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Welcome to Ancient Figurines:                                     Dedicated to bringing you an archaeologist’s perspective on the meaning of ancient human images (and possibly some animal ones as well)…!

  • Have you ever wondered how the Venus of Willendorf got her name?
  • Are you slightly sceptical of the 'fertility cult' theory?
  • Do you ever wonder who writes the labels for figurines in 'museums of art'? Hint...it's not always archaeologists...

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5000 years before the first mention of the goddess Venus, this was made…

If you have a secret archaeologist in you that’s just trying to get out…

If you’ve always been interested in ancient ‘art’ (more on that later)…

If you love going to museums and are just fascinated by what figurines mean…

Then you’re in the right place!

Ancient Figurines is all about exactly that...ancient figurines! In this blog I look at figurines from archaeological excavations across the eastern Mediterranean. I bring you my ideas on what they might mean and critique how they are displayed in museums.

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After five years of research on 3 continents, I received my doctorate in Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Melbourne. Figurines, Slaves and Soldiers: The Iron Age Figurines from the Euphrates Valley, North Syria is the result of my research into the assemblage of figurines from the North Syrian site of Tell Ahmar.

Too often figurines are interpreted as evidence of the ‘fertility cult’ (whatever that is); an entirely dubious religious belief system which, many archaeologists and others claim, apparently spanned a vast geographic landmass and was practiced from prehistory through to relatively recent eras.

The fertility cult is a myth and one to which figurines, particularly female figurines, are often reduced.

8th century figurine, standing figurine, North Syrian figurine, clay figurine, pillar figurine

8th century BCE standing figurine from Kefrik, North Syria, held at Ashmolean Museum (own sketch).

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Figurine from Mesopotamia, provenance unspecified, Kelsey Museum.

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Beth Shemesh, Iron II. University of Pennsylvania Museum.


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A whole cabinet of 'fertility figurines', Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

How boring.

Surely human figurines can tell us more than simply that ancient people battled mother nature on a daily basis for their supply of food? Is this so-called battle even true?

In looking at the figurines from first millennium Tell Ahmar, I decided to play devil’s advocate.

What if the figurines were not evidence of a fertility cult?

I used a pretty standard approach to the figurines, standard for other assemblages from the archaeological record that is. But I also did something radically different: I looked at all the figurines together, as part of a whole, instead of the usual dividing up of figurines based on how they look.

First, I examined at the figurines; what do they actually look like?

Standing figurines holding a child:

7th century BCE baked clay figurine from Tell Ahmar, North Syria (own sketch).

Standing figurines not holding a child:

Horse and rider figurines:

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Horse figurines without a rider:

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Then, I investigated where they were found; their archaeological, historical and social contexts.

Area C, Tell Ahmar excavations

Who was present at ancient Til Barsib (Tell Ahmar) during the Iron Age when the figurines were made?

What activities were taking place in the house at Area C?

I used different theoretical approaches; gender theory, post-colonial theory.

And I asked different questions: Who made them? Why did they make them? Why did they make them like this?

And the answer was far more interesting than the yawn-inspiring, stock standard “They’re religious. It’s the fertility cult”.

What did I discover? Here are some of my best posts about interpreting figurines:

OK, so I have a background in archaeology. I look at figurine interpretation with a critical eye. How figurines are displayed and interpreted in museum displays perpetuates the fertility cult theory. I wonder who makes the decisions about information presented to the museum-going public?

I love to travel and wherever I go I seek out museums. They are my natural habitat! I also write reviews here about how figurines are interpreted in the great archaeological museums around the world.

Join the discussion! I’m keen to talk to you and get a conversation started about how figurines can be interpreted. What do you think?

Send me an email with any comments or questions to victoria@ancientfigurines.com or use this contact form.

Why not get involved in the various conversations happening around the site, by adding your ideas in the comments section below each post.

Join my online community at www.facebook.com/ancientfigurines/

And twitter  @DrVictoria01

Cheers,

Victoria


Because I believe archaeology is for everyone, I've published my doctoral thesis in two books; one for general readers and another for teenagers.

www.ancientfigurines.com figurines slaves and soldiers

Figurines, Slaves and Soldiers has been reworked for a younger readership and is aimed at teenagers.

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