Terracotta female protome, found in a tomb, Macri Langoni,  525-500 BC. Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. Image: Wikimedia Commons

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from Antiquity

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Last update:
January 3, 2015


Reviews of Book-Length Publications on Coroplastic Topics

Professors Maya B. Muratov (Adelphi University, mmuratov@adelphi.edu) and Ioannis Mylonopoulos (Columbia University, jm3193@columbia.edu) are the current book review editors for the CSIG.

Gheorghiu, Dragos and Cyphers, Ann eds.

Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America. Morphology, materiality, technology, function and context
BAR S2138. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2010. 158 pages. 133 figs. ISBN 9781407306797. £ 35.00.

Reviewed by Erell Hubert, Cambridge University (eh385@cam.ac.uk)

This book is a collection of sixteen articles based on papers presented during two sessions on miniature figures at the European Archaeological Meetings in Krakow (2006) and Zadar (2007). In their introduction, Ann Cyphers and Dragos Gheorghiu state that the goal of the volume is to explore the diversity of figurines through different time periods and geographical regions. Contexts studied within this volume do indeed cover four continents and an extremely large time span, from the Pavlov culture (28,000 – 24,000 BCE) to the Spanish colonization of Mesoamerica in the 16th century CE. However, European and prehistoric contexts are clearly more strongly represented. The articles also vary greatly from a theoretical and methodological standpoint. Cyphers and Gheorghiu mention that the studies are tied together by the notion of ‘small world’, the holistic cultural context of figurines, but each author puts more or less emphasis on the appearance of figurines, on their materiality and/or their context of discovery to interpret their cultural meaning and function as well as their involvement in social relations. The organization of this volume by region and chronologically within each region further highlights this diversity of approaches.

Several studies underline the importance of social and symbolic aspects of the materiality of figurines. Rebecca A. Farbstein reconstructs five main chaînes opératoires for the production of Pavlovian ivory figurines from Dolni Vĕstonice I, Pavlov I, and Předmosti to better understand the social relations between these sites. Her research shows that these communities made different technological choices and that these choices are closely related to the dimensionality (round or flat) of the figurines. Within the larger ‘Pavlovian culture,’ she suggests that different technological styles reveal social variability and most likely
different interests and priorities. This difference between a wider stylistic emulation and more localized technological choices draws attention to the importance of using different levels of analysis. Dragos Gheorghiu also uses the concept of chaîne opératoire but looks at it as an embodied ritual. He uses an experimental approach to understand how simple, easily replicable gestures are used to shape the clay during the manufacture of Cucuteni-Tripolye Chalcolithic figurines and how soldering different parts of the figurines by pressure heightens the ease of deconstruction. Through comparison with historical models, he then proposes that the soldering of the thorax and pelvis and the application of the decoration can be seen as a sort of binding magic with the energy then released by breakage. All stages of an artifact’s life must therefore be taken into consideration to fully understand them, since all stages are intimately linked to one another. The convergence of technological and ritual knowledge is also at the heart of Ing-Marie Back Danielsson’s article on Late Iron Age goldfoil figures from Scandinavia. She underlines the role of the artisan as a ritual specialist who not only has the knowledge to manipulate gold, a material of mythological origin, and to create ceremonial figures, but also participates in rituals giving birth to a secure and sacred
building at Uppåkra (Sweden) by providing the figures, which will be deliberately deposited in the postholes of the building. The ritual knowledge of smiths has relatively often been emphasized and it would now be interesting to expand Danielsson’s approach to artisans working with other materials. All three previous articles focus on the importance of ‘making’ the object, not only as a means to an end but also as an integral part of the relationship between humans and objects.

Other authors focus more on the representational aspect of figurines and the way they can materialize concepts. Liliana Janik studies how Jomon figurines from Hokkaido and Tohoku inform us about the conceptualization of animals of the societies who made them. Frequent representations of terrestrial animals, especially wild boars and bears, suggest a more continuous exploitation of the terrestrial environment while marine animals are represented sporadically. Janik also explores notions of seasonality, notably with wild boars represented in different stages of life, movement between the wild and domestic spheres, and a differentiation between symbolic and economic conceptualization of animals. Janik is the only author studying animal figurines, which are often overlooked but are particularly appropriate in looking at the essential relationship between humans and their environment.

