British exhibition shines light on ancient figurines

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON — Prehistoric Japanese and Balkan figurines are being shown alongside each other for the first time as historians try to shed further light on why they were produced.

Around 100 small ceramic figurines thousands of years old are on show at the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts in Norwich until the end of August.

The artifacts hail from Japan, Albania, Macedonia and Romania and are thought to represent spirits or act as good luck charms.

But there are many views on what the figurines signify, and historians hope placing them together for the first time will prove enlightening.

Curator Simon Kaner says that at the time the figures were made, the Japanese and Balkan societies had just started to settle in villages and were building their own homes.

All of the statuettes are relatively small (typically 4 cm to 5 cm in height; the smallest is 2.3 cm), based on the human form and designed to be held in one’s hand. They would all be deliberately broken before being buried after they were used. Due to the age of the artifacts, many are now incomplete.

Kaner says the Balkan items are more distinctive than the Japanese, with the “great mother” figurine from Macedonia — the upper half is a woman and lower part a building — being one of the most striking pieces. Some of the Balkan figures are also seated, something not found in the Japanese items.

Kaner says the Balkan figurines, of which tens of thousands have been discovered, are sometimes found in familiar styles, whereas the Japanese items are each unique.

The general view is that these figurines could represent anything from toys to ancestors or gods, or were perhaps fertility symbols.

In an effort to take visitors back to prehistoric times, the exhibition has produced its own figurines for people to carry with them during the show. They are given the opportunity to break them afterward.

Kaner says many visitors express the feeling that great power is vested in the figurines, while others find them reassuring and comforting.

But why did these ancient peoples make them?

“With the Japanese ones I’m quite taken with the theory of archaeologist Tatsuo Kobayashi, who thinks they probably represent spirits. He’s not saying they are Shinto ‘kami’ (spirits), but something analogous perhaps to that.

“Kobayashi says that early on most figurines do not have their facial features represented and he thinks this was thought to be because if you show the face of the gods you are making them more powerful.

“When faces are represented later on, the faces are abstract and he thinks that’s analogous to the way that Shinto has conceptualized what the spirit world might have been about.”

Kaner believes these spirit figurines could have been used in rituals and then broken and buried when the performance was finished. They may also have been used as an offering to the gods.

Breaking the figurines could have meant allowing the spirits to return to another world and to take away the power that was imbued in them. Leaving them intact may have shown disrespect, some historians have conjectured.

Kaner says Japanese visitors have “loved” the exhibition.

“We mixed the figurines up and they are very struck by the commonalities and differences and think this was a good way to show the two. It makes them realize a sense of internationalization for Japanese archaeology,” he says.

In general, it is believed that the oldest ceramic figurines were found in what is now the Czech Republic, dating back about 26,000 years. They were made for about 1,000 years but were ritually destroyed in bonfires during the production process. Historians still don’t know why.

After that, it is thought the earliest figurines came from Japan, with the earliest one being from Shiga Prefecture dating about 13,000 years ago.

The Japanese clay figurines on show (known as “dogu”) are mostly from the Jomon Period (10,000 to 200 B.C.). They come from Tokyo University Museum and the Sannai-Maruyama archaeological site in Aomori Prefecture.