ArticlePDF Available

Rethinking Figurines: A Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas, the 'Goddess' and Popular Culture



In almost all of its variants, the Goddess movement has appealed to and uses archaeological materials, especially those that it claims to be images of females: female figurines or statuettes and female motifs on ceramics or other media.l Above all, images from the European Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods (c. 40,000 to 5,000 years ago) are claimed to represent fertility and other positively-valued attributes2 and thus are often taken as material and symbolic evidence for the existence of a world in which females, as a generic category, were valued positively. We entered into a more thorough discussion of the use of archaeology in these contemporary social movements in an earlier version of this paper in which we drew attention to the rich literature, the complexity of the issues, and the variety of participants and views involved in what for the purposes of discussion we have termed the 'Goddess movement'. Here, we shall focus on the use of the Upper Palaeolithic and complexity of the issues, and the variety of participants and views involved in what for the purposes of discussion we have termed the 'Goddess movement'. Here, we shall focus on the use of the Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic (c.40,000 to 5000 years ago). Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey (1998) Rethinking Figurines: a critical analysis of Archaeology, Feminism and Popular Culture. In Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence, edited by C. Morris and C. Goodison, pp. 22-45. British Museum Press, London.
A preview of the PDF is not available
... Despite Meskell's optimism the mother goddess, in one form or the other, is still present in many figurine studies. New work still focuses on female figurines, be it to give critical reviews of the Mother Goddess phenomenon (see, among others, Bailey 1997;Haaland and Haaland 1995, Meskell 1995Tringham and Conkey 1998), argue against the perceived femaleness of many figurines (Meskell 2017) or formulate new interpretations of female figurines (Belcher 2016, Lesure 2002. Although it is now commonly acknowledged that a majority of prehistoric figurines are in fact not sexed, there are still those that do believe that most anthropomorphic figurines from the Near East depict women and continue in their attempts to explain this phenomenon (see for example Lesure 2002Lesure , 2011. ...
For the Neolithic in the Near East figurines are our primary, at times only, source of visual representations of humans and animals at many sites. More than purely utilitarian objects, figurines are thought to provide insight into the more intangible aspects of past life such as ritual, cosmology, identity and social processes. In most approaches, there has often been a focus on figurines as static images. However, placing prime importance on representation ignores the importance of interactions between people and materials. In this thesis it is argued that through an artefact and life biography approach we can more productively analyse figurines as a process; from production, use, to final deposition. Better insight into these aspects will allow us to more fully comprehend how figurines operated in their respective social contexts. Any statement on figurine practices needs to incorporate all types of figurines and furthermore a nuanced view on differences in figurine practices needs to be substantiated by analysis of different sites. Therefore, this thesis features the corpora of two Neolithic sites: Tell Sabi Abyad (Syria) and Çatalhöyük (Turkey) both inhabited through the 8th to 6th millennia. The different social settings at these sites make them an interesting case study to analyse differences in figurine practices. The result is a comprehensive overview of the complete life biographies of all clay figurines found at both sites, looking at material properties, production, use-wear traces and depositional contexts which are then compared between figurine types and analysed through time. Synthesising these findings yielded a detailed insight into figurine practices at the two case study sites, showing some common practices but also marked differences potentially linked to more household practices at Çatalhöyük and community practices at Tell Sabi Abyad. Furthermore, life biographies of figurines at the two sites are variable and changes through time are observed at both sites. This thesis not only offers a detailed and nuanced picture of figurine practices at these two sites, but it also exemplifies that generalised statements about figurine practices in the Near East need to be reassessed through intra-site, artefact approach studies.
... Furthermore, they exist as one shape in a widely varying range of anthropomorphic figurines that, importantly, often are not clearly gendered. Kuijt andChesson 2004: 165 andNishiaki 2007: 122 New research still focusses on female figurines, be it to give critical reviews of the Mother Goddess phenomenon (see, among others, Bailey 1997;Haaland & Haaland 1995;Meskell 1995;1998;Tringham & Conkey 1998), argue against the perceived femaleness of many figurines (Meskell 2017), or formulate new interpretations of female figurines (Belcher 2016;Lesure 2002Lesure , 2011. Although it is now commonly acknowledged that most prehistoric figurines are in fact not sexed, there are still those that do believe that most anthropomorphic figurines from the Near East mostly depict women and continue in their attempts to explain this phenomenon (cf. ...
