Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
We share an almost irresistible urge to touch objects and hold them in our hands. This was no less true for our ancient cousins than it is for us today. Our guest this episode takes us into the material world we look at making and breaking was clay dead or alive?
We are surrounded by images often digital. in Mesopotamia images were less common. So they often meant more. And they existed in very tactile form. What images did they create? What did those images mean to them? How do they use them? And how do we know any of this? It’s natural to interpret objects and images based on what feels normal to us. But that’s not always a reliable guide. We need other tools to these are part of what separates scholarship from pseudoscience.
Our guest is an archaeologist. She’s an expert in images, and especially the material nature of images. she introduces us to the world of terracotta is there an ever present part of Mesopotamian life found throughout history, and every site. These small clay models are reflections of ancient hopes and fears. They bring us closer to the people of the ancient Middle East.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable. And let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you very much for joining us.
Hi, Jon. Great to be here. And I’m looking forward to talk a little bit about my research today.
Could you tell us please? Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Elisa Rossberger. I’m a Near Eastern archaeologist and I work at the University of Munich. My research is mostly concerned with early Mesopotamia, that is the third and second millennium BCE. What mostly interests me are ancient images: not only what is depicted, but also the ways these images were made, how they were used, by whom, and in what contexts. Over the last couple of years, I conducted a postdoc[toral] project on terracotta plaques from southern Iraq. But right now I’m getting started with a new project which is about cylinder seals and about digital methods of dealing with them.
Let’s start with some basics. I imagine everyone will understand that a terracotta is some sort of object made of clay. But in the ancient Middle Eastern world, what more specifically do we mean when we say terracotta?
It is just as you said, terracotta translates simply as baked earth and you could principally call all kinds of things made of clay and fired to terracotta. But of course, we generally don’t do so. And in archaeology, we use the term for small clay objects that have an artistic touch most importantly figurines, miniature objects or relief plaques. So when I talk about terracottas, I talk about mostly figurative artworks that were very cheap and very easy to produce, especially when you live in a region like southern Mesopotamia, where clay is just everywhere around you. And there is another big advantage of terracottas not only for the ancients, but also for us as archaeologists today, and that is their durability. You can simply dry something made of clay in the sun or you throw it into a fire and then it turns into something which is really hard and resistant over time. In the ancient Near East, clay figurines appear as early as 10,000 BCE. These early figurines were not fired, and are sometimes barely recognisable as human or animal forms. But still, I find it quite remarkable how far back in time you can trace the human need to create miniatures that look like him or herself.
Fired clay figurines started off during the so called late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods from the seventh to the fifth millennium BCE. Then there was a time span of about 2000 years in which barely any figurines were produced. They regain popularity only from the third millennium onwards, when also the production of cuneiform tablets, statues and cylinder seals was at a height. Terracottas were extremely popular and Babylonia and Assyria during the early second millennium. This is the period in which I’m most interested in. And then also in the first half of the first millennium BC.
I don’t want to get lost in chronological details here. And maybe I should also answer your question “what are terracottas?” from another, a more philosophical perspective, in the sense of “what did making it possessing a terracotta mean to ancient people?” When you ever tried forming a figurine for wet clay, you will know the great attraction that lies in the simplicity of their making, how you can easily give it a shape of your own choice. And then you have this magical effect. When a malleable mass turns into something durable, something that you can hold in your hand and it looks like a little man or little woman or an animal. And eventually, it may also be fun to break it.
This universally human experience of being able to shape random things, of truly creating something new, finds echo in some of the earliest surviving stories about the creation of mankind. You find that story in the Bible, but you already have it in the Old Babylonian Atramhasis Epic, which was written about 1800 BC in southern Mesopotamia. There a goddess, that is the goddess Mami, takes clay from the steppe and she mixes it with the blood from a god and forms the first human being. In a sense, she’s making the first terracotta figurine and thereby starts the history of mankind. So there is this very fundamental connection between clay and the human flesh. And there is this notion that you can form from clay whatever you want, and making something of clay becomes synonymous with the power to create. Today, we are trying to make this very sharp distinction between living and dead matter. But this is not a conceptual divide that existed in ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, where images were perceived of as very potent and very powerful actors in all kinds of circumstances. In one of the earlier episodes of the Thin End of the Wedge podcast, Dahlia Shehata was talking about the mythical Anzu bird who stole the Tablet of Destinies. And this tablet made him so powerful that his words could turn somebody into clay and thus destroy or kill him. Other texts also refer to the smashing of enemies like clay figurines, or to dissolve the person who breaches a contract like a figurine in water.
