December 4


Ancient Figurines: How It All Began

By Victoria Clayton

December 4, 2020

I was an hour into the chemistry exam but it had been pretty clear from the first ten minutes that this was a big mistake. Florence popped in with a glass of cold lemonade.

‘How is it going?’

I shook my head and sighed. It was pretty grim actually. Taking on a semester of first year university level chemistry was a very bad idea. I hadn’t studied any stream of science since my middle secondary school years and chemistry has been particularly baffling, particularly in a dusty workroom, on a 38-degree day in a small village in North Syria.

I gulped the lemonade and my head pounded. Just get it done…

It was my third season of excavation at Tell Ahmar and I was twenty-five years old. I had done my honours year and I’d had enough of research; I just wanted to