I recently visited the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for the first time. It’s an amazing building with an incredible variety of collections; I could happily have spent days there. The World Cultures galleries don’t have a major focus on ancient Cyprus, but I did track down a few Cypriot items in the context of ancient Egypt.
As well as a very nice Mycenaean stirrup jar, similar to the one in the Leeds collection, and another Base Ring juglet, I was delighted to see this female figurine (on the left of the photo above). There is a similar figurine in the Leeds City Museum collection (below), sadly lacking her head and her legs below the knee.
We don’t know when or where this figurine was found, but on stylistic grounds it can be dated to the 15th – 14th century BC. It may have looked something like this example from the Met Museum, New York.
The head would have been ‘bird-like’ in appearance with a sharply beaked nose, round eyes, and large ears pierced with several rings. I still have hopes of coming across it in the stores one day! The navel doubles as a firing hole, to allow the release of hot gases during the firing process – a practical and creative solution.
Figurines such as these were generally found in tombs. The emphasis on their female characteristics has led to much speculation about their significance and functions; the pose of the arms and hands draws attention to the breasts, and the incised decoration emphasises the pubic area rather than suggesting any form of clothing. An earlier view was that they were intended as concubine companions for the (male) deceased on their journey to the afterlife:
‘If the blatant display of pubic triangle seems more lusty than bereaved, perhaps they were anticipating a long trip. The deceased might appreciate a few diversions.’
(Desmond Morris, The Art of Ancient Cyprus, 1985).
It’s tempting to speculate that this tells us more about C20th attitudes and assumptions than about the figurines themselves. Today they are viewed less as ‘diversions’ than as significant in their own right, associated with fertility, regeneration and rebirth. They may represent a primal Cypriot fertility goddess, who over time, and under influence from East and West, became assimilated with Astarte, Ashtoreth, and Aphrodite. This type of figurine may originally have been based on Syrian models; the Levantine influence is apparent from these Syrian Bronze Age figurines in the Ashmolean Museum’s collection.
Even without her head, this is one of the most speaking pieces in the Leeds Museum collection. I hope in the future to uncover some information about her journey to Leeds, and the people involved.