When examining anthropomorphic representations and especially for prehistoric contexts, conceptualization of gender is often one of scholars’ main focuses. João Luís Cardoso talks about ‘ideotechnic’ artifacts from Leceia (Portugal) dating from the second half of the 4th millennium to the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE. He shows that varied Late Neolithic figurines are followed by mainly female Chalcolithic figurines, with an interesting relationship between Late Neolithic terracotta cylindrical statuettes and Chalcolithic limestone cylinders. He explains the female predominance by the omnipresent female idol common to all agrarian societies in the Mediterranean basin. Some limestone cylinders do indeed present incised triangles but a more detailed and more nuanced explanation of his conclusion would have been appreciated. Ma. Teresa Cabrero G. also treats gender conceptualization by studying the way sexual characteristics are represented during the Shaft Tomb phase (50-500 CE) and the El Piñón phase (500-1120 CE) in the Bolaños Canyon in Jalisco (Mexico). During the Shaft Tomb phase, young, slender bodies with small breasts predominate and are found concentrated in a structure, which suggests the intervention of ritual specialists in the transition to adulthood. In the El Piñón phase, some figurines show signs of pregnancy, which could indicate a higher preoccupation with descent, and figurines are found in domestic
structures suggesting a decentralization of figurine use. It is interesting that while female representations predominate in both phases,
the ‘female’ category is not treated as static.

Nikos Chausidis studies Macedonian Neolithic house-body figures, i.e. artifacts with an anthropomorphic head or upper body on a house-shaped chamber. He starts by distinguishing two main typological groups and some chronological tendencies. He uses analogies, notably from Slavic and Balkan folklore, to explain the association between females and houses and between womb and house. Such analogies, while useful, are to be treated cautiously. Chausidis also states that elements could have been introduced in these
artifacts through their openings and proposes three main hypotheses for their use: burning as life in the house, libation for abundance, or imitative magic. These hypotheses, based on iconographic and morphological criteria, open an interesting avenue of research, could possibly be completed with other criteria such as the depositional context, fragmentation, or residue analysis. While Chausidis uses analogies to interpret house-body figures, Aloisia de Trafford studies pre-dynastic Egyptian figurines in light of known cultural codes as expressed in the later ‘Pyramid Texts’. Bird-like features on ceramic figurines found in funerary contexts could be seen as alluding to the spirit of the deceased (ba), nude female figurines as representing the sky through which the deceased passes on his way to the afterlife, and bearded figurines as indicating high status. She also raises the importance of the material chosen, friable ceramic for figurines most likely used as tokens of rituals and perdurable ivory for offerings alluding to the quest for eternity. This relationship between iconography and materials is a promising tool for interpretation even in the absence of texts.
Ilze Biruta Loze analyzes two Late Neolithic anthropomorphic figurines found at Abora (Latvia). While one figurine can be identified as male, the other appears asexual. The male figurine was found in a child burial, where the figurine could have embodied the essence of an important person. The asexual figurine was discovered among a large assemblage of artifacts and could have been part of a ritual cycle or an offering to insure a good harvest, which leads Loze to propose that this figurine represents a young immature female. It is very difficult to reach final conclusions from the analysis of isolated artifacts, but Loze’s contribution underlines, like Aloisia de Trafford, the variability of figurines within a single socio-cultural context.

The socio-cultural context in which the figurines were used is indeed essential to our understanding of their meanings. Andrea Vianello studies Mycenaean figurines, which are mass-produced and standardized, as part of the larger assemblage of Mycenaean ceramics and their large distribution. He considers that figurines are both the embodiment and the vehicle to perceive and materialize concepts and suggests that the simple shapes of Mycenaean figurines allow them to be anonymous enough to fit into different situations and therefore to be largely distributed. His study brings to light how figurines, and other artifacts, can acquire specific meanings through use in different contexts. Aztec figurines studied by Cynthia L. Otis Charlton and Thomas H. Charlton also have a relatively wide distribution. Neutron activation analysis of the clay revealed that figurines circulated in the market system. These figurines, similar across the basin of Mexico, can be divided in four types in Late Aztec time: the hollow-rattle, the articulated female, the solid slab, and the nonanthropomorphic. However, their context of use seems to differ between Tenochtitlan, where no figurines have been found in the Templo Mayor, and Tlatelcolco, where figurines have been found in the ceremonial center. When the Spanish arrived, some figurines began to exhibit Spanish dress but the tradition was rapidly suppressed and severed from its ritual meaning. Differences in social organization are therefore reflected in differences in the appearance and/or use of figurines. This relationship between social organization and figurines is the focus of Ann Cyphers, who aims to understand the way identity and group affiliation is expressed through cranial modification from the apogee of San Lorenzo to the shift of power to La Venta in the Olmec Gulf Coast. During the florescence of San Lorenzo (1400 – 950 BCE), 90 percent of the figurines present pseudo-annular cranial modification, which suggests social cohesion. At La Venta, plano-frontal heads predominate, suggesting a shift in Olmec identity, but figurines used by elites continue to show pseudo-annular modification, perhaps a way of claiming San Lorenzo ancestry. Cyphers’ results reveal how figurines are both a reflection of society and active display objects that can be manipulated.

