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Anthropomorphic and
Zoomorphic Miniature Figures
in Eurasia, Africa and
Meso-America
Morphology, materiality, technology,
function and context
Edited by
Dragos Gheorghiu
Ann Cyphers
BAR International Series 2138
2010
Published by
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BAR S2138
Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America:
Morphology, materiality, technology, function and context
© Archaeopress and the individual authors 2010
ISBN 978 1 4073 0679 7
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73
Problems of Identity for Mycenaean Figurines
Andrea Vianello
Abstract
Mycenaean figurines are the most characteristic material evidence of Mycenaean religion. They appear to have been standardised and have
been found in most places where Mycenaean products arrived. Mycenaean figurines did not represent a unique and characterised divinity,
and because they appear to have been used by other cultures, it is possible that they were a material tool built to embody the abstract,
symbolic meanings attributed to them by their users. Such meanings might have been several and different. Their relative standardisation and
anonymity must be interpreted in front of the impossibility to recognise homogeneity of cult within the Mycenaean world. There is no
evident continuity from the Minoan tradition, just some influences. As the Mycenaeans had built a broad exchange network, where different
religious symbols and cultural identities must have come in contact frequently and globalisation processes started to take place, the figurines
probably were a solution to find unity in the difference. This paper will consider the figurines in the light of the Mycenaean exchange
networks and especially address the possibility that their ambiguous identity may mirror problems of identity within the broad community of
consumers of Mycenaean material products.
Key-words: Mycenaean; figurines; meaning; pottery; identity; art.
Cycladic figurines draw most attention among the public and
scholars alike as far as the Aegean Bronze Age figurines are
concerned. Since Cycladic figurines happen to be particularly
pleasing from an aesthetic perspective, it is little surprise that
many studies have approached also the Minoan and
Mycenaean figurines from an artistic point of view, largely
cataloguing them in as few categories as possible and
producing ‘family trees’ showing the relationship of one type
with the others. This approach makes sense as it is a good
tool to determine the chronological succession. In addition,
artistic studies can reveal the spread of artistic techniques
among artists, and possibly reveal general patterns of
movements across regions. For the Cycladic Islands and
Minoan Crete, the natural geographic boundaries of the
islands allow the determination of central areas where the
figurines were developed and manufactured, so that they can
be comfortably studied as regional phenomena and connected
to a limited range of sites.
It is important to keep in mind the focus and methods of past
research before considering Mycenaean figurines because
there are significant differences that divide them from both
the Cycladic and Minoan figurines. For instance, Mycenaean
figurines are more recent than the others, and the Aegean
world has seen dramatic political, social and economical
changes since the heyday of Cycladic figurines. The area
where we centre the Mycenaean culture is much larger than
the Cycladic and Cretan islands, and areas formerly retaining
their own distinctive cultures were swallowed by the
Mycenaean culture, including the same Cycladic Islands and
Crete. Long-distance contacts also took off during the Late
Bronze Age, and samples of the Mycenaean material culture
may be found in very distant regions such as Iberia, Egypt
and Mesopotamia. Mycenaean figurines also were found well
outside the regional boundaries of the Mycenaean culture,
especially in the Italian peninsula and the Levant. The artistic
value attributed to the figurines also needs to be challenged:
the archaeological evidence points firmly towards some
artistic appreciation in antiquity only for the Cycladic
figurines, and this can be demonstrated by the imitations and
derivatives of such figurines found in settlements located
outside the Cycladic Islands, such as in Crete (Branigan
1971). However, Mycenaean pottery was well received
across the Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age (e.g.
Wijngaarden 2002; Vianello 2005), and clay figurines in that
style might have found some appreciation for their artistic
value as well. Mycenaean figurines were imported in the
Italian peninsula and Sicily (e.g. Punta Tonno, Lipari;
Vianello 2005) and were also locally produced at some sites
(e.g. Iasos in Anatolia; Mee 2008, 373). The evidence from
the best known context, Lipari, suggests that the figurines and
the other Mycenaean materials were consumed by local
people and that no conquest, even if only at cultural level, can
be postulated. More importantly, clay statues such as the
Lady of Phylakopi (Mee 2008, 366; Crowley 2008, 269) were
used in the Cyclades as well as at Mycenae (Crowley 2008,
269), suggesting that clay artefacts were appreciated and
highly regarded during the Late Bronze Age; clay replaced
marble in contexts previously dominated by marble and other
stones. In spite of their standardisation, Mycenaean ‘figurines
are generally well made’ (Tamvaki 1975, 258), though the
same author contradictorily suggests that the figurines cannot
Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America Morphology, Materiality,
Technology, Function, and Context
74
represent deities because ‘they are too cheap and poorly
made’ (Tamvaki 1975, 235). Thus, modern attempts to assess
the artistic value of any type of figurine diachronically,
placing side by side chronologically and geographically
separate types, are probably misleading when attempting to
reconstruct the ancient appreciation for them, and as we have
seen, such an approach can produce contradictions.
