The Antiquity of Man

   Home   |   About   |   What is Evolution   |   World Archaeology & Palaeoanthropology   |   North African Archaeology   |   Pseudoscience   |   Recommended Readings   |   Reviews   |   Links   |   Search   |   Contact

Richard Lesure. 2002. The Goddess Diffracted: Thinking about the Figurines of "Early Villages". Current Anthropology 43(4): 587-610

Lesure emphasises the diversity amongst the figurines, particularly between Mesoamerica and the Far East but also within Mesoamerica (he mentions diversity in the Far East but fails to outline this as successfully as he does for Mesoamerica).

He starts off by analysing the methods used by researchers, criticising the "Mother Goddess" ahistorical perspective. Instead, he wants to pay close attention to visible patterns using a heuristic frameowkr to understand the meanings behind such objects and their iconography.

He objects to "conventional interpretations that masquerade as description" and credits Ucko (1962) for deriving alternative interpretations through historical and ethnographic evidence.

In discussing iconography, he states that the uses to which the figurines were put cannot be assumed to be fixed - they are open to manipulation and change. Many studies stop after attempting to describe how the figurine looks instead of pushing on to identify conventional themes and how everything is connected. There is also the matters of what features have been ignored or subjected to closer scrutiny in any investigation. There is, what Lesure calls, a "coding strategy" whereby a object on one figurine may give a clue on another figurine (with the same object) as to what else should be appearing on the second figurine (be it clothes, subject, etc).

The narrative specificity requires that attention is paid to specific activities - one cannot assume that because X figurine over "there" means "this" that a similar figurine in another part of the site would be representative of the same event/rite/occurrence/symbol.

The studies from Mesoamerica treat the figurines as having a social connotation, as opposed to the ritualised assumptions in the Near East.

The use of the figurines are governed by questions: were figurines sacred or profane, were they used in houses or temples, who made and used them, and what was the position of the makers in society?

The scale of the figurines may reflect the size of social groups involved in their use - the smaller the figures, the fewer people involved

One must be careful of either using the figurines to understand a new dimension of the society, or using the society to resolve problems in figurine interpretation - this could lead to mutually reinforced circular arguement. A different, more inclusive approach is required than either of these strict opposites.

Assumptions cannot be made that figurines were made by women if found in a house, or a section of the house. One needs to demonstrate this with evidence, and the examination of the basis of such assumptions such as domestic tasks being the domain of women only.

One has to examine how reconstructions of object assocation could be affected by formation processes and preservation biases.

Also, although figurines in an area might appear similar intra- and inter-regional, the traditions behind it may be divergent.

Another point is that the form of the figurines may actually not be the focus itself but rather the by-product of where and how they were used, e.g. as props in female initiation ceremonies. Thus Lesure emphasises the "multiplicity of contexts in which predominantly female imagery appeared within any given site".

He believes that the "Near Eastern figurines seem decidedly less "social" than their Mesoamerican counterparts" - the Mesoamerican being for social purposes and the Near Eastern being the deliberate "representation of womanhood" through abtraction. In other words, the figurines were generically social and referred to different social relationships in particularly areas.

He believes there is validity in looking at widespread patterns over whole areas, provided it is recognised there are local divergences from those patterns. As such, he regards the "female" aspect as being a source of metaphor and not something along the lines of a goddess.

back to top of page