourth century B.C.): The Wine of Dionysos: Banquets of Gods and Men in Basilicata, exh. cat. (Rome, 2000), fig. 94.
  15. , pp. 103–4.
  16. Now lost. From Juodkrante, formerly in the University Museum, Königsberg: illustrated first in R. Klebs, Stone Age Ornaments (Königsberg, 1882), figs. 120–25.
  17. Rome, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia 13428: , p. 744, no. 940; and C. D. Curtis, Sardis XIII: Jewelry and Gold Work (Rome, 1925), p. 34, n. 56, pl. 15. 79.
  18. A. Carpino, Discs of Splendor: The Relief Mirrors of the Etruscans (Madison, WI, 2003), p. 21, n. 109 (with references).
  19. , pp. 85–86.


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