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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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:
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?