And one more thing we must keep in mind when we talk about the ancient Near East, and ancient Babylonia specifically, is that we talk about a world in which very few images existed. When they did exist, they were of miniature size, like cylinder seals, or they were installed in temples or places (that) where barely anybody could see them. This was a situation completely different from ours today, where we are flooded by images from all sides, and we tend to pay little attention to the material nature or their making. When we think of figurines, we think of plastic toys like Lego or Barbies, which were mass produced and simply served to entertain our children. Coming from such a background, we tend to forget that making handling and breaking images that look like living beings, was almost inevitably a meaningful act. Terracottas back then may have been cheap and easy to produce, but in no way were they meaningless or useless toys.
What different kinds of terracotta are there?
There were two major kinds of terracotta is in ancient Mesopotamia. First, three-dimensionally rendered figurines and second, rather flat mold-made plaques. I already talked about the hand-modelled figurines a little bit. So they range from very crude versions to more elaborate ones, and they could be fired or left and fired. The second type, the terracotta plaques, were pressed in negative molds. This is a bit more complicated, it’s a two or even three step production process. First you have to carve an image in the round, then you have to produce a negative mold from it. This mold you have to fire to make it hard enough, resistible enough, that in the final step, you can press wet clay into the mold, and then again you have a positive version of the original. You can then decide what to do about the back but usually, it was just flattened out. So in comparison to hand-modelled figurine making that you do on the spot, and having a result, which is always sort of individual, the production of terracotta plaques requires some preparation, some professional knowledge also. But you’ll have new possibilities to render more complicated motifs, and to use that motifs for more than one plaque. It offers you the opportunity to produce identical images in a very economic fashion. So the step from figurines to plaques is a great technological advance, which took place in the late third millennium BC. But we have to keep in mind that hand-modelled figurines still continue to be produced, and they obviously continue to serve specific cultural needs, which could not be covered by the plaques. And these needs were mostly in the realms of ritual and magic actions.
What images did they choose? What did people want to see?
The most important topics throughout the long history of terracotta production in Mesopotamia was surely the human form. Usually, figurines appear naked with gender differences clearly marked and in most periods, it’s female figurines that outnumber male or unsexed figurines. With the beginning of the plaque production in the early second millennium, the variety of motifs increases significantly. We still find a lot of naked women and sometimes naked men, but also various gods and goddesses priestesses, kings, musicians, performers, and of course animals and composite beings like the bull-man or the lion-griffin. Usually only one or two figures are depicted on a terracotta plaque. But there’s also some instances of more complex scenes that remind us of the cylinder seal iconography of the same period. What I find interesting is that some of the terracotta motifs seem to replicate large scale statuary or relief art that stood at temple entrances and inside the temples, for instance. So from the terracotta as we get quite a good idea about what aspects of that imagery and what figures in particular(ly) were important to people, so they would make small versions of it in clay and bring them to the homes
Who used these objects, how did they use them, and what did they use them for?
Frankly, we don’t know exactly, at least not as precisely as we would wish for, and especially not for all periods from which terracottas survive. But the case is relatively straightforward for the first millennium BC. In this period, we can be quite sure about their function, because we have texts that refer to them. And we also have inscriptions on the figurines themselves, that make them speak in a very literal sense. Clay dogs from Nineveh buried under the floor of an entrance, for example, are inscribed “I will bite you, intruder”. Or there are figurines in the shape of a guardian hero with inscriptions saying “go away evil, come in, good spirit”. And additionally, the ritual texts tell us that there are experts that made these figurines in various forms and from well-chosen materials to counter specific forms of evil that often manifested itself in diseases. And as we have seen with inscribed figurines, they’re very important to protect spaces, mostly palaces and temples, but also private houses.
