SNF 2020-2024 Greek and Roman Articulated Dolls (10th cent. BC.- 7th cent. AD): Archaeological and Anthropological Approaches

This pluridisciplinary project is devoted to a category of objects usually classified in the modern category of toys: anthropomorphic figurines which often represent an adult woman with a sexed body, commonly called “dolls” because of their small size and their articulated members that suggest manipulation. In the Greek world, they comprise terracotta “idols bells” (10th-7th cent. BC) and a mass production of terracotta figurines, some in bone, from the end of the archaic period to the Hellenistic period (6th-2nd cent. BC). In the Roman world, in Italy and the provinces, figurines are made of bone, ivory, wood and amber from the imperial Roman era to late Antiquity (late 1st-7th cent. AD). More rare, male articulated “dolls” exist too since the end of the 5th cent BC.

No comprehensive scientific study has yet dealt with this cultural phenomenon despite the abundance and the social, religious and symbolic importance of these objects associated with childhood, youth, social and religious performances and representations. In the Greek world, hundreds of articulated dolls come from sanctuaries of deities protecting growth and marriage as well as from graves of young individuals. In the Roman world, most of them come from burials of children and women in the age of marriage and childbearing. These objects are ambiguous (secular toy or sacred object? mortal or divine figure? child’s doll or theatrical puppet?). This project intends to explore their specificities and transformations in space and time in order to elucidate the meaning of their ambiguities by crossing different points of view. Typo-chronological: materials and ergonomics, production methods and distribution network. Socio-religious: defining contexts of manipulations (secular, ritual or both?), the age group (only before adulthood?), and the sex (only for girls?) and their transformations in space and time. The study will also examine the symbolic and learning value transmitted by a specific image of the female (and male) body, as well as the cognitive value of articulated objects.

The research consists of two parts distinguishing Greek and Roman production. For the Greek world, new knowledge will be delivered by the study of unpublished or little known objects: articulated dolls of workshops in Athens (4th-2nd cent. BC), as well as terracotta and bone figurines from Central Greece (10th-4th cent. BC). The results will put into perspective the objects already published by re-evaluating the chronology, dissemination and contexts of different types. For the Roman era, the reduced number of objects makes it possible to establish a comprehensive corpus, re-evaluating the identification of the material, the contexts, the spatial distribution and the chronological evolution. For both Greek and Roman corpora, experimental archaeology and traceology will provide new hypotheses on fabrication techniques and uses. The research also includes an extensive study of written and iconographic sources in order to understand the different status of these objects, how they relate with an ancient notion of toys, and to other kinds of articulated figurines, such as puppets and animated divine images, as well as other forms of dolls (rag, wax, ‘vodoo’). Diachronical comparisons will include non articulated dolls produced in the Eastern world in the Coptic and Byzantine period, as well as parallels of other historical periods. The aim is to provide an innovative empirical and theoretical contribution of reference on the history of ancient articulated “dolls” in all their dimensions, technical, cognitive, ludic, social, religious, symbolic and gendered.


Chiara Bianchi, senior researcher, Roman dolls

Pauline Maillard, Postdoc researcher, Greek dolls (Athens, agora)

Kyriaki Katsarelia, PhD Ludic Culture of Central Greece

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