History, Trade, and the Terracottas

By: Jaimee P. Uhlenbrock

Originally Published in 1992

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Over 4,500 terracotta figurines spanning some 800 years, from the 7th century B.C. to the 1st century of the Christian era, were recovered from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cy­rene (Fig. 1). Individually, they represent innumerable acts of piety motivated by the need to supplicate or to express gratitude. Manufac­tured in clay and mass-produced by the hundreds with the aid of the mold, these figurines satisfied the broad popular demand for easily obtainable objects that could be placed before the divinity in order to establish a lasting bond between godhead and mortal. While ancient sources have provided much informa­tion on the valuable dedications in bronze and marble of the wealthy, they are surprisingly silent on what must have been the most popular form of religious dedication, the terracotta figurine. Information pro­vided by terracottas and their con­texts allows us to augment the some­times incomplete or biased picture provided by ancient writers (see box on Rhodian figurines).

Terracottas constitute the bulk of the great votive accumulations that are known for many Greek sites, where they are sometimes found by the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. A cave above Delphi sacred to Pan and the Nymphs yielded over 90,000 figurines, while from a votive pit at a sanctuary of Hera in southern Italy fragments representing more than 20,000 figur­ines were recovered. Similar num­bers are documented for the finds from Argos, Corinth, and Splines. among other sites. The 4,500 terra­cotta figurines found thus far at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Perse­phone at Cyrene seem a modest number in comparison to the finds just cited. Yet these terracottas second only to pottery in quantity are the richest and most informativ source for the history of religion expression, commercial enterprise and social change in this part of them Cyrenaica. For the field of terracotta studies, moreover, the figurines pro­vide the largest and most compre­hensive body of material for any Greek site in North Africa.

The Archaeology of the Figurines

Terracotta figurines and their re­lated figurative vessels were found intermixed with other votives in varying concentrations throughout the Middle Terrace of the Sanctuary. The archaeological record reveals little information concerning their specific role in cult practices at the Sanctuary, aside from their obvious function as religious donations to Demeter and Persephone. In no instance could the figurines be defini­tively associated with cult buildings, nor, given the successive remodeling the Sanctuary underwent, was there evidence to suggest that any were actually found in situ. Yet figurines from several areas in particular ap­pear to fall within clear chronological limits, and it is difficult to escape the impression that they were moved as a relatively undisturbed mass, perhaps not far from their original location.

In one instance, for example, over 450 fragments of figurines and figura­tive vessels were recovered from earth that formed part of the con­structional backfill of the wall T10 erected in the early Imperial era (see Fig. 9 in “The Sanctuary’s History and Architecture”). Combined with the pottery and other finds from this area, the figurines form a relatively homogeneous ensemble dating from the early 7th to the early 5th centuries B.C. The homogeneous character of this ensemble is not unlike that of the large votive deposits that mark most extraurban sanctuary sites around the Greek world.

The offerings that accumulated in a sanctuary or shrine were periodi­cally removed and, as possessions of the divinity, carefully buried within the sanctuary grounds. In time such grounds could consist of several series of contiguous pits or trenches housing massive accumulations of votives. This is most clearly docu­mented at the Sanctuary of Demeter Malophorus at Selinus in western Sicily, where the typological and chronological range of the figurines parallels that found at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene.

Evidence for Cult Practice

The condition in which the figur­ines were found may shed a little light on the ritual practices of the worshipers who brought them to the Sanctuary. The figurines from the 6th century, which comprised mainly East Greek figurative vessels and figurines from the city of Miletus as well as local copies (see below), were recovered in varying states of pre­servation, with no discernable pat­terns of breakage or wear. Clearly, these objects, many of them con­taining perfume, were simply buried within the Sanctuary grounds and broken only by the accidents asso­ciated with the later remodeling of the Sanctuary and the consequent moving of earth for backfill.

For the figurines from the 5th century B.C. and later, however, a consistent pattern of breakage emerges. Roughly 85 percent of all these figurines, regardless of size., were found without their heads. This circumstance has been encountered in many sanctuary deposits around the Greek world, and especially at the more rural sanctuaries located outside of city walls, such as our sanctuary here. At one extramural sanctuary in southern Italy, a deep well, fallen into disuse, contained tens of thousands of female heads broken from figurines. It was as if their donors cast them down into what was believed to be the bowels of the earth. It may be that a snapping off of the head was part of a pur­poseful mutilation that took place when the figurine was offered so that it could not be reused by anyone else.

Evidence for Trade

Almost every important center of terracotta manufacture in the ancient Greek world is represented by figur­ines found at the Sanctuary. These imports can be associated with their specific centers by virtue of their distinctive clay and characteristic typologies (see box on manufacture of terracotta). The geographical range of the imported figurines sup­ports the evidence provided by the other finds from the Sanctuary and elsewhere at Cyrene. They speak of a vigorous city with broad-reaching commercial ties to the major centers of trade in the Greek world. An examination of groups of terracottas from well-known centers of produc­tion for the 6th and early 5th cen­turies B.C. can illustrate some of the differing systems of trade respon­sible for the arrival of imported figurines at the Sanctuary.

