Sunday, September 21, 2014


Céline Boutantin, Terres cuites et culte domestique: Bestiaire de l'Égypte gréco-romaine. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World volume 179. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. 642. ISBN 9789004262034. $263.00.

Reviewed by Elaine A. Sullivan, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz (

Version at BMCR home site


Terres cuites et culte domestique: Bestiaire de l'Égypte gréco-romaine is a study of mold-made terracotta figurines from the periods of Ptolemaic and Roman rule in Egypt, the 4th century BCE through the 4th century CE. The book is valuable both as a monograph and as a reference work, and perhaps most notable for its ambitious scope in both genres. The title may mislead some readers to believe the work only deals with animal figurines, and indeed the second part of the book constitutes a huge catalog of these objects in museums in Egypt, and Europe. However, the first part is a much broader analysis of terracotta figurines in general, harnessing the animal material but focusing heavily on divine imagery.

The volume is split into four main sections: 1. A discussion of provenance of the figurines, including original site locations (covering approximately 35 sites in Egypt) and the evidence for workshops or figurine production at those sites. 2. A review of the iconographic types of terracotta figurines (including divine figures, human figures, and animals), specifically addressing how animal figurines relate to the larger corpus of objects. This section also considers chronological and geographic variations. 3. An exploration of the possible function of these objects, with a stress on those from urban contexts. 4. A catalog of objects with color illustrations (the largest segment of the book, 385 of the total 642 pages).

In addition, the book includes extensive appendices with a number of useful research aids for scholars hoping to investigate these figurines from other angles, including a site-by-site regional breakdown of publications on terracotta figurines, a series of charts listing typology and bibliography for figurines based on original context (separated into those those found in urban zones, objects located specifically within houses, and those from a funerary context), and a table summarizing archaeological evidence for figurine production at sites throughout Egypt.

Boutantin places a great deal of stress on utilizing the archaeological context of the figurines for analysis, and attempts to view the pieces primarily through this framework, as opposed to offering a purely stylistic discussion. This contextualized approach, as well as the breadth and depth of this volume—starting with the figurines but moving outwards to larger questions concerning household religion and regional religious practices in Egypt—mean the book should have a much broader audience than scholars concerned with terracotta figurines. Anyone interested in the material manifestation of personal religion will benefit from chapter 3; those concerned with the introduction and representation of animals in ancient Egypt will find the catalog enlightening.

In the first three sections of the book, Boutantin searches for localized figurine production linked to a city's or region's cult practices by attempting to connect figurines of specific iconographic types (with known or suspected archaeological contexts) to individual sites and their specific cults. The discussion includes a group of figurines the author argues depict temple cult images, as well as figurines she believes functioned as "souvenirs" for those who attended or took part in cultic festivals, then were carried home to function as protective agents for the household. The tenuousness of these arguments, due to the lack of original context information for many museum objects, are clearly acknowledged, but the author makes a strong case for local production in the Memphite region. Her arguments should lead scholars working on terracottas in other areas of Egypt to think carefully about the same question for their own region's material.

The section on object function, probably of most interest to the general reader concerned with the use and meaning of these figurines, considers them in the wider context of household religious practices. The author integrates the figurines into a larger discussion of the material culture of domestic religion, situating them alongside other ritual objects and architectural features (such as small household shrines) that could have operated in tandem. A wide range of evidence is called upon to consider questions of function, using a close analysis of iconography as a guide. As well, she considers comparative figurines in other materials (bronze and faience), and devotes a section to persistent questions about the use of figurines as toys.

