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Bronze Age People in Clay

Mon Nov 5, 2018, 2:00 PM by RiEile:iconrieile:
:iconprojecteducate:
:iconprojecteducate:


Art History Week


Depiction of human body has deep roots in history. In this article I would like to introduce you to various Bronze Age anthropomorphic figurine traditions from several archaeological sites and to put them into broader historical and artistic context. Modern archaeologists resent the aesthetic-driven appreciation of the ancient objects, as such attitude leads towards biases against incomplete or broken items, and most importantly encourages looting of archaeological sites in search of 'treasures'. Even if the object form a disturbed site eventually reaches archaeologists, the context of the find is irreversibly lost, and without context, the object loses a lot of its scientific value. Having said that, I still believe that there is nothing wrong in admiring the aesthetic value of these items, and in drawing inspiration from them. As more than 3000 years divide us from the Bronze Age societies, we may never know for sure how the figurines were used and regarded by the people of the time, but their appeal is long-lasting nonetheless.
I am not trying to cover the topic of Bronze Age figurines exhaustively, and for this article I have chosen clay figurines from just a couple of sites out of personal preference.

Bronze Age of Cyprus


An amazing place to start looking at Bronze Age figurines is Cyprus. This island has a long and distinct tradition of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines as well as object models. In the Chalcolithic, or the Copper Age, that preceded the Bronze Age, spectacular Cruciform figurines were the most common type of anthropomorphic images. During the Bronze Age, several styles of figurines have come and gone. These styles encompass not only the figurines of different types, but also pottery: some figurines are attached to vessels or are vessels themselves. Most types have been found both in settlements and in burials, speaking for various uses of these items.

Cyprus by RiEile

Early/Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1600 BC) is characterized by plank figurines. They are rectangular highly stylized depictions of human body with a narrower neck and head or sometimes a pair of necks. Facial features are incised or painted similar to the decorations on contemporary vases. Plank-shaped figurines do not have any clear gender-specific features, although some have breasts and some later examples are holding an infant. However, it does not allow to assign any gender to them as a group. There are object models of combs adjacent to this tradition and some scholars argue that these figurines were associated with textile production.
This tradition evolved in the Late Bronze Age through transitional anthropomorphs into two distinct styles: figurines with pierced ears (sometimes called bird-faced for their squished faces and 'Astarte type' due to assumed stylistic influences), and flathead figurines. Both types are clearly female in shape with modeled breasts, incised pubic triangles, and some figurines hold an infant. Earring figurines have big ears often with several earrings, and flathead figurines have small ears modelled in the same way as in Base Ring Bulls. It was proposed that this style was influenced by the Aegean figurines (below) or the depiction of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

Here are some further resources:
  • The collection of KHM in Vienna (in German, but pretty intuitive, search filter 'Zyprisch' and a time period).
  • Online collection of the National Archaeological Museum (Athens)
  • An amazing PhD thesis of Daisy Knox, discussing all these things in detail, full text is available online together with plenty of illustrations.


Mycenaean figurines


Anthropomorphic figurines of Mycenaean Greece are classified into three types: psi, phi and tau, according to their shape. Psi-type are reminiscent of the Greek letter ψ and have arms above their head, phi (φ) type are painted with wavy lines, perhaps, showing folds of a dress. Tau (τ) type have arms on their waist and a long dress. All types depict females with modeled breasts, their faces are squished and eyes are painted as simple dots.

AN00469669 001 l by RiEile
Psi-, phi-, and tau- types

More figurines at:


Oxus civilization


In 1972 Victor Sarianidi discovered a site Gonur Depe ('Gray Hill') in the Karakum desert and tied this Bronze Age settlement to the ancient country of Margush known from a Persian inscription. Sarianidi called this site 'Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex', associating the toponyms known since antiquity to the material culture. It is now also called Oxus civilization after the ancient name for Amu Darya River. Ignoring the vast fortified city, let us dive into the tombs, where figurines were found.

Gonur by RiEile
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte / Herlinde Koelbl

The figurines have slit eyes, protruding noses and bird-like features. The wings on the male figurine enhance this impression. Their sex is immediately obvious from their shape. 
These figurines are permanently kept in Mary Museum, Turkmenistan, that unfortunately does not have a website. The pictures above come from an exhibition at the Neues Museum in Berlin, where I was lucky enough to see them.