The apparent success of Mycenaean pottery across the whole
Mediterranean was a manifestation of a sincere appreciation
for an artistic style, and Mycenaean figurines can and should
be interpreted as part of that phenomenon. Like other
Mycenaean vessels, the figurines were mass produced, fairly
standardised, and used in multiple contexts. To some extent,
this was also the case for the Cycladic marble figurines,
which were highly stylised and produced in large quantities
(e.g. Keros hoard; Getz-Gentle 2008) and found associated
with other vessels made of the same material and probably
manufactured by the same artists. The debate on what the
Cycladic figurines represented is quite open, and ongoing
research and excavations are actually adding to the available
evidence year after year. Being one of the earliest forms of
Aegean figurines, the Cycladic marble figurines may have
changed their meaning as time passed and more people
appreciated them. However, their geographic area of
distribution was still limited and therefore it is unlikely that
they were ever consumed by people with sets of beliefs
substantially different from those of the artists that
manufactured them. It is probable that they were used in
similar contexts as they spread across the Aegean, and that
they were consumed in lieu of local figurines, even if the
actual rituals performed in different places might have been
different from those performed in the Cyclades.
In the case of the Mycenaean figurines, all problems in
identifying what they represented persist, but because the
area of diffusion is much larger and the contexts of the
findings more variable, it is even more difficult to think of
common types of perception or uses that might explain the
evidence in most contexts. Their association with Mycenaean
pottery also adds several specific problems. For instance,
Mycenaean pottery appears to have been appreciated and
consumed as a neutral style, easily accepted by any foreign
culture. Mycenaean pottery appears to have been the first
pan-Mediterranean cultural style, which could and still can be
clearly distinguished and yet it cannot be firmly linked to one
society or culture, as the name would imply. At least in the
southern Italian peninsula (Vianello 2005, 96-97) and the
Levant (Philistines; Dothan 1968, 1995, 2003), and possibly
elsewhere (e.g. introduction of wheel made pottery in Iberia;
Almagro-Gorbea and Fontes 2002), Mycenaean pottery was
pivotal to the formation of local identities. Mycenaean
figurines may have benefited from the same cultural
neutrality of the Mycenaean ceramics.
Mycenaean figurines are accessories primarily employed for
ritual and religious purposes. Anthropomorphic artefacts can
have special meanings simply because they represent the
human body, but they are also often vehicles for the mind to
embody supra-human entities such as divinities. And yet they
can also be toys (Tamvaki 1975, 236), which might acquire
symbolic meanings as the individuals grow up, be it a simple
nostalgia of childhood or be representations of ancestors or
ancestors-related entities. In the latter case, the memories of
the ancestors would also remind individuals of the culture or
society they belong to. In just these few examples we can
notice how figurines may have carried variable symbolic
meanings not just from community to community, not even
from individual to individual, but from one period in the life
of a single individual to another period of the life of that
same individual. Ultimately, the figurines are both the
product of the embodiment of symbolic concepts operated by
the mind and the vehicle for the mind to dimensionally
perceive (materialise in the physical world) symbolic and
abstract concepts (new studies are presenting the relationship
between mind, hands and tools as an integrated network,
where one influences the others; see Seitz 2000). Thus, it is
impossible and also methodologically incorrect to try to
determine one reason for the use of such figurines, or to
presume that they can be associated to just one symbolic
meaning.
Mycenaean religion may have not been a coherent and
sharply defined religion as more recent religions based on
written texts may be. Even within Greece, practices may have
been changed from sanctuary to sanctuary (Marinatos 1993).
The Mycenaean pantheon was polytheistic; some names of
recognisable divinities appear in Linear B, and all
archaeological evidence points towards that conclusion. Yet,
we are unable to associate specific types of Mycenaean
figurine to individual divinities. Identifying all figurines as
the representation of one entity might be out of question, but
identifying what they embody in individual contexts should
be possible, depending on the state of the archaeological
context. However, the standardisation of Mycenaean
figurines and pottery favoured both their appreciation among
differing cultures and make it more difficult for
archaeologists to identify their original meaning.
French (1971) and Tamvaki (1973, 1975) have studied
Mycenaean figurines (Fig. 1) in greater detail than anyone
else, have produced analytical studies of the details of
individual figurines and have suggested many interpretations.
It is possible to summarise our knowledge of Mycenaean
figurines in a few sentences. Possibly the earliest known
Mycenaean figurine dates to the LH III A 1 period and comes
from a tholos at Pylos. Some of the earliest figurines are
probably inspired by Cretan dark-on-light models (e.g. two
found at Korakou and Mycenae), but soon the Mycenaean
production distances itself and can be considered original.
