Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.10

Angela Bellia, Clemente Marconi (ed.), Musicians in Ancient Coroplastic Art: Iconography, Ritual Contexts, and Functions. Telestes: Studi e ricerche di archeologia musicale nel Mediterraneo, 2.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2016.  Pp. 216.  ISBN 9788881474585.  €48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Frances Gallart Marqués, San Juan (

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

This volume presents the collected proceedings of a conference on archaeomusicology held at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 2015. Its focus is the depiction of musicians, musical instruments, and music making on terracotta plaques and figurines, and its aim, to promote the analysis of these materials in musicological studies of ancient societies. The emphasis on terracotta objects is timely, and corresponds to the current revitalization of the field of ancient coroplastics. Like other recent publications on the subject,1 this collection endeavors to address not just the iconography of figurines, but also their context, meaning, and function. It gives special consideration to ritual contexts and to the capacity of terracotta objects to bridge the gap between musical and religious practice.

The proposed scope of the project was broad both geographically and chronologically. The end product, however, with fifteen contributions (including an introduction and foreword by the editors), is mostly concerned with the Mediterranean of the first millennium B.C.E.; no less than five essays are dedicated to materials from the Italian peninsula and its surrounding islands. The few outlying entries carry well the extra burden of addressing audiences unfamiliar with their fields and allow the volume to claim a global perspective. The variety of subjects and the diversity of methodical approaches utilized throughout contribute meaningfully to ongoing discussions about the effective use of coroplastic evidence.

The book opens with an introduction by Clemente Marconi, contextualizing subsequent essays with a discussion of the study of musical iconography and of the value that the consideration of ancient terracottas might add to this multidisciplinary field. Cross- cultural comparisons between the varied contributions are encouraged but not offered; a reader willing to do the legwork, however, should be rewarded by finding a number of interesting interrelations.

The first two essays are concerned with the Near East and showcase the interpretive possibilities of materials of unclear meaning, function, and archaeological provenance. Regine Pruzsinszky tackles terracotta plaques of the Old Babylonian period that show monkeys in musical contexts. After analyzing their iconography and the relevant literary sources, the author suggests that the wild, ambiguous figure of the monkey works both as a reflection of humanity and as an indicator of the lower social position of certain musicians (30-31). An ambiguous character is also the subject of Annie Caubet’s essay. A group of middle Elamite figurines depict a male lute player, nude, with fat, bowed legs, and some traits of dwarfism. The not-entirely natural anatomy and frontal posture of the musician signify a suprahuman, magical identity, while the bent knees imply the act of dancing. The author proposes that dance linked the lute-player to higher beings, and that thus, the figurines worked as intermediaries between the human and divine realms (40).

The next three essays move the discussion into the broader Mediterranean area. Mireia López-Bertran and Agnès Garcia-Ventura present their work on a sample of figurines from Iberia, Ibiza, and Carthage dated from the seventh to the second century B.C.E. Most of the statuettes are mold-made, represent women holding percussive instruments, and rarely preserve pigments. After examining examples from Carthage that do not conform to this description (wheel-made, showing stringed instruments, and with significant traces of polychromy), the authors conclude that, despite the foreign iconography, these figurines represent predominantly Punic traditions, and bear witness to a strong connection between music and funerary rituals (51-52). Manolis Mikrakis focuses on Cypriot coroplastic production as evidence for the cultural shift experienced by the island’s inhabitants during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Considering both the permanence and the disruption of certain traditions, and noting parallels in the Aegean, Mikrakis advances musical practice as one of the strategies utilized by Cypriots in the formation of social identities and the assertion of political power. A figurine type depicting a lyre player in the context of warfare is presented as evidence for the use of musical performance as an enhancer of status (61-64). Moving into Ionia, Elçin Doğan Gürbüzer discusses the typology and iconography of the many terracotta votives representing musicians recovered from the sanctuary of Apollo Clarios. The essay focuses on figures carrying various stringed instruments in their left hands; the author demonstrates the differences in form and meaning between these, and using their precise findspot, proposes that some of these figurines may have been used in the cult of Leto rather than that of Apollo (78).

Museum collections supply the evidence for the following two essays. With a broad approach, Maria Chidiroglou considers objects housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and recovered from various regions in Greece and western Asia Minor. Employing a typological analysis, Chidiroglou first discusses figurines that depict ancient musical instruments, then turns to those that represent musicians, singers and dancers. The large sample allows the author to identify significant repeating types and to remark on the importance of musical education in many ancient cities (91). A more focused approach is undertaken by Kiki Karoglou, who analyzes three terracotta statuettes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that portray the god Eros playing the kithara, the tympanon or the lyre. Considering their iconography and fairly well documented funerary contexts, Karoglou suggests that representations of Eros as musician can serve as tangible manifestations of the capacity of music to communicate both erotic desire and the pain of loss (104).