As we go back in time, it’s getting more difficult to answer for the mid-second millennium. We have dog figurines and few of them have the name of the goddess Gula inscribed on them. Gula was the goddess of healing, and for sure she was important to the lives of many people. But generally, dedicating terracottas in front of a cult image in a temple, the sanctuary, was not a common practice in the ancient Near East, unlike in ancient Rome, Cyprus or Greece, for instance. But still, there’s a reasonably good argument we can build up for these pieces. This is different for the early second millennium, the period of my interest. While we have this wide variety of motifs, and I believe terracotta is also related to a variety of different spheres of action. I already mentioned the replication of cult images that were present at the temples, that were replicated in miniature clay form and brought to the houses of people. The same is true for small clay replicas of lion statues, of royal statuary, that also stood at the temples and now it has significance to have something of that form in the house.
What I haven’t mentioned so far, are terracottas, and in particular, small chariots and throne models that depict divine symbols. So it’s not a reference to a god or to goddess in an anthropomorphic form, but to an abstract symbol, for instance, the sun disc or the crescent of the moon god. And these were installed on top of poles and used as standards, which were important for traditional procedures for swearing oath, for instance, and court decisions more generally. So legal, traditional procedures may have been an important part of people’s lives that also involved terracotta plaques.
Another important topic that really concerned people back in these days, was the question how they could approach a god or goddess. Most likely, this could not be done in a direct manner, there was need for intermediaries, for figures that could mediate between this different spheres of being, between humans and the divine. I believe that the reason why we have so many terracotta plaques, depicting musicians and performers, lies in the fact that they were conceived of as such intermediaries. And I would even assume that the same is true for certain animals that appear on cylinder seals of this period, but also in terracotta plaques. And I’m talking about the monkey, for instance, which is not an animal that naturally lives in southern Mesopotamia, but clearly had a very important cultural role to play in the iconography of the early second millennium. I do have a couple of more ideas how individual motifs worked for the Old Babylonian people. But I won’t go into more details here. As I mentioned, I’m preparing a book on the topic, and all, absolutely all answers on questions you may have on the use of terracottas, will eventually be found there.
This opens up the bigger question of how we come to meaning. You mentioned that for first millennium examples, we have texts that explain how these objects were used. But for the earlier types, the second millennium examples that you’re interested in, we don’t have that kind of textual evidence. How do we work out what those images mean?
This is a good and a very important question. And it leads us straight into the heart of archaeological reasoning. There are several ways of coming to terms of iconography. The first road is the one that everybody takes when he or she sees an image. We use our intuition, our common sense or seemingly universal human understanding of what an image means. The reasons why we do so is quite obvious. It’s the fault of the images and of terracottas in particular. They look at us, they approach us, they trigger immediate reactions. And these reactions are often emotional and personal, leading consequently to intuitive and subjective interpretations. What we tend to forget, however, is how much our ways of seeing our intuition, our emotions even are culturally formed, so the categories into which we sort things and images may be completely different from that of early Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, this is how the interpretation of the terracottas has worked for a long time. And it is also the reason why most terracottas are simply interpreted as being fertility related, pornographic or apotropaic, in the widest sense of that word.
A way to overcome the situation or at least scientifically veil our preconceptions, is to formalise. That is, we sort images by formal criteria. We quantify their occurrences, we create typologies, and we look for the closest parallels across space and time. This remains a fundamental task in my eyes–in my eyes, an absolutely inevitable strategy to come to terms with patterns and interconnections between images and interconnections between image makers as well. You really need to get a formalised and a statistically reliable overview about the image production for a certain period as a whole, in order to find out something meaningful about specific forms or motifs. And when you’re lucky, the object or image you’re interested in has been found in an archaeologically meaningful context. That means we know something about the building in which it was found, about the objects that lay very close by or in the surroundings. And from that information, you arrive at what we call the “archaeological context”. And the archaeological context is, of course, very important for getting to a reliable judgment about meaning and function of an object or image. Unfortunately, the archaeological context issue is not so informative for terracottas, since they were basically found everywhere: in houses, at streets, in palaces, at temples. The only place where they were not found are graves, so they were not related to any sort of burial practices in ancient Mesopotamia.
