by Jean-Michel David
One of the consequences of the last Iraqi war has been the pilleging of its museums, out of which a number of ‘minor’ archaeological artefacts have been taken. As a consequence, and to limit illicit trading in these, the July/August 2003 issue of Minerva (vol 14, n4) has wonderfully reproduced a significant number of images, ranging from bowls and vases to statuettes, jewellery and cuneiform tablets.
Of specific interest to us are a number of cylinder seals and, even more significantly, some ivory relief plaques, mostly dating from the eighth century BCE. Trade from this region has a long history, and, in fact, prehistory. I am moved to imagine how these may have been understood by people living anywhere from the Iberian to the Italian peninsula at the time – or rather, just before the time – of Tarot’s emergence.
Allow me to describe and show some of the images of some of these more relevant artefacts. The reader’s imagination has already been, I am sure, awakened to some of the similarities as their eyes perused these pages prior to reading these words.
There are a number of relief plaques, of Syro-Phoenician origin, and carved from ivory, which measure 29.9 cm in height and 12 cm in width – not much larger than the Visconti-Sforza cards. Their very relief-type carving would remind any woodcut carver that here were plates made for the purposes of printing – I am not suggesting, of course, that this was their purpose. Rather, the images, especially as relief and given their size, would have suggested this use.
Some of these relief plaques are even more appropriately sized, with a height of 10.5 cm and a width of 5.5 cm – suggesting, I propose again, card-type woodcuts (save that in this case, they are ivory rather than wood).
A few of the extant ones are especially interesting. Take M65318 (T65-124), included below, and compare the design to depictions of XI Strength.
Not knowing how many, if any, of these very plaques may have made it to European shores makes for conjectures which may be too readily rejected or dismissed as just too far fetched. Nonetheless, enough of the images extant in Tarot hark back to half forgotten or even lost raison d’Åtre, traditions, allegories and iconography.
Another set are larger images, each, accoding to the accompanying annotations, 46 cm in height and approximately 12.5 cm wide. These may have formed the back of a throne or the heardboard of a bed. The central relief plaque of the set below is of what appears to be an enthroned woman holding in her right hand what may be a pomegranate. At her feet, as a footrest, appears, again, what resembles a leonine pair of animals. The relief is badly worn, and the image quality such that clarity of the decipherment of depiction is impinged. Still, again, what would such a set suggest to the mediaeval woodcut artist?
I would imagine that, for the purposes of transport by any possible merchant, the plaques would have been removed from the chair-back or bed-head. Following is a depiction as to how the individual ivory rectangular reliefs were used in the backing of a chair – undoubtedly a chair of political and religious significance: a throne.
Before moving on yet earlier tablets, permit me to also include two of the relief plaques first mentioned. The images, per se, have little resemblance with Tarot imagery – save possibly with VIIII the Hermit. Nonetheless, it is the clarity of their form which, if these had, along with others, found their way to regions of Tarot emergence, have proved influential.
Two other much earlier depictions are also of significance, each dating from the early second millenium BCE and made of, in this case, terracotta.
Here we have some of the earliest representations of very Tarot-like images. In the first instance, Ishtar (according to the description) stands on a lion. In the second of these is a frontal view of a Chariot, complete with canopy, and so reminiscent of its Tarot equivalent image:
Finally, though maybe not as significantly, two ‘boxers’ according to the description, are facing each other, in ways which recall similar depiction upon the lower portion of XVIIII the Sun:
It should be noted again that I am not arguing that Tarot cards in any way originate from these images. What I am suggesting, somewhat controversially, is that should any such-like plaques have found their way amongst the image makers of early cards – even if only European-made Mamluk card makers, then they may have been, along with myriad other influencial works, highly significant.
If nothing else, these certainly should prove of iconographic interest to those of us with such an orientation. In addition to these reliefs, there are, of course, numerous statuettes. These, however, though providing image similarities, would not have suggested to the woodcut engraver that they were in any way intended for the production of ‘mass’ card production, unlike the above ones.
It is again worth noting that many of these artifacts have unfortunately gone missing as a consequence of the recent Iraqi war, and that some will undoubtedly surface in the private collections of the unscrupulous. A call has been made to report any sightings on the world’s black market, and hope this addition to the archaeological requests assists the plight of the Iraqi museum in both making its collection better known, and in the recovery of its – and indeed our collective – international human heritage.