A Terracotta Figurine and
a Terracotta Head

Somewhere at Mycenae, and most probably in the same general region as the Grave Circle and the buildings to the south of it (Fig. 1, D-J), Schliemann discovered a fragmentary clay figurine which, along with a similar example that he found at the site of Tiryns, seems to represent someone kneading dough to form loaves of bread. He did not record the exact provenience (and the associated material) of either example, which would help to fix their date; both are fragmentary, unpainted and crude, which makes stylistic dating equally difficult; and there are many analogous breadmaker figurines from the Peloponnese (including examples from Tiryns and Prosymna, which lies between Mycenae and Tiryns), that belong to the archaic period (i.e., seventh-sixth centuries). Despite all these considerations, archaeologists nevertheless felt that Schliemann’s two finds were LH III in date, because of their discovery at citadels whose main period of occupation was the Mycenaean Age. Still, there were no similar LH III examples with which one could associate them.

C. Blegen published another breadmaker terracotta of unknown provenience, but definitely LH III A-B in modelling and decoration. Since his figurine did “at first glance” look “like a comparable piece” to Schliemann’s finds, it could have helped to bolster the date which archaeologists had long believed, but could not prove for the examples from Mycenae and Tiryns, linking all three to form a tight little LH III group. Blegen realized that people did live in, and leave remains (including figurines) at both Mycenae and Tiryns during the archaic period. He therefore felt that Schliemann’s finds, which resembled the later examples and came from contexts that might as easily have been late as early, could have belonged to the archaic period. He finally decided to assign those two breadmakers to a time 500 years later than other archaeologists had assumed, but did connect them with the large group of seventh-sixth-century figurines, instead of leaving them cut off by centuries from the archaic group.

Blegen’s example was certainly of LH III style, so he could not lower its date. Displacing the other two terracottas, the new one assumed their former, isolated position. It became the sole Mycenaean “antecedent” of the later group, “separated from them by a long interval” of 500-600 years, during which similar figurines seem not to have been made.1 In fact, by the present chronological scheme, for nearly two of those intervening centuries, the Greeks seem to have made no figurines of any kind.2 Blegen was not alone in his dilemma, however. For despite the break in continuity, many authorities note the remarkable similarity of eighth-sixth century terracottas to those of the LH III period—a matter which has elicited wonder and sparked debates involving 400-600 years over individual figurines.3

In 1896 C. Tsountas, excavating among the houses south of Grave Circle A, discovered a brightly painted, nearly-life-size terracotta head of a female (possibly a sphinx), which art historians have assigned to the thirteenth century B.C. The monumental proportions of the head, contrasted with the more ubiquitous, tiny figures, led V. Müller to speculate whether the large-scale sculpture, which one finds from the seventh century onward in Greece, had a centuries-old tradition behind it, and with that question as his point of reference, he observed something in 1934 which is equally valid today: “The relationship of the Minoan-Mycenaean culture of the second millennium and the classical civilization of the first is one of the most pressing problems of present-day archaeology.”4

Art historians have long noted the close similarity of the first monumental Greek statues of the seventh-sixth centuries to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasty sculpture in Egypt. The Mycenaeans who visited Egypt at that time and copied other contemporary arts of their hosts, seem not to have imitated their sculpture. Apparently their descendants of the Archaic Period, returning to Egypt after centuries of allegedly broken contact, and seeing for the first time those same colossal works (by now quite ancient), did decide to copy them.5 Müller observed that the Mycenaeans could and did create larger-scale sculpture, albeit non-Egyptian in inspiration, and cited literary statements that the later Greeks preserved early sculptures for centuries. He therefore considered it reasonable that native Greek sculpture, such as the terracotta head from Mycenae, might, like the contemporary Egyptian works, have been on constant display during the centuries of the Dark Age when, according to present evidence, the Greeks produced no other sculptures; he felt that the Mycenaean pieces could also have supplied an even more accessible, and just as natural a source of inspiration as Egypt did to seventh-century artists. He wanted to believe that, but in the end decided that the old statues “had no influence whatsoever on the new Greek types. Mycenaean civilization died . . . classical art made a new beginning.”6 A few years later F. Grace V. Müller, “The Beginnings of Monumental Sculpture in Greece,” also noted the nearly-life-size Mycenaean creations as possible models for monumental archaic sculpture. Unlike Müller, he doubted that the Greeks frequented cult centers throughout the Dark Age, rather than merely returning to them 500 years later, and felt it improbable that once they did return, there were still any Mycenaean sculptures on view. Like Müller, however, he felt that seventh-century Greeks, looking to Egypt and the Levant, rather than to older native works, “created their sculpture anew.”7