There is no apparent continuity between Early Helladic
figurines and those dating to the Late Helladic. The case of
no clear continuity and some initial influences from Crete
matches that of Mycenaean decorated pottery. The apparent
lack of continuity is also reinforced by the Shaft Graves at
Mycenae, unparalleled even in later periods, suggesting that
the Mycenaean culture emerged very quickly partly due to
the sudden availability of wealth. The figurines were not
consumed in clearly separated or distinguishable
archaeological contexts before the Late Helladic period and
therefore there is no recognisable type of figurine that may be
Andrea Vianello: Problems of Identity for Mycenaean Figurines
75
connected to local cultural practices. Thus, the change in
material culture cannot be directly connected to a change of
religious practices, which would suggest a change in the
population. The progressive stylisation of the figurines can be
followed in later periods well into the Greek Geometric. The
figurines develop fast in their typical models (Fig. 2) during
the LH III A period, again in a similar manner as decorated
pottery. All figurines are female, with the possible exception
of one from the Acropolis of Athens.
Fig. 1: Diagram of the development of female Mycenaean figurines
(after French 1971).
The figurines are generally well made and some variations in
form exist. However, these were often subtle enough that the
overall standardised appearance is not compromised. There
are no substantial changes throughout their history. The
figurines lack any evident sexual characterisation. All types
of figurines are randomly found in all types of contexts.
The principal contexts in which they are found include
sanctuaries, where the figurines have been interpreted as
divinities. Different types of figurines were employed to
represent a single divinity in some Near Eastern sanctuaries
(e.g. Ishtar), and the same use is possible in Mycenaean
Greece. Blegen (1937; Mylonas 1966, agrees) noted that in
Prosymna 11 out of the 19 tombs contained figurines
associated with children’s bones, and consequently he
proposed that they were either pictures of divine nurses or the
children’s cherished possessions, playthings or toys, the latter
being particularly clear in the case of the chariots. His
interpretations are acceptable for figurines securely
associated with children’s bones. The figurines are also found
in other graves and therefore they probably carried some
religious meaning as well. Picard (1948; French 1971,
agrees) suggested that they represent alternatively divinities
and worshippers. Nilsson (1950, 292) also suggested that
Aegean figurines may have been used in more than one way.
Fig. 2: Examples of the three main types of Mycenaean terracotta
figurines (© British Museum).
Some additional hypotheses can be formulated considering
that the Mycenaeans built a broad exchange network, where
different religious symbols and cultural identities must have
come in contact frequently and globalisation processes started
to take place. It is possible that the figurines helped in
identifying local divinities with existing divinities in the
Mycenaean pantheon. This practice is well known in later
times, especially in Rome and is known as interpretatio
Romana (Tacitus, Germania, 43.4). Most ancient cultures had
comparable practices, including the Greeks (e.g. Herodotus,
II, on the correlation between Egyptian and Greek divinities).
Although local practices, beliefs and some differences did not
disappear, the resulting convergence played an important part
in the cultural integration of the two cultures and societies
(Wissowa 1902; Ando 2005; Lund 2007). It is also possible
that the uncertain, ambiguous identity of Mycenaean
figurines may mirror problems of identity within the broad
community of consumers of Mycenaean products. In such a
case, the figurines would be exportable artefacts in no way
different from pottery. Another ceramic vessel typically
associated with religious practices is the rhyton, which is
nearly absent in the west Mediterranean, but is present in the
Levant (Wijngaarden 2002). Such a different pattern of
consumption rules out the possibility that Mycenaean
individuals had a specific religious set of vessels that they
carried with them. This is also supported by the evidence
found in the Uluburun shipwreck: probably two Mycenaean
officials were aboard, as deduced from daggers and seals, but
the ceramics found were utilitarian and common and because
of this difficult to date. The number or rank of the
Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America Morphology, Materiality,
Technology, Function, and Context
76
Mycenaean individuals aboard the ship cannot be determined
using ceramics, and no Mycenaean figurines have been found
(Pulak 1998; Bachhuber 2006). Thus, it seems that the fine
decorated pottery appreciated in Mycenaean palaces, and
perhaps even more so outside Mycenaean Greece, was
largely an export item comparable to perfumed oil
(Shelmerdine 1985). Mycenaean figurines should therefore
be understood within this framework: they were standardised,
mass-produced and consumed when they could be functional
for a purpose, but they did not carry special or distinctive
meanings (e.g. some Cycladic marble figurines or the Minoan
Snake Goddess). Like figurines deposed at peak sanctuaries
or in other sanctuaries, they could function as offerings,
representations of worshippers, or any other suitable function.
In other words, they were anonymous enough to fit different
situations, in contrast with Egyptian and near-eastern
figurines which were clearly characterised and represent
specific divinities.
