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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!