More recent authorities have also noted the Mycenaeans’ skill at producing monumental stone sculpture, such as the Lion Gate, the Shaft Grave stelae, the fašades of the beehive tombs, and in modelling large-scale creations of clay, such as the terracotta head.8 Like Müller, they too ran into the problem of the huge gap separating the monumental thirteenth-century sculptures from those of the seventh century. E. Vermeule parodied the frequently-expressed sentiment that “the thrust toward monumental sculpture is somehow innate in [Mycenaean] Greece but will lie dormant” for over 500 years.9 Still, the Dark Age of no similar sculpture forced such conclusions upon the art historians.

Not only the monumental size of the terracotta head looked to the seventh century. The shape of the face “seems to foreshadow,” and “anticipates in an uncanny way the so-called ‘Dedalic’ style which was to emerge some six centuries later.”10 As if its own 600-year problems with size and morphology were not enough, that head has created still others. W. Schiering published a small terracotta face of unknown provenience, but noting its similar clay composition to Tsountas’ discovery, he noted that it, too, probably came from the region around Mycenae. Observing the face’s stylistic affinities to those on large-scale terracotta statues from the island of Kea, which are now dated to the sixteenth century, to the thirteenth-century head from Mycenae, and to a small head from the town of Asine, less than twenty miles southeast of Mycenae, now dated to the thirteenth or twelfth century, Schiering sandwiched the face between the latter two sculptures.11

Like the Mycenaean head, the Kean statues and the Asine head have their own 500-600-year problems—the former with stratigraphy,12 the latter with style.13 Now the terracotta face, like its three companion pieces, has its own 600-year problem as well. Though its style does resemble the other problematical sculptures, its size fits well a series of seventh-century heads, but more importantly, its mode of manufacture also points to that same period. Distinct from all other Mycenaean terracottas presently known, the face was fashioned in a mold, something which scholars have traditionally considered an important invention of the early seventh century. If that face really belongs to the late thirteenth century, then the earliest-known Greek mold must go back that far, though its impact seems negligible; then it must have disappeared for ca. 500 years only to re-emerge in the seventh century,14 at which time it “completely transformed” the Greek terracotta industry.15 Realizing the problem, Schiering couselled that, in order to follow the history of terracotta heads, one had to take “a long step” (einen weiten Schritt) from the end of the Mycenaean Age to their return ca. 700 B.C.16

As we have seen, and shall continue to see, one must constantly take that “long step” whenever tracing the development of so many strikingly similar artifacts of two cultural phases supposedly separated by half a millennium. With specific regard to representational art, we already noted the “taboo” on figures on painted pottery of the Dark Age,17 and have just seen a similar “taboo” on stone and clay sculpture—both large and small. There is also a contemporary, centuries-long lack of two-dimensional representations on carved gems and ivory plaques, and three-dimensional ivory and bronze statuettes, which separates the figures found in each of these media during the eighth to sixth centuries from the strikingly similar figures in each of those media during the LH III period.18 The complete departure from all representational art in sculpture, glyptic and painting, immediately following a long period when such figures flourished, and immediately preceding the return of such similar specimens again seems “strange” and “curious”. For bronze, ivory and semiprecious stones, one can postulate a shortage of raw material, or the loss of the skill to adorn them, or the lack of funds to commission the work; however, at a time when there was no dearth of clay and paint, and when artisans did continue to fashion ceramic objects and to adorn them, it is far more difficult to explain why the Greeks interrupted the flow of figural art for so long, only to revive it centuries later in forms so reminiscent of the Mycenaean Age.19