To conclude, we know that Mycenaean figurines were
purposefully manufactured the way they were and were
appreciated as they were. We are perhaps asking the wrong
questions when we study them in the light of the
contemporary artistic sensibility or attempt to recognise in
them specific religious meanings or some precise ritual
significance that they might have carried. Their key
characteristic, evident by looking both backwards and
forwards from their time, is that they were mass-produced
and shared many characteristics with the coeval decorated
pottery, without receiving any special treatment. They were
anonymous, easily produced and very functional, all these
being positive qualities. The question of what they
represented, their identity, is central to their understanding.
One of the reasons for the appreciation of Mycenaean pottery
in the Late Bronze Age Mediterranean was its weak
connection with ethnic identity, and contextual studies of that
pottery in the west Mediterranean, the Levant and Cyprus
(Wijngaarden 2002; Vianello 2005; Bell 2006) show how
local beliefs and behaviours determined their appreciation
and consumption. We also know that the Mycenaean polities
never played any significant role in the Levant, as is
demonstrated by the surviving archival documentation. In
spite of many known writings dating to the Late Bronze Age,
including the ‘Amarna letters’ and Linear B tablets, the
evidence of contacts is very scanty and uncertain. Yet,
considering the ceramic evidence alone, the Mycenaean
political power in the Mediterranean should have been
comparable to that of Rome many centuries later. As the
Uluburun shipwreck demonstrates however, Mycenaean
ceramics do not correlate well with the physical presence of
Mycenaeans. It is unusual for a class of pottery to be
dissociated from the culture it produced it. Some cultures are
indeed defined by ceramics. In some of those cases the pots
carried some meanings or were associated with particular
practices that help defining cultural groups and very probably
ethnic groups. This does not appear to be the case for
Mycenaean pottery. It might seem wrong to speak of
‘pottery’ when the subject is the figurines, but in the
Mycenaean case it is not possible to divide them as sharply as
in other cultures. Mycenaean figurines appear to have been
just another type of ceramic vessel, with their own distinct
function. To fully appreciate this view, I should recall that
Cycladic figurines were made in marble and some
identifiable Minoan figurines such as the Snake Goddess
were often made in faience-- their material distinguished such
artefacts from everyday ones. Mycenaean figurines are
instead always made in clay and intentionally undistinguished
from the remaining ceramic production, so why should we
interpret them as separate from the remaining ceramic
evidence?
Tamvaki (1976, 995) concluded her study of figurines and
Mycenaean art unable to decide between Mycenaean art
being an ‘intrusive phenomenon’ or the product of ‘some
economic and social conditions’. She understood that the
figurines were just another manifestation of an artistic style
but could not understand the reasons for its apparent
difference from the previous material culture. Today we
understand that Mycenaean figurines are the product of a
cultural style appreciated by different communities across the
Mediterranean Sea, and to achieve such a distribution pattern
they had to carry weak associations to specific cultural and
religious practices, as they became embedded in different
regional material cultures, albeit at individual levels. There is
no reason to suggest that within Mycenaean Greece the
figurines played any different role from the preceding
Cycladic and Minoan figurines, which also could carry
different sets of meanings depending on the context.
Therefore, I do not postulate any significant hiatus with
preceding and contemporary Aegean cultures. However, the
appreciation of the Mycenaean ceramic style within ‘foreign’
communities and markets also must have produced an impact
on figurines, which were deliberately manufactured to be
uncharacterised and to leave to the carrier the freedom of
embedding meanings or consuming them within regional
practices that might have been unknown to the artists
producing them. Because of this, any interpretation of the
figurines will have validity only within the contexts
examined, and general interpretations need to admit that one
of their key characteristic is the lack of specific identities or
meanings. The apparent lack of appreciation of both
‘Mycenaean’ fine pottery and figurines by Mycenaean
individuals, as revealed by the evidence from the Uluburun
shipwreck, can be explained by the simple fact that the style
was not charged with any strong ethnic or cultural meanings,
perhaps unlike other objects also usually interpreted as
‘Mycenaean’, such as daggers, clothes, and seals. As a result,
the Mycenaeans seem to have appreciated Mycenaean style
ceramics only as utilitarian vessels and therefore used them
as an asset in intercultural exchanges. Since the Uluburun
ship was sailing towards the Aegean at the time she sunk, we
can safely assume that the Mycenaean objects found aboard
represented the leftovers of exchange or what the owners did
not want to part from. Perhaps the Mycenean people aboard
the vessels had departed from their homeland carrying some
figurines, but then they exchanged them for Levantine
figurines that were found on the shipwreck. Most importantly
however, we know that even in such a long and perilous
journey, they did not carry one figurine. This means that
these objects were not used as portable cult tools or as part of
Andrea Vianello: Problems of Identity for Mycenaean Figurines
77
portable shrines, a type of use which would make them
unsuitable for exchanges and unlikely to have held multiple
symbolic meanings.
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