The fourth and last road we can take, when trying to come to terms with interpretation of images is the combination of textual sources. And by textual sources, I mean not only the first millennial ritual texts that inform us directly about figurine use. I’m thinking more about the wealth of textual documentation that is available to us from the early second millennium, and which includes all kinds of literary texts, of proverbs, letters, legal documents. And many of them evoke certain mental images, and others even referred to actual material images. In my work on terracottas, I gain a lot from these textual sources. And I believe we should no longer draw this divide between people that could read and write, and on the other hand, people that just looked at images. And this goes for antiquity as well as for modern scholarship. So when you asked me “how do I arrive at a certain interpretation for terracotta plaques?”, all I can say is I’m trying to pull together these different threads. I try to avoid intuition. I definitely formalise and quantify the evidence at hand. I look into archaeological contexts. And then finally, I try to reconcile the archaeological, visual and textual information as good as I can.
What does the breaking of terracotta tell us? Were they made to be broken?
Yes, and no. It’s surely right that most terracottas that we find are broken. And they are usually broken at the same spots: at the necks or at the legs, for instance, of a figurine. For some terracotta types, these patterns of breakage are so obvious, so regular, that I’m quite sure that breaking them was part of the reasons they existed. But I would not say that their manufacturer included purposefully made weak or breaking points. Sometimes it’s even at the sturdiest part of the terracotta at which is broken. To do this, you would need a pointed tool and a hammer. And if you look at the terracottas in museums today, and I looked at a lot of them, you definitely find traces for this, proving that the breakage did not only happen incidentally, but was performed intentionally. So to return to our philosophical perspective, breaking could have been a way to let images perceived as powerful agents die, or remove them from the world of the living. For the unbaked figurines, in magical rituals, destroying them at the end of the ritual, by dissolving them in water was absolutely crucial for the ritual to become effective. But for the bake terracottas, I’m not quite sure that we can arrive at a straightforward answer to that question. Again, I really think we have to differentiate between motif groups and spheres of actions in which they were involved, at least for the second millennium … early second millennium. All I can do is again, refer to my forthcoming book. I hope I will have answers there.
You mentioned you’re writing a book about all this. When will we be able to read it?
Yeah, well, I would very much hope tomorrow, or next week. I’m really in the middle of writing it and I hope to finish it within the next year and hopefully that will come out the year after, so it is in the making. I’m quite happy with the results so far, but it’s not yet finished for publication. But I wrote several articles about terracotta topics. So parts of my work, parts of the ideas that I also presented here can already be found in some papers that were already published.
Where can we follow your work? Are you on Academia? Do you have a Twitter account?
Yes, both. I have a profile on Academia. I have a profile on Twitter as well. Very easy to find. It’s just my name, Elisa Rossberger. And to make it easier, it’s spelt with a double s, not with the German ẞ. I’m also represented on the institute’s homepage of the University of Munich Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology. And I have a new homepage, and I have a new Twitter account as well, which is called ACAWAI-CS, which is an acronym for a new project that I just started. And the project is named the Annotated Corpus of Ancient West Asian Imagery-Cylinder Seals. This already says that somehow my my interests, my obsessions of ancient imagery, start to shift. I’m more or less trying to finish up the work on terracottas, and I’m getting more into cylinder seals research. So I started this new website, I started this little Twitter account. And hopefully there’s also papers coming out, as well. And I would be happy to engage with everybody who’s interested in that kind of important visual cultures from the ancient Near East and to really also want to ask new questions and get into new ways of approaching old problems that we have with understanding images and especially combining them with other sources of knowledge we have like texts or like archaeological remains.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much for having me. It was great to talk to you.
I’d also like to thank our patrons Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Haider al-Rekabi, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush and Elisa Rossberger. I really appreciate your support, it makes a big difference. And thank you for listening to Thin End of the Wedge. If you enjoy what we do, please consider supporting us via Patreon. That’s patreon.com/wedgepod. Even a couple of pounds a month helps keep the podcast going and brings us closer to the point where we can make proper translations into Middle Eastern languages. You can also support us in other ways: simply subscribe to the podcast; leave us a five star review on iTunes or your podcatcher of choice; recommend us to your friends; follow us on Twitter: @wedge_pod. If you want the latest podcast news, you can sign up for our newsletter. You can find all the links in the show notes and on our website at wedgpod.org. Thanks, and I hope you’ll join us next time.