In Altyn-Depe, a related site, some similar, yet distinct figurines were discovered:

Further resources:


Thoughts on style


What makes a figure anthropomorphic? It turns out that you do not need much to see a face or a body in an object. As humans are social animals, and other people are vitally important for us, human brains are wired to detect faces and to interpret them. If you record electrical activity of the brain with scalp electrodes (electroencephalogram) you can detect event-related potentials associated with face processing. Our visual processing has been so well trained to see faces, that we can see them everywhere: on toasts or on Mars. Seeing familiar patterns in randomness is called pareidolia, and it happens not only to people, but to monkeys as well. In the hominin lineage there is a documented progression from just finding pareidolia-inducing natural objects (as early as australopiths) though modification of already human shape-like objects to their creation de novo by our species.
Why is this important for artists? Because people see human-like shapes in things that are very far from realistic representations. On one hand, one should be cautious to avoid unwanted 'faces' and 'bodies' in otherwise inanimate objects, as they might create a comic effect, on the other hand, one can push stylization to its extremes, creating expressive shapes that still can be read as human characters.


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:iconaquavarin:
AquaVarin Featured By Owner Nov 15, 2018  Hobbyist General Artist
Looking at these figurines I'm reminded of simple clay figures children make (especially the flat-headed cypriot one), which probably explains why even though the styles are strange(to my modern eyes at least), they also feel very familiar at the same time:) Interesting read.
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 15, 2018
There is some naiveté in them.
Thank you;)
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:iconobserver14:
Observer14 Featured By Owner Nov 14, 2018  Professional Traditional Artist
This is interesting, as I have been experimenting stylistically from very detailed figures in my sculpture work, to much more abstract, or at least stylized figures.  I tend to drift back and forth, but it is very true how, even eliminating most of the details, they are immediately recognizable as figures.  It gives me a chance to focus more on the overall shape and movement of the piece, and not so much on, "are the eyes both pointed in the same direction?"  ;-)
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 15, 2018
I actually included only most human-like and detailed ones: a lot of Neolithic and Bronze Age stuff is so vaguely anthropomorphic, that it is only interesting for archaeologists, but not for artists.
But I agree that it is a tricky balance to find, and for each artwork it is different. And realism and stylization feed into each other, each bringing the other one to a new level. If you know the structure of your subject in great detail, you can judge what is important and what is not. On the other hand, if something does not work on a 'crude' level, chances are that adding detail would not help;)
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:iconobserver14:
Observer14 Featured By Owner Nov 18, 2018  Professional Traditional Artist
good points.  I know it's still hard for me to take that step back from the details, which is why I keep working on it.  It would be interesting to do more study of some of these forms to see what I can learn from them!
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:icontinselfire:
Tinselfire Featured By Owner Nov 7, 2018
This was a good read - and quite a surprise. At first, had my scratching my head at the title and thinking I must have read bronze age wrong. Afterwards, almost felt a bit embarrassed for assuming a sensational article on venus figurines or dogu.
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2018
Thank you!
I felt that these guys deserve more attention, they are good enough to need no sensation ;).
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:icontinselfire:
Tinselfire Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2018
You got that right. Last time I had the chance to see Cypriot sculptures was all the way back in 1992, at the Stockholm Mediterranean Museum. Was far too young to understand the significance then; only went for the Egyptian jewelry.
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2018
Mmm one more place for my “to visit” list, if they are still there...
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:icontinselfire:
Tinselfire Featured By Owner Nov 10, 2018
It is quite hidden away, but it is still there. Google "Medelhavsmuseet" for a look.

The only reason I haven't given it another look is I am not keen on travelling, and don't often have the funds to so so either.
Still, I would not mind seeing Göbekli Tepe with my own eyes if I got the chance.
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:iconiduna-haya:
Iduna-Haya Featured By Owner Nov 6, 2018  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This takes me back to my first year as an archaeology student, haha :D
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 7, 2018
I never has that pleasure)))
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:iconathanart:
AthanArt Featured By Owner Nov 6, 2018   Traditional Artist
Undoubtebly intriguing article!  Thank you for contributing. :clap:
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 7, 2018
:hug:
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:iconbattlefairies:
BATTLEFAIRIES Featured By Owner Nov 6, 2018
These are really intriguing. Thank you for sharing this!
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 6, 2018
I’m glad you found it interesting!
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:iconmalintra-shadowmoon:
Malintra-Shadowmoon Featured By Owner Nov 5, 2018  Hobbyist General Artist
That really is a great one. Phantastic :)
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 6, 2018
Thank you;’
Reply
:iconshesvii:
Shesvii Featured By Owner Nov 5, 2018  Professional Traditional Artist
Yes, we see faces everywhere! As a kid, I couldn't help seeing a face on our car. :XD:

I love those figurines, especially the Altyn-Depe woman figurine. It's very beautiful!
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:iconrieile:
RiEile Featured By Owner Nov 6, 2018
I had bathroom toles in which I either saw wolves or rabbits, but sometimes nothing. I could not shift from the rabbit vision to the wolf vision, it really was a change in perceptual threshold of sorts.

They are amazing indeed!
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