Category Archives for Context

Louisiana Dolls: The Dilemma of Context

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.


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!

Discovering Identity: Weavers and Figurine Makers?

As mentioned in previous posts, the context in which artifacts are found is crucial to their interpretation. Of all the sites in the Upper Euphrates Valley where figurines of the 7th century have been found, only Tell Ahmar provides, to date, a stratigraphically secure and well-documented deposit. Unfortunately, the circumstances under which the figurines from Deve Hüyük, Kefrik and Merj Khamis were acquired prevent contextual analysis, while the excavation reports of the Yunus Cemetery and Carchemish mention only briefly the find spots of their figurines.

More recently, excavations in the middle-city of Kar Shalmaneser (ancient Tell Ahmar) have yielded Neo-Assyrian remains. A complex of buildings have been revealed, labelled C1 and C2, the former being slightly earlier in date. There is no evidence of occupation below the Neo-Assyrian levels. Therefore, we have an undisturbed period of time, around 50 years, in which to investigate the material culture, including the figurines.


Area C, Tell Ahmar. Building C1 is on the right, C2 on the left.

Area C, Tell Ahmar. Building C1 is on the right, C2 on the left.


Tablets found in Building C1 Room XII mention the name Hanni. The dates of the Assyrian kings recorded in the texts range from 683 to 648 BC. The tablets appear to be a business archive of Hanni, suggesting that he is the owner of these buildings. They also suggest he was a person of some wealth. The final abandonment of the building probably occurred in the first half of the 6th century. I refer to building C1 as Hanni’s Workshop.

Believed to have been initially constructed as a residence, Hanni’s Workshop appears to have become an industrial site where textile manufacture and craft production took place. Large numbers of loom weights and spindle whorls found in these rooms suggest that large-scale weaving may have taken place. Residential and reception suites were then constructed to the north.

The production of textiles seems to have centred around two parts of the building. The first is within the rooms to the south of the main courtyard, namely Rooms X, XI and XV. The second centre is located in Room I of Hanni’s Workshop, and Rooms I and II of the second building, which seem to be incorporated into a single architectural unit.

Clay loom weight.

Clay loom weight.


Around sixty loom weights were found in Room X. There are four basic shapes: cylindrical (sometimes slightly ovoid), ‘hourglass’ (or ‘diabolo’), thick, discoid with a central perforation (‘dough nut’ shaped) and bell-shaped. The first form was most frequent. It is possible that at least some of the discoid shaped weights were used with spindles, but only those of very even shape and well-centred perforation would be appropriate.



Numbers of bone spatulae may have been used in the textile process as well. Other types of objects included the occasional bead or perforated shell, as well as bronze fibulae fragments. Also found were a number of basalt pestles and basins, possibly used in cooking.

Spindle whorl ancientfigurinesSpindle whorl ancientfigurines

Clay spindle whorl. Also related to fabric manufacture were the two spindle whorls of stone and unbaked clay, while reused sherds and a clay wheel may also have functioned as spindle whorls.

To the north, Room I of Hanni’s workshop contained over one hundred and fifty loom weights and several spatulae, while five stone spindle whorls, one with decoration on the base comprising five concentric circles and another disk-shaped, attest to spinning as well as weaving. In addition, a considerable number of basalt objects, including grinders, pestles, bowls and platters were found.

Rooms I and II of Hanni’s workshop each yielded five spindle whorls, all except one of which were made of polished steatite and abut 4cm high. Basically hemispherical in shape with very smooth sides and a rough base, two were decorated on the base, one with sixteen circles each with a central ‘dot’ (shallow perforation) and another with five plain circles. A conical stone spindle whorl was found in Room I, Building C2, while an unusual whorl of ivory, broken but fortunately reconstructable, was discovered in Room I, Building C1, although there is no evidence for ivory carving in this room.

Room XI contained further evidence of weaving activities. A mass of over seventy loom weights, several spatulae and items that might conceivably have functioned as spindle whorls, such as stone and bronze disks, were recovered. The object assemblage also included, as in Room X, beads, pins and fibulae. Evidence for textile production was also recovered from Room XV, where over one hundred and fifty loom weights were recovered. A spindle whorl and spatulae were also found, as well as the ubiquitous beads, pins and fibulae. A large amount of burnt wood may represent the remains of a loom lay across the room.

The standing figurines and most of the horse and riders are closely associated with areas where there is substantial evidence for textile production.

Who lived and worked in Hanni’s household?

Did they make the figurines?



Tell Ahmar: 5000 Years of Continuous Occupation

Some two and a half hours by road east of Aleppo, the site of Tell Ahmar is located on the east bank of the Euphrates River, approximately twenty kilometres south of the present Turkish border.

