Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.11

Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi, Arthur Muller (ed.), Figurines grecques en contexte: présence muette dans le sanctuaire, la tombe et la maison. Archaiologia.   Villeneuve d'Ascq:  Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2015.  Pp. 493.  ISBN 9782757411322.  €48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Frederick G Naerebout, Leiden University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The volume under review consists of 24 papers: 19 papers first presented in a symposium “Figurines en contexte: iconographie et function(s)” organized by the University of Lille at Villeneuve d’Ascq in 2011, and 4 papers (Barrett, Hagan, Schallin, and Vetters) that made up the session “Silent participants. Terracottas as ritual objects” at the AIA Annual Meeting, Philadelphia 2012. Five papers deal with figurines found in sanctuaries, graves, and domestic contexts; eight papers treat a particular genre of terracotta (such as female protomes, musical triads, or dancing groups) or more general issues (the paper by Hermary). The volume closes with a paper by the editors, returning to the main questions posed in the (very brief) introduction, and discussing the issue of polysemy. All 24 papers are accompanied by summaries and key words in French and English. Only half the papers are in French, ten in English, one in Italian and one in German; together with the summaries this makes the book quite accessible.

The volume departs from a certain disenchantment with the study of what the Germans call Kleinkunst, in large part consisting of figurines in bronze, terracotta and other materials. Research into Kleinkunst was at a dead end; it has been too much concerned with dating, provenance, and artistic stemmata—and far too little with the how and why of statuettes. The long wait for a new approach is illustrated with a quote from Claude Rolley asking for a more contextual approach in the early 1980s (p.7: “malheureusement, bien des spécialistes…quand ils ont établi la date et l’origine, ne semblent pas penser que c’est alors que commenceraient à se poser les véritables questions: comment? pourquoi?”), and a reference (p.8) to Edgar Pottier’s Quam ob causam Graeci in sepulcris figlina sigilla deposuerint where Pottier in his very title is asking for something comparable exactly one hundred years before Rolley. Of course, the suggestion by the editors that it took until the 21st century for the how and why to be addressed is an overstatement: pleas, such as those by Pottier and Rolley, did not go completely unheeded; see for instance the publications by Daniel Graepler. 1 Nevertheless, the acceptance of the contextual approach came slowly, and archaeology could certainly move further in that direction. The Kleinkunst has also been largely neglected in studies of ancient religion, despite the fact that it constitutes a major category of evidence for the study of lived religion. In Lille, Christine Aubrey, Arthur Muller and Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi sought to remedy this, and first took on the “how” of production and diffusion, then went on to the “why” of the functionality of terracotta statuettes.2 The 2011 Lille conference dedicated to the why coincided with the AIA Philadelphia session, organized by Caitlín Barrett, Clarissa Blume, and Theodora Kopestonsky, which addressed comparable issues. And the new interest in a contextual approach certainly did not end there: amongst other things we await the publication of the proceedings of a colloquium held in Nicosia in 2013.3

The 24 papers in the current collection limit themselves to terracotta anthropomorphic figurines, with a heavy stress on female ones, which predominate in our record. The enquiry into their functionality implies that one looks at these figurines in context, the main keyword of this volume, both the archaeological context and the original context as far as this can be reconstructed on the basis of the archaeological context; in this way the meaning and purpose of the terracottas—a premise of the present study being that these are not “mere ornaments” and do carry meaning—should be illuminated. However, in some papers the methodology seems to work the other way round: the terracottas are supposed to illuminate the nature and extent of ritual behavior. That is certainly a valid approach, because this also tells us something about the figurines in question, but not quite the same as the one that the introduction says we will be pursuing.

There is no room here to discuss all individual contributions, nor is there need to do so. Whether a paper deals with finds from unspecific or variegated contexts, sanctuaries, graves or domestic contexts, the figurines are repeatedly interpreted as having a connection with coming of age, marriage and fertility, and sometimes (also) with a life after death. Most of this is not new; for instance, the important place of kourotrophic deities in religious life, or the linkage between Dionysiac subjects and afterlife, can be considered common knowledge. To claim that the scholarship presented here arrives at some new “anthropology of ancient society” because it recognizes that much thought was given in antiquity to coming of age, marriage, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and death is a bit overblown: in a society which can be wiped out by an epidemic or famine at any moment, the importance of demographics is obvious—and, of course, they are of major concern to individuals in every kind of society, even if its existence is seemingly more secure. In some of the contributions, authors try to be more specific than these basic aspects of the human life cycle, but do so by going beyond the immediate context offered by the terracottas and their findspots, especially by tracing certain iconographies across different media. Of course interpreting a figurine by referring to the interpretation of a vase painting might be a way forward, because iconographies do occur across different media, but it is also obvious that such concatenations of interpretations carry a risk. A single re-interpretation of some extraneous imagery could bring a whole hypothesis concerning our statuettes down like a house of cards.

