Sep 19

The Fertility Cult: A Seriously Boring Theory

By Victoria | Ancient Figurines from Ancient Near East

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.

fertility figurines Eretz Israel Museum

Cabinet labelled ‘Fertility Figurines’, in the Eretz-Israel Museum.

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!

Sep 16

Knives, Pots and Figurines: Problems of Function

By Victoria | Ancient Figurines from Ancient Near East

If culture historians and processualists were not particularly interested in the individuals whose lives made up the archaeological record, they were even less interested in the idea that archaeological objects could reveal something about what these individuals might have thought or believed. figurine function

And yet, this is the problem when faced with figurines: the purpose or use of figurines is not immediately obvious. If there is no obvious utilitarian purpose for an object (not obvious to us, that is) then perhaps the form of the object reflects some idea in the mind of the people who made and used that object.

Not like a pot or a knife.

You can get some idea of what a pot or knife looks like because the shape is dictated by the function and the function can be identified, at least to some extent, because we ourselves are familiar with such objects in our own lives.

So a metal object with a long shape blade may be described with some certainty as a having a function related to cutting. Perhaps it was a knife or a dagger.

But as we have seen, examining the object, while a crucial first step, doesn’t give us the whole story.

Not if we are asking the types of questions I like to ask!

We understand that metal objects with a long sharp blade are knives,  but what else could it have been to the person who made and/or used it? Was it used for chopping vegetables, or did it have pride of place as a ceremonial dagger of some kind? Is it roughly made or has some care gone into the manufacture and decoration of the piece?

Even obviously utilitarian objects may have had other meanings too.

Asking questions about meaning help us to move a bit closer to understanding the roles these objects played in people lives and therefore tell us something about them as individuals.

But you have to believe it is possible to get some understanding of how ancient people – individuals who lived in the remote past – viewed themselves and the world around them from the objects they made and the houses they lived in before you can ask the types of questions which might reveal this kind of information.

In other words, if you don’t believe it is possible to access what ancient people thought and believed, then you’re unlikely to try.

And the culture historians and processualists didn’t seem to believe it was possible to get inside the heads of individuals who lived long ago.

Except for the fertility cult theory, of course!

If that’s not putting beliefs and ideas into ancient people’s heads, I don’t know what is! All with an extraordinary lack of serious evidence.

So what does all this have to do with figurines? figurine function

Vessel decorated with figurines; how are archaeologists to interpret these types of artefacts?

Well, figurines are hard to interpret from a functional point of view. Sure, they had a function, certainly they did, but it’s hard to understand what that is merely from looking at them.

Unlike a knife or pot.

Every feature of any figurine will have a meaning for the person who made and/or used it, but the decisions to make a figurine in a certain way will be both culturally and/or socially defined.

And there’ll be individual decisions that go into the making of a figurine as well.

People who don’t belong to that culture may have a hard time understanding the meaning of those features.

So we go back to our consideration of context.

How can context help us find people?

Have you read my post in which I look at both the archaeological and historical context in which the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar were used. It’s absolutely fascinating! Click here to read it. 

As always, please email me at or using the contact page with any comments and questions. I love hearing from readers and will reply to all emails.

Or, leave a comment below. Go on! Let’s start a conversation.

Sep 13

My Super Simple Research Question…

By Victoria | Ancient Figurines from Ancient Near East

Are you ready?

For the absurdly simple research question which skyrocketed my investigation into the meaning of the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar?

Here it is:

Who made them? Who made the figurines?

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Ridiculous that this question is so rarely asked of ancient figurines.

Absurd but not altogether remarkable when you think about archaeological schools of thought and what they believed was possible to know about the past.

When I talk about ‘traditional’ archaeology, or ‘traditional’ figurine interpretation, I’m really referring to two approaches to archaeology – the school of culture-history and the processualists.

The school of culture-history was the ‘original’, early archaeology, whose aims were to uncover, record (sometimes) and display the past. Archaeologists of this way of thinking about the past were interested in identifying cultures, often known from historical records, and showing how these cultures changed, developed and interacted.