Specifically, terracotta figurines were “ubiquitous” during the LH III period, and became common again in the eighth-seventh centuries. Experts often have difficulties distinguishing examples of the two groups, and debates arise, as we have seen. At both periods the terracottas comprise one of the most conspicuous manifestations of Greek religion, which itself constitutes one of the few legacies of prehistoric Greece whose continuity throughout the Dark Age no one seriously questions. The fact that the later examples so closely resemble the earlier ones and that terracottas “disappear almost without a trace” between the two eras,20 not only poses problems regarding art and religion, but is, once again, reminiscent of conditions 500 years earlier.21


  1. C. Blegen, “A Mycenaean Breadmaker,” Annuario della Scuola Archeologica di Atene, N. S. 8-10 (1946-48), p. 16. For a closer date for that figurine, see Furumark, (1941), p. 88; Higgins, (1967), p. 14; and Vermeule, (1972), p. 222 (phi-shaped figurines). For numerous archaic breadmakers, see A. Frickenhaus, “Die Hera von Tiryns” in Tiryns I (Athens, 1912), p. 83. 

  2. Higgins, ibid., p. 17; Richter, (1969), p. 229 (cf. above “Shaft Grave Art: Modern Problems,” n. 11). 

  3. For remarkable similarities, see C.H. Morgan II, “The Terracotta Figurines from the North Slope of the Acropolis,” Hesperia 4 (1935), pp. 194-195; Young, (1939), p.194; C.H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Cambridge, Mass, 1958), p. 52; Benson,(1970), p. 123; Boardman, (1964), pp. 61, 104. For some 400-600-year debates arising from those similarities, see Higgins,(1967), pp. 24 and 141 (references), and Nicholls, (1970), pp. 14-15. For related problems, cf. ns. 10-20 and “The Religious Center of Mycenae,” 26-34 below. 

  4. Metropolitan Museum Studies 5 (1934), p. 158. 

  5. E.g., G. Richter, Kouroi (London, 1960), pp. 2-3, 28; idem, Korai (London, 1968), pp. 4, 23, and cf. Pl. I; idem, (1969), pp. 56-57; Vermeule, (1972), p. 214; Robertson,(1975), pp. 39-41; E. Guralnick, “The Proportions of Kouroi,” AJA, 82 (1978), pp. 461-472. 

  6. Müller, (1934), pp. 164-165. 

  7. F. Grace, “Observations on Seventh-Century Sculpture,” AJA 46 (1942) p. 341. 

  8. Boardman, (1964), p. 22; Mylonas, (1966), p. 188; J. Barron, Greek Sculpture (New York, 1970), pp. 8-9. 

  9. Vermeule, (1975, p. 6) actually refers to the Shaft Grave Stelae, but the point is valid for LH III sculpture. 

  10. Higgins, (1967), pp. 93-94. 

  11. Schiering, (1964), pp. 1-2. 

  12. J.L. Caskey, the excavator of the temple at Kea, felt that it enjoyed uninterrupted attendance from its foundation late in the Middle Bronze Age until the Hellenistic period, with the room which contained the idols constituting the most revered part of the temple. He discovered the idols amid a fifteenth-century destruction layer, immediately above which was a continuous sequence of material which began only in the tenth century. Caskey assumed, on the basis of pottery finds from the “intervening” 500 years from other parts of the building, that tenth-century Keans had removed 500 years of floors from the room with the idols, which is the logical, and, indeed, the only reasonable conclusion, if there really were five “intervening” centuries (Caskey, “Excavations in Keos, 1963,” Hesperia 33 [1964], pp. 317, 326-333. Similarly, see the supposedly continuous use of a religious sanctuary on Crete, where eleventh-century devotees performed the same rites and left identical offerings to those of the sixteenth century, which lay immediately below, with no intervening material to mark the half millennium which supposedly transpired [Evans, (1928), pp. 123, 128, 134; Coldstream and Higgins in Coldstream, (1976), p. 181. Both those cases fit the pattern we have seen, and will see for the resemblance of buildings, tombs, pots, jewelry, etc. of the early Mycenaean Age to the early Iron Age, as well as the pattern for “continuity” of religious cults with a 500-year lacuna in evidence [most often between ca. 1200 and 700 B.C.]).

