Prehistoric Figurines: Representation and corporeality in the Neolithic by Douglass W. Bailey
Figurines, and especially prehistoric figurines, have always fascinated researchers, collectors, the general public and anyone tempted towards art studies or the history of the human past. Such interest has stimulated a number of approaches and interpretations of prehistoric figurines that respectively have triggered critique and alternative suggestions, both however (the initial interpretations and their critiques), deeply rooted in the researchers’ personal, social and political backgrounds. The new book of Douglass Bailey ‘Prehistoric Figurines’ is not an exception in this sense. The uncompromising cut-and-thrust that is a hallmark of Bailey’s previous work on figurines reaches new peaks in the criticism of any previous understanding of figurines, before opening up a whole new world of visual culture to welcome and comfort us in what may seem a radically new approach to figurines.
The book consists of nine chapters, notes, bibliography and index. It is designed as a mosaic of past and present realms by alternating descriptions of Balkan (in broad geographical terms) Neolithic lifestyles and figurines (chapters 3, 5 and 7) with modern (18-20th century AD) concepts of representation and corporeality (chapters 2, 4, 6 and 8). The reader is catapulted into the book with the vivid and breath-taking story of discovery of a prehistoric figurine from the author’s own excavations in Southern Romania. This initial excitement does not leave the reader till the last page; our curiosity is successfully nourished by Bailey’s undoubtedly challenging and stimulating approach.
The introductory chapter sets the scene of the Balkans during the Neolithic and is basically a revised summary of Bailey’s earlier book (2000) ‘Balkan Prehistory’. Along with the carefully but repeatedly mentioned concepts of exclusion and incorporation, interwoven throughout the statement is what this book is and is not about. The author’s belief is that a better understanding of Neolithic figurines can be achieved ‘in understanding the how and why of figurines as visual culture’ (p. 2). Despite the over-exaggerated (perhaps deliberately) deconstruction of various approaches to figurines, Bailey is right in his notion that ‘figurine essentialism is damaging’ (p. 13).
What follows the introduction is a world-wide tour in a miniature world – from bonsai to Disneyland in California. In addition, we are presented with the results of some experiments of perception in miniature reconstructions and the insights of a modern artist creating such miniature landscapes. It appears that miniatures have the (unsuspected?) power to provoke the viewer to ‘complete’ the image, they provide alternative worlds in which the viewer is pleased and comforted and, ultimately because of their size (one has to get closer to see and appreciate them), they create an intimate link between the miniature object and the viewer. These basic points are not difficult to trace in later discussions of diagnostic types of figurines among the three Neolithic communities chosen by Bailey as the best illustrations of late prehistoric figurine production in the Balkans. However, the discussion of miniatures does not draw elementary parallels with Neolithic figurines but rather alerts the reader to ‘particular visual and palpable conditions’.
Chapters 3, 5 and 7 present what one would expect to be the backbone of a book with such a name. Each of them presents a brief but sufficiently detailed descriptive account of the Neolithic societies of Hamangia (chapter 3), Cucuteni/Tripolye (chapter 5) and Thessaly (chapter 7). The three chapters follow one and the same general scheme – a striking beginning through the introduction of one of the most amazing figurine examples from each community, followed by a more extended presentation of figurine production; a critical review of previous figurine investigations and finally the settlement and burial practices of each of the Neolithic societies. One cannot avoid noting the overwhelming negativism of the discussion of previous approaches to Hamangia and Cucuteni/Tripolye figurines, especially in contrast to the much more balanced acknowledgement of recent, mainly Greek, researches on figurine representations from the Greek Neolithic. While Bailey’s observations on previous interpretations of Hamangia and Cucuteni/Tripolye figurines are in most cases (but not all) correct, he misses the important point of what each subsequent research owes to previous insights, because it either builds on them, or develops counter-arguments, or both.
An important contribution of the three chapters is that figurines are placed in the wider context of the settlement and burial traditions of each community. Thus, Hamangia figurines, found in both settlements and burials, along with an array of other mundane or exotic material, are related to ‘a much less anchored existence, a life-style involving much movement across and through landscapes’ (p. 60). Cucuteni/Tripolye figurines, on the other hand, are viewed in the light of an almost total lack of formal burial places, together with the shared settlement values and commitment to the clearly delineated places of Cucuteni/Tripolye communities, that leads to the conclusion that ‘figurines may have well been one of the main media through which were expressed appropriate appearances and relationships among individuals’ (p. 118). Such general inferences, however, were not the aim of the study and the reader is invited to await the final interpretations in the last two chapters.
Not so well-grounded in the Neolithic lifestyle are the figurines from Thessaly. One wonders how to incorporates the permanent tell-settlements and the rare formal burial areas with the overt sexuality of Thessalian figurines? Sexuality is far from being the major characteristic of Thessalian figurines and it would have been more helpful if Bailey had developed further his other argument concerning the ambiguity of these representations.
