Figurine Enigmas: Who's to Know?

By James, N.; Chippindale, Juliet | Antiquity, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Figurine Enigmas: Who's to Know?


James, N., Chippindale, Juliet, Antiquity


Should a public archaeology exhibition focus on objects as objects, or should it also explain something of where they come from and processes of interpreting them? If background is necessary, then how much is needed to make sense of the exhibits? Two recent exhibitions offered different answers. The first was largely descriptive, the second theoretical, and specifically, 'post-processualist'. Both featured prehistoric anthropomorphic figurines of fired clay. Whether or not because 'the more human, the less intelligible' (Hawkes 1954:162), figurines are among the most intriguing and enigmatic finds. What were they for, and what did they mean? Why do they captivate us today; and how should archaeologists cater for that interest?

We found ourselves at odds with the second exhibition, which evidently sprang from a series of principles rehearsed by Hodder (1984) and his colleagues (e.g. Shanks & Tilley 1987; Shanks & Hodder 1995; Bender et al. 1997). We accept that some of archaeology's public values archaeology as contemporary 'heritage' more than as a record or resource for studying the past (Carman 2002: 17-19; Holtorf 2010), but it does not follow that archaeologists should give up explaining what they do or, indeed, attempting to understand the nature of the past.

The first exhibition, The power of dogu, was based on Jomon figurines from Japan, the dogu. The second, Unearthed, showed dogu alongside south-east European Neolithic and Chalcolithic figurines. Both groups belong to large corpora now comparatively well known with regard to chronology and regional variation. All of these figurines are stylised and miniature. They are normally found broken, apparently on purpose, scattered across and around settlements. The earliest dogu yet known was found last spring (Shiga 2010). Twentyeight have been designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties in Japan. The Neolithic 'throned goddess' from near Pristina, likewise, is now iconic in Kosovo.

Both exhibitions were in England. The power of dogu was at the British Museum from September to November 2009, the first in more than 40 years to assemble dogu from around Japan. They came from 50 collections. Unearthed, which included some of the dogu shown at the British Museum and a replica of the big Chobonaino figure that we admired there, was at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, from June to August 2010, in that exciting hangar, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (Bailey 2009; Unearthed Team 2010). Unearthed was linked, through two distinct projects of the university's, to a long-running programme of research and exhibitions in the Balkans, to the research of Douglass Bailey (2005) in southeastern Europe, and to Andrew Cochrane's experiments in expressing archaeological ideas (Cochrane & Russell 2007). Here, the archaeology was assembled from eleven collections in five countries. Unearthed was curated by Bailey, Cochrane & Simon Kaner; and Kaner also curated The power.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The power of dogu (British Museum)

Along with a few masks and zoomorphic figurines and ornamented vessels, The power of dogu arranged nearly 50 dogu, sets of dogu, or parts of them, in chronological order from Early to Final Jomon (Figure 1). The museum contributed a small cabinet to compare figurines of its own from elsewhere. Generously spaced, the exhibits were easy to see; and the lighting revealed how surfaces were moulded and treated. That nearly all were more or less intact, and a couple reassembled, helped to reveal that many dogu showed personages tattooed, wrapped in tight textiles or masked; that some probably had attachments or were themselves suspended; and that many were apparently not intended to depict humans. The Tanabatake 'Venus' (one of three dogu designated as National Treasures) and the weird Nakappara figure took pride of place as stars of the show in cabinets of their own. Expressly or by implication, The power's catalogue broaches themes for research in future (Kaner 2009b); but the gallery needed more detail about where recent investigations have found dogu. …

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