A carved ivory statuette of a female figure, the Pompeii Lakshmi was recovered during archeological excavations at the site of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in 1938. The statuette, along with the city, had remained buried under volcanic ash since Mount Vesuvius had erupted in 79 CE. Its discovery established the existence of flourishing trade networks spanning the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The statuette’s style and iconography has led to scholars variously identifying it as Sri, Lakshmi, and a yakshi among others.
The figure is 25 cm high and 5 cm wide, possibly sculpted from a single elephant tusk. It consists of a primary female figure accompanied by two smaller, female attendants attached to either side. A hole on top of the primary figure suggests that the statuette might be a fragment of a larger object, like a piece of furniture or a mirror-handle. The statuette is relatively flat, but is sufficiently rounded and detailed to suggest that it was intended to be viewed from all sides.
The primary figure is almost completely nude, with the exception of jewellery, including a necklace, bangles and a lotus-shaped head ornament. A flat belt is worn around the hips, while the right arm is raised and held behind the head. The left leg is placed in front of the right. The figure’s hair is braided in coils that reach the waist, with a large flower, perhaps a lotus, woven into the braids. The genitals are visible, suggesting that the figure may be a fertility goddess or yakshi. Scholars have also argued that it may be a syncretic form combining the Indian and Roman goddesses Sri, Lakshmi and Venus. The latter identification is suggested by the fact that a number of Venus representations in the Greco-Roman world show her accompanied by two attendants. While the lotus later came to be associated with the goddess Lakshmi, it has been argued that the Pompeii statuette’s ornament may not have been intended as a mark of a goddess or yakshi at all, but a general symbol of beauty.
The statuette is marked with a Kharosthi inscription at the bottom, suggesting an origin in the northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent, perhaps Begram in modern-day Afghanistan. Begram was a major production centre for carved ivories around the time the statuette was exported. Other scholars suggest that it was made in the interior of the Indian subcontinent, pointing out stylistic similarities to the Mathura school and to examples of yakshis from Bharhut and Sanchi. Similar statues have also been recovered at Bhokardan in present-day Maharashtra, which had steady trade with the Roman world. However, all of these centres did interact with each other; thus the statuette’s style is probably a mixture of influences, making it difficult to attribute an exact origin to it. It is generally assumed that the figure was produced in the early half of the first century CE and subsequently brought to Pompeii, probably via a port on the west coast such as Bhrigukaccha (present-day Bharuch). The house where the statuette was found is now named “The House of the Indian Statuette”, although the figure itself is now lodged at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.
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