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Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas

Edited by Giorgos Papantoniou, Dimitrios Michaelides, and Maria Dikomitou-Eliadou (Monumenta Graeca et Romana 23). Leiden: Brill 2019. Pp. xxvii + 432. €198. ISBN 978-90-04-38469-9 (cloth).

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The idea for this volume sprang from the international conference Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas: Mediterranean Networks and Cyprus held at the Archaeological Research Unit of the University of Cyprus, Nicosia, 3–5 June 2013. The editors did not, however, conceive it as a traditional conference publication but rather as a “reference work for the study and analysis of Hellenistic and Roman terracottas” (ix), which is why they added a number of freshly written contributions. They set out two principal purposes: “the presentation of some new material and preliminary results, alongside the introduction of new methodological approaches to the study of Hellenistic and Roman terracottas” (1), which is why their focus was on questions of production, consumption, distribution, and function, rather than on dating, provenance, and style, which have often been seen as the most urgent issues.

Most of the 29 chapters deal with the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, with the western Mediterranean accounting for five. The first part of the volume is devoted to the previously somewhat neglected terracottas from Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus, and the initial chapter, written by the three editors, sets the stage for what is to come. It concerns terracottas from the so-called House of Orpheus in Nea Paphos, a wealthy residence that was excavated by Michaelides between 1982 and 1992, and again from 1999 onward. The complex was constructed on top of Hellenistic structures, and its “latest main phase . . . dates to the late second/early third century CE” (9). The House of Orpheus was probably destroyed in the same earthquake that took down the nearby House of Dionysos shortly after ca. 220–230 CE, according to John Hayes’ revised dating of its “final destruction layer” (published as a postscript to “A Comment on the Pottery Evidence,” JRA 10, 1997, 536). Due to stone robbing and other later disturbances, few of the more than 400 terracotta fragments were—strictly speaking—in situ, but a “noticeable concentration of figurines [was observed] in the area and rooms around the atrium and the baths” (12). These consisted of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines dated from contextual evidence and stylistic parallels, in particular, to the “period of occupation of the mosaic-decorated house” (12). Aphrodite plays a prominent part among the figurines; Eros is represented as well, along with Hermes, Pan, and Dionysos; Egyptianizing representations; theatrical and a few other themes; and zoomorphic figurines. Inscriptions, which are preserved on up to 13 examples, are taken to be the signatures of the coroplasts rather than those of workshop owners, as thought by other scholars (e.g., J.P. Uhlenbrock, “The Coroplast and His Craft,” in J.P. Uhlenbrock, ed., The Coroplast’s Art: Greek Terracottas of the Hellenistic World, A.D. Caratzas 1990, 48–53).

A discussion of the technological and compositional characterization of the terracotta figurines leads to the conclusion that, “overall, at least macroscopically, the terracotta figurine assemblage from the House of Orpheus is technologically and compositionally homogeneous, with only a few exceptions” (26), a statement supported by portable X-ray fluorescence analysis and neutron activation analysis. The authors “tend to believe that in their majority they were, most probably, locally produced in Paphos” (28), perhaps in more than one workshop. They argue that the presence of terracottas in Roman elite households show them to be prestigious items owned by the wealthy. 

The next chapters deal with finds from Cypriot sanctuaries: Gabriele Koiner and Nicole Reitinger discuss the relationship between terracotta figurines and limestone sculptures used as dedications. Pauline Maillard has usefully gathered the scattered evidence for terracottas excavated in the Kitian Sanctuary of Artemis Paralia in the 19th century, and Eustathios Raptou examines terracotta figurines from Hellenistic Arsinoe. His account is supplemented by Nancy Serwint’s report on Hellenistic figurines from the Peristeries sanctuary at the same site. Isabelle Tassignon next discusses a fragmentary terracotta statuette of Aphrodite from the acropolis of Amathous, followed by Elisavet Stefani presenting terracottas from the eastern necropolis of the same city. Polina Christofi discusses an interesting and enigmatic case of Hellenistic terracottas found at the Chalcolithic site of Erimi-Bamboula, and Anja Ulbrich publishes the mainly Hellenistic Cypriot terracottas in the Ashmolean Museum, shedding new light on their provenance and relationship with earlier Cypriot coroplastic traditions.

