Category Archives for Archaeological interpretation

Seen But Not Heard: What Museums Tell Visitors About Figurines

I have just returned from a wonderful five and a half weeks in the US where I visited approximately ten museums of archaeology and anthropology.

I say ‘approximately’ because the final museum, which I visited three times, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is considerably more than ten museums rolled into one! I had thought that it would be the greatest of all the museums I visited and while it takes the cake for the number of objects on display, all the museums I visited, large and small, had many things of value to view, think about and enjoy, not least the manner of their display.

When I left Australia, the purpose of my trip to America was primarily to attend the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting in San Diego. As I’ve written previously, this was a pretty big step for me back into archaeology. I’ll be posting about some of the sessions I attended shortly.

Me presenting my poster at ASOR 2014.

Me presenting my poster at ASOR 2014


The idea of a tour of great archaeological museums occurred to me as an extension of that initial purpose. Australia has some wonderful museums of archaeology (link to websites) (and I’m even now thinking of taking some time to visit them), but the opportunity of being in the US opened the possibility of viewing some ‘old friends’ – familiar objects of study from my university days. My object was simple, walk slowly round the museum, enjoying the displays, particularly of figurines, take photos, reflect and re-immerse myself in the ancient world.

I chose the following museums and visited them in this order:

  1. Archaeological Museum of the Oriental Institute, Chicago
  2. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  3. Semitic Museum, Harvard University
  4. Peabody Museum, Harvard University
  5. Harvard Art Museums
  6. Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute
  7. Freer Sackler Museums, Smithsonian Institute
  8. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  9. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Of course, there are many others I could have chosen, but these were the nine that seemed to, well, come up on my google search, to be honest!

At first, my aims were simple, just to locate, ponder, photograph and basically enjoy the figurines I found on display. I used my camera and notebook to record what I saw, figurines as objects in a display cabinet. I read some of the information panels, but not all. The purpose was just to look at figurines with a view to researching the more interesting looking ones and possibly blog about them.

Some of the visits included personal trips down memory lane (Assyria to Iberia, a wonderful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here you can find the blog kept by the curators and I’ll soon be posting my own reflections on it.

Assyria to Iberia exhibition poster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo)

Assyria to Iberia exhibition poster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo)

Seeing once again objects from my undergrad days, such as the material from the UR III Tombs on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was delightful.

Bull-headed lyre from Ur III tombs.

Bull-headed lyre from Ur III tombs. Read more about it here.

There were also exciting first-time meetings (for example, the black figure vase showing women weaving kept at the Met) of objects I knew so well but had never seen. I was thrilled to be there, happy to be surrounded by fascinating archaeological artefacts once more.

Vase depicting women weaving. Read more about it here.

Vase depicting women weaving. Read more about it here.

As I moved down my list of museums, I found myself not only looking at the figurines, but in the manner of their display and the information provided to the visitor. I began to pay more attention to the information provided to the viewer about the figurines, the other objects they were placed with and the section of the museum they were housed in.

Some interesting ideas started to form in my mind. None of these ideas is as yet fully formed even now; I am still reflecting on them and will post in full soon.

Here is an incomplete list of some of these ideas:

  1. Whether archaeological artefacts are pieces of ‘art’ and indeed what is meant by a ‘museum of art’. What’s the difference between a ‘museum of art’ and an ‘art gallery’? What is being said about an archaeological artefact when it is displayed in an institute with ‘art’ in its name? Are figurines works of art anyway?


  1. Whether objects without provenance, obtained by museums via a method other than scientific excavation, need to be displayed in some other way than simply as pieces of ‘art’? What message is the public receiving (if any) about the value of archaeological objects by having those without known context on display? What information choices are being made to describe figurines without context in museums?


  1. Female figurines are almost without exception interpreted in museum displays as having something to do with ‘fertility’, either as a votive offering, a depiction of a goddess or a worshipper, or a protective or magical device (at the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute female figurines are housed within a section focussed on the development of human creativity and imagination along with writing and symbolic behaviour).


  1. The role of the archaeologist in the design of exhibits, particularly those including female figurines. Do curators study archaeology? What is the value of a museum studies or curatorial course?


  1. How can museum displays be more engaging for visitors, especially those involving figurines?


Now, I am quite sure that the questions above are hardly original. But I am not a museum professional, just a museum visitor with a special interest in how figurines are displayed and the information offered to other visitors about them.

Regarding figurines, there does appear to be a disconnection between innovative interpretations of figurines being developed by archaeologists and either the knowledge of those ideas by museum professionals or the decisions made by curators or exhibition designers to offer these interpretations to the public. On the other hand, as the fertility cult theory is still so pervasive in Near Eastern archaeology, perhaps curators believe this is the current, unquestioned theory.

