When the excavation team directed by Douglas R. Clark and Larry Herr at Tall al-‘Umayri unearthed a well-preserved Iron Age I plastered courtyard floor, no one suspected that underneath it lay more surprises: an older floor with the fragments of at least two ceramic model shrines that had been sealed underground. One of them, shown below, consists of a flat façade, which bears the remnants of red paint, fronting an open, rounded beige box measuring 16 inches high, 12 inches wide and 11.5 inches deep; the doorway is 10 inches high and 6.5 inches wide. A bird can be discerned over the doorway and palm trees adorn the outer doorposts.

Opposing figurines stand inside the doorway, each measuring 1.5 inches across and elongated to the height of the opening. Model shrines have turned up in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Levant and the Aegean region. Some have figurines flanking the opening, but seldom do the figures face each other within the doorway. More puzzling is the unidentifiable gender of each figurine. Only one has a head, which could be that of a helmeted man or elaborately coiffed woman (photo at right). Each appears to have been constructed with but one breast—the figurine at the left having a right breast, and the figurine at the right, a left breast.

Model shrines date as far back as the third millennium B.C. and are typically found at cultic sites, accompanied by other sacred objects. It is not clear how they were used, but many have design elements and sacred imagery similar to those of life-sized temples or chapels and are believed by some scholars to be models of shrines that existed at the time. The model shrines found at al-‘Umayri appear to have been intentionally smashed and buried in what may have been a worship space used over generations.

The model shrine moved one step closer to completion last summer, when excavators Denise Herr and Dean Holloway found an important missing part: a corner piece decorated with palm fronds that will perfectly fill the gap above the figurine on the left. Now, say the excavators, it’s time to find the figurine’s missing head, which may help solve some of these riddles, but will undoubtedly create others.