Tell Ahmar  from the Euphrates River, picture taken by me in 1993

Tell Ahmar from the Euphrates River, picture taken by me in 1993



The artificial mound was excavated in 1927 and from 1929 to 1931 by a French expedition led by F. Thureau-Dangin and M. Dunand.

Tell Ahmar by Gertrude Bell, source:

Tell Ahmar by Gertrude Bell, source:

The main focus of these excavations was on the Acropolis, where a Neo-Assyrian palace was exposed.

This most significant site is unfortunately located in the area of the Tishrin Dam and is currently threatened with total inundation along with many other important settlements. In 1988 a research team from the University of Melbourne under the direction of Dr Guy Bunnens began further excavation of the tell and initiated exploration of the middle terrace and lower city. Photos of it being underwater now   It is clear from architectural, ceramic and artifactual evidence from the tell that the site was occupied prior to Neo-Assyrian domination. An additional goal of the recent excavations was to explore a provincial city of the Neo-Assyrian period. Investigations were centred on exposing the outermost limits of the urban area, with the main core of operations being Area C.


Tell Ahmar is ideally located to take the best advantage of the fertile plain in which it stands. The position has agricultural benefits, enabling easy irrigation, while clear views of the surrounding area provide security and control of movement about the plain. Communications across the river could also be controlled, despite the high cliffs and desert steppe on the west side of the river. The settlement is located on the trade routes between Mesopotamia and the Levant.

These factors are common to a number of sites in the region, and thus it is probably this combination that accounts for the length of occupation at Tell Ahmar. Only the city of Carchemish, not far to the north, remained in occupation for as long as it has been suggested that strategic control of the region is likely to have been the cause of disputes between these two urban centres, with the smaller settlements taking a minor role.


Beginning in the Chalcolithic period, it is possible that Tell Ahmar was continually inhabited through the Bronze and Iron Ages. Ubaid material was noted by Thureau-Dangin. Tell Aber, just north of Tell Ahmar, and Hammam Seghir on the opposite bank of the river both yielded Ubaid remains. Several sites surveyed and excavated in the vicinity have also yielded Early Bronze material. Clearly, from a very early age, the considerable advantages of this part of the valley for establishing a settlement were exploited. While pottery dating from the Early Bronze Age (phases I or II) has been identified in trenches on the Acropolis, later phases of the Early Bronze Age are well represented by the discovery of the Hypogeum by the French excavators and more recently renewed exploration of this structure.

The recent operations revealed that the Hypogeum is related to a complex of rooms, two of which have been partially excavated. Ceramics found in this context indicate a date in the Early Bronze III-IVa period. Both the architecture of the Hypogeum and the associated cist graves are well represented Euphrates Valley traditions.   Levels overlying those associated with the Hypogeum have yielded figurines of the early 2nd millennium.

The figurine assemblages from Upper Euphrates sites indicate that Tell Ahmar shared the Bronze Age culture of the Euphrates Valley, identified by Badre and represented by sites further to the south such as Selenkahiye, Tell Habuba, Tell Sweihat and Tell Hadidi. Thus the material remains of Early Bronze Age Tell Ahmar suggest a close association with cultural horizons noted in the Upper Euphrates Valley region. Dr Andrew Jamieson describes the ceramic traditions as indicating the ‘unified and homogeneous nature of the middle and Upper Euphrates Valley region.”[1] The later phases of the Bronze Age are not so apparent at Tell Ahmar, although material collected from unstratified deposits suggest a human presence in the Middle Bronze Age, while a few possible Late Bronze Age shards were recovered at the base of the enormous Iron Age wall exposed in the sounding on the tell.

[1] Jamieson, AS. 1993. “The Euphrates Valley and Early Bronze Age ceramic traditions”, in Abr Nahrain Vo.31, pp.36-92 (quotation from p.78).


For early excavations see Thureau-Dangin, F, Til-Barsib, Paris, 1936.

For University of Melbourne excavations see Bunnens, G, “Tell Ahmar (Ancient Til Barsib, Middle Euphrates)”, Syrian Archaeological Bulletin 1, 1988, pp.1-2; “Tell Ahmar on the Euphrates. A New Research project of the University of Melbourne,”, Akkadica 63, 1989, pp.1-11; “Melbourne University Excavations at Tell Ahmar: 1988 Season”, Mesopotamie et Elam, Actes de la XXXIV Rencontre Assyriologique Internationales, Gand, 10-14 Juillet 1989, Mesopotamian History and Environment, Occasional Publications, Vol.1, Ghent, 1991, pp.163-170; “Ahmar”, Weiss, H (ed), “Archaeology in Syria”, American Journal of Archaeology Vol.95, 1991, pp.732-734; “Melbourne University excavations at Tell Ahmar on the Euphrates; Short report on the 1989-1992 seasons”, Akkidica 79-80, 1002, pp.1-13; “Tell Ahmar”, Weiss, H (ed), “Archaeology in Syria”, American Journal of Archaeology Vol.98, 1993-94, pp.149-151; ‘Tall Ahmar/Til Barsib 1988-1992”, in Kuhne, H (ed) “Archaologische Forschung in Syrien (5)”, AfO, Vol.40-41, 1993-94, pp.221-225.