Five contributions analyze materials from the Italian peninsula and its islands. Monica de Cesare examines terracotta pinakes from the Manella sanctuary of Persephone at Locri Epizephyrii that portray a pair of young horsemen followed by a veiled woman. The attributes held by the men vary by series: either a phiale and shield, or a lyre and kantharos. The author identifies the riders as either the Spartan or Theban Dioskouroi on the basis of their attributes (lyre and kantharos for the latter), and argues that the particular myths and music that they each refer to were used within the context of the Locrian sanctuary as tools for self- representation (110). A group of plaques that depict a couple dancing in a grotto, under an arc laden with fruit, a syrinx, and a tympanon, are explored by Rebecca Miller Ammerman; the votives date from the second half of the fourth to the beginning of the third century B.C.E. and were found at Metaponto. After reviewing the archaeological context of the plaques and the extensive iconography of the instruments, the author addresses their role in public and private rites and argues that the figurines were used in the context of nuptial celebrations (131). An essay by Alessandro Pagliara adds to the mounting scholarship on the miniature theatrical masks from the Liparean necropolis at Contrada Diana. Using Bernabò Brea’s identifications as a departure, Pagliara suggests that the masks’ expressions of pathos correspond to the new and characteristic sadness of contemporary music, and that associations between masks and other figurines within funerary contexts may be meaningful depending on the literary genre to which they allude (143-146). Aura Piccioni deals with a type of clay figurine from Taranto that represents a standing woman holding a tympanon; with the support of inscriptions and other textual evidence, the author proposes that these were dedicated to the professional drum players who participated in rites that honored the goddess Cybele (160). The last look at Old World materials is Daniele F. Maras’s study of statuettes representing lyre players found in Etruscan votive deposits. Taking into consideration the physicality of the dedicant in addition to the iconography of the figures, Maras recommends the identification of the lyre player, alternatively, as Apollo or devout musicians (173), and underscores the importance of the music in the enactment of ritual.

A final essay offers a glimpse at the coroplastic tradition of the American continent. Working from a sample of 800 ceramic objects, Daniela La Chioma Silvestre Villalva investigates the politico-religious role of musicians in Moche ceremonies during the Middle Moche period (100-450 C.E., northern coast of Peru). Two case studies illustrate that players of the antara (panpipe) are associated with very high social positions, and suggest that instruments may work as signifiers of status.

The volume closes with an afterword by Angela Bellia, followed by indexes of places and subjects. The conclusion is not a summary, but a guide and exhortation to future engagement. Bellia uses multiple examples and focuses on the examination of the iconography, ritual contexts, and functions of figurines, to demonstrate how coroplastic evidence may be best utilized in archaeomusicological investigations.

Taken together, the contributions to this volume are motivating, persuasive, and cogent. Though the varied sources and quality of the evidence may limit the breadth of some studies, terracotta figurines are presented as excellent sources for the understanding of certain ancient practices. Most discussions rely heavily on iconographic analysis, but also engage with broader questions about the role of music and musicians in antiquity; this aspect should make the collection interesting to an audience wider than those involved in coroplastic studies.

The book is well edited and has few typographical errors. Regrettably, the small, black and white illustrations do not do justice to the polychrome materials that are at the heart of its discussions, and for whose inclusion in the broader narratives about ancient societies the book so insistently advocates.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (Clemente Marconi) 17
2. Musicians and Monkeys: Ancient Near Eastern Clay Plaques Displaying Musicians and their Socio-Cultural Role (Regine Pruzsinszky) 23
3. Terracotta Figurines of Musicians from Mesopotamia and Elam (Annie Caubet) 35
4. Performing Music in Punic Carthage: A Coroplastic Approach (Mireia López-Bertran, Agnès Garcia-Ventura) 45
5. Musical Performance and Society in Protohistoric Cyprus: Coroplastic and other Visual Evidence (Manolis Mikrakis) 57
6. Terracotta Figurines with Stringed Instruments from Claros (Elçin Doğan Gürbüzer) 73
7. Terracotta Figurines of Musicians in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (Maria Chidiroglou) 85
8. Eros Mousikos (Kiki Karoglou) 97
9. Which Dioskouroi? On Some Locrian Pinakes with Music Themed Iconography (Monica de Cesare) 109
10. Tympanon and Syrinx: A Musical Metaphor within the System of Ritual Practice and Belief at Metaponto (Rebecca Miller Ammerman) 117
11. Masks of Death: Music, Theater, and Burial Customs in Lipari, Fourth-Third Centuries BCE (Alessandro Pagliara) 141
12. Cybele, the Drum, and the Role of Female Musicians (Aura Piccioni) 157
13. Gods, Men, Turtles: Terracotta Lyre Players in Etruscan Votive Deposits (Daniele F. Maras) 163
14. The Social Roles of Musicians in the Moche World: An Iconographic Analysis of Their Attributes in the Middle Moche Period’s Ritual Pottery (Daniela La Chioma Silvestre Villalva) 179
15. Afterword: An Archaeomusicological Approach to Representations of Musicians in Ancient Coroplastic Art (Angela Bellia) 191


1.   For example, Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi and Arthur Muller (edd.). Figurines grecques en contexte: présence muette dans le sanctuaire, la tombe et la maison. Archaiologia. Villeneuve d'Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2015.

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