Christina Marangou studies atypical Middle and Late Neolithic head-with-necks figurines from Eastern and Central Macedonia. Marangou distinguishes between heads vertically positioned on the neck, which could have been affixed to a larger figure, to a cover or to a post, and heads horizontally positioned on the neck, which could have been affixed on vertical surfaces such as panels. The most interesting aspect of Marangou article is how she demonstrates the way figurines could have acted in what she calls a “constructed space.” Their large size, the necessity to affix them to a support in appropriate places and the divergence from naturalism all suggest that these figures were made to attract attention and may have been involved in a performance. Naoko Matsumoto and Hideaki Kawabata also examine the impact of figurines on the viewer but from an experimental cognitive approach. They asked a group of Japanese students and a group of foreign students to describe 30 line drawings of faces from Jomon figurines rating the degree of facial expression for six emotions and five impressions. They found that rating humanness was more universal than the rating of emotions. They also suggest that faces, which activate more or less emotion in the viewer, might have different functions. Matsumoto and Kawabata bring emotions, too often overlooked, into the archaeological discussion but at the same time highlight the difficulties in studying them by revealing cultural biases.

Finally, some authors more specifically look at how figurines are disposed of. Ilona Bausch refers to Chapman’s theory of fragmentation and enchainment to look at Middle Jomon figurines in Central Highland Honshu Island. She concludes that the figurines are deliberately broken and then distributed in domestic contexts, either scattered or placed in pits or middens (dokisuteba). This deposition in a domestic context leads Baush to favor the use of figurines in fertility cults rather than as vicarious substitutes in curing rituals, as they would have been more carefully disposed of. The recovery of parts of the same figurines in different settlements also suggests an inter-communal network of ritual activities. Clive Jonathon Bond centers his study on the Neolithic ‘God-Dolly’ wooden figurine found in the Somerset levels in Southwest Britain. This figurine was placed in a track that leads to the margin between wet and dry land. Bond mentions that the God-Dolly figurine represents an unusual crossover between the figurine tradition and the practice of wetland deposition. He proposes that this could signify a transition from a generic water-cult to a more discrete belief system of ancestor worship. While very interesting, it has to be mentioned that the strength of Bond’s conclusions is affected by the fact that they are based on a single figurine.

Bond’s article is, in my opinion, much stronger in its contribution to landscape studies where the landscape is seen as a palimpsest of past depositional events and beliefs. Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America brings together diverse studies linked by their focus on miniature figures. This diversity emphasizes both the variability of miniature figures and the variability of approaches to study them. Because the articles are based on talks and therefore relatively short, one often finds oneself wishing for more detailed explanations of the interpretations presented in the articles; nevertheless, this book is a good introduction to the scope of figurine studies.

Dragos Gheorghiu and Ann Cyphers - Introduction: Small worlds, p. 1-8
Rebecca A. Farbstein - Beyond “Venus” figurines: technical production and social practice in Pavlovian portable art, p. 9-16
Christina Marangou - Dissentions: Magnitude, usability and the oddness of Neolithic figures, p. 17-24
Nikos Chausidis - Neolithic ceramic figurines in the shape of a woman-house from the Republic of Macedonia, p. 25-36
João Luís Cardoso - Cult Artifacts from the Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement of Leceia, Oeiras, Portugal, p. 37-42
Clive Jonathan Bond - The “God-Dolly” wooden figurine from the Somerset levels, Britain: the context, the place and its meaning, p. 43-54
Ilze Biruta Loze - Anthropomorphic antler sculptures in Abora Neolithic settlement (Lake Lub_ns wetland, Latvia), p. 55-60
Dragos Gheorghiu - Ritual technology: an experimental approach to Cucuteni-Tripolye Chalcolithic figurines, p. 61-72
Andrea Vianello - Problems of identity for Mycenaean figurines, p. 73-78
Ing-Marie Back Danielsson - Go Figure! Creating intertwined worlds in the Scandinavian Late Iron Age (AD 550-1050), p. 79-90
Naoko Matsumoto and Hideaki Kawabata - A cognitive approach to variety in the facial and bodily features of Prehistoric Japanese figurines, p. 91-98
Ilona Bausch - Fragmentation practices in central Japan: Middle Jomon clay figurines at Shakad_, p. 99-112
Liliana Janik - Awaking the symbolic calendar: animal figurines and the conceptualisation of the natural world in the Jomon of northern Japan, p. 113-122
Aloisia de Trafford - Can clues from Egypt’s dynastic period shed light on its predynastic figurines?, p. 123-130
Ann Cyphers - Artificial cranial vault modification in Olmec figurines: identity, ancestry and politics in early
Mesoamerica, p. 131-140
Ma. Teresa Cabrero G. - The solid terracotta and stone figurines from central region of the Bolaños Canyon in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, p. 141-150
Cynthia L. Otis Charlton and Thomas H. Charlton - Figurines in the heart of the Aztec empire, p.151-158






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