Superb ancient “lion” sculpture is in fact a horse, say researchers

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The Iberian sculpture of Fabara, which is housed in the Provincial Museum of Zaragoza, is more likely to be a horse than a lion, according to researchers. Photo: Ignacio Simón / Drawing: Alfredo Blanco
The Iberian sculpture of Fabara, housed in the Provincial Museum of Zaragoza, is more likely to be a horse than a lion, according to researchers. Photo: Ignacio Simón / Drawing: Alfredo Blanco

A fine example of ancient sandstone sculpture from the northern Iberian Peninsula is most likely a horse, according to researchers, who do not believe its original interpretation as a lion is correct.

Ignacio Simón Cornago and Francisco Marco Simón outlined their argument in a paper published in the journal Trabajos De Prehistoria.

“In reality, it seems to be a horse,” they said of the damaged artwork, which could be up to 2300 years old.

The pair described the sculpture as an exceptional piece, saying such stone sculptures were very rare in the northeast portion of the peninsula during the Second Iron Age. Most Iberian stone sculptures are found in the south.

The damaged sculpture, from Fabara, in northeastern Spain, is made from the characteristic yellowish sandstone of the region.

It was found by chance in the town of Punta de Boñ.

While clearly depicting a four-legged animal, it had lost its head and the bottom, including the legs. The back is largely preserved.

It measures 60cm tall and is 89cm long. One side is very degraded, probably from having been exposed in the open, but not the other, where the authors say certain details of vital importance have survived to enable the piece to be classified as a horse and not a lion.

The first published study on the sculpture suggested it was a lion, or maybe a lioness, in a sitting position, with its hind legs lifted.

Cornago and Simón said the anatomy of the beast made it difficult to identify its species with certainty.

However, details visible on the best-preserved flank were, in their view, not merely decorations, but a representation of part of a rider’s tack.

“They seem to demonstrate convincingly that the sculpted animal is an equid,” they said.

There are two incised parallel lines, inside which there is a zig-zag pattern, running forward from where a saddle would normally be placed. There are also two engraved lines from the bottom of the belly which are also covered by a third line in zig-zag.

The first lines could be classified as the breastplate and the second lines as the cinch, holding a double horse blanket, also decorated with zig-zags.

It is even more certain to be a horse if a single line, very eroded, that crosses the animal’s neck is interpreted as the reins.

They said the sculpture did not depict a saddle, because cultures from the peninsula of that era did not have them, but it did appear to show a blanket held by straps – something which in the archaeological literature is often referred to by the Greek term ephippion. They are, they said, well documented in Iberian sculpture.

Horses were commonly depicted across the whole peninsula throughout the Iron Age.

The authors said the exceptional nature of the sculptures discovered in the Northern Iberian culture and their lack of archaeological context made dating difficult.

However, it is known that images of horses with riders were not common in the region until the end of the Iberian culture, which perhaps dated the Fabara sculpture between the third century BC and the first century BC.

The Iberian sculpture from Fabara (Zaragoza)
Ignacio Simón Cornago and Francisco Marco Simón
Trabajos De Prehistoria doi: 10.3989/tp.2017.12200

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read in Spanish here

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