Opinion |

Archaeology Has a Problem With Females and Figurines in Israel and the Levant

Archaeologists are wrong to assume that ‘nude female’ figurines found from Cyprus to Israel and beyond, dating to a vast span in time, must pertain to fertility and can be a source of data on childbearing in antiquity

Stephanie Lynn Budin
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Fertility figurines? Maybe, maybe not
Fertility figurines (at the Israel Museum)? Maybe, maybe notCredit: Ruth Schuster
Stephanie Lynn Budin

It started with a chapter, Rona Avissar Lewis’s “‘In Sorrow Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children’: Archaeological Perspectives on Delivery Practices in Canaan and Cyprus.” 

Then there was the Haaretz article by Ruth Schuster on the chapter,  “Birth Rites in Canaan: The Enigma of the Nude Female Figurines.” And finally came the podcast on the article in This Week in the Ancient Near East: “Where Did Babies Come from in the Iron Age, or, Biblical Archaeology Smokes a Cigar in the Waiting Room,” featuring the historians and archaeologists Alex Joffe, J.P. Dessel and Rachel Hallote.

What the chapter has done, followed by the newspaper article and the podcast, is to chuck 50 years of women’s studies and feminist archaeology out the window.

The chapter and podcast (done by professional archaeologists) claim to present archaeological evidence on childbirth in the ancient Levant and, to a much lesser extent, Cyprus. Part of the aim is to learn more about a critical aspect of women’s lives in the ancient world and to understand how a biological fact – childbirth – can differ culturally amongst different populations.

This is an important and often understudied topic, as noted over a decade ago by archaeologist Ruth Whitehouse in her 2007 essay “Gender Archaeology and Archaeology of Women: Do We Need Both?” wherein she observed: “Feminist archaeology has its own blind spots and taboos, comparable to, though naturally different from those that characterize mainstream and largely androcentric archaeology. One of these is the neglect of biology and especially reproduction and motherhood… The true taboo in feminist archaeology, or at least in what I have characterized as the European variety, is the ‘M-word’: motherhood.”

So: kudos for the attempt. But the topic was utterly mangled. The critical failure comes down to the treatment of sources and most importantly how these scholars approached the subject of nude female figurines.

Put simply: The chapter and the podcast assumed – just assumed – that the exceptionally wide variety of nude female terracotta figurines (and, incidentally, other media) all pertained to fertility, specifically human women’s fertility, and were a source of data on ancient childbearing.

Nude female clutching the ears of lions on a cult stand from TaanachCredit: Paul Butler
Nude female faience figurine from EgyptCredit: Paul Butler

From Italy to India

For background: There is a category of images from the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world that show a nude female who is usually presented facing the viewer. She may be a goddess, based on divine attributes such as wings or standing on a lion (not recommended for mortals), or possibly just a human.

From her early origins in southern Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium (after a brief hiatus in female imagery from around 2800–2600 B.C.E.), she appears with a plethora of arm postures, ranging from clasped under her breasts, to stretched out to the sides, to holding the breasts, to indicating breast and pudenda, to held down the sides of the body, to even, quite rarely, holding a baby or a disk to the chest, or animals and/or flowers out to the side.

She may appear in the round, be mold-made, be rendered in clay or metal or glass or ivory, appear on cylinder seals, and depending on the medium, belongs to all levels of society and can be found in homes, graves, garbage heaps, and the occasional shrine. She appears from Italy to India, from the Bronze Age through the Hellenistic period.

The probability that a nude female clutching the ears of lions on a cult stand from Taanach, a nude child-holding image from Horoztepe, a nude female faience figurine from Egypt, a terracotta plaque from Gezer, and an anthropomorphic jar handle from Kish are all the same thing is, honestly, quite low. The suggestion that these all pertain to fertility is groundless.

Anthropomorphic jar handle from Kish Credit: Paul Butler

And yet, this is what is presented in the above-mentioned publications. We hear Hallote claim, “Nude females are more obviously fertility related than horse and riders” and “at various points various figurines represent different stages of fertility”. Likewise, Avissar Lewis writes: “[T]here are many types of female figurines, which are understood as related to fertility due to the emphasis on organs relating to fertility. In most of these figurines, it is impossible to determine at which state of the birth process these figurines were associated… Frontal nudity is a main characteristic of these figurines, which may be erotic or may be a symbol of fertility.”

With the exception of some third-millennium B.C.E. terracotta figurines from Mesopotamia and Late Bronze Age “Bird Face” figurines from Cyprus, no examples of the nude female have emphasized sexual attributes. There is no “emphasis on organs relating to fertility.”

