Terracotta armies are certainly in the news at the moment. The long-awaited third dig of Qin Shihuang’s tomb finally got under way last month in China, while a slightly more idiosyncratic clay army was causing some consternation in Germany last week: prosecutors are investigating whether the saluting garden gnomes created by artist Ottmar Hoerl are in fact breaking strict German code that bans Nazi symbols and gestures.
Libya’s Terracotta Army
While these terracotta armies grab the limelight, there is another ‘army’ of 4,500 small terracotta figurines, which were uncovered during excavations at the Greek and Roman ruins of Cyrene near Shahhat in Libya. Although most of the figurines were discovered during a previous excavation phase, it is thought likely that more terracotta votive figures may lie undiscovered at the site. The site was excavated between 1969 and 1978 when thousands of the clay figurines were discovered at the Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone. The sanctuary was once the focus of cult worship from the early sixth century BC, until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 365 AD. The Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone was one of Cyrene’s most important religious sites, and was where the annual religious festival, the Thesmophoria, would be celebrated to pray for safety and agricultural prosperity.
The terracotta figurines were discovered alongside other items at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone, including pottery, sculpture, lamps, jewellery, coins, glass and personal ornaments. The figurines were far from the most important votive offerings made at the sanctuary; in fact they represented a cheap form of thanksgiving and were readily available. They were found scattered at different locations around the sanctuary during 10 years of excavation work.
In 1981 archaeological work came to a halt as the relationship between Libya and the West deteriorated and 23 years passed before the excavation could recommence. In 2004, the sanctuary again became the focus of study for the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project (CAP), a joint venture between Oberlin College (USA) and the University of Birmingham (UK), directed by Professor Susan Kane of Oberlin College. However, the project is currently on hold due to visa restrictions.
North Africa’s Largest Assemblage of Terracotta Figurines
While the Cyrenaic votive figures may not be able to compete with the Terracotta Army’s 8,000 clay soldiers, it is nevertheless a fascinating find that has received little international attention. Professor Emerita Jaimee Uhlenbrock, from the State University of New York’s department of Art History (at the New Paltz campus), has been studying the figurines from the Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene and is also Chair of the Coroplastic Studies Interest Group. She told Heritage Key: “As a corpus they represent the largest and most diverse assemblage for North Africa that has been brought to light thus far, even though the sanctuary has only been partially explored.”
The earliest figurines (from the seventh century BC) found at Cyrene were brought to Cyrenaica from other terracotta-producing centres in the Greek world. By the fifth century they were being produced locally, probably using methods of serial-production. Most of the figurines from the Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone date from the early fifth to the later fourth centuries BC and experts believe they were offered by the city’s Greek population (the Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone being a Greek sanctuary complex consisting of several buildings over a sprawling area).
Many terracotta small-scale sculptures have been found at Cyrene at various other sanctuaries as well. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston currently holds some figurines from the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Nymphs, which is on the acropolis of Cyrene, at the other end of the ancient city from the Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone.
Photo by Martin Beek.