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.
Although archaeologists may draw on history, anthropology, geography, and other sciences in order to do archaeology, the one activity that most people associate with archaeologists and which is unique to the profession is digging. Still today when I’m out walking, even down the street, if I come across a hole in the ground I can’t stop myself from peering in! Archaeologists dig for evidence of the past because they believe what they find can tell us something about people who lived thousands of years ago.
But how does what archaeologists find become evidence, and evidence for what, exactly? Archaeologists need some framework of thinking, some theoretical basis for their ideas. While the public see archaeologists working in the field, thinking about what they find may take place in university departments or a museum. Once that process is complete, archaeologists share their findings with professional colleagues through journal articles, books, and conference presentations and with the public through museum displays and television programs. Some archaeologists also share the theoretical frameworks used to come to their conclusions, but usually only with their colleagues. The public rarely sees the thinking behind the interpretation.
What archaeologists believe about the nature of archaeology is likely to influence the way they think about ancient artefacts. For example, if an archaeologist believes archaeology is a branch of history, they may use historical texts as the starting point for their investigation. If an archaeologist believes their discipline is a branch of anthropology, they may use ethnographic data to interpret their evidence. No matter which method of interpretation is used, there’s a theoretical framework behind it.
By the 1920s, archaeologists began to believe they could use the archaeological record to reconstruct the history of past cultures. The earliest school of archaeological theory is known as the culture-history school. These archaeologists made systematic excavations to reveal layers of human occupation, known as stratigraphy, and related the layers with those from other sites to develop classifications for periods of time. In the Near East, terms such as “Bronze Age” or “Archaic Period” were defined and adopted. Culture-historians were interested in how cultures could be identified by their artefacts and buildings, how they interacted with other cultures, and how they changed. Biblical archaeology, still active in the Near East today, is a branch of the culture-history school that’s particularly interested in finding events, places, and people mentioned in the Bible.
Some archaeologists believe that the culture-history school didn’t use a body of theory to reach their conclusions. In fact everyone carries a worldview through which they base our ideas. For example, some early archaeologists of the culture-history school interpreted objects of unknown function by asking questions such as ‘what does it look like to me’ or ‘if I made this, I’d use it for…’ They used ‘common sense’ to interpret objects. The theoretical basis was that people use things in more or less the same way, perhaps because we’re all human.
This may be useful in a very basic sense (for example, interpreting thin metal blades as knives), but it presumes that we can generalise about past cultures. If we look at the wide variety of thoughts, beliefs, and cultures in the world today, we quickly find that generalisations will only take us so far. Fairly soon we discover differences whose meanings aren’t immediately obvious.
Archaeologists of the culture-history school use an empirical approach to interpreting the archaeological record. Excavation reveals something, perhaps a piece of stone shaped with a deliberate point and sharp edges. The archaeologists thinks, ‘hmm, this could be an arrowhead. It was attached to an arrow and used in hunting. I’ve seen native peoples use such things’. The excavation continues and an animal skull with a piece of sharp, worked stone is found stuck in it. The theory appears to be true. This is called the empirical approach. The question is, how do archaeologists use this approach when looking at objects whose function is not as clear-cut as an arrowhead?
Is this really a depiction of a goddess? Who says?
Scraper, knife, arrow head…what do you think?