The Social Lives of Figurines – Recontextualizing the Third–Millennium–BC Terracotta Figurines from Harappa

Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. 86.

Of all the untapped veins to mine in ancient Indus studies, none may be as rich as the thousands of figurines excavated from all sites. They are a direct manifestation of characters, gods, toys, the real and imaginary in clay and stone of the ancient Indus world. They may say more about the culture than anything but its writing.

Sharri R. Clark’s The Social Lives of Figurines Recontextualizing the Third–Millennium–BC Terracotta Figurines from Harappa is a brilliant and original study of the facts. As an excavator at Harappa, she was there when these precious manifestations of belief, desire and function were brought up from the earth. She had the diligence to be one of the key people tallying all these objects into a coherent registry and probe what they may tell us of their makers. Part of the in-depth work of the Harappa Archaeological Research Project (HARP), she tries to focus on chaine operatoire, the "ordered series of actions, gestures and processes in a production sequence," (p. 63) that led to these figurines.

HARP replicated the production of many of these objects, on the site with traditional craftsmen, an important feature of the analysis. "I worked with local potters Mohammed Nawaz (son of Variam) and Mohammed Zamaan (son of Kangi) and their apprentice Mohammed Bashir (son of Shamand) as they attempted to reproduce some of the terracotta figurines excavated from archeological contexts at Harappa," writes Clark (p. 69). By learning how potters made the pieces they dug up, Clark and the many graduate students she worked with over the years gained great insight into how ancient objects were also made. As Clark points out, more than half of all Indus figurines unearthed – about 2,500 – are from Harappa, many of them together with context and dates unavailable from other Indus sites. Did we mention that in many cases the latest investigative techniques like isotope analysis are also used?

This is a major and completely unique work. In the course of laying out the evidence, The Social Lives of Figurines clears away many cobwebs of assumption and speculation about Indus figurines.

One of the most interesting summary findings is the "unusual anti-'core' construction of many of the Harappan figurines [which] suggests that the figurine tradition of the Indus civilization was indigenous to South Asia" (p. 303). In other words, Harappan figurine manufacturers took two pieces of clay and put them together to start hand-forming a figurine; they rarely used moulds, although these were used for other objects like seals; many of the figurines were of animal forms; "these unusual manufacturing choices seem to indicate ideological rather than practical choices [Author's emphasis]" (p. 303).

She goes on to speculate as to whether "constructing some of the figurines from two joined halves symbolized an Indus concept of duality, a component of many early civilizations belief systems" (p. 303). Similarly, the use of burned bone for pigments, even when mineral pigments were used in pottery, also suggests some sort of ideological basis for choices made by a society and its craftsmen. It is this kind detail, derived from a large corpus of figurines (instead of the handful often used in to make a point), that allows Clark to pull together fascinating insights and offer well-evidenced directions for further analysis and interpretation.

The picture that emerges is of a complex society where – she quotes Arjun Appadurai in her Introduction – figurines are commodities, which "are things in a certain social situation . . . commodities [things], like persons, have social lives . . .."

Clark shows that despite the fact that so many figurines were found in trash deposits, they were also found with other objects in non-trash deposits, and the reallocation of debris over time at Harappa lessens the validity of assumptions that the figurines were in widespread usage. They seem to have been more popular during the height of Indus civilization, Period 3, and majority were "anthropomorphic females and cattle figurines, each with an identifiable format and stylistic changes over time that appear to be related to the rise of urbanization at the site and its 'Indusization'" (p. 302). The cattle tradition is in some ways the the predominance of the figure across the Near East, but why not? We can expect cattle, which also dominate Indian rock art in the tens of thousands of years before the Indus civilization to have been critical to the rise of complex human culture - yet "the fact that at Harappa most figurines represent humped cattle and some represent animals such as rhinoceros (and unicorns) makes the zoomorphic figurine tradition uniquely Indus as well" (p. 303). The predominance of female and cattle figurines, at every level as Clark notes, extends from pre-Indus (3330 BCE) to the Gupta period (4-6th century CE).

There are also large discrepancies in what animals are turned into clay and what animals existed in the world the Indus people were surrounded by – only one fish figurine has been found, although they are so plentiful in the diet! On the other hand, "although some of the cattle, sheep, birds, and other figurines may represent that Indus natural world as well, the fact that water buffalo, rhinoceros, and large felines are so frequently represented in the Indus figurine corpus seems to indicate that these animals, among others, were important in an ideological, and perhaps mythological, sense to the Indus people" (p. 306).

Clark also takes on the "Mother Goddess" myth that many of the female figurines are supposedly tied to; that globular figurines depict pregnant women or goddesses; that incense was burned in some of their headdresses. Have any horse figurines have been found? The evidence is a resounding no. "The broken figurines depicted as horses in publications from some other Indus sites may be broken cattle figurines instead, given the similarities in form" writes Clark (p. 308).

The careful organization, many illustrations, extensive intelligence and refusal to push ideological or well-worn assumptions, and unmatched trove of data to back its analysis makes The Social Life of Figurines an essential and amazing contribution to ancient Indus studies.