  13. As others have noted, the Asine head bears a striking resemblance to a series of terracotta sculptures from post-Minoan Crete. Alexiou sought to connect a tenth or ninth-century Cretan head to the example from Asine, claiming that the latter example showed Cretan influence, while Schiering, cited an eighth-century Cretan terracotta as proof of the revival of the Asine type of head (1964, p. 15). Nicholls (1970, pp. 5-6), who admitted the possibility of Cretan influence on the Asine head, asserted that it was “Impossible chronologically” for the presently-known sequence of Cretan terracottas to have exerted any influence on the example from Asine, however non-Mycenaean and Cretanizing it appeared, since all the Cretan heads so far discovered are later than the Asine head. 

  14. Schiering, ibid., pp. 7, 14.

  15. Higgins, (1967), p. 17. The Minoans, who used molds to form “eggshell” pottery during the Middle Bronze Age, seem to have continued their use into the Shaft Grave period for animal-shaped vessels, after which time they seem to have abandoned their use for centuries (ibid., p. 12). In Greece itself, except for Schiering’s example, which Egyptian chronology dates to ca. 1200 B.C, there is no other evidence for mold-made terracottas for another 500 years.

  16. Schiering, (1964), p. 6; cf. Boardman’s 500-year later date for a head which Evans classified as Minoan (Boardman, (1961), p. 103. 

  17. Cf. above “The Warrior Vase,” n. 14. 

  18. Carved gems; ns. 4-5 above; ivory plagues: see below “Ivory Carvings,” ns. 6-7; ivory statuettes; see below “The Religious Center of Mycenae,” n. 24; bronzes; for a gap in Greece during the Dark Age, followed by an eighth-century renewal, see Charbonneaux,(1962), pp. 19, 79-80; Lamb, (1929), pp. 29-30, 44; S. Casson, “Bronzework of the Geometric Period and Its Relation to Later Art,” JHS, 42 (1922), pp. 207, 219; Mitten-Doeringen, (1968), p. 19; Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 417-418. Despite that gap, some Mycenaean Age bronzes are strikingly similar to those 500-600 years later - something especially evident in the case of the youthful horned god from Enkomi on Cyprus, now dated to the twelfth century, but extremely similar to seventh-sixth century bronze statuettes in form and facial features (see R. Dussaud, “Kinyras, Etude sur les anciens cultes chypriotes,” Syria 27 [1950], pp. 74-75; Karageorghis, (1962b), p. 16; idem, (1970), p. 142; K. Hadjioannou, “On the Identification of the Horned God of Enkomi-Alasia” in C. Schaeffer, Alasia I [Paris, 1971], pp. 33-42). Similarly, although there is no evidence of continuity in Crete, some eighth-seventh century bronzes so closely resemble Late Minoan ones, that experts often cannot decide to which epoch individual pieces belong, which has led to consternation equivocation and scholarly debates (Cf. Boardman,(1961); pp. 5-9, 13, 47-48, 118-119); (cf. above “Other LH III Figural Pottery,” n. 29, for Near Eastern bronzes.)

  19. Cf. above “The Warrior Vase,” n. 15 and “Bronze Tripods,” n. 5; For loss of skills except for modelling and decorating clay, cf. Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 399-401. 

  20. Snodgrass, ibid., p. 192, and cf. p. 399; cf. n. 2 above. 

  21. Ibid., p. 200, n. 34.