I’m wondering about how figurines displayed in museums relate to archaeological theory and practice.

Do you visit museums? Have you ever wondered about the information provided to you about objects or paintings? Have you ever come away from a display thinking ‘but why’?

Leave a comment and tell us of your experiences with figurines (or other objects) in museums!

Breasts = good things, aren’t they?

“Americans are….?”

I looked expectantly around the room the sea of faces equally expectantly gazing back at me. Such is the nature of being a student-centred teacher in a classroom of teacher-centred students.

There was a patient silence. They knew I’d give them the answer if they waited long enough.



“Americans are massive”.

Sniggers erupted around the speaker, a lean boy in the back row.

Stereotypes. In my cross-cultural communication class we were thinking about how cultural stereotyping affects international business.

I thought about my American colleagues at the Xian Jiaotong University City College (Xian, China) where I was teaching English.

Alice was very overweight and when she returned to the US the voluminous skirts she lefte behind made good puppy-beds for the strays I would adopt. Susannah, on the other hand, was lean. Alice was from the south, Susannah from the north. I’ve never been to America. I wondered if place of origin had something to do with diet. Climate or food traditions? Generosity of portion sizes?

Stereotypes again.

Archaeology is full of them and figurines seem particularly susceptible.

Take breasts, for example. Many figurines have them but they by no means are modelled in the same way. Some breasts are indeed massive, others tiny points. Breasts have a number of uses and meanings. Massive breasts may mean discomfort and inconvenience for the bearer, dollar signs for the profiteer. Swollen breasts mean dinner for a newborn, interrupted nights for the new mother.


Figurine of sitting women. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Just resting!
Figurine of sitting woman. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

What do breasts on figurines mean for archaeologists?

Figurines with breasts = fertility = abundance and plenty in a parsimonious world = successful human pregnancy = bringing home the bacon = all manner of good and lovely things = dispersal of nasty and unwanted things.

Who says?


I've got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?   Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?
Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am not suggesting breasts are not good things; I am questioning how we know that ancient people believed that breasts would be an appropriate symbol for good things. It seems to make common sense to us, that a part of a woman’s body which nurtures babies should be a symbol for good things in life. But while not everyone today would agree that breasts are the only appropriate symbol of good things (think about it, breast feeding in public was until recently not the ‘done thing’ and in many places is still frowned upon), others might think that there are more suitable symbols such as bunches of flowers, or nicely wrapped gifts, or a warming bowl of soup, or a good book, or a dog resting his chin on your knee.

It’s personal, isn’t it?

Perhaps figurines have nothing to do with stereotypical theories of bringing good things and averting bad things. Maybe figurines have something to do with personal choice.

So how do archaeologists find personal choice in the material record when the aim is reconstructing a historical context or determining whether excavated bones represent a domesticated animal? In other words, does the culture-history or the processualist schools of archaeology allow for a study of more than society-as-a-whole?

If archaeologists only study society-as-a-whole, don’t we fall into trap of stereotyping the people of the ancient past?

What do you think?


Oh gods! We’re all gonna die! Quick, make a figurine…

The early archaeologists of both the culture-history school as well as the processualists interpreted figurines as part of belief systems involving a supernatural being.

In other words, they believed that ancient figurines were religious.

While culture-historians utilised intuitive processes, textual ‘evidence’ and ‘common sense’ to reach this conclusion, the New Archaeologists tried to identify the external pressures which might have made ancient people turn to religion. Both of them based their ideas on a struggle for survival.

Specifically, the culture-historians believed that ‘primitive’ societies were always in danger of starvation due to lack of knowledge, whereas the processualists tried to think about external causes that exerted pressure of food resources, such as droughts. It seems that no matter which school of thought they may belong to, archaeologists have long used the magico-religious theory as a ‘default interpretation’ for figurines. They must relate to fertility to ensure the ongoing of the human species, or animal species on which it thrives.

Figurines ensure the survival of community of people, through successful pregnancy and birth, and also the plentiful availability of food for that community.

Perhaps influenced by Darwinism, early archaeologists believed that life in the ancient past was a constant struggle for survival, with the most successful cultures being those that were able to perpetuate themselves. While few archaeologists would adhere to this view today, aspects of it became entrenched in the culture-history school and remnants can be found in the way the archaeological record is interpreted nowadays, though one hopes without the racist overtones. Simply stated, some ideas about the meaning that objects had for past peoples have their origins in the worldview of the early archaeologists.