One would have hoped to see from the present volume not so much radically new or different interpretations, but a number of case studies showing that the interpretation of a particular kind of figurine as connected with, say, the initiation into womanhood could really be supported from a careful perusal of assemblage, find spot, and so on. Instead, several authors present their results as very hypothetical. Frequently, more, and more detailed, research is cited as necessary. Looking at the circumstantial evidence presented, the reticence of many authors here is understandable, maybe even commendable. But the weakness of many cases, and the ready admission thereof, does not offer much hope that more research will bring us any further, as long as the methodology employed remains the same.

What we need are searching questions. Barrett’s paper is a fine piece of scholarship, in itself reason enough to take up this volume, which does ask such questions and goes to the very core of the problem. Where the others do indeed go beyond the stylistic analysis of the past in order to assert some ritual context within which the figurines may have functioned, Barrett asks what it actually means to say that a figurine functions in a ritual setting. What is ritual? What do figurines do within whatever one thinks ritual is? Do they always do the same thing? She illustrates these concerns with an enquiry into figurines and domestic cult and private magical practices in Greco-Roman Egypt with an interesting hypothesis that the figurines serve as ‘miniaturized’ cult statues. Admittedly, Greco-Roman Egypt is a special case, but nevertheless Barrett shows how to go beyond an identification such as “this has got to do with marriage” towards a true analysis of the function of figurines within particular ritual contexts. She is not content with invoking “marriage” and “magic” but asks us to consider how exactly (the handling of) a figurine would be supposed to contribute to the marital bliss of an Egyptian couple acquiring such an object.

Muller and Huysecom, in their conclusion, concentrate on a basic question underlying all contributions: do the generic images of anthropomorphic beings portray gods or mortals? Their argument is that if we can find a coherent explanation covering all or most generic statuettes from different contexts, we come close to a valid interpretation of their meaning. They reject polysemy. Whether a coherent explanation is always a better one might be doubted: one could profit from H.S. Versnel’s studies concerning inconsistencies. Or return to Barrett’s paper, which outlines why a single statuette may have different meanings and fulfil different purposes.

All papers offer valuable collections of material, are well illustrated (please note that the captions to figs. 22 and 23 have been interchanged), and fully referenced. The authors address many interesting and relevant subjects, such as Uhlenbrock on aphidrumata (heirlooms), Salapata on the difference between “a gift” (any gift, as long as you give something) and “the right gift,” a conscious choice for what best suits the occasion, and again Salapata on figurines deriving meaning from other figurines with which they are combined as “a set.” Otherwise, what this volume shows is above all how difficult it is to fathom what these myriads of statuettes were all about. That many functioned within a religious context and were part of ritual seems clear enough, but the intentions of those who produced and those who acquired such figurines are a different matter. Out of context, the material will have next to nothing to say about these aspects. With a proper archaeological context, we might be able to answer some pertinent questions. In the end, we will have to combine all information in a huge comparative exercise (which should take in non-anthropomorphic Kleinkunst and indeed complete assemblages, and might also involve non-Greek and non-Roman evidence, things that the editors on the last page of this book indeed recommend as the next stage) and then some patterns might emerge that take us closer to “tous les replies de l’âme antique” (Pottier in his Les statuettes de terre cuite dans l’Antiquité, 1890, p.422 n.8; where Pottier thought archaeology would never be able to penetrate at all). It is possible we will never arrive there, because of the diversity and the polysemy (pace Muller and Huysecom), but bringing us closer would be good enough. An approach that carves up the subject in particular genres and findspots must fail us. But of course we have to start from somewhere, and this book and the research behind it make, for now, a good starting point.

