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Introduction to Neolithic Figurine Art






The materials used for figurines were clay (predominantly), stone (including marble), bone and shell. We presume that wooden figurines existed too, since wood is a common material for building and tool-making. Few golden figurines found have been considered as mere exceptions. The preference for one or other material depended on figures themselves (naturalistic or schematic), which dictated the use of softer or harder material. The natural qualities of clay, which can transform it from soft mud into a hard, time-resisting material led to its extensive use for figurine- making by Neolithic communities. It was of the same type as that from which pottery was made and no special colour was chosen or special technique used in its preparation. It was worked mainly by hand- though possibly with the help of some rudimentary tool.

Figurines varied in form, since they were made by a) separate lumps modelled and joined together to form a solid object b) the use of a perishable core, creating a hollow inside upon firing c) the use of one or more clay (and rarely stone) cores which supported each modelled part bearing anatomical and other details. Each join and consequently the whole figurine was then covered with thin layers of clay to produce the final form. The figurine was optionally smoothed, burnished and/or painted before firing.

Smoothing was achieved by wetting the surface while modelling and then eliminating the rough parts when dry (fettling), using a hard tool with rounded edges, such as a pebble, a flat obsidian flake, a piece of wood or bone, even a finger. The figurine was then rubbed or buffed with a soft material, such as a piece of fleece. The object could also be coated with slip, often of a different colour, and then burnished.

Kilns were used to produce more durable figurines, and possibly an intentional variety in colour. Unbaked pieces were also made by the technique of superimposed layers of clay dried in the sun. Cores could be fired first and then with the rest of the figurine or fired and then covered by clay layers successively dried in the sun. More rarely an oblong hole would permit a better baking of the internal part.

It is not known whether the use of stone was a fortuitous option. Stone figurines occur less often and are usually schematic. Even the more naturalistic ones display a tendency for condensed rendering of volumes, resulting in figurines of peculiar, unnatural aspect. Since stone demands no special preliminary treatment, the form was roughly sketched and cut from the larger stone and then shaped, incised and finished (sometimes polished) by working with obsidian and firestone tools in combination with water and sand.

Bone from any part of an animal’s skeleton could be used for the making of figurines, though it was seldom used because of its fragility and natural shape which limited the modeller’s freedom of expression.

Shell, as bone, was seldom used because of its fragility and natural concave shape, which imposed modelling restrictions.




The means for decorations were few and the techniques were similar to those applied in pottery making. The artist used (apart from his fingers and nails) small, sharp stone or bone tools made by himself or collected in his natural environment (such as sharp stones, sharp plant stems etc.), but also natural plant or mineral colours. Decoration was made by incisions, impressions, paint or by applied plastically shaped elements of clay.

The selecting of one or other type of decoration was completely up to the artist, who very often combined techniques. There is no evident connection between the type of decoration and the figurine’s gender, pose or find spot.

Incisions and impressions were made before baking and rendered either anatomical details (facial features, hairdo, flesh folds etc.) or garments and jewels or even other decorative motives, which were not connected to the figurine’s form or its decorated surface. Deep impressions aimed to underline plastic rendering or were used as sockets for the insertion of perishable decorative elements.

Painted decoration was applied before baking and was either functional or not. Paint was spread directly on the clay, which had been previously dried in the sun. Paint often underlined functional parts of the body or animated details. Sometimes the whole surface of the figurine was covered by a thin coloured slip of different hue than the decorative elements, in order to create a contrast of colours. This technique permitted multiple options concerning the choice of colours and their contrast.

Plastic decoration involved clay pellets which were often applied on any part of the body or head, either randomly or in parallel rows. Usually they were round and not more than 2mm thick and large. In some cases though they were coffee-bean shaped, obviously imitating cereal grains (though sometimes the grains themselves, were inlaid on the head or other surfaces of the body). Clay pellets were sometimes circumscripted by colour and applied directly on surfaces with no other incised or painted decoration indicating the presence of garments. That is why they may have been simple decorative elements, analogous to those seen in pottery. Nevertheless we cannot exclude the possibility of the rendering of tattoos or other kinds of body decorations made by raising of the flesh, of the kind applied in contemporary primitive societies of Africa.

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 |
Chapter 4: Α.
- Β. - C. - D. - Ε. - F. | Chapter 5