Culture-history archaeologists understood the difficulties of figurine interpretation. They acknowledged that these objects had a dimension to their meaning which was more than just utilitarian and which could give access to intellectual life. Nonetheless, they believed that learning anything about the thought processes through which figurines were created was thought to be very difficult, if not impossible. Despite this view, or perhaps because of it, figurines were assigned meanings related to magico-religious ritual. It seems that figurines were thrown in the interpretive ‘too hard basket’ with the label ‘religious’.

In 1951 Dr A Olmstead stated that: “Woman, who made the fields fertile by her labour, was herself the best example of fertility…Thus there sprang up the worship of the Earth Mother, the goddess of fertility”.[1]

To my knowledge, this statement represents one of the few attempts to explain the origins of the fertility cult theory. Olmstead considers clay figurines depicting naked women clasping their breasts to be images of the fertility-goddess which “the priests sold for a trifle to the faithful”.[2]

Although it seems ‘sensible’ to the archaeologist that the female body should be a symbol of fertility, we must be careful not to import this opinion into other cultures, particularly those in the remote past. The problem lies with the assumption. The image of breasts as a symbol of fertility in ancient times should not be assumed just because we may think it ‘makes sense’.

On the other end of the theoretical spectrum, the processual approach to figurines takes as its starting point the same question posed to utilitarian objects, such as scrapers and axes; “How did this object work, what was it used for?”

These archaeologists used scientific approaches to the study of figurines, such as experimental making and breaking, and examination for use-wear patterns. Figurines were measured, made and broken under experimental conditions, and ethnographic observations were used to produce a ‘check-list’ of functional explanations for representational images. Variables such as use-wear, distribution patterns and morphology which could be expected to be present with each function were determined. Ethnographic analogy became popular as a means of introducing into archaeological research uses for figurines known to living cultures but which may be difficult to detect in the material record.

For example, a processual archaeologist might say, ‘if all figurines are broken at the neck, this suggests deliberate breakage. Let’s see how often these figurines break at the neck if we drop them from 1 metre, 3 metres, 10 metres’. Experiments are done and observations are made according to the scientific method.

So what’s wrong with these methods and approaches?

Stay tuned…





[1]   Olmstead, AT, 1951, The History of Assyria, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.9.

[2]   Olmstead, AT, 1951,The History of Assyria, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.20.



So, is Archaeology an Art or a Science Anyway?

Two posts ago we looked at the culture-history school. By the 1950s, archaeologists became less and less satisfied with the empirical approach. ‘Common sense’ and intuitive ways of thinking about the past have two main problems: they’re heavily influenced by the archaeologist’s own worldview, and they assume that all peoples, throughout time, did things in the same way. They looked at ancient objects and using formal analysis and intuition, or their own ‘common-sense’ interpreted them in ways that made sense to them.

However, using your own common sense means you can’t be open to another person’s common sense. Interpreting objects based on your own knowledge, experience, and ideas means you impose your worldview on others. Thinking about others in terms of yourself quickly leads to value judgments about those people.

American archaeologists in the 1950s began drawing on anthropological data for archaeological interpretation. A new ‘direct-historical’ approach observed indigenous cultures and applied that information to archaeological materials. This new school of thought believed that many of the conclusions reached by culture-historians were nothing more than idle conjecture. They redefined archaeology as the search for the processes by which culture change may be observed. Rather than looking for reasons for culture change through classifying objects, the processual school was interested in reconstructing ancient societies and economies, and looking at internal variation in cultures.




Thinking about the archaeological record, processual archaeologists asked research questions, such as, ‘How did early peoples survive?’ Observing that some peoples hunt their food, processualists might come up with the theory that early peoples hunted and from anthropological observation, learned that some peoples used bows and arrows to catch their prey.

On the excavation, when an arrowhead is found, this proves the theory. For processualists, identifying publicly observable behaviour, such as hunting, in the archaeological record, is the goal of the archaeologist.

Can you see how the deductive approach is as ‘theory-laden’ as the empirical approach? The archaeologist has the theory before examining the data.

The processual approach to archaeological interpretation looked for the reasons for culture change on the basis that all human behaviour can be explained by reference to a series of external variables, such as the environment or climate. These researchers believed that cultural behaviour is driven by systems and processes within which all societies exist and that all cultural change can be predicted using universal laws of cause and effect.


The rise of the processualist school coincided with the development of new technologies, such as computerised analyses and radiocarbon dating. Field and laboratory methods were adopted from science and applied to excavation and analysis. Processualists, believed that the function of objects could be determined through experimental breakage, use-wear analysis and artefact distribution. These studies would reveal the forces outside of human society which caused cultural change.

Geoarchaeologist at work. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Geoarchaeologist at work. Source: Wikimedia Commons