Published: Oct. 5, 2018

Photograph of a front-facing female figurine, holding a round object against chest, from the front against a neutral gray background.A number of objects in the CU Art Museum's collection have been identified as potential offerings based on their form or appearance. A general lack of provenance for the objects, however, prevents us from making definite declarations about their function. Objects identified as offerings are typically found in sacred areas such as temples as offerings to deities or in burials as offerings to the dead. The Bronze Age pyxis, or lidded box, is an example of a common burial find. Such vessels were used to hold cosmetics, jewelry, or small objects and may have kept these items safe for their owner in the grave.

Terracotta figurines are often found in religious sanctuaries, tombs, and household shrines and, in such cases, are usually identified as offerings. Ancient Greeks started making small, fired clay figurines in the shape of humans and animals as early as the Neolithic Period (6,000-3,000 B.C.E.).  In the Greek and Roman periods (ca. 800 B.C.E.-400 C.E.), artisans would produce terracotta figurines in the form of local gods and goddesses for the purpose of selling them to pilgrims to use as dedications in the city's sanctuaries. Typically, terracotta figurines did not leave the city in which they were produced and they are therefore different from other archaeological materials, such as coins and pottery, which traveled widely via trade, commerce, and colonization.

A figurine of a harpy, a hybrid creature with the body and wings of a bird with a woman's torso and head, resembles depictions of sirens that often decorated tripod cauldrons. Tripod cauldrons were frequently dedicated at religious sanctuaries, especially in the Geometric and Orientalizing periods (c. 900 to 650 B.C.E.). 

Three female terracotta figurines in the collection all seem to represent goddesses. The 6th century B.C.E. East Greek figurine (pictured here) was made in a mold and holds an object that may be a dove. The dove is a bird sacred to the goddess Aphrodite and this figurine may therefore represent Aphrodite herself or a woman bringing an offering to the goddess. The other two female terracotta figurines in the collection were made by hand. Each wears a polos, a type of headdress that is usually worn by goddesses, particularly those relating to fertility. The mid-6th century B.C.E. Boeotian figurine has a rather curly version of the polos! The other, a 6th century B.C.E. Laconian figurine, has disks at her breast which may represent a necklace with pendants. Objects such as these were used as votive offerings to deities; the dedicators hoped to incur favor with the gods by bringing them gifts.

Finally, a mid-6th century B.C.E. horse and rider figurine may have been a child's toy. Horses were popular subjects in Greek art. Both the animals themselves and their maintenance were costly and therefore ownership of horses was an indication of considerable wealth. Although this figurine is simplified, the subject is immediately recognizable; the artist has managed to capture the spirit of the horse and rider through very basic shapes and patterns. The lines on the horse's body do not reflect any real pattern on the horse, but instead add a sense of movement and interest to the figure. This figurine may have been included in a child's grave.

Many objects, including not just figurines but also mundane and specialized vessels, can serve a variety of functions and can be identified as offerings only by their archaeological context, that is, where they were found. A vessel excavated from a tomb, for example, is usually identified as a burial offering, while one found in a sanctuary as a religious offering. The same vessel, however, can be found in domestic or refuse contexts, which changes their interpretation. Finally, an object could have served several purposes over its lifetime. Objects, then, are open to multiple interpretations and scholars often disagree about which one is correct. 

This essay was written to accompany a collection of Greek artifacts at the CU Art Museum