Female Figurines in Roman Karanis: An Agentive Approach

In: Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas
Author: Lara Weiss


Ancient Egyptian religious texts describe the carrier medium as a vital part of religious imagery, and precious materials like gold and lapis lazuli are often highlighted in this context. In everyday life, however, images were usually made of non-precious materials and the technology used was less refined. A few images were carved in limestone, others were made of painted pebbles, or textile and papyrus; the majority being terracotta figurines. The value of these images was apparently ascribed, rather than based on the market value of the material used. Instead of stating the perhaps obvious significance of any religious image, the pragmatism detected in the former practice is relevant indeed. It relates to the question of whether the same pragmatism applies to the method of production of these divine images: Stone and terracotta figurines were most probably manufactured by specialised craftsmen (perhaps in temple workshops); other terracotta figurines were hand-moulded. Magical texts represent handmade figurines, also made by professionals, as mere tools, and tailored for a specific ritual use only, but this rather restricted use seems not to be the case in the domestic context.

In fact, little evidence is available on the production of divine imagery in general. The identification of both producers and consumers of divine and/or ritual images is therefore vital for the understanding of a possible conceptual difference in use. Whereas complex rituals were probably not performed by just anybody, the creation of smaller images was generally not limited to religious specialists. Consequently, the question is: who made his/her own images, for what purpose, and who did not. The appearance of hand-moulded imagery could indicate a greater personal contribution represented in the agent’s effort in creating the divine; or, it could simply be an inexpensive alternative. Likewise, if displayed, purchased and perhaps more expensive figurines could enhance the owner’s status, or betray a lower personal involvement. The texts remain silent on such issues. It is, therefore, particularly challenging to analyse, by drawing on the archaeological record, the question of whether hand-moulded and professionally manufactured images were conceptualised differently. In the present article, the figurines of Roman Karanis will be used as a case study.


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