The book's catalog is a major study of the animal world of Greco-Roman period Egypt. Each entry on an animal is comprehensively reviewed, not just in relation to other figurines, but in terms of the animal's presence and context in Egypt, both in Pharaonic and Greco-Roman times. For example, the entry on horses includes a discussion of the introduction of the animal to Egypt, the symbolism or function of horses in Egyptian imagery, a description of the earliest figurines using the horse motif in the pre-Ptolemaic period, and a discussion of the role horses played in the Greco-Roman period. Textual records, like a document describing the price of a horse, provide additional social and cultural information on the animal in its Egyptian mileau. Each figurine's entry includes a close description of the iconographic variants of each type (the animal with various humans, with divinities, with other animals, by itself, with specific icons, etc.) with accompanying color photographs. It also reviews the regional or town-specific popularity of certain figurines, with an attempt to relate these preferences to historical factors and local cultic practice.

This volume is especially timely because of two major trends in figurine studies and Egyptian religion: first, a scholarly resurgence of interest in figurines, an object type recovered in large quantities in nineteenth and early twentieth century excavations, but little theorized at the time; second, a shift in focus within Egyptology from state and royal cult (with a focus on temple architecture and texts) to include questions regarding personal and household religion. As new studies on issues of personal piety, magic, and non-elite religious practices abound, the importance of the figurines is increasingly clear. Primarily from urban contexts and associated with a range of social strata, they number in the tens and hundreds at sites across Egypt. They provide some of the best evidence for the widespread private practice of religion and show complex ties with state-sponsored cult. Continued study of these objects offer one of the best opportunities to understand religious and cultural variation amongst communities, towns, and regions in the Greco- Roman state.

The figurines also contribute to the study of ethnicity in the ancient world, as waves of Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, and other cultural groups immigrated to Egypt after the 4th century BCE. The shifting popularity of iconographic styles and the syncretism of Egyptian and Hellenistic imagery in the figurines offers interesting non-elite material to compare and contrast with the elite tombs and funerary materials that have been harnessed to consider evolving concepts of identity and ethnicity in the larger ancient Mediterranean.

One of the major strengths of this volume lies in the sheer number of objects Boutantin has gathered for quantification and analysis. Her attention to larger trends is missing in most previous literature on the figurines, because most publications cover one site, one museum, or are focused on one iconographic type and do not allow for this type of broad analysis. This work seeks the bigger picture, considering questions of chronological and geographic variation, issues rarely approached in other such studies. Presumably, diachronic surveys are seldom attempted because of major problems with (lack of) context that plague the field, but the author does an admirable job of both acknowledging the instances where our evidence is poor and suggesting hypothetical possibilities, pushing a bit where there is at least tenuous evidence. Such work is only possible because of a number of recent publications that include clear provenance for their figurines. Indeed, this book clearly highlights the fact that further progress on the study of terracotta figurines will be stalled in Egypt until more excavations publish their objects with a high level of detail – including exact find location, stratigraphic context and date, and the corpus of related objects.

The format of the book is appropriate for this type of catalog and analysis. Although the catalog images are small, they are clear, crisp, and in color, absolutely vital for a publication on polychrome objects. The organization by animal type (including multiple examples of each type) allows the reader to better understand the iconographic differences that define each grouping. One criticism is that each figurine is only displayed once and thus from a single viewpoint. In general, this is done skillfully, incorporating the most salient aspects of the figurine, but in the case of certain figurines (such as the standing dogs made from tri-valve molds which have a great deal of detail on all three parts) this makes associating some of the descriptive comments about appearance difficult. This is understandable in that the quantity of figurines illustrated in the volume numbers more than 350, and the length of the book is already considerable. The author clearly states that the volume is not a true "catalog" intended to be a definitive publication of the pieces, and indeed the expense of publishing such a comprehensive work would be prohibitive.

In addition to the hard-cover format, an e-book is available, with images similar in quality to those of the printed volume. This is an excellent option, as scholars desiring to use the book in the field can have instant access to the images, without needing to lug the thick volume overseas. The e-book also allows for the purchase of individual chapters, allowing those only interested in certain aspects of the figurines to download sections of the book for a reduced price. Since the full price of the book ($263) is prohibitively expensive for individual scholars, this option may be helpful for those without the ability to purchase the entire volume.

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