Figuring Out Figurines -- By: Philip Johnston

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 54:2 (NA 2003)
Article: Figuring Out Figurines
Author: Philip Johnston

Figuring Out Figurines1

Philip Johnston


Almost one thousand Judaean pillar figurines, or JPFs, have now been found. These small terracotta female figurines are distinctive to late monarchy Judah. They have been found all over its territory, but seldom elsewhere, and come almost entirely from the eighth and seventh centuries bc. Who or what do they represent? This article first summarises recent study of figurines, to set out their known characteristics. It then looks for textual evidence of figurines. It examines inscriptional and biblical references to Asherah, the main goddess of the Iron Age Levant and now often associated with these figurines, as well as other potential biblical terms. However, while there are many terms for images and idols, none is found to apply specifically to figurines. Finally it reviews the interpretation of figurines, concluding with observations which combine archaeological and biblical data.

I. Introduction

What are figurines? What forms do they take? At what sites and in what archaeological contexts have they been found? What do they represent, and how were they used? What light does this shed on religious beliefs? And how does the archaeological evidence of figurines relate to the textual evidence of inscriptions and the Hebrew Bible? These are all important questions, prompted by a century of archaeological study in Palestine, which this paper will attempt to address.

To start with the figurines themselves, these are small, usually hand-size figures shaped as humans, animals, birds, or inanimate objects. They were made of various materials, mostly metal or clay. They have been found all over the ancient world, from the Aegean to

Mesopotamia, from Palaeolithic times onwards. Here we focus particularly on one area and period.

Several thousand figurines have been recovered from late monarchy Judah. These include nearly a thousand anthropoid figurines, almost exclusively female. They come from throughout Judah, particularly Jerusalem, and have been found in public buildings, private homes, storage caves, rubbish pits and tombs.

These female figurines have a specific size and shape. They were made of baked clay (terracotta), and stand about 10–21 cm high, with stereotypical bodies. They have full or heavy breasts, with hands supporting the breasts or arms folded beneath them, sometimes as a continuous band. They have a solid pillar base from the lower chest downward, without further indication of sexuality, and a flared base. They were at least partially painted.

About one-third have a hand-made h...

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