A craftsman 4,300 years ago molded the clay figurine of a horse, only five inches long and three inches high, but exquisite in detail. It has now been uncovered in northern Syria by archaeologists who call it the oldest known sculpture of a domesticated horse and one of the finest ancient representations of a horse ever discovered.
Experts said the discovery provided new evidence that the horse played an earlier, more important role in the rise of ancient empires of the Middle East than many scholars had thought.
The pale-greenish figurine was found in September in ruins at Telles-Sweyhat, a Euphrates River site about 200 miles northeast of Damascus, by an expedition from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, the university announced yesterday.
Thomas Holland, an archaeologist and leader of the expedition, said the name of the ancient settlement and the identity of the people who lived there could not be determined. The site, which could be either the ancient town of Shada or Burman, appears to have been an important trading center in the region between the empires of Akkad to the east and Ebla, a city in western Syria.
The figurine and other artifacts have been dated at 2300 B.C., about the time Sargon of Agade ruled the Akkadian empire, successor to the Sumerians, and the region's turbulent history was being recorded in cuneiform script on the clay tablets of the Ebla library.
Until recently, it was thought that domesticated horses did not figure in Middle East history until at least 500 years later.
A number of model chariots also found suggested that the horse was already being used to draw war chariots, as well as for transportation.
Juris Zarins, an anthropology professor at Southwest Missouri State University, in Springfield, and an expert on the role of horses in early Mideast civilizations, said that the figurine, along with recent discoveries in the Ebla texts, showed that the domesticated horse was well established in Mesopotamia in the last half of the third millennium B.C. and contributed to the rise of the world's first large empires.
"The horse was essential to the development of empires," Mr. Zarins said. "It made possible relatively fast transportation and empowered armies."