For other publications of Tell Ahmar material see Roobaert, A, “A Neo-Assyrian Statue from Til Barsib”, Iraq, Vol.58, 1996, pp.79-87, Bunnens, G, “Carved Ivories from Til Barsib”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.101, 1997, pp.435-450 and Bunnens, G (ed) Abr Nahrain, Vol.34, 1996-1997 for translations of tablets and inscriptions from Tell Ahmar.

Context is Crucial!

Archaeologists need to think about many different contexts when they interpret any ancient object. Because it is sometimes difficult to know what some objects were used for just by looking at them, archaeologists can use evidence such as the archaeological context in which it was found (under the floor, next to a wall, beside an oven), other objects it was found close to (knives, pots, bodies), the functional context in which it was found (in the kitchen, on an industrial site), the cultural context (Egyptian, Phoenician colony in the west), the historical context (Neo-Assyrian, Archaic Greek).

Archaeologists can also look at the site within the landscape to determine generally how it might have functioned. This can also help identify the uses of the objects found there. Archaeologists need to call upon many strands of evidence to reach their conclusions about how the artefacts they find were used by the people who made them.

Let’s take a look at a similar object found in some homes today.

Plastic dolls used for crocheting. From

Plastic dolls used for crocheting. From

Small plastic (usually intended to be female) may be used in different ways around the house. Plastic doll bases, such as the ones below (interestingly without legs, like the Tell Ahmar figurines!) have a multitude of uses. They can be found in toilets, sitting on the cistern dressed in a flouncy dress. The purpose of these dolls appears to be to eradicate the need to have undisguised extra rolls of paper in the toilet. Perhaps this is considered unseemly by some.

Toilet paper doll from

Toilet paper doll from

The same dolls can be found on the beds presumably for decorative purposes, though Laura, from the blog Inherited Values, recalls that her mother gave her the bed doll in the hope that it might encourage Laura to make her bed each morning.

Bed doll. From Inherited Values blog.

Bed doll. From Inherited Values blog.

A final example of the varied uses of this plastic doll bodies is in the baking of special birthday cakes, usually for little girls. Cakes could, of course be served in living or dining rooms, as well as kitchens, but it would be unusual to serve a birthday cake in a bath or bedroom.

Doll cake from

Doll cake from

Thus, the same plastic doll can be found in the kitchen, the bedroom and the toilet of western houses today. The following represents some general thoughts around the issue of physical context in which objects are found and its relationship with use of those objects.

It is clear that the context in which the dolls are used is critical to its purpose though the appearance of each doll, without clothes, is identical. It is possible, of course, that a bed doll could be used in a living room as a decoration, but it would not have the same meaning as the same doll placed on a bed. A bed doll in a living room may be a toy, a collectable, a much-loved gift, a display item or of course, or many other uses but it could not be used as a bed doll without the presence of a bed.

It could still be a bed doll, however a bed doll out of place. Such nuances of context and object usage may be tricky to discern at an archaeological site from a remote period of time.

Houses are living things and objects within them get moved about all the time. Moreover, objects that look the same often do have many uses. A cup in the kitchen holds coffee, at a neighbour’s it is filled with sugar, on the dining room a few daisies from the garden.

So where do all these thoughts leave the archaeologist?

Confused? Cautious? Unable to say anything about object usage from context?

No, I don’t believe all is lost; it is possible and indeed critical to use context as one source of data for the interpretation of figurines. Being aware of how easy it is to interpret physical context according to one’s interpretation of the objects found within it and thereby creating a circular argument for all such objects despite their context is crucial. For me, this was one of the bugbears I constantly faced in my research of ancient figurines from the Near East; figurines are religious and therefore their contexts are cultic. Really?

One context not mentioned in the introduction to this post was personal or individual context and by this I mean the context of the makers’ own identity and lived experienced. The relationship of the person who made the figurine to herself, himself and others is possibly the key context to consider when interpreting figurines. And it nicely takes care of the religious/cultic theory!

But I’ll leave those fun and games for another post!