Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.44

Polymnia Muhly, The Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme Viannou IV. Animal Images of Clay = To iero toy Erme kai tes Aphrodites ste Syme Viannoy IV. pelina zodia. Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens no. 256.   Athens:  Archaeological Society at Athens, 2008.  Pp. xxii, 214; 6 p. of figures, 69 p. of plates.  ISBN 9789608145719.  (pb).  

Reviewed by Erin Walcek Averett, Creighton University (

In the newest volume of the Syme reports, Polymnia Muhly presents an important assemblage of Iron Age handmade zoomorphic terracotta figurines, animal-shaped attachments, and mouldmade plaques decorated with animals from the Sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at Syme Viannou in Crete. This study is a welcome addition to the slowly growing corpus of figurine publications from controlled excavations in the Mediterranean. Muhly's study includes approximately 665 terracotta objects that span the ninth to mid-seventh century; 324 of these are included in the catalogue. This volume does not include the hollow wheelmade terracotta figures from the sanctuary, which will be published separately. The book is organized into a brief introduction, a summary of the archaeological context of the figurines, an useful discussion of the well-known difficulties in establishing a secure figurine chronology and method of approach, a catalogue and formal analysis of the figurines organized by type, chapters on technique and decoration, iconographic and stylistic features, and a concluding chapter. Also included in this volume is an innovative petrographic analysis by Eleni Nodarou and Christina Rathossi. The work is intended for specialists and those familiar with the site of Syme Viannou.

The study begins with a brief summary of the excavation context of the figurines (Ch. I). Because other volumes in the Syme series describe the site in detail, Muhly concentrates on the aspects of the site directly relevant to the figurines, yet one misses a brief overview of the site or even a plan (especially during discussions of the buildings). This lack requires reading this volume with previous Syme volumes to appreciate fully the context of the figurines. Muhly outlines two contexts for the figurines: chronological and spatial. As with most sanctuary sites, the Syme votives are almost exclusively from disturbed strata, which cannot be used to date the figurines. Most of the figurines were found around the altar, Building C-D, and along the terraces. Almost all the Iron Age figurines were found together with carbonized material, animal bones, pottery, and other votive objects that had accumulated around the altar.

In a useful second chapter, Muhly reviews the present state of evidence for establishing a secure figurine chronology and outlines the most influential figurine publications, which have greatly enhanced the study of Bronze and Iron Age religion and society. After providing a useful review of the stylistic criteria and chronological markers often used to date bronze and terracotta figurines, she openly acknowledges the difficulties in applying these methods across media and regional styles and in applying them to often very fragmentary and simple terracotta figurines such as those from Syme. Nevertheless, Muhly provides a detailed and astute stylistic analysis for each animal type, establishing a credible chronological framework. In order to avoid confusion due to using various ceramic and bronze chronologies, dates are given in years (Table A). Assigning dates to figurines is difficult, and Muhly is honest in her use of various methodologies to arrive at some internal framework (p. 9).

Before discussing the types, Muhly notes the usual problems encountered in classifying Mediterranean figurines. This includes identifying various quadrupeds, especially horses and bovids, as well as classifying gender. Like most Mediterranean animal figurines, some of the Syme animals are explicitly male, but most are genderless. Muhly argues that sexless animals are gender neutral and should not be considered female. Unlike anthropomorphic depictions in early Greek art, gender does not seem to be the defining feature for animal dedications.1 Nevertheless, this does not explain the cases of explicit male genitalia of several bulls and stallions from Syme and other Greek sanctuaries.

The next nine chapters explore each of the zoomorphic types in detail: horses, cattle, sheep, goats, deer, birds, unidentified quadrupeds, animal attachments, and mouldmade plaques (Chs. III-XI). Muhly logically begins this discussion with the horse, by far the most numerous animal dedicated at Syme and one of the most important symbols in Geometric art. Indeed, the chronology of both bronze and terracotta animal figurines is heavily based on the stylistic development of horse figurines. For each type, Muhly contextualizes the Syme animals within the broader history of zoomorphic figurines in the Greek world and then follows with an astute formal analysis of the style and comparisons with other terracotta and bronze figurines to yield credible dates for the series. Muhly's references to bronze and terracotta animal figurines from other sanctuaries are extensive and important for understanding the date and other conclusions about the Syme figurines. The lack of illustrations of comparative figurines, however, requires the reader to have several publications for reference when reading the chapters on each type. Each type chapter concludes with a catalogue organized chronologically. Catalogue entries include descriptions of the figurine followed by a description of the fabric, decoration, dimensions, and date (given in years).

