This week we focus on one of the most eye-catching and intriguing objects in the Bridges Collection, the ‘plank figurine’ or ‘bottle-opener’ as it has been affectionately nicknamed by staff and students. Who does it represent, why was it made, and how was it used? Alison Hadfield, Learning & Access Curator, has been following up some interesting theories…
What are plank figurines?
As the name would suggest, they are flat, rectangular-shaped representations of the human figure, usually handmade from clay with pinched features and incised or painted decorations. Some are free-standing, measuring approximately 10-25 centimetres, whilst others are attached to vessels
Where are they found?
They seem to be unique to Cyprus and mostly come from burial contexts though some are associated with domestic sites. In terms of collections they turn up all over the world. Hunting for plank figurines has become something of an obsession for the ‘Through A Glass Darkly’ team and we have discovered examples in the online collections of the British Museum, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Louvre, Paris; the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens; the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia and The Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm. I also know of examples in museums, universities and private collections whose catalogues are not yet available online…. all the more reason to digitize!
How old are they? What are their origins?
They were made during the Early and Middle Bronze Age, ca. 2000-1600BC. Some scholars believe they were introduced to Cyprus by Anatolian migrants[i] but there is not a very strong resemblance to Anatolian – or indeed other contemporary figurines of the region in terms of material, form or decoration. It seems just as likely that plank figurines evolved on the island itself from earlier traditions such as the polished stone ‘cruciform’ figures made of a local stone, picrolite.
Who do they represent? Are they male or female?
Good question! Many of the plank figurines have no sexual characteristics at all. Both examples in the Bridges collection are quite androgenous, though the ‘bottle-opener’ does have pierced ears probably for the attachment of metal earrings. In his catalogue of the Cesnola Cypriot collection at the Met, Karagheorgis[i] stated that “Plank-shaped figurines are always female. Even when the breasts are not shown, it is certain that the figurines represent women because of their diadems, necklaces, earrings and other ornaments”. Although the incised decorations do resemble jewellery it seems presumptuous to determine the sex of the figurine on this basis, without clear evidence of male and female dress conventions in this period (e.g. from burials).
Sometimes a single figurine combines male and female physical attributes or is double-headed. Whilst some scholars have interpreted double-headed figures as a couple or a marriage symbol, there is no sexual differentiation between the pair to support this theory. Indeed Talalay and Cullen[i] suggest Cypriot plank figurines were designed with deliberate sexual ambiguity, allowing them to represent multiple identities.
How else can you explain the markings on the figurines?
Whether painted or incised, there are some remarkable consistencies among the geometric patterns on the faces and bodies of the figurines. Starting with the head, many examples have a series of vertical wavy or zigzag lines running down the back perhaps representing long hair. Small horizontal lines on the face may indicate tattoos, scarification or body paint – traditions well documented around the world by ethnographers but more difficult to find in the archaeological record. The diagonal lines running across the body might represent patterned clothing, binding or even swaddling.
What about the ‘hoop’ around the head of the Bridges figurine?
This is one of the most curious features of our plank figurine. To modern European eyes the circular shape is reminiscent of a halo, but there are two further explanations which are really interesting. The first is that the figurine may represent a shrouded body in a coffin, the linear patterns corresponding to folds or bindings. The high numbers of plank figurines found in burial contexts possibly support this theory. The second suggestion is that the shape represents the headboard of a cradle.
When visiting the Museum of Tyrolean Folk Art in Innsbruck last summer I spotted a cradle that had this very type of construction, even the interlaced straps intended, presumably, to stop the baby falling (or climbing) out! There are further cradle-like figurines in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, including this remarkable depiction of two babies – probably twins – in a cradle. This artefact was excavated from the tombs at Lapithos, by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition (1927-1931).
More food for thought comes from a series of figurines depicting an adult holding a cradle either on his/her knee or at the shoulder. Taken literally, neither position would be terribly comfortable! I had assumed this was probably more of a symbolic depiction until I saw this Mapuche cradleboard during our recent visit to the Community Museum in Malalhue, Chile as part of the University’s EU-LAC project. This is a portable form of cradle, combining the functions of the modern-day backpack, baby seat and bed. Our guide Isabel Riveros Quilacan explained that Mapuche babies were often secured to their cradleboard and positioned upright against a wall so that they could observe and be part of activities from a very early age.
The cradleboard appears mainly to have been used by indigenous tribes of North America, Patagonia and the Sami. Although these cultures are far removed in space and time from Bronze Age Cyprus, the design of these cradleboards would explain both the rectangular shape of the plank figurines, the hoop-shaped headboard, the criss-cross decorations and even the necklace-like patterns, since stringed ornaments were often attached to the shoulder points of Native American cradleboards. Comprehensive arguments for this interpretation have been put forward by Bergoffen[i]
How might the figurines have been used?
Depending on the readings of the iconography and the find locations, plank figurines may be associated with fertility or with funerary cults and ancestor worship. However, Steel[i] points out that many excavations in Cyprus took place on mortuary sites, creating a bias in the archaeological record. Furthermore, several figurines from Lapithos, a site in northern Cyprus, are chipped and worn, implying that they were used and handled regularly. She argues that the figurines were brought out for events marking the key stages of life and that they became so closely associated with the owner they were ultimately buried together. In a funerary context, if the figurines do represent infants on cradleboards they could also be seen more generally as symbols of rebirth, or indeed of ‘eternal sleep’. Bergoffen notes that native American babies were typically placed on cradleboards between the ages of 5 months to a year, the most vulnerable stage of development, and “if the child died during its ‘cradle days’, the cradle was discarded or destroyed, or buried with the child, or placed on its grave.” I can’t help thinking here of the Victorian practice of photographing offspring who died young, thereby commemorating and preserving their image. Looking at these photographs it is hard to tell if the infants are dead or merely sleeping.
[i] Steel, L. (2013) Materiality and Consumption in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, New York, Routledge,
[i] Bergoffen, C.J. (2009), ‘Plank Figures as Cradleboards’, Medelhavsmuseet: Focus on the Mediterranean, Vol 5, 63-75 http://www.academia.edu/16375929/_Plank_Figures_as_Cradleboards_Medelhavsmuseet_Focus_on_the_Mediterranean_vol._5_2009_63-75
[i] Talalay, L.A. and Cullen, T., ‘Sexual Ambiguity in Plank Figures from Bronze Age Cyprus’. In Engendering Aphrodite: Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus (p. 181-196). Boston, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5615/j.ctt2jc9sc.18
[i] Karagheorgis, V., Mertens, J.R. and Rose, M.E. (Eds.) (2000) Ancient Art of Cyprus – The Cesnola Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Ancient_Art_from_Cyprus_The_Cesnola_Collection_in_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art
[i] Tatton-Brown, V. Ancient Cyprus, (1987), p.34, London, British Museum Publications