So, for example, a team of archaeologists might start excavating at a site which was known from texts to be a place where a certain group of people – the Makonites (I just made that up) – lived. The archaeologists find Makonite pottery, which they classify according to shape and decoration.

They carefully reconstruct the ‘history’ of the site, focussing on how pots change to create a chronology or dating system for the site. If Makonite pottery is found at other sites, they ponder how it got there. Was it traded? Culture-historians are also interested in how sites became abandoned. Is there evidence for destruction?

In the 1970s, another group of archaeologists – the processualists – arrived on the scene.

The processualists were not satisfied with ‘finding cultures’, they wanted to know how societies and communities survived. They used scientific methods and analyses, technologies and a more anthropological approach to the archaeological record. They wanted to know what kinds of plants and animals were consumed, how the climate affected food sources and ways of life and how societies organised themselves.

What’s missing here?

On one hand we’ve got a pottery typology and on the other a batch of pottery fabric analysis…but…

Where are all the people? people

People…the past is made up of people…

The people of the ancient past. The individuals. Men and women, mums and dads, old and young. The people who made the pots and used them in their daily lives?

Who made the figurines?

Asking this question means believing that archaeologists can actually answer such a question.

I’m not sure that the archaeologists of the culture-history school nor the processualists thought that answering such a question was possible.

However, within both schools of thought, figurines were identified as being evidence of a fertility cult.

After all, they were primitive people, and goddesses are a pretty primitive concept. Life was harsh back then. Primitive fertility goddesses were needed to keep things going. Says the school of culture-history.

Yes, life was tough. Look at all this evidence we have for lack of food resources; conflict between communities for meagre resources was frequent. Its tough hunting your next meal and farming was pretty grim too. People looked to the heavens and the gods for success in staying alive. Say the processualists.

At least, I think that’s what they’re saying. It’s a little hard to know.

What was resoundingly clear was that “figurines=fertility cult” theory is evident in both schools of thought and this appears to be the case because neither school of thought it possible to answer the question:

…Who made the figurines?

Why? Why is this questions so rarely asked? Because this means finding individuals and trying to identify what they actually experienced and believed about life.

Not a research question for either the culture-history nor processualists schools.

But it was for me!

Armed with my research question, my next step was to find an approach which would allow me to start looking for answers. How could I start to answer the question: “Who made the figurines?”

What approach was that?

Let me reveal all in my post! Sign up for the complimentary introduction to my book, Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar and I’ll send you notification of my next post.  Keep a close eye on your inbox for the next instalment in the story of the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar.

Got a question or a comment? Please leave a comment in the form below.

Sep 09

Using All The Contexts To Interpret The Tell Ahmar Figurines

By Victoria | Ancient Figurines from Ancient Near East

I’ve talked in other posts about how important context is in the interpretation of figurines.

There are many types of context: archaeological, that is, where they were found on an excavated sites and what features they were associated with.

Then there’s the historical context, which is sometimes learned from documentary records of one kind or another, and includes the political, cultural and economic background to the site.

And finally, the social context, which may be determined by looking at and interpreting the objects and activities that were taking place at the site.

For 7th century Tell Ahmar, there is good evidence for all three contexts. where were the Tell Ahmar figurines found?The archaeological context where the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar were found was domestic…and industrial.

They were found in a large building which was probably a place where people lived but also where they worked. The figurines were found in long rooms within this building, but also in the courtyard.

They were found with stone and clay loom weights, spindle whorls and pieces of shaped bone.

The main excavation are of Tell Ahmar dates to the 7th century BCE and rests on bedrock with very little occupation above. So we have a very nice archaeological ‘snapshot’ of life in this place from about 650 to 600 BCE.

What was happening historically in the location of Tell Ahmar during this time?

Tell Ahmar (one of its ancient names is Til Barsip), was a trading port on the Euphrates River. There had always been a settlement here, way back to the Chalcolithic period, but it was during the Iron Age when it really expanded.

This was because the Assyrian kings, whose heartland was further to the east, around modern northern Iraq, were busy building their empire and had conquered this part of what is now modern north Syria and were pushing through to the Mediterranean Sea.

