How Would An Archaeologist Interpret Your Figurines?

How would archaeologists of the future interpret your figurines?

Welcome to my first proper post on the topic of this blog: figurines!

Do you collect figurines? Do you have any china or wood figurines in your home?

Although the figurines with which this blog is concerned come from the ancient Near East, I thought I’d start my journey back into thinking about figurines by looking at the figurines I have in my home.  This might be an interesting way to illustrate how interpreting figurines can be quite problematic.

My set of miniature Terracotta Warriors was purchased at a cheap souvenir shop near Zhong Luo (drum tower) subway station in downtown Xian, China.  I bought them to remember the year I taught English in Xian and because they were replicas of the ancient, life-size soldiers found buried near that city. I also thought they would be easier to carry home in my luggage. They are factory made and sold by small business owners looking to make a profit from tourists to this ancient capital of China. They live on one of my book shelves.

mini terracotta warriors

Mini terracotta warriors from Xian, China.

Shortly before leaving Xian I took a tour to some of the historical sites around the city. The Yangling region around Xian is covered with mounds which rise about the horizon like tells in the deserts of the Middle East. Waiting for the lift to take me down from my 6th floor apartment I could count three or four on the horizon.

In the shop of the wonderful archaeological museum of the mausoleum of the Han Dynasty Emperor Jing Di, his wife and courtiers at Yangling I found clay figurines, replicas of the many that were found in the tombs of nobles. I purchased a standing female figurine resplendent in robes of the period, her right hand raised and left arm reaching forward; evidently she once held something in her hands or arms. It was a spur of the moment purchase, expensively priced, prompted by a sense that I was soon leaving and that I mightn’t find such a figurine anywhere else. Silly really. I should have known replicas of the replicas can be found throughout Xian for a fraction of the price.

Chinese figurine

Han Dynasty (2nd century BCE) figurine (replica) from nobleman’s tomb, Yangling, near Xian, China.

Another piece bought at a museum shop was the bishop from the 12th century Lewis chessmen which I found at the British Museum. I fell in love with the bishop’s intense gaze from his googly eyes. It appeals to me and makes me smile whenever I see it.

Lewis bishop

Replica Bishop from the Lewis Chessmen (12th century), Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides.

Two little figurines which intrigue me belonged, I believe, to my grandmother and may have something to do with sewing. If anyone knows how they were used, please leave a comment below or send me an email! I love them because they are a connection with my grandmother, though I don’t know exactly how they came to be in my possession. They live in a special glass display case which was also a gift from a relative along with other small objects with high personal significance.

sewing ladies Can anyone tell me what these little figurines were used for?

Another pair of figurines were purchased by me from a souvenir shop in the grasslands town of Xilinhaote in Inner Mongolia. I never saw anything like them anywhere else. They are a woman and a man, whose bark penis was ripped off by quarantine at the airport on my return to Melbourne. I haven’t yet replaced it, which is probably why he is baring his teeth at me so ferociously!  The shop owner explained that they are protective figurines against evil spirits, which is why they are so ugly.

Mongolian prot spirits

Mongolian protective spirits, purchased in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia, China.

Interestingly, I saw similar figurines in the museum in the Inner Mongolian capital, Hohhot. Such frightening faces can also be seen on shaman’s cloaks used in indigenous religious rituals among the Mongols. Despite being tourist souvenirs, they are unique, fascinating pieces which stood out among other religious items for sale such as miniature prayer wheels, prayer beads and pictures of Buddha.

Shamans bits Sorry about the quality of this pictures. It was taken in the Xilinhaote Museum and on the blue background you can see four little wooden figurines which were used by shamans or perhaps regular people for protective purposes. I’m afraid I’m not certain of the details but might post on this later.

Another pair of protective creatures came to me as a gift from a friend: two little iron Scotty dogs. Immensely heavy, maybe the protection they offer is in the form of a weapon against intruders! Like the Mongolian figurines, I don’t believe these dogs can protect me from bad luck or danger.  I love them because I love dogs and because they remind me of my friend.

protective dogs

The last figurine I wanted to share with you today is made of wood and takes the form of a faceless woman holding a puppy or small dog over her shoulder.  She has angel’s wings made of wire and wears a long skirt.  I bought it shortly after the death of my beloved dog and it comforts me. I like to think that my sweet dog might have had a soul which is now at peace after her undoubtedly uncomfortable (but mercifully brief) struggle with lung cancer.

angel and dog

Why do I love these figurines?

  • They remind me of loved ones and friends
  • They remind me of enjoyable times overseas
  • They interest me because they are replicas of ancient ones
  • They have cultural significance
  • They have intriguing faces
  • They make me feel happy

Some of the figurines share certain similarities. The little iron dogs are not dissimilar to that held by the ‘angel’ woman, who wears a dress not unlike that of the ancient Chinese figurine. The Mongolian figurines also wear long skirt-like garments.

If we consider these figurines purely from a physical or morphological point of view, we can see that some are male, some female, some may have a military function, another is seated holding what looks like a shepherd’s crook.  They are all made of different fabrics: wood, clay, metal and resin (originally walrus ivory: the bishop from the chess set).

I wonder what archaeologists would make of all these figurines if my house was ever excavated in 1000 years time?

Would they connect the function of the Chinese figurine with the angel woman on the basis that they look vaguely similar? What about the ‘sewing ladies’?  Any significance in the fact that they don’t have lower bodies? Would the miniature terracotta warriors be interpreted as toys for little boys? Would the archaeologists assume that children live in my house?

I don’t utilize any of these figurines in the manner in which their originals were first created. I don’t play chess with the king, I don’t place the Mongolian protective spirits in relevant parts of my home and I don’t use the ‘sewing’ figurines, if that is what they are, for sewing. They are all ornaments.

I feel certain emotions as I view them; they hold particular stories for me which they would not for a visitor entering my home and viewing them for the first time. I could explain how I feel about them, but that visitor could never actually feel the same way, even if they understood the feeling.

Have you found any figurines around your home?  Why do you have them and how do they make you feel?  Do they hold special memories for you?  Do you feel the same way about all your figurines?

I’d really love to hear about your figurines. Please leave a comment and if you can, a picture of your figurine/s.


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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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