In fact, the nude female might be seen in stark contrast with figurines of females who are shown pregnant – such as the Phoenician so-called dea gravida, who is consistently clothed; Archaic Cypriot figurines that depict parturition (also clothed); and depictions of women nursing, which do not conform to the “nude female” type and are often clothed themselves.

Nude child-holding image from HoroztepeCredit: Paul Butler

The artifacts that can be best understood as relating to all aspects of the birthing process stand in contrast to the nude female image in her plethora of manifestations. But these scholars turn to the nude female figurine for data on ancient childbirth. It is a methodological mishap.

Naked (woman) doesn’t equal sex

The problem seems to be the nudity. What, after all, does the naked female body mean? Well, according to Avissar Lewis up there, either eroticism or fertility. The Haaretz article about the chapter reflected the sentiment, writing that “Others suspect that at least some of the nude-woman figurines were Bronze Age erotica. Perhaps the association between the female statuettes of the Levant and fertility – as opposed to erotica – is an artifact of our time, not theirs.”

By way of emphasis, the article presents a plaque of a couple having sex – quite explicit, and nothing at all like the nude female figurines under actual discussion. If the Mesopotamians wanted to be direct about sex, they certainly could be: We don’t have to look for eroticism in a nude female grasping lion ears on a cult implement.

Basically, as far as these scholars are concerned, and despite a plethora of scholarship over the past 20 years showing otherwise, the female body is something a man has sex with to get a child. The female body is a monolithic object resisting change over the course of millennia, throughout multiple ancient societies, and in spite of a considerable degree of variation in presentation (lions, babies, etc.).

This is not how we approach the naked male body. In Mesopotamia we see that the naked male is probably a cult functionary or a defeated captive, while in Egypt a naked man at work just depicts daily reality; in Greece the “heroic” nude is a manifestation of perfection. The naked male body does not relate to how it might be of use to a woman. Such is not the case for naked women.

Judahite pillar figurineCredit: Paul Butler

Nor do the archaeologists look at the iconographic distinctions and contexts that might reveal the meaning of these icons. Consider the Judean Pillar Figurine (JPF), the pillar-based statuettes of a woman from Iron Age Judah. Avissar Lewis claims incorrectly that they are naked with hands that “support” the breasts. That JPFs are naked is unlikely considering the “skirt” nature of their bases, the lack of genitalia or navels, and the use of paint that may have indicated clothing. And the hands do not necessarily “support” the breasts: they are under the breasts, and there is a long tradition of nude female figurines and other images in the ancient Near East that show a person or deity with the hands held under the breasts/pectorals that simply seems to indicate polite attention. One could just as easily argue for that meaning here, in which case it isn’t even a gendered gesture.

The podcasters also note the breasts, relating them to lactation in spite of the fact that only one known JPF appears with a baby, and that on her back, not at her breast.

No notice is taken that the pillar-shaped base is identical to that of the contemporary horse-and-rider and dove figurines, or that the JPFs were discovered in caves and garbage dumps as well as houses and graves from the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C.E. during a period of Assyrian-induced crisis in Judah. Furthermore, several JPFs hold disks, which Carol Meyers and Sarit Paz have suggested are drums, based on biblical stories of a victory dance (e.g. “And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances” – Judges 11:34). Perhaps these images pertained to ethnic identity or potential military victory. A political meaning, not fertility.

Motherhood in ancient Cyprus

Late Bronze Age Cypriot Bird Face figurine Credit: Paul Butler

What about Cyprus, the supposedly other area of interest for the original chapter? The Late Bronze Age Bird Face figurines have all the qualities our archaeologists were seeking: nudity with serious emphasis on the genitalia and in one third of the examples holding babies.

These figurines probably have a lot to say about notions of maternity and the possible existence of a mother goddess or cult of ancestors, especially as iconography of nurturing mothers is so longstanding in Cyprus, dating from the Early Bronze Age through the 13th century B.C.E. In fact, the Cypriots kept this iconography even when they imported a whole new style of nude female figurine from Syria, a style that never held babies. These don’t even appear in Avissar Lewis’s chapter.

In the podcast, the professional archaeologists state that these items, in fact, any items from Cyprus, are just “very, very wild stuff… crazy”, unique, because Cyprus is so “isolated.” Cyprus, the cross-roads of the ancient world, which directly adopted its nude female figurines specifically from the Orontes valley, a Syrian subtype, is somehow crazy, isolated, and unique.

