Key Pages:

Course requirements
Course Description
Weekly schedule
Student Project Pages
Response Papers

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

The Case of Israelite Figurines: Sex, Passivity and Political Control
A response to Week 3: Sept. 22. Body and the archaeological discourse

Other responses of the week

Jennifer Singletary Posted: September 29, 2006 Friday

In her article, "The Somatization of Archeology," L. Meskell critiques the tendency to focus on the exteriority of the body, as well as the idea that the body is "the site of mapped and inscribed social relations, specifically of displays and negotiations of power and gender dynamics" (Meskell 2). Rather, it is important to view the body as "recursively engaged in production or constitution" (Meskell 4). She also argues forcefully for a theory of the body that allows for embodied individuality. In other words, she suggests scholars should view the body as active rather than passive, and individual rather than generalized. Thus, for example, in her article co-authored with A.B. Knapp on the figurines of prehistoric Cyprus, Meskell attempts to interpret the figurine evidence from a standpoint that is free from the Foucaultian obsession with power and the over-privileging of sex.

Meskell's critiques could also usefully inform discussions of "Israelite" (perhaps more properly Judean) figurines. These figurines, dated to the eighth-seventh centuries BCE, are anthropomorphic, with hand-formed pillar-shaped tubular bases that enable them to stand upright. These clay figurines generally have pronounced breasts held by cradling arms, but do not depict lower limbs or pudenda. Some of the figurines' faces were evidently cast from a mold; others were sculpted by hand. Of 854 provenanced specimens, 822 were uncovered in the area traditionally ascribed to Judah at that time period. These objects were found in diverse contexts, including graves, domestic areas, storehouses, cultic areas, and waste deposits (Byrne 139). The figurines have been interpreted by scholars in largely similar ways: they are generally described primarily according to their apparent sex, and often ascribed a cultic function, particularly in the realms of "domestic" religion or fertility rituals. They are often associated with some type of mother goddess, particularly Asherah. R. Byrne at least attempts to overcome the shortcomings of these interpretations by focusing on their context in early seventh century Judah: however, he ascribes a political function to the figurines that unfortunately remains focused on fertility. His thesis is best encapsulated in his title: "Lie Back and Think of Judah" (an allusion to the infamous statement ascribed to Queen Victoria); for Byrne, the figurines are state-sanctioned (or at least state-tolerated) encouragement to reproduce for the benefit of the state, directed at an audience of Judean females.

What all of these interpretations of the figurines hold in common is their utter pre-occupation with the apparent sex of the figurines. Based entirely on the common feature of breasts, and their depiction as “engorged,” scholars have tended to automatically associate the figurines with some aspect of fertility or motherhood. Very little attention has been paid, however, to the differences in the figurines that may reflect other factors than a binary division of the roles of the sexes in ancient Judah. For example, some of the figurines are manufactured using molds; some have faces made by finger-pinching. And, though the figurines do generally depict a similar style of headdress, there are also differences in the faces and the shape of the breasts. What do these differences signify? To what extent may they show evidence of a degree of individuality, such as Meskell finds in the Cyprus figurines?

Another pitfall of most interpretations of the figurines is the assertion that they are depictions of either a particular Mother-Goddess (ie. Asherah), or a conflation of the Mother-Goddess archetype. D. Bailey critique of this type of universalizing interpretation is relevant here: “The interpretation of figurines as objects in a Great Mother cult rests on unsupportable assumptions of psychoanalysis” (Bailey 322). In addition, the assignment of otherwise unexplained artifacts to the realm of religion is an unfortunate trend in archeological analyses. This is particularly true for the Israelite figurines, which were not generally associated by location with cultic activity.

Even Byrne’s interpretation of the figurines, though admirable in its attempt to contextualize them historically in the Judah of the eighth-seventh centuries, seems to sell these figurines short. In his analysis, the figurines are a manifestation of the will of the state, and represent the control and coercion of the female body. For him, as for most scholars, the figurines are passive objects with no agency and no individuality. Such an interpretation indeed “downplays embodied experience, individuality and agency” (Knapp and Meskell 183), and over-privileges the binary categorization of bodies according to sex. These figurines would definitely benefit from a new analysis that takes into consideration recent theorizations of the body, material objects, and agency.

Works Referenced:

R. Byrne, “Lie Back and Think of Judah: the Reproductive Politics of Pillar Figurines,” Near Eastern Archaeology, 67.3 (2004) 137-151.

L. Meskell, “The Somatisation of Archaeology: Institutions, Discourses, Corporeality,” Norwegian Archaeological Review 29.1 (1996) 1-16.

D. Bailey, “Reading Prehistoric Figurines as Individuals,” World Archaeology 25.3 (1994) 321-331.

B. Knapp and L. Meskell, “Bodies of evidence on prehistoric Cyprus,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 7 (1997) 183-204.

Uploaded Image

Figurine on left. From

Posted at Oct 05/2006 01:29PM:
omur: Very curious to hear about Bryne's interpretation of these figurines. It must have been not so easy to connect such mundane and everyday objects with official state politics/ideology. How does he exactly draw that link? Such a contrast to Meskell's reading of Catalhoyuk figurines. "Domestic religion" (as opposed to an institutionalized religion I guess) and "fertility rituals" do seem to be easy explain-away paradigms for archaeologists for this kind of material. The way that you are raising questions about the figurines is certainly a much more nuanced and productive way of talking about them. Meskell explores similar issues in the Catalhoyuk unpublished paper that is based on her recent fieldwork at the site.