Earthquake damages amber pendant in the shape of a female head from the Iapodic collection

The series of earthquakes of March 22, 2020, damages an amber pendant in the shape of a female head (inv. no. P-15439), one of only three such artifacts that are kept in the Iapodic collection of the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb. The Conservation-restoration Department retrieved four fragments of the broken amber pendant in the shape of a female head. A preliminary examination helped confirm that those were all of the parts of the pendant. Although the fragments are extremely small, it will be possible to put them together, so that the damage will be minimally visible. The profile of the head with its beautifully shaped line of the nose, lips and chin will remain unchanged.

The Iapodic collection is a separate unit of the Prehistoric Department, and contains Bronze and Iron Age finds from Mountainous Croatia, a region that was, in prehistory, settled by the Iapodes.

This unique amber head was discovered in grave 47 of the necropolis at Kompolje near Otočac during the 1956 excavations conducted by Museum employees. The same grave also yielded two fibulas decorated with amber beads, a bead from the bow of a fibula, over 100 small amber beads of different shape, an amber bead in the shape of a bird, an amber bead in the shape of the human figure, one unfinished amber bead, and three beads in the shape of female heads.

Depictions of female heads on amber beads are extremely rare in the prehistory of Croatia, and some authors suggest that they represent female deities, as is additionally suggested by the fact that they are commonly found in female graves or sanctuaries dedicated to different goddesses. Unfortunately, it seems that artists used their artistic freedom in depicting them, so they cannot be connected to specific goddesses.

According to the interpretations of other authors, the finds from grave 47 could be a metaphorical depiction of characters from the myth about Phaethon, the son of the god Helios, i.e. from the story about the creation of the raw material used to make these grave goods – amber. Namely, Phaethon (shiny), faced with an unwanted arranged marriage, found out that Helios, the god of the Sun, was his real father, and asked him to drive the Sun chariot for a day. In flight, the youth lost control of the horses, and the fiery chariot swerved, scorching both the earth and the stars. Seeing the damage done by the bewildered youth, Zeus hit him with a lightning bolt. On fire, Phaethon fell to the opposite side of the earth and landed into the Eridanos River. Phaethon’s three sisters, Heliades – called Phaethousa, Lampetia and Phoebe (all three names denote light), found his grave and started to grieve and cry until they turned into trees on the river bank. The trees then continued to cry, and turned to amber once they touched the water. King Cycnos, upon hearing about his friend’s death, also started to grieve, and the god Apollo, out of pity, turned him into a swan so that he could honor his dead friend through song.

We will never know if the finds from grave 47 from Kompolje are really connected with the myth of Phaethon, but what e do know is that the Iapodes highly appreciated amber as a material, seeing as they placed in the graves of their deceased and used it to decorate different items used for various purposes. The presence of amber in our areas clearly show that the prehistoric Iapodes were in contact with distant lands, for example, the Baltics, the place of origin of this previous raw material, or southern Italy, where similar depictions of female figures in amber appear. The importance of this amber bead in the shape of a female head is additionally attested to by the fact that it is a unique artifact in the world. Its integrity was forever destroyed in the natural catastrophe, and it will never regain its full beauty.

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