Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Greek Terracotta Figurines with Articulated Limbs

Terracotta figurines were rather familiar objects to the ancient Greeks. Fragments and complete pieces found in the course of archaeological excavations form the primary basis for our understanding of how the figurines were used. They stood in houses as mere decorations, or served as cult images in small house shrines; some of them functioned as charms to ward off evil. They were brought to temples and sanctuaries as offerings to the gods and deposited in graves as cherished possessions of the deceased, gifts, or as protective devices.

Among the numerous types of Greek terracotta figurines, one group stands out. These are figurines with jointed or movable limbs; this means that their legs, arms (01.13.1, .2), and sometimes even heads were made separately and attached to the body after firing. Statuettes of this type represent a class common all over the Greek and Roman world during all periods. Such figurines existed in Greece as early as the tenth century B.C., were widely popular in Cyprus from the eighth century B.C. onward (74.51.1613; 74.51.1614; 74.51.1655; 74.51.1691), and continued down through the Roman period. The vast majority of these figurines have suspension holes on top of their heads; the dangling arms and legs were in motion when the figurines were shaken or hung. The movement of the limbs certainly lent vitality to a figurine, while adding a magical aspect.

Terracotta figurines with articulated limbs are often described as dolls or children’s toys, and are sometimes thought to have been dressed in clothes. While one cannot simply dismiss these assumptions, it must be pointed out that this hypothesis is based on an inaccurate reading of an ancient epigram, which was originally interpreted to say that a girl named Timareta dedicated to the goddess (at a sanctuary) her dolls and their dresses. However, more recently it has been convincingly argued that she in fact dedicated her hair and her own clothing. Another point to be made against the figurines being play things is that they are too fragile (11.212.43) to be constantly handled by children. The fact that these “dolls” are often discovered in the graves of adults indicates their possible chthonic connection or apotropaic function. In addition, the movement these figurines were capable of when swinging, as well as the clanking noise they produced, might have made them attractive charms.

Given so many choices, it is rather difficult to define a single purpose for the articulated figurines. The fact that they could move would seem to be essential to understanding their function and meaning, which have not been satisfactorily explained thus far.