||Figurines are a common find on many Near Eastern Neolithic sites. As figurines have been interpreted as the material manifestation of changing perceptions and interactions between people and the environment, they were deemed instrumental for our understanding of Neolithic societies.
Traditionally researched through visual approaches, the focus has predominantly been on anthropomorphic figurines and their perceived femaleness. Through these approaches figurines have been studied as ritual objects, art and symbolic expressions and were linked to concepts of fertility, child-birth and divinity and as such have been also labelled as ‘mother goddesses’.
These approaches have been generalising, glossing over variability and offering generalising interpretations. Furthermore, they neglected a large corpus of zoomorphic figurines, more ambiguous shapes and fragmented objects.
This thesis takes another approach, positing that, in order to understand how figurines operated in society, we need to understand how figurines were made, used and deposited. Two research aims were formulated. Firstly, to carry out a case-study in which figurines were studied as a cohesive set, with no bias towards a certain type or only complete objects. Second, to ascertain whether or not categories established by visual analysis are recognisable in the archaeological record when looking at figurine materiality and aspects of production, use and deposition.
The data set of this thesis consists of the 280 figurines from one part of the excavations at Tell Sabi Abyad (Syria), named Operation III, spanning four levels of habitation and dating from ca. 6455 to 6225 BC.
This thesis starts by offering a detailed argumentation detailing the problems inherent in three main ways figurines have been studied, namely: as art, symbolic expressions and ritual objects. Subsequently it offers new avenues for figurine research, highlighting the necessity to engage with the materiality of figurines, combining discursive and non-discursive knowledge and stating that the ‘meaning’ of figurines is not solely constituted by their visual imagery but is also inherent in the processes of production, use and deposition.It continues with an overview of the site of Tell Sabi Abyad; its excavation history, the nature of settlement in Operation III and detailed contextual and depositional information for the figurines used in this case-study. It also takes a broader perspective, contextualising Tell Sabi Abyad in the broader perspective of Late Neolithic Upper Mesopotamia.
The next chapter is dedicated to a detailed analysis of the data set starting with establishing a typology. Subsequently, it examines the contextual settings of figurines and related finds, figurine materiality, markings, fragmentation and finally spatial patterning and patterns through time.
The analysis showed that figurine making is a highly idiosyncratic practice. There is much variety in the form of figurines within types, Furthermore, types of figurines can be very restricted in time; sometimes almost restricted to a single settlement level. There is variety in figurine use as evidenced by their use wear. Sometimes they seem to have been intentionally cached, but mostly they were discarded after use.
This idiosyncrasy has implications that reach beyond the site under study. The over-arching and generalising statements made about figurines do not hold up to close scrutiny at this site, which either makes Tell Abi Abyad an exception, or it means that this type of research will reveal that in fact these generalising statements are false for other sites as well. This will mean we need to drastically alter the current perceptions of how figurines functioned in specific communities and what they ‘meant’ to the people making and using them.