Louisiana Dolls: The Dilemma of Context

By Victoria | Context

Dec 09

I’ve written elsewhere that context is crucial for a satisfactory interpretation of the use of human images. I illustrated this by showing how plastic dolls with fused legs wearing flounced skirts can be used as bed decoration, toilet roll covers and also to provide character to special occasion cakes. ¬†You can read that post here.

Simply looking at the plastic doll, one would not know how it was used and through a brief internet search of pictures of such dolls today, it is apparent that they have multiple potential uses, though one assumes that in reality an individual doll would be used for one purpose (for example, it seems improbable that a plastic doll used to decorate a toilet roll sitting on top of the cistern would then be baked atop a birthday cake) though it is, of course, possible for an individual image to be used for the same purpose in different contexts.

I have been travelling in Louisiana for a few days and in that short time I have acquired two cloth dolls. Here they are:

 

Voodoo doll for protection while travelling.

DSCN1501

Can you guess what they were used for?

The one on the top (sorry, having trouble moving pictures right now) is made of foam-stuffed cotton, with yarn for hair and buttons for eyes. The one on the bottom is made of cotton strips twisted and tied together. There are no facial features. Arms are also made of cotton twisted or braided together so that they are more solid than the single strips. The doll has no lower body or legs. Flowing strips of cotton give the impression that it is wearing a dress.

Neither doll gives any indication of sex, though the flowing cotton strips and the bow tied on the back suggest a feminine character.

From the morphology of the dolls, can you detect how either might have been used?

What about the ‘scar’ on the torso and sewn up mouth of the doll on the left? Would you consider that ‘normal’ for a young child’s doll? Perhaps…

On to context, then. Does it help to know that I bought the doll on the left in New Orleans, Louisiana? Does the location give a hint?

Yes, that’s right, it’s a voodoo doll! I couldn’t help it; I had to have it! The label told me it was for protection while travelling.

Who made the voodoo doll? I’m assuming it’s factory made, though if I had the foresight to ask, the shop owner might have told me it was hand made while spells were chanted over it. Whether or not it was made by someone who follows voodoo I simply don’t know. We could say the same for the many figurines from various ancient Near Eastern sites that are claimed for evidence of a fertility cult, though there are texts which describe the making of apotropaic figurines such as the apkallu from Assyria.

In any case, this particular doll is not being used by it’s maker; after sitting in the shop for an unknown length of time it was purchased by me. I am not a follower of voodoo and purchased it because I am interested in the use of images and because it’s quirky and appealed to me as a souvenir of my time in New Orleans. It would be a mistake for a future archaeologist to assume that because it was found in my house that I am a practitioner of voodoo or believe in the power of this doll to protect me on my journey.

Turning to the second doll, what do you think? Another voodoo doll?

While it is strikingly similar to other styles of voodoo dolls I saw in that shop (but was not permitted to photograph) I bought it in the gift shop at Vermillionville, a recreated historical village located in Lafayette and comprising cajun style homes dating from 1780 to 1900. They are genuine buildings, gathered together from different parishes and contain pieces of authentic as well as replica tools and furniture. It’s well done and very pleasant to wander through. I noted the cotton cloth doll on a chest of drawers in one of the larger and later homes and when I saw it in the gift shop, just had to have one!

Child's bedroom in a Cajun home, Vermillionville.

Child’s bedroom in a Cajun home, Vermillionville.

It’s not a voodoo doll. It is a child’s doll, known as ‘church dolls’ and given to children to keep them quiet during sermons. Being made of cloth, they would not make a noise if dropped on the wooden floor of the church during services.

Interesting, don’t you think? Two little cloth humans, both having a use related to religious practice, though in entirely different ways. The first, the voodoo doll, is integral to the practice of the faith; the second was used during services, but had nothing to do with the practice of the faith.

How would an archaeologist go about interpreting the church doll, especially if it were located on a chest of drawers in a child’s bedroom? Perhaps it would simply be identified as a plaything. If were found in a church, however, how would the archaeologist know that it had a mundane use and meaning in that context?

The doll is still a toy, no matter the context in which it is found. If sufficient church dolls were found in children’s bedrooms one might plausibly conclude that they were used by children and by extension as toys, while if they were also found in churches, one might suggest that children were permitted to use them in sacred contexts also. If they were found in churches but not in children’s bedrooms, then a different interpretation might be reached.

Where does that leave the interpretation of ancient figurines found on archaeological sites? Is context as helpful as I first proposed? I still believe so, but the more I think about how people use human images today, the more I suspect that they might have been used in similarly complex ways in ancient times. Archaeologists need to think carefully through the dilemmas that both form and context put before us.

Why not read through my post on the figurines I have in my house. Find some in your house, take a snap and tell me about it! Or, post a picture of a figurine and let us guess how and where you use it!

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About the Author

Dr Victoria Clayton is author of Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar. If you are fascinated by life in the ancient past, let this very readable book take you on a journey back 2600 years to the bustling town of Kar Shalmaneser where Assyrian soldiers, businessmen, craftsmen and slaves lived together and learn who made the figurines and why. Meet their makers and learn their story. Click here for access now.

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