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.