Most of the contributions in the second part of the volume, which is devoted to the Aegean, are concerned with iconography. Erin Walcek Averett explores the (apparently unconnected) similarities between theriomorphic figurines from Hellenistic and Roman Arcadia and earlier iconographic traditions in Cyprus, while Argyroula Doulgeri-Intzesiloglou and Polyxeni Arachoviti present evidence for production of terracottas in the Thessalian city of Pherai, stressing the originality of the Pheraian coroplasts. A second contribution by the same authors together with Eleni Asderaki-Tzoumerkioti and Manos Dionyssiou offers new insights into the materials used for the decoration of the figurines from the same workshops, including tin metal foil. This is followed by Constantina Benissi’s discussion of the iconography of a group of terracotta votives from a sanctuary of Artemis Amarynthos in Euboea, and contributions by Frauke Gutschke on terracotta dolls, Nathalie Martin on representations of veiled women, and Angele Rosenberg-Dimitracopoulou on the “Soft Youth in Boeotian Coroplasty.” Arthur Muller takes a fresh look at the so-called “visiting gods,” in casu representations of Aphrodite occurring in sanctuaries of other gods, and Stéphanie Huysecom-Haxhi examines the motif known as a Nude Young Woman Kneeling in a Shell, rejecting the common identification of her with Aphrodite. Sven Kielau explores the chronology of the terracottas from the residential areas of Pergamon, arguing convincingly that they continued to be produced into the second century CE. He also considers the relationship between the Pergamene terracottas and those imported from Myrina and other sites, noting a surprising parallel with two finds from Corinth. 

Part three is concerned with Italy. Rebecca Miller Ammerman discusses the production and consumption of terracottas at Metaponto, departing from finds from coroplastic workshops at the site of Sant’Angelo Vecchio. Alessandro Russo deals with votive terracottas from the second to first century BCE found in a sounding at Pompeii. The section is rounded out by Elena Martelli’s sterling contribution on an interesting group of figurines depicting men wearing a tunic and holding a scroll recovered from harbor and port sanctuaries in Italy. 

The spotlight shifts to North Africa in the fourth part, beginning with a meticulous and insightful survey by Solenn de Larminat of terracottas from Africa Proconsularis, Numidia, and Mauretania Caesariensis between the first and third centuries CE. She demonstrates that there are differences between figurines found in sanctuaries and those found in cemeteries, where they overwhelmingly occur in tombs of children below the age of seven, with Venus by far the most popular deity. Lara Weiss argues from an in-depth analysis of the domestic contexts of nine female figurines of the “gingerbread-man” format from Roman Karanis that it is hard to make a strict functional division between toys and religious artifacts, suggesting that it was the “agent,” i.e., the user of the figurine, who defined its meaning.

The fifth and final part of the publication is devoted to the Levant and Mesopotamia. It begins with Marianna Castiglione’s discussion of the mainly locally produced Hellenistic figurines with Egyptian features at Kharayeb, which are taken to reflect a close relationship between Egypt and Phoenicia. Adi Erlich views ties between terracottas from Coele Syria and the southern Levant as evidence of a regional coroplastic koine that was apparently somehow embedded in a Hellenistic koine, and Heather Jackson elucidates the so-called Persian Riders based on finds from the Seleucid site of Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates. Roberta Menegazzi discusses Mediterranean influences on the terracottas from Seleucia on the Tigris. Finally, Abdalla Nabulsi gives an account of Late Antique plaster figurines from the Khirbet es-Samrā cemetery in Jordan, which may be off topic but is interesting nevertheless. 

The publication will probably appeal primarily to archaeologists specializing in Hellenistic and Roman coroplastics, but it ought to find a wider audience. Scholars investigating ancient economies may, for instance, be interested in knowing that several contributors note that the majority of terracottas at their sites were apparently locally produced. And students of regionality may take notice of the observation by the three editors that “each region under the influence of the Hellenistic monarchies and, later, the Roman Empire produced terracottas in distinctive local styles with similar ranges of subjects, but often deriving from local traditions” (38). In consideration of this, some readers may find the koine evoked by several contributors puzzling, but the apparent contradiction is probably due to the lack of a generally agreed upon definition of this elusive concept. The volume demonstrates the difficulty of determining the function of the terracotta figurines, partly because (as noted by more than one author) they may have served several purposes, and partly because it is often hard to come to grips with their contexts. Terracottas are rarely found in situ, even in the best contemporary excavations, and many (or most) of them were in any case part of numerous contexts during their life span. These remarks are not, of course, intended as criticism, quite the reverse. It is, in fact, testimony to the quality of the contributions that such observations can be made. It may be unfair to single out some of these in favor of others, but in the subjective opinion of this reviewer, the chapters by Kielau, Martelli, and de Larminat stand out from the rest—taken together, it must be said, with the one written by the editors themselves, who surely achieved their goals with this handsome and well-illustrated, if pricey, volume. 

John Lund
Collection of Classical and Near Eastern Antiquities
National Museum of Denmark

Book Review of Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas, edited by Giorgos Papantoniou, Dimitrios Michaelides, and Maria Dikomitou-Eliadou
Reviewed by John Lund
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Lund

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