Table of Contents

Avant-propos, Christine Aubry, Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi et Arthur Muller, Caitlín E. Barrett, Clarissa Blume et Theodora Kopestonsky, 7
1 Interpréter des terres cuites figurées

Shall We Dance? Terracotta Dancing Groups of the Archaic Period in the Aegean World, Marina Albertocchi, 13
La fille au pavot dans la coroplathie archaïque. Histoire et interprétations des relations symboliques, Antonella Pautasso, 25
Des Patèques aux « nains ventrus »: circulation et transformation d'une image, Véronique Dasen, 35
Histoire de têtes au féminin. Fonction d'une catégorie particulière en Attique et Béotie (IVe siècle), Violaine Jeammet, 53
Du coq au canthare. Images de l’initiation masculine dans la coroplathie béotienne à l’époque classique, Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi, 71
Female Figurines of Classical and Hellenistic Times from Euboea. An Exploration of their Votive and Funerary Uses, Maria Chidiroglou, 91
Triadi di suonatrici nella Sicilia e nella Calabria di età greca (IV-III sec. a.C.), Angela Bellia, 107
Une étude contextuelle des terres cuites de Délos est-elle possible? Antoine Hermary, 127
2. Sanctuaires : pratiques rituelles, sphère d’activité des divinités dédicataires
Heirlooms, Aphidrumata, and the Foundation of Cyrene, Jaimee P. Uhlenbrock, 143
Cavaliers et dédicantes: les terres cuites de l’Athénaion et la communauté civique d’Érétrie, Sandrine Huber, Pauline Maillard, 157
Terracotta Votive Offerings in Sets or Groups, Gina Salapata, 179
Les terres cuites de la grotte d’Es Culleram (Ibiza, Espagne): iconographie et function, María Cruz Marín Ceballos, Ana Maria Jiménez Flores, María Belén Deamos, Jorge H. Fernández, Frédérique Horn, Ana Mezquida, 198
Figurines dans un lac: le cas de Seferan en Illyrie, Belisa Muka, 218
3. Terres cuites figurées en contexte funéraire
Terrakotten in der Nekropole von Lipari, Agnes Schwarzmaier, 233
Jouet, attribut ou symbole? Le motif du raisin dans les figurines des tombes de Myrina, Néguine Mathieux, 245
Terres cuites funéraires, individualités et societies. L’exemple du monde ibérique (VI-IIe s. av. J.-C.), Frédérique Horn, 265
Les figurines en terre cuite dans les nécropoles d’Afrique romaine, Solenn de Larminat, 289
Nysiac Devotions: Woman-and-Child Figurines from Byzantine Burials at Beth Shean, Stephanie A. Hagan, 305
4. Quelles fonctions pour les terres cuites en contextes profanes ?
Defining a Cultic Context at the Mycenaean Potter’s Workshop at Mastos (Berbati Valley) through the Assemblage of Figures and Figurines, Ann-Louise Schallin, 321
From Discard Patterns to Enacted Rituals? Contextualizing Mycenaean Terracotta Figurines in Settlement Deposits, Melissa Vetters, 337
Interpreting Terracottas in Domestic Contexts and Beyond: The Case of Metaponto, Rebecca Miller Ammerman, 361
Domestic Cult or Culture? Figurine Fragments from a Hellenistic Housing Insula in North Syria, Heather Jackson, 385
Terracotta Figurines and the Archaeology of Ritual: Domestic Cult in Greco-Roman Egypt, Caitlín E. Barrett, 401
Figurines en contexte, de l’identification à la fonction: vers une archéologie de la religion, Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi, Arthur Muller, 421
Bibliographie cumulée, 439
Table des matières, 491


1.   D. Graepler, "Kunstgenuss im Jenseits? Zur Funktion und Bedeutung hellenistischer Terrakotten als Grabbeigabe," in I. Kriseleit and G. Zimmer, eds., Bürgerwelten. Hellenistische Tonfiguren und Nachschöpfungen im 19. Jh. (Mainz 1994) 43-58; idem, Tonfiguren im Grab: Fundkontexte hellenistischer Terrakotten aus der Nekropole von Tarent, Munich 1997.
2.   A. Muller, ed., Le moulage en terre cuite dans l’antiquité: création et production dérivée, fabrication et diffusion, Lille 1997 (a 1995 Lille colloque). A. Muller and E. Lafli, eds., Figurines de terre cuite en Méditerrannée grecque et romaine, vol. 1: production, diffusion, etude, Paris 2016; vol. 2: Iconographie et contexts, Paris 2015 (a 2007 Ismir colloque).
3.   See J. Uhlenbrock, “Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas: Mediterranean Networks and Cyprus,” Les Carnets de l’ACoSt 10, 2013, online edition. For projects beyond the 2011-2012 conferences, see also S. Huysecom-Haxhi and M. Albertocchi, "Nouveaux projets collectifs en coroplathie antique," Thiasos. Rivista di archeologia e architettura antica 3.1 (2014) 17-25.

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