Tag Archives forfigurine interpretation

Seen But Not Heard: What Museums Tell Visitors About Figurines

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.

Me presenting my poster at ASOR 2014.

Me presenting my poster at ASOR 2014


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:

  1. Archaeological Museum of the Oriental Institute, Chicago
  2. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  3. Semitic Museum, Harvard University
  4. Peabody Museum, Harvard University
  5. Harvard Art Museums
  6. Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute
  7. Freer Sackler Museums, Smithsonian Institute
  8. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  9. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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.

Assyria to Iberia exhibition poster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo)

Assyria to Iberia exhibition poster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (own photo)

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.

Bull-headed lyre from Ur III tombs.

Bull-headed lyre from Ur III tombs. Read more about it here.

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.

Vase depicting women weaving. Read more about it here.

Vase depicting women weaving. Read more about it here.

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:

  1. Whether archaeological artefacts are pieces of ‘art’ and indeed what is meant by a ‘museum of art’. What’s the difference between a ‘museum of art’ and an ‘art gallery’? What is being said about an archaeological artefact when it is displayed in an institute with ‘art’ in its name? Are figurines works of art anyway?


  1. Whether objects without provenance, obtained by museums via a method other than scientific excavation, need to be displayed in some other way than simply as pieces of ‘art’? What message is the public receiving (if any) about the value of archaeological objects by having those without known context on display? What information choices are being made to describe figurines without context in museums?


  1. Female figurines are almost without exception interpreted in museum displays as having something to do with ‘fertility’, either as a votive offering, a depiction of a goddess or a worshipper, or a protective or magical device (at the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute female figurines are housed within a section focussed on the development of human creativity and imagination along with writing and symbolic behaviour).


  1. The role of the archaeologist in the design of exhibits, particularly those including female figurines. Do curators study archaeology? What is the value of a museum studies or curatorial course?


  1. How can museum displays be more engaging for visitors, especially those involving figurines?


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!

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!

How Do Archaeologists Look at Material Culture?

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.


Privy digger probing the walls of a barren wood-lined vault (ca. 1840s), Manhattan

Privy digger probing the walls of a barren wood-lined vault (ca. 1840s), Manhattan (source: Olesachem from Wikimedia Commons)

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?


Edomite_goddess,_Qitmit._Israel_Museum,_Jerusalem (source: By Chamberi (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Edomite_goddess,_Qitmit._Israel_Museum,_Jerusalem (source: By Chamberi (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Is this really a depiction of a goddess? Who says?


Stone scraper, Dordogne, France. (Source: DocteurCosmos (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Stone scraper, Dordogne, France. (Source: DocteurCosmos (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons


Scraper, knife, arrow head…what do you think?

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 www.australiancrochet.com

Plastic dolls used for crocheting. From www.australiancrochet.com

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 yours.co.uk

Toilet paper doll from yours.co.uk

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 www.cdncakecentral.com

Doll cake from www.cdncakecentral.com

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!