Sometimes the system was straight­forward and direct. For example, there is a large group of figurines from the Sanctuary that were manu­factured in the fine, pale cream-colored clay of Corinth. Among these figurines are several types represented by runs of seven or eight from the same mold (Fig. 3); they have a consistency of craftsmanship suggestive of a single workshop. It is striking that these mold-related figur­ines should remain together so far away from their place of origin, and the implication that they traveled as a group directly to the Sanctuary from a workshop in Corinth is very strong. Perhaps the knowledge of an up­coming festival prompted a traveler to invest in a basketful of figurines to sell as votive offerings at the distant port of Cyrene.

This evidence for the direct trans­mission of goods from Corinth to Cyrene is in contrast to that pre­sented by numerous fragments of well-crafted figurines and figurative perfume vessels of a fine, dusky rose or orange colored clay, rich in small particles of mica (Fig. 2). This clay has recently been shown to have originated in the East Greek city of Miletus (Jones 1985:873). This city was a center of a vigorous perfume industry. Figurative vessels were manufactured there as perfume con­tainers, and undoubtedly, the scented oils they contained played a role in the cultic activities surrounding the worship of Demeter and Persephone. Among the groups of figurative vessels from the Sanctuary, the ab­sence of mold sequences (i.e., figur­ines coming from the same or similar mold) and the striking inconsisten­cies in craftsmanship, indicative of different workshops, strongly sug­gest that these Milesian products came to the Sanctuary by way of a long and complicated trade route. Sold and resold all along the eastern Mediterranean coast, figurines from related mold families were separated as they formed part of the merchan­dise of many small markets and bazaars before arriving at the Sanc­tuary. Cyrene may have been one of the final outposts of such a circuitous trading network.

Evidence for Influences from Abroad

Toward the end of the 8th century B.C., the finely crafted East Greek perfume vases and figurines from Miletus were no longer available to the inhabitants of Cyrene, perhaps because of the Persian advance and the consequent disruption of trade toward the latter part of the 8th century. Even so, some of the Mile­sian types were imitated at Cyrene and remained in production for several decades.

Shortly after the beginning of the 5th century, a new type of seated female figure became fixed as the standard votive type at the Sanctuary and replaced the older Milesian products. This new type also was exported from East Greece, but its exact place of origin still remains unknown. Scores of imported ex­amples found their way to the Sanc­tuary to be extensively imitated by local artisans (Fig. 8). This model, a simple figure lacking detail in any part but the head, lent itself to rapid mass-production.

The cotoplasts (see box) at Cyrene were also influenced by the presence of Athenian types, especially the standing or seated peplophoros repre­senting a woman wearing a simple garment known as a peplos (Fig. 7). Local imitations of these began to appear at the Sanctuary around the middle of the 5th century. Later 5th century examples of Athenian peplo­phoroi are accompanied by figurines of hydtophoroi, also from Athens; they represent women carrying water vessels on their heads.

One would like to see in the popularity of these Athenian types a reflection of a general Athenian influence on the culture of Cyrene. This certainly was the case with the coins, which were minted on the Athenian standard. Yet, it was just at this time that the quantity of Athenian pottery recovered at the Sanctuary appears to be considerably dimin­ished, and the indication is that commercial ties between Athens and the Cyrenaica, as well as between Athens and many other centers, may have grown appreciably weaker. It is ironic that just when the trafficking of Athenian pottery around the Medi­terranean appears to have been cur­tailed, Athenian terracotta types are the most often imitated at scores of coroplastic centers. The presence of Athenian types at the Sanctuary cannot be taken for evidence of commercial contact with Athens as they are merely a local manifestation of a widespread phenomenon that can be documented at votive de­posits throughout the Mediterranean.

Later, in the early 4th century B.C., certain terracotta types from Sicily that have been connected with the worship of Persephone as Queen of the Dead began to influence coroplasts at Cyrene; it appears that the Underworld aspects of the goddess. of fertility were becoming morel prominent. (This modification of the cult of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene is also expressed in inscript tions and stone sculpture.) Local versions of a female figure some times holding a piglet and wearing polos (a cylindrical crown) decorated with rows of rosettes in relief are very close to their Sicilian counterpart, even though no actual Sicilian in ports of the type have been found t. date. Both pig and polos are believe by some to symbolize the Under world aspect of the goddesses (se Uhlenbrock 1988). Another serif< representing a female figure carrying a piglet at her side and a basket on he head (Fig. 11) is also a version of type known in Sicily and southern Italy. In addition, fragments of large faces having a somber expression may belong to life-size shoulder busts of the types known from eastern and southern Sicily and be­lieved to represent Persephone. Seemingly unrelated to the worship of Persephone is a comic figure also from Sicily representing a phlyax, or burlesque, actor with padded belly and exposed genitals (Fig. 10).

