Tag Archives forInterpreting figurines

Breasts = good things, aren’t they?

“Americans are….?”

I looked expectantly around the room the sea of faces equally expectantly gazing back at me. Such is the nature of being a student-centred teacher in a classroom of teacher-centred students.

There was a patient silence. They knew I’d give them the answer if they waited long enough.



“Americans are massive”.

Sniggers erupted around the speaker, a lean boy in the back row.

Stereotypes. In my cross-cultural communication class we were thinking about how cultural stereotyping affects international business.

I thought about my American colleagues at the Xian Jiaotong University City College (Xian, China) where I was teaching English.

Alice was very overweight and when she returned to the US the voluminous skirts she lefte behind made good puppy-beds for the strays I would adopt. Susannah, on the other hand, was lean. Alice was from the south, Susannah from the north. I’ve never been to America. I wondered if place of origin had something to do with diet. Climate or food traditions? Generosity of portion sizes?

Stereotypes again.

Archaeology is full of them and figurines seem particularly susceptible.

Take breasts, for example. Many figurines have them but they by no means are modelled in the same way. Some breasts are indeed massive, others tiny points. Breasts have a number of uses and meanings. Massive breasts may mean discomfort and inconvenience for the bearer, dollar signs for the profiteer. Swollen breasts mean dinner for a newborn, interrupted nights for the new mother.


Figurine of sitting women. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Just resting!
Figurine of sitting woman. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What do breasts on figurines mean for archaeologists?

Figurines with breasts = fertility = abundance and plenty in a parsimonious world = successful human pregnancy = bringing home the bacon = all manner of good and lovely things = dispersal of nasty and unwanted things.

Who says?


I've got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?   Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?
Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am not suggesting breasts are not good things; I am questioning how we know that ancient people believed that breasts would be an appropriate symbol for good things. It seems to make common sense to us, that a part of a woman’s body which nurtures babies should be a symbol for good things in life. But while not everyone today would agree that breasts are the only appropriate symbol of good things (think about it, breast feeding in public was until recently not the ‘done thing’ and in many places is still frowned upon), others might think that there are more suitable symbols such as bunches of flowers, or nicely wrapped gifts, or a warming bowl of soup, or a good book, or a dog resting his chin on your knee.

It’s personal, isn’t it?

Perhaps figurines have nothing to do with stereotypical theories of bringing good things and averting bad things. Maybe figurines have something to do with personal choice.

So how do archaeologists find personal choice in the material record when the aim is reconstructing a historical context or determining whether excavated bones represent a domesticated animal? In other words, does the culture-history or the processualist schools of archaeology allow for a study of more than society-as-a-whole?

If archaeologists only study society-as-a-whole, don’t we fall into trap of stereotyping the people of the ancient past?

What do you think?


Do You See What I See?

Above all, figurines communicate.

One model of communication suggests that for a message to be received in the sense that the sender intends, the sender must convey it in a manner which the receiver will understand. A mutual language, appropriate body language and facial expression, and a lack of interference are all required for the receiver to the message as intended by the sender. Interference might be a noisy environment, a breakdown in the communication medium such as a depletion in mobile phone charge or an inability of the receiver to focus on the message because they are busy, tired or trying to hold two conversations at once!


Model of communication found at http://www.pathways.cu.edu.eg/subpages/training_courses/Communications7/images/C_I_Page_08.jpg. Retrieved 26/10/13.

In my English as a Second Language classroom, the biggest interference to communication is lack of mutual language; coming a close second is worldview.

What is worldview?

Our worldview is shaped by everything we have experienced in our life. The way our parents raised us, their actions or behaviour, whether directed towards us or not, especially in our early years, shapes some of the ideas we have as children about adult behaviour, relationships and the way our society or community is organized and operates. The school we went to, its environment and teachings will also have formed part of our worldview. The wider culture and the society in which we were raised will have influenced the way we see ourselves and others. Our own sense of ourselves, our identity and place in the world, while influenced by all of the above, ultimately rests with us. Whatever decisions we make about ourselves, our life and those we meet will be greatly influenced by our worldview.

As I mentioned earlier, in my English language classroom, the greatest barrier to communication is lack of a mutually intelligible language, especially in the beginner levels. The second greatest barrier to communication is the widely varying education systems from which my students come. In particular, the Chinese students come from a educational environment where teachers are the authority, the text is to be memorized and not questioned and students are to be silent and allow knowledge to be poured into their heads.

The ESL classroom, especially in western countries, is very different. We learn through communicative activities; I encourage students to call on their existing knowledge and those of their peers to find ways of understanding new language points. The Chinese students find it hard to complete communicative tasks, but more specifically, they find it hard to understand why communicative tasks might help them in their acquisition of English. This is the message, rather than the language itself, that I find most difficult to convey. It is important to help students see how working together and sharing existing knowledge to elicit new facts and ideas, might be more effective than long-winded explanations from me.

Chinese students, TESOL, teaching English, English in China, worldview, cultural worldview, interpreting figurines

Students in Xian doing group work.

Tensions between their education system and worldview and the context in which I am expected to teach appear to interfere with attempts to convey this message. Even when they reach university age Chinese students are told that ‘they don’t know anything’ and can’t make their own decisions because they are too young (this view came through strongly in their writing). They are taught to defer to their parents and teachers in most important matters in their young lives.

To be told by a western teacher to ‘work it out for themselves’ in their language classroom is often quite confronting for them. Their world view is that they should listen to their ‘elders and betters’ and allow them to make all important decisions for them, however much they might resent those decisions at the time. The default position is ‘they (adults) know what’s best for me’.

In the western English language classroom, some students may become resentful of the teacher because they expect the teacher to impart their knowledge to them. Their view is often expressed as ‘I’ve paid all this money for this school to teach me English, and they keep telling me to find out for myself’. The intention behind the teaching methodology just doesn’t correlate with either their previous education experience nor with the wider Chinese political culture, which is, to a great degree, not geared towards citizens asking questions and discovering things for themselves.

So what’s all this got to do with interpreting figurines?

Have you had a look at the figurines on my previous posts? How did you interpret them? What were your impressions of their origins and uses?

What knowledge, life experiences or personal ideas did you bring to your interpretation of them? Perhaps you had seen them somewhere before, or figurines like them. Did you use that previous knowledge to form your opinions of them?

Do let me know how the figurines pictured in the previous posts communicated to you!