Throughout her discussion of each zoomorphic type, Muhly makes several references to figurines made by the same workshop or even craftsman, often identifying hands of "masters" and "apprentices," and notes a familiarity between bronze and coroplastic workshops. In one of several references to masters and apprentices, she states "the imperfections of 164 can only be explained if this figurine had been the work of an apprentice, who did not yet have the ability to emulate his master's sure touch" (p. 64). This "peopling" of figurine production, a subject often approached dryly in other publications or not at all, is commendable. However, there is no systematic discussion of how these workshops were organized or functioned, likely due to lack of evidence. Muhly's vivid reconstruction of the industry leaves many questions unanswered: were these workshops permanent or traveling? were they based in settlements or sanctuaries? did they use the master and apprentice system? who were the coroplasts? did they exclusively produce terracotta figurines or other objects as well? what, if any, was the relationship between coroplastic, ceramic, and bronze workshops? Muhly proposes answers to some of these questions in the conclusion, equipped with the evidence from the petrographic analysis.

After the discussion of the types, Muhly addresses a range of broader issues regarding the animal figurines. In Ch. XII she considers the technique and decoration of the handmade animals in detail; this is most welcome, since most scholars either superficially address these topics or completely ignore them, reserving discussions of technique and decoration for the larger wheelmade figures. The discussion begins with the fabric, but goes beyond traditional visual description. Because of the known difficulties in identifying fabrics visually, this volume includes a limited petrographic analysis conducted by Nodarou and Rathossi (pp. 165-82). This analysis was experimental, testing only a small sample (16 from figurines, four from attachments), but the results are fascinating and demonstrate the need for broader petrographic research projects in future studies. The analysis of only twenty samples found ten different fabrics, not distinguishable visually, with no obvious connection between fabric and class of material or date. These findings lead Muhly to link different fabrics with different workshops. Nodarou and Rathossi did not secure a provenance of origin for raw material, but, based on the inclusions in the fabrics and the nature of the geological outcrops located around the region of Syme, conclude that the majority of figurines were produced by local workshops (pp. 168-70). The absence of standardized clay recipes further leads them to assume that there were several workshops operating in the area but that they were not focused at the site itself. Muhly, however, problematizes these results, noting that the clays identified in the region of Syme also occur in other areas of Crete. Moreover, the diversity not only of the fabrics, but also of the style, suggests multiple production centers (p. 119). Muhly finds it difficult to accept that this restricted area, with no identified Geometric settlement, could support several workshops that produced clay votives and even harder to believe that locally-based coroplasts consistently made figurines of such different styles.

Chapter XIII ("Iconographic and Stylistic Features") explores the meaning and style of the Syme figurines, which builds on Schürmann's publication of the bronze animals from the site.2 Although the similarities between the bronze and terracotta figurines are noted, Muhly notes some important divergences as well. Most significant is the fact that the anatomical details and motion motifs occur earlier in terracotta, not only at Syme but other sites on Crete and elsewhere. Muhly attributes this to a much longer terracotta tradition, which stretched back to the Bronze Age. Although there are gaps in our current evidence linking the LMIIIC-Subminoan wheelmade figures to Iron Age handmade figurines, it is clear that terracotta Iron Age animals were part of an earlier tradition, unlike their bronze counterparts (p. 138).

While recognizing the inherited coroplastic tradition, Muhly also argues that the most important source of inspiration for terracotta animals at Syme were bronze animal figurines, noting that in several cases the connections are so close that the coroplasts must have witnessed bronzesmiths at work as well as studied the finished products. This close overlap between the coroplastic and bronze industries is not found in any other published assemblage (p. 139). Muhly attributes this to Syme's isolated setting compared to other major sanctuaries with figurines. Syme, which must have been only seasonally accessible, did not house permanent workshops, nor were there any nearby settlements; thus, most of the figurines were either produced at the site or brought to the site by itinerant craftsmen. The great formal variety of the figurines in addition to the variety of fabrics suggests multiple small production centers for the clay figurines.

In the final chapter (Ch. XIV, "Concluding Remarks"), Muhly explores the broader significance of the Syme figurines. The chapter begins with a summary of the problems and past interpretations of animal figurines, which tend to interpret them in light of later Greek religion or to emphasize the socio-economic environment of the worshippers. No interpretation has escaped criticism. Since Heilmeyer's important publications of the bronze and terracotta figurines in the 1970s, Olympia has dominated interpretations of animal figurines. Few studies have taken into consideration the recent publication of figurine assemblages from other sanctuaries. In this conclusion, Muhly contextualizes the Syme assemblage within the broader phenomenon of animal figurine dedication throughout the Mediterranean in the Iron Age. To do this, she streamlines the chronology and numbers of the other major assemblages of zoomorphic figurines from Samos, Olympia, and Syme in Table B. Muhly focuses her discussion on the more numerous horse and bovid figurines, with little discussion of the other animal types. Her comparisons yield interesting results. Although Olympia has yielded the most figurines, the general development of terracotta figurines at all three sites is similar: terracotta figurines begin in the PG period, peak during the eighth century, and wane around 650. At all three sanctuaries, horses are more numerous than bovids. But closer scrutiny reveals significance divergences. At Olympia, clay animals begin earlier (tenth century), peak in the first half of the eighth century and survive longer. Terracotta animals appear only sporadically at Samos and Syme in the ninth century, and peak in the second half of the eighth century. There are also differences in the four main species dedicated. The horse had a slight advantage at Syme, twice the numbers at Samos, and three times the numbers at Olympia.