Figurines found to date at the Sanc­tuary from the Hellenistic period, i.e., the last three centuries before the Christian era, suggest that products from Athens continued to play a role in the workshops at Cyrene. The most popular Athenian types to be imitated were draped female figures in the Tanagra style. This is a style based on the secularization of the motif of the female figure, with an emphasis on cosmopolitan charm and grace. Accompanying these “Tana­ gras” were occasional imports again from the Hellenistic East, such as the figurine of a youth whose delicately modeled head reveals the workman­ship of coroplasts from Myrina (Fig. 9). Figurines of comic actors, Aphro­dite and members of her entourage, dancers, and musicians illustrate that the coroplasts at Cyrene were not immune to the artistic stimuli coming from the Hellenistic East that were felt almost universally throughout the Greek world.

The Native Cyrenean Production

The most popular type of terra­cotta figurine produced by local coroplasts at every phase in the history of the Sanctuary was that of the seated female figure. This type constitutes nearly 75 percent of all terracottas thus far recovered. The majority depict a generic type of draped, seated female wearing a high or low polos (Fig. 12), with a phiole, or offering dish, sometimes held in her lap, or occasionally a piglet carried in her arms (Fig. 13). There is good reason to believe that official cult statues of goddesses most often represented them en­throned (see Kane, this issue), and the presence of the bolos and the piglet may support the argument that this seated female represents Demeter or Persephone. Also found was at least one figurine of a woman holding an adolescent child on her lap. This calls to mind a stone relief recovered from the Sanctuary showing a similar motif. It may be that both are minor votive versions of some well-known monumental cult statue now lost.

While the majority of the terra­cotta types found at the Sanctuary represent a generic type of seated female suitable for the worship of any goddess, at least several others appear to have evolved in direct response to the particularly local needs of the inhabitants of Cyrene. This is the case with the so-called silphium-holders, which depicts a standing female figure clutching a leafy plant stalk to her breast (Fig. 14), or holding it down at her side, while in the other hand she holds a small vessel. Silphium, a plant that grew wild in the area around Cyrene, was highly prized for the medicinal value of the juice extracted from its roots and stalk. Exported in quantity throughout the Greek world, it was an important factor in the economic development of early Cyrene. Its profitable production no doubt was closely allied to the cult of Demeter, the goddess of fertility, and her daughter Persephone (see box on silphium in “The Sanctuary’s History and Architecture,” this issue).

Offerings of silphium must have been made at the Sanctuary, along with terracottas that may represent votaries carrying stalks of the valued plant, and the small vessels in which its juice was stored. It is of interest that the silphium-holder as a type was developed only toward the end of the 5th century and continued to appear in votive contexts around Cyrene with increasing frequency in the 4th century and later. This was the time during which the silphium fields were decreasing both in size and in yield, and figurines of silphium-holder must have repre­sented a preoccupation with the threatened productivity of the crop.

Large terracotta bull and horse heads also were found at the Sanc­tuary and represent a class of votives not normally associated with De­meter and Persephone, whose animal par excellence was the pig. Figurines of pigs in both terracotta and stone were uncovered among the votives (Fig. 15), and the bones of sacrificed pigs were in the majority for them faunal remains from the Sanctuary. Yet the bull and horse heads remind us that stockbreeding was a vital part of the economy of Cyrene and must have been placed under the protec­tion of the fertility goddesses, whose. realm encompassed the growth ands reproductive forces of Nature in all its aspects (see box on Demeter and Persephone in “The Sanctuary’, History and Architecture”).

The finds from the Sanctuary suggest that the nature of religious expression may have changed during the Hellenistic period. The terra­cottas thus far recovered document a sharp slackening off of the practice of offering terracotta figurines to the goddesses. This is accompanied by an increase in the offerings of stone sculpture and by a monumentalization of the architectural character of the Sanctuary.

By the end of the 1st century B.C. terracotta figurines were offered only occasionally at the Sanctuary, although further exploration at the site may alter this view. The thou­sands of figurines once placed before the goddesses already had ceased to be a presence centuries before. Econ­omic and social conditions may have been such that the craft of the coroplast no longer was considered an appropriate vehicle for religious expression. Thus, buried and inadver­tently incorporated into building fill, thousands of terracotta figurines, representing the thanks and aspira­tions of twenty generations, were preserved, if only in precious frag­ments, to provide us with a glimpse of cult, economy, and society in ancient Cyrene.

Cite This Article

Uhlenbrock, Jaimee P.. "History, Trade, and the Terracottas." Expedition Magazine 34, no. 1-2 (July, 1992): -. Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/history-trade-and-the-terracottas/


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