The scattered discussions of Neolithic identity and its links to material culture with relevance to figurines is best summarised on page166 ‘…..Neolithic communities in SE Europe defined, negotiated and contested individual and group identity through corporeal means’.
Chapters 4, 6 and 8 are, in fact, extensive answers to the questions that emerge in each preceding chapter. Anthropomorphism in various forms – dolls, puppets, portraits, cartes-de-visite, etc. and the ways in which they are used, designed, presented and can re-present is the subject of chapter 4. The representation of a human body makes us react and feel – pleasure, shame, disgust, etc. Therefore, the faceless Hamangia figurines should be understood, pace Bailey, in their possible engagement with the viewers 5000 years ago – an engagement that would involve the perception of self and (in relation to) the others.
Chapter 6 gives selected modern examples and concepts of the type of visual discourses in which human representations may be used – e.g. a 19th century picture of Napoleon crossing the Alps or FSA photographs from the American Depression in the 1930s, or the feminist authors’ notion of the constructed body, etc. That visual images are politically burdened and create alternative realities is not a novel insight. What is more important is that Bailey recognises the Neolithic politics as ‘a new corporealisation of power relations’ and ‘figurines as part of this process of materialisation, govern the dimensions of being’ (p. 146). Thus, Bailey seems to be saying that the elaborate decoration on Cucuteni/Tripolye figurines or their changing forms through time can be explained in terms of the dynamics of Neolithic politics and the concepts of representations of being.
Chapter 8 discusses the grand-scale manipulations to which the representations of human body are capable of. Among others are the issues of subversion, sexual disruption and affective ambiguity, illustrated by Turner’s picture of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, meant to undermine Napoleon’s own crossing; by a Dadaistic collage that challenges viewers’ perception and expectation; and finally by the Andalusian annual carnival, in which the human body is the main media for the presentation of inverted reality. In this context, the Thessalian figurines (masks, hyper-sexualised and the like) are to be seen as ‘mechanisms through which people play out positions of identity, status, sexuality and belonging within their communities’ (p. 195).
The essence of chapters 2 to 8 is the ever-present importance of the human body as a visual means in the construction of identity and in political negotiations. For the Neolithic, it is the corporeal politics of being, in which figurines are involved and which is also the title of the last chapter.
Chapter 9 synthesises rather than fully develops previous arguments for the formation of Neolithic identity, different from the identity of the preceding or the successive societies. Identity was developed through a major paradox, in which the individual stands for the whole community. Central to these communities was the process of social homogenisation, alongside the corporealisation of the self and the person. Through their recurrent visibility, figurines were arbitrary participants in the social negotiation of diversity and uniformity. For Bailey, figurines were the Neolithic ‘philosophies of being human’ (p. 202). While such an interpretation is consistent with the book’s discourse and, to some extent, answers the questions left open in the preceding chapters, it does not address many other important questions. How and why exactly such identity has emerged?; is there other evidence supporting the primacy of corporealisation in the Neolithic?; why are there so many fragmented figurines?; how would the stone/bone anthropomorphs and the variety of zoomorphs be incorporated into this visual rhetoric?, etc. Such questions may not have been the goal of the book but as long as figurines do not function in a material vacuum, the proposed interpretations need much more reflexivity. Bailey is convincing in his insistence that something is missing in the present approaches to anthropomorphic representations but the book does not lead to a better understanding of Balkan Neolithic figurines.
A few important points should be raised. First, the book is permeated with questions and while one understands that this is a part of the rhetoric of the book to challenge the reader, the boundary between being provocative and disturbing is crossed. Secondly, for a reader familiar with the diverse images of the Balkan Neolithic, the lack of proper illustrations of many of the discussed figurines is frustrating, even if not crucial. But how is a Level 2 student or an unconvinced reader to understand the visual impact without even seeing the object? Insofar as this is a book about visual culture, the visual is sadly lacking; it is a book about images without the images themselves. Thirdly, some of the fair criticism that Bailey raises has already been addressed – e.g. the AMS dating of a group of Hamangia graves from Durankulak is now in print and another 50 samples are pending. And, finally, there are some controversial statements (e.g. the lack of diversity of figurine types at the Balkans or the notion of pits as mainly rubbish deposits), whose deconstruction is not an aim of the present review but which are without basis or have tendencies to reduce archaeology to ‘the study of rubbish’.
Disappointed by the contextual approaches and their limits for figurine interpretation, in his book, Bailey seeks for alternatives and finds it in the modern impact of visual representation - representation that triggers reactions and makes the viewer actively complete the incomplete. At the end of the book, are we convinced by Bailey’s choice of new ideas? Yes and no. Yes, because the book firmly grounds the issue of corporeality among current approaches to material culture in archaeology. No, because it fails to put flesh and blood onto the Neolithic body politic, its reactions and manipulations as vividly as he does for their modern counterparts. Unless the arguments for figurines as constituting a philosophy of being are developed further and tied to a living Neolithic reality, Bailey’ s interpretations will remain (to use his own term) anecdotal.
Review Submitted: October 2005
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