One can argue which is worse, the absence or the misrepresentation, but both reveal a pretty bad level of engagement with the source materials.

Orontes Valley style figurine from EblaCredit: Paul Butler

For the record, it is a shame that none of the archaeologists paid more attention to Cyprus, which reveals a full spectrum of iconographic evidence on all phases of human reproduction, highlighting different aspects during different periods. From Chalcolithic Kissonerga near Old Paphos comes a hoard of objects pertaining to childbirth, including several female figurines in various stages of pregnancy and parturition as well as a model birthing stool. The same region brought to light stone pendants of women crouched in childbirth. In the Early Bronze Age depictions of nurturing mothers begin, shown individually or in group contexts.

The gold standard for reproductive iconography appears on a jar said to have been discovered at Marki and now in the Pierides Collection in Larnaca, which shows (amongst other human depictions) a couple having sex, the same woman pregnant, and that same woman again giving birth. Finally, in the heavily Hellenized Archaic Age come the parturient figurines addressed by Avissar Lewis.

All these iconographic data are complemented by studies on infant and child mortality that reveal a wealth of material on ancient maternity. Thus, for the LBA, C. Jack Moyer wrote in 1989 on evidence from excavations at Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios and Episkopi-Bamboula that a significant percentage of the population died before age five. Of the 34 bodies identified at Ayios-Dhimitrios, nine (26 percent) were of infants and toddlers, and another five (15 percent) were aged five to ten. Of the 81 individuals studied from Bamboula, 16 percent were aged under 5 years. Furthermore, data from these cemeteries indicate that the next most common age at death occurred in the early 20s at Ayios-Dhimitrios, mid 20s–mid 30s at Bamboula.

Credit: Ruth Schuster

Thus Moyer concludes that: “In all probability this increase in mortality reflects the higher percentage of female deaths attributable to childbearing, where those women with obstetric and gynaecological problems would be selected out of the population. The reason for this increase being seen earlier and more dramatically in the Ay. Dhimitrios series may be…an earlier age of marriage and childbearing, or conceivably, differences in the technological understanding of childbearing.”

Yet Avissar Lewis simply claimed that “it is rare to find buried children’s bones.”

From Chalcolithic Kissonerga near Old Paphos, Cyprus: Early depiction of nurturingCredit: Paul Butler

Seek the truth, even if it’s complicated

We are left with a construction of womankind – the female body – that reeks of Victorian, Cambridge School ideologies, the very ideologies that modern Theory is supposed to correct.

It is not just that we have no evidence that the nude female icon is associated with fertility; we have copious data that it does not. The figurines do not appear pregnant; they do not appear giving birth; they rarely appear with children (especially in the Levant); they do not appear lactating; they can be contrasted with actual scenes of erotica, pregnancy, parturition, and lactation. Never mind the fact that ancient texts attribute fertility to males – NOT females – to begin with. But, the thinking goes, if one sub-category is depicted holding her breasts, what else can they possibly be? What else would a woman even care about?

Because, apparently, women are simply baby-producing objects with few other concerns. For Avissar Lewis, “It is very reasonable that a family, particularly the woman, would do everything they could in order to have a child, including prayers and cultic practices, so it is not surprising to find many female figurines connected to fertility.” Likewise “These figurines show household cultic activity as likely oriented toward fertility as a whole and toward female fertility in particular, suggesting an interest in helping women conceive or succeed in delivery.” The author never does present any evidence that the figurines were related to cult, by the way. Even more distressing from a modern, feminist perspective is Hallote’s final words on the topic in the podcast: “If you want to be accepted in society in ancient terms and really in modern terms too, you need to be a wife and mother, otherwise you don’t have that role that everybody around you has. And, you know, as much as we would like to say we evolved past that in modern society, I think for the vast amount of human women worldwide that’s still the case.”

Terracotta plaque from GezerCredit: Paul Butler

Modern academia really does need more studies on ancient maternity, and more work on ancient women in general. But this is not the way to do it. Embodied woman – the woman as represented by her (nude) body – is not a single-meaning entity across time, space, and culture. Myriad variations in the ancient world are sufficient to make this clear. Modern scholars need to avoid presenting the answers that are easiest because of habit and engage with the actual data in all its complexity. If we are not willing to put forth effort to seek the truth, what is our purpose?

Stephanie Lynn Budin, author of Images of Woman and Child in the Bronze Age (Cambridge University Press) and editor of Woman in Antiquity: Real Woman across the Ancient World (Routledge).

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