So Til Barsip became Kar Shalmaneser – the Port of King Shalmaneser, who conquered and colonised the settlement in 856 BCE, some 200 years before the date of the building where the figurines were found.

And inside the house/workshop where the figurines were found? What was the social context like?

Well, from the architecture and design of the house and the objects found inside, it seems to have been quite grand and likely owned by a person of some wealth. Baked clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script record business transactions, even the purchase of slaves.

We know then that a person of some wealth, as well as people with nothing at all of their own, lived together in this great house.

The Assyrian army was famous for its ferocity, it’s decorated horses and pointed iron helmets. They must have been present in Kar Shalmaneser at the time the building was occupied.

And who else occupied that house? Slaves, servants, workers? There are objects related to the manufacture of fabrics: weaving and spinning. Who was involved with that activity?

How can an archaeologist use archaeological, historical and social context to provide information about the people whose lives are evidenced by the archaeological record?

How does the physical location, objects found nearby, textual evidence, and external historical events contribute to how we understand what figurines meant to the people who made and used them?

Each of these avenues of investigation is crucial and through them, perhaps we can glimpse the real lives of the actual people of the remote past.

Archaeology is about using all the available evidence to construct a feasible story.

Archaeology is very much about story telling! We can’t literally go back and ask people who lived 2000 years ago what they thought about life and each other.

But we can have a pretty good try. Using tools to guide us, I believe archaeologists can begin to glimpse inside the lives of ancient people and get an understanding of what they thought about themselves, each other and the world around them.

What kind of tools can help us do that?

That’s the topic of my next post! Please leave a comment below with your thoughts and ideas!

Sep 07

Finding People: Gender and Post-Colonial Theory

By Victoria | Ancient Figurines from Ancient Near East

You know, in many ways, archaeology is just sociology in the ancient world.

If you’re like me, you’re interested in the archaeology of people.

Sure, it’s useful to know something about the culture, place and time in which these people lived…but what fascinates me is the archaeology of everyday life.

Who were these people? What work did they do? What kinds of houses did they live in? What did they eat?

These are the kinds of questions archaeologists can answer by looking at the things found through excavation.

But I’m also interested in other kinds of questions.

Questions like:

How did these people organise themselves as a community? How did they relate to one another? Who held power in their relationships? How did people contest that power?

Answering these kinds of questions is a bit more tricky because it is easy to ‘import’ our own ideas on the ancient world.

This is what happened with the many collections of female figurines.

fertility figurines Eretz Israel Museum

Cabinet labelled ‘Fertility Figurines’, in the Eretz-Israel Museum.

Traditionally, archaeologists looked at these figurines of naked women and imposed their own concept of the existence of a  ‘primitive’ religion on them.

Actually, there is little definitive evidence that such a cult existed.

So how can we ask questions of the remote past without falling into the trap of imposing our own ideas on ancient people and societies?

We use theory.

Theories are general frameworks for interpreting data that are based on the scientific method; observation of phenomena, posing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis and analysing the results.

We can use the scientific method in the humanities and this is what sociologists do.

Archaeologists today draw on a range of theories about how people live and organise themselves from sociology generally, gender theory, post-colonial theory and so on.

Literally faced with the figurines from ancient Tell Ahmar, I considered what types of theory I could use to answer the question: “Who made the figurines?”

I observed their shape and form – women, women holding children, horses without riders, horses with riders, always male – and I investigated their archaeological context: in a house, in a workroom, with weaving implements, in a courtyard with cooking pots.

And I thought about their historical context…under Assyrian rule.

Assyrian and Aramaen scribes from Til Barsib people

Assyrian and Aramaen scribes from Til Barsib.

Finally I thought about their social context: they were found in buildings owned by a wealthy businessman whose business seemed to have been involved in the manufacture of textiles, who owned slaves and who appears to have been important in the town.

The figurines were found among objects used for the making of cloth, with cooking post ware and are absent in the rooms known to be public reception rooms where the businessman may have entertained.

So who weaves, who cooks and who is owned by others in the ancient Near East? Stay tuned for my next post!



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