A number of monumental lime plaster and reed statues dated to the Pre-pottery Neolithic B period have been discovered in Jordan, at the site of Ayn Ghazal. A total of 15 statues and 15 busts were discovered in in 1983 and 1985 in two underground caches, created about 200 years apart.
Dating to between the mid-7th millennium BC and the mid-8th millennium BC, the statues are among the earliest large-scale representations of the human form, and are regarded to be one of the most remarkable specimens of prehistoric art from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period. They are kept in the Jordan Museum in Amman.
The figures are of two types, full statues and busts. Some of the busts are two-headed. Great effort was put into modelling the heads, with wide-open eyes and bitumen-outlined irises. The statues represent men, women and children; women are recognizable by features resembling breasts and slightly enlarged bellies, but neither male nor female sexual characteristics are emphasized, and none of the statues have genitals, the only part of the statue fashioned with any amount of detail being the faces.
The statues were formed by modelling moist plaster from limestone on a reed core using plants that grew along the banks of the Zarqa River. The reed decayed over the millennia, leaving plaster shells with a hollow interior. Lime plaster is formed by heating limestone to temperatures between 600 and 900 degrees celsius; the product, hydrated lime is then combined with water to make a dough, which was then modelled. Plaster becomes a water-resistant material when it dries and hardens. Heads, torsos and legs were formed from separate bundles of reeds which were then assembled and covered in plaster. The irises were outlined with bitumen and the heads were covered with some sort of wig.
They are comparatively tall, but not human-sized, the tallest statues having a height of close to 1 m. They are disproportionately flat, about 10 cm in thickness. They were nevertheless designed to stand up, probably anchored to the floor in enclosed areas and intended to be seen only from the front. The way the statues were made would not have permitted them to last long. And since they were buried in pristine condition it is possible that they were never on display for any extended period of time, but rather produced for the purpose of intentional burial.
The site of Ayn Ghazal was discovered in 1974 by developers who were building a highway connecting Amman to the city of Zarqa. Excavation began in 1982. The site was inhabited during ca. 7250–5000 BC. In its prime era, during the first half of the 7th millennium BC, the settlement extended over 10–15 hectares (25–37 ac) and was inhabited by ca. 3000 people.
The statues were discovered in 1983. While examining a cross section of earth in a path carved out by a bulldozer, archaeologists came across the edge of a large pit 2.5 meters (8 ft) under the surface containing plaster statues. Excavation led by Gary O. Rollefson took place in 1984/5, with a second set of excavation under the direction of Rollefson nd Zeidan Kafafi during 1993–1996.
A total of 15 statues and 15 busts were found in two caches, which were separated by nearly 200 years. Because they were carefully deposited in pits dug into the floors of abandoned houses, they are remarkably well-preserved. Remains of similar statues found at Jericho and Nahal Hemar have survived only in fragmentary state.
The pit where the statues were found was carefully dug around, and the contents were placed in a wooden box filled with polyurethane foam for protection during shipping. The statues are made of plaster, which is fragile especially after being buried for so long. The first set of statues discovered at the site was sent to the Royal Archaeological Institute in Great Britain, while the second set, found a few years later, were sent to the Smithsonian Institution in New York for restoration work. The statues were returned to Jordan after their conservation and can be seen in the Jordan Museum.
Part of the find was on loan in the British Museum in 2013. One specimen was still being restored in Britain as of 2012.