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!
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”.
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”.
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?
Footnotes: Olmstead, AT, 1951, The History of Assyria, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.9.  Olmstead, AT, 1951,The History of Assyria, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.20.