Table C compares the development of bronze animals. This comparison between figurine traditions reveals that bronze and terracotta zoomorphic figurines were part of same phenomenon, confirming that terracotta figurines were not simply humble offerings imitating more costly votives.

Muhly attributes the divergences to the character of the sanctuaries. Syme was already hundreds of years old when Samos and Olympia were just beginning (p. 148). Syme functioned on a super-regional level, but remained always an exclusively Cretan sanctuary. Despite fundamental differences between the three sanctuaries, the differences in their figurine assemblages are relatively small. Muhly's conclusions emphasize the fact that throughout the Geometric period and the early seventh century, zoomorphic figurines were an important class of votives at all three sites. Despite local differences, figurines expressed commonly held beliefs and shared concepts, what Muhly terms "ideological commonality" (p. 149). She argues that any interpretation must take this into consideration and focus on the figurines themselves, not on later religious beliefs and rituals or socio-economic factors.

Muhly's study highlights the importance of domesticated animals in Geometric art. The horse's privileged position among terracotta votives reflects its broader symbolic importance in Geometric society. Muhly explains the absence of the horse among the bronze votives, presumably dedicated by the elite, as due to the elite's ritual link to bovids. She suggests that elite youths at Syme dedicated bronze bulls after initiation rituals, detailed in past publications on Syme,3 and asserts that the impetus for dedicating votives was to display recognizable symbols of wealth. Those dedicating terracotta figurines, Muhly posits, were a less affluent group who offered clay versions of bronze animals, choosing the most obvious symbols of wealth and prestige: the horse and the bull. Although this link between bronze figurines and elite initiation is convincing, the interpretation of the terracotta figurines and their emphasis on the horse seems undeveloped. Muhly assumes a direct correlation between the material value of a dedication and the status/wealth and the dedicator, not exploring other factors such as the symbolic value of the object, the symbolic or religious value of the material, or other ritual demands.

Finally, Muhly explores the reason for the demise of figurine dedications at almost all major sanctuaries in the seventh century. Past theories that explained this votive change as due to colonization, war, drought, and the spread of democratic ideas failed to take into consideration Crete. Muhly suggests that the one development that significantly affected the entire Greek world in the seventh century was the introduction and spread of Orientalizing and Daedalic styles that brought new subjects and new symbolic expression to worshippers and craftsmen. In this new style, in which wild animals and monsters abounded, the domesticated animals that dominated Geometric art were out of place (pp. 162-63).

This monograph demonstrates the value of a well-published assemblage from a controlled excavation in interpreting the broader significance of figurine dedication in the Mediterranean. The volume is free of textual errors, and the black and white photographs are of good quality. Select figurines are illustrated, but more illustrations would help the reader understand formal details discussed in the text. The analysis of the chronology and meaning of the handmade figurines and comparisons with other assemblages would have been strengthened by referencing the wheelmade figures from Syme, which for practical reasons were not included in this study. One misses at least a preview of this important class of votive material from Syme in this volume. These minor complaints do not detract from the overall quality of this monograph. The astute analysis and careful publication of this important assemblage of zoomorphic figurines are an important addition to the growing corpus of votive figurines and will contribute to comparative analysis of this important class of religious symbols ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean.

Jarosch, V. 1994. Samische Tonfiguren des 10. bis 7. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. aus dem Heraion von Samos. Samos XVIII. Bonn.

Lebessi, A. 1985. Το ιερό του Ερμή και της Αφροδίτης στη Σύμη Βιάννου ι.1. Χάλκινα κρητικά τορεύματα. Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens 102. Athens.

Lebessi, A. 2002. Το ιερό του Ερμή και της Αφροδίτης στη Σύμη Βιάννου ιιι. Τα χάλκινα ανθρωπόμορπηα ειδώλια. Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens 225. Athens.

Schmaltz, B. 1980. Metallfiguren aus dem Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben, Das Kabirenheiligtum bei Theben 6. Berlin.

Schürmann, W. 1994. Das Heiligtum des Hermes und der Aphrodite in Syme Viannou II. Die Tierstatuetten aus Metall. Library of the Archaeological Society at Athens 159. Athens.


1.   Muhly's assertion that the lack of gender for zoomorphic figurines indicates a lack of concern by the worshippers challenges past interpretations that consider all animals without male genitals female (Jarosch 1994, 68) or that attribute this not to lack of concern but to careless craftsmanship (Schmaltz 1980, 103).
2.   Schürmann 1994.
3.   Muhly believes in continuity in elite initiation rituals at the sanctuary and that the type of votive dedicated to commemorate these rituals changed from anthropomorphic bronze figurines to bronze bulls and finally in the seventh century to plaques. For a discussion of the initiation rituals, see Lebessi 1985; Lebessi 2002.

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