When University of Maryland medical school graduate Giraud Foster became the personal physician to the king of Yemen in 1961, he developed a strong interest in that ancient land and a passion for archaeology that stayed with him for life.
Between 1961 and 1971, Foster and his wife, Carolyn, acquired more than 60 sculptures, statues, relief carvings and other treasures from the South Arabian peninsula - the area now known as Yemen - including two given to them by the last king, Imam Ahmed.
Consisting mostly of calcite-alabaster carvings of human faces and exotic animal figures created up to 2,400 years ago, the works represent one of the largest and most impressive collections of South Arabian artifacts outside of Yemen.
For decades, these priceless artifacts remained in the Fosters' private collection. But two years ago, the Fosters decided to share them with the world by donating them to the Walters Art Museum, the Baltimore institution that sponsored one of the excavations in which Foster later took part. It is one of the largest gifts the city-owned museum has ever received.
The Walters, in turn, has made the Fosters' King and I adventure and collection the starting point for a comprehensive exhibit that puts a human face, literally, on a distant civilization most Americans never see.
Faces of Ancient Arabia: The Giraud & Carolyn Foster Collection of South Arabian Art opens today and runs through Sept. 7 in the Special Exhibition galleries of the museum at 600 N. Charles St. The opening of the exhibit, which is free of charge, marks the formal announcement of the Fosters' generous gift and provides a new component to the ancient art collection of the museum, which prides itself on presenting "55 centuries of art" from around the world.
The Foster Collection instantly gives the Walters the largest assemblage of South Arabian artifacts in the United States and makes it one of only a handful of museums around the world to present art from this region in a comprehensive way. "Due to the generosity of the Fosters, visitors to the Walters will be able to enjoy the exotic, strangely modern-looking alabaster sculpture of ancient Southern Arabia for years to come," said museum director Gary Vikan. "These impressive artifacts will bring to life the art and history of a fascinating civilization of the ancient world, largely unknown to most Westerners."
For those unfamiliar with this region, Faces of Ancient Arabia will be a revelation. Curated by Regine Schulz, curator of ancient art for the Walters, the exhibit shows that the South Arabian peninsula nurtured one of the world's most advanced early civilizations, comparable in many ways to ancient Greece or Turkey.
Ancient Arabia was a trading partner with Egypt, the civilizations of the Near East, and later, the Hellenistic and Roman empires. Its chief commercial goods were spices and fragrances, which were carried over land by domesticated, one-humped camels called dromedaries. Its people built the first known high dam, elaborate irrigation systems and towering, multi-story houses - some of the world's first skyscrapers. The region is thought by some to have been the domain of the legendary Queen of Sheba.
The Fosters' artifacts provide a glimpse at the life of upper-class people who lived from the sixth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., a period when their civilization was at its peak. Many of the pieces show heads of men or women and were carved for display in temples or other burial places. Most were carved from calcite-alabaster, a cream-colored stone that is indigenous to the region and has a translucent quality.
Because they are so old and were typically recovered from excavations, the Fosters' artifacts are far from their original condition. Most have been worn down over the years and are missing arms and digits. They also have lost the paint that once highlighted eyes and lips, the way Egyptian hieroglyphics lose their color in the tombs, and inlaid glass and shell fragments used to accentuate eyebrows and moustaches. This absence of embellishment gives them the abstract quality Vikan refers to as "strangely modern looking." But there is still enough to see in most cases to understand how they once looked.
In the exhibit, many of the objects have simple descriptions, such as "Head of a Woman with Rectangular Face," or "Head of a Man with Moustache and Grumpy Face." A few of the stela - carved stone slabs often created as commemorative pieces - show more than just the head and neck. A piece titled "Stela with Female Bust" depicts a priestess with one arm upraised. "Stela with Representation of a Standing Woman" shows a female with an oversized head and small limbs; Schulz and Foster suggest that she may have been a dwarf. The most valuable piece in the collection, according to Foster, is "Fragment of a Pediment with Goddess," largely because it depicts a goddess rather than a human figure.
The exhibit uses many methods to tell ancient Arabia's story, including a giant spice rack that gives visitors a chance to smell the many spices and fragrances for which the region is known. It includes paintings and drawings by some of Yemen's best contemporary artists and photos of present-day Yemen, and is accompanied by a 144-page catalog with essays by Schulz, Foster and others.
In an entertaining chapter about Foster's year as physician to Yemen's last king, he paints the king as a powerful, childlike man who kept slaves and imprisoned enemies but delighted in American products such as Polaroid cameras and dye for his beard. According to Foster, he weighed more than 300 pounds, had a bullet embedded in one arm from an assassination attempt, was addicted to morphine and rarely rose from a large mattress in the middle of one room - sort of a male version of Edith the Egg Lady in her playpen.
Foster, who is 80, went on to write extensively about archaeology and serve as president and chief executive of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute from 1987 to 1993. He acquired most of the Yemen artifacts, incidentally, not while he was there but from Sotheby's in London, years after the king died and he had moved to a new calling.
In the catalog, Foster credits "the king of Yemen and the Walters Art Museum" with igniting his twin passions for archaeology and antiquities. Thanks to the Fosters' gift and Schulz's thoughtful way of putting it in perspective, all of the museum's visitors can now gain a better understanding of this colorful, faraway world - without hopping on a camel.
If you go
Faces of Ancient Arabia: The Giraud & Carolyn Foster Collection of South Arabian Art runs through Sept. 7 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Admission is free. thewalters.org.