At the end of this post I asked this question:
What happens if context is not taken into consideration?
The fertility cult, that’s what happens!
Look, traditional figurine analysis usually goes like this:
If the figurine appears to be female, it’s a fertility goddess. Or a votive offering to the fertility goddess. Or maybe a doll.
If the figurine appears to be male, it’s a god or a soldier. Or a votive offering to some kind of god. Of war, maybe. Or maybe a doll.
If the figurine appears to be an animal, it may be sacred or it may be a toy.
It’s all so boring.
I mean, seriously? That’s the best we can do?
With traditional figurine interpretation, the find-spot is often conflated with the meaning.
For example, a figurine is found and thought to be involved with a religious belief. Perhaps it’s a votive offering to a divine being for some kind of good fortune, a child maybe.
And so it goes that the place where it was found must also be religious. A household shrine, a domestic altar or even a community worship area. Places where figurines are found are thought to be religious because figurines are so often thought to be religious.
It’s that thing about looking… and LOOKING. ‘Small L’ looking means glancing at a figurine, comparing with others that you think the meaning of, and lumping that figurine in with that meaning.
LOOKING means all the things we talked about in previous emails: carefully examining the shape of the figurine (similarities and differences), looking at what it was made of and how it was made. Thinking about the archaeological, social and historical contexts.
It’s extraordinary how many figurine reports I read during the course of my PhD research that assumed figurines were part of some kind of fertility cult. Equally odd was that this cult was rarely defined.
I mean, how did such a cult work? Were there priests and priestesses? Rituals? Why was there such a cult? Were people on the brink of starvation, infertility, death that they needed to make small clay images of naked goddesses to ensure their ongoing success?
For such an extensive cult, followed over aeons, from the Palaeolithic to the Roman era, from Persia in the west, Anatolia in the north to Egypt in the south, the archaeological (and historical) records are remarkably silent on details…
Did it really exist, this fertility cult?
What if, I mean just imagine, if figurines were not religious?
My supervisors were keen for me devise a typology for the figurines and then ‘have a think about what they meant’. The first goal was not a thesis and I was sceptical about how helpful it would be.
The second goal – think about what they meant – was an obvious research goal, but how?
I pondered this problem for weeks if not months and finally, the answer struck me, embarrassing in its obviousness. In fact, it wasn’t as much as answer, as the right question to ask. All good research starts with the right question.
After my supervisors stopped gasping, I set to work, my research question held boldly before me.
What was the key question that started me on my quest for the meaning of the figurines?
I’ll reveal it in my very next post.
It’s almost embarrassing in its obviousness…
Can you guess?
Leave a comment below with your thoughts and ideas!