Full-text available
Even though figurines are a ubiquitous find on many Neolithic sites, some aspects of figurines are still poorly understood. Figurines have been studied as symbolic messages to be decoded, as art, and as ritual/cult objects. The main drawback of these interpretative frameworks is that they fail to analyse figurines as artefacts. Instead, figurines are treated primarily, or even exclusively, as images or texts. In this paper it will be argued that in order to understand figurines we need to engage with their materiality in order to understand how figurines worked in their social setting. Within the framework of craft theory a sensory approach will be applied to the chaîne opératoire, and formulate perceptive categories, or those aspects of the material(s) that are recognisable and (possibly) relevant to craftspeople and elements that reflect choices made during the production process. This chaîne opératoire is embedded within a larger aim of creating object biographies for figurines where production, use and deposition are analysed holistically.
As of 2022, most of Turkey’s World Heritage properties are or include archaeological sites or landscapes featuring places of religion and ritual of past and often present significance and use. This chapter focuses on two of them—Çatalhöyük and Ephesus—to highlight their similarities and differences in terms of the continuities in the discontinuity and discontinuities in the continuity of their spiritual significance and ritual use, which have transformed them into associative cultural landscapes through placemaking practices. This was through public archaeology at Çatalhöyük where New Age “Goddess communities” were numerically the most important among special interest groups by the restart of scientific research in the 1990s; and through spatial segregation of local ritual users, spiritual pilgrims, and cultural tourists of diverse ethnicity at a number of religious sites scattered in the landscape, following dramatic changes in the user profile before the House of Mary and Isa Bey Mosque have become the most densely-used components for ritual use at Ephesus. The concluding comparative evaluation of these strategies reveal their success in avoiding the risk of tension and conflict, as a sound basis for establishing mutual respect of values and constructive dialogue towards building a shared sustainable future.
Marija Gimbutas (Gimbutienė) is a renowned archaeologist who specialised in European prehistory. This paper explores her life and work, including her personal biography, showing how her upbringing in Lithuania shaped her academic interests and orientations. This paper also reviews her professional achievements and contributions via the lenses of seven aspects of her academic life, namely her time in higher education, her work on Lithuanian folklore and symbolism, her explorations of Old Europe during the Neolithic, her Kurgan Hypothesis and engagement with Baltic studies, her excavations in southeast Europe, her work on the Goddess, and her symbolism work. It also examines academic and popular reactions to her writing and her influence on scholars and public discourse. Keywords: Gimbutas, Neolithic, history of archaeology, Goddess, figurines.
Full-text available
Building upon the idea of Douglass Bailey that prehistoric figurines represent actual individuals, it is suggested here that their makers represented people in the manner they perceived them, following the role models familiar from their own society. This further implies that, on the grounds of certain indicators, it may be possible to identify social differences depending on the age, sex/gender, and possibly other modes of inequality. An attempt is made here to define the criteria identifying the markers – indicators of inequality, such as: representations of hair style and jewellery, size of figurines, as well as the correlation between these indicators and the details on the figurines’ bodies pointing to their sex/gender or age. In the assemblage from the site Pavlovac-Čukar, the correlation has been established between the representations ascribed as male and massive bangle bracelets and belts, indicating that adult male individuals of higher status were marked out by the number of bangles and the way of wearing the belt. A similar suggestion is proposed concerning the large-size figurines, marked with incisions perhaps representing tattoo marks, with looser breasts, indicating the possibility that older women obtained higher social status than the young ones. It is worth noting that in the case of the Vinča figurines little attention is paid to the representation of hair style, although it has been established that in the preindustrial societies, hair is an important indicator of social status, even more than jewellery. Hair length, specific hair styles, as well as various ornaments placed here, indicate sex/gender and social differences, various group and individual identities, as well as aesthetic ideas. Two heads from Čukar, as well as the one from Predionica, perform specific hair styles – hair shorter, reaching just below ears, and the crown is shaven. Bearing in mind that these figurines may show portrait characteristics, it may be suggested that these individuals may have achieved higher social status.
Çukuriçi Höyük 4. Household Economics in the Early Bronze Age Aegean is a pioneering interdisciplinary account of households and socio-political organization in Aegean prehistory, written by a socio-cultural anthropologist embedded in a team of prehistoric archaeologists. Sabina Cveček applies methods of historical anthropology to address key issues in discussing households and socio-political organization at the dawn of the Bronze Age Aegean and beyond. By navigating through the “dwelling perspective” at two prehistoric mound sites, namely Çukuriçi Höyük in western Anatolia (Turkey) and Platia Magoula Zarkou in Thessaly (Greece), Cveček scrutinizes the conflicting relations between metanarratives and site-based archaeological contexts, complemented by historical ethnographic accounts. This unique interdisciplinary contribution will appeal not only to specialists in Aegean prehistory and historical anthropologists, but also to scholars in the social sciences and humanities. It may inspire scholars to recognize the unparalleled value of archaeological materiality in addressing non-state imagined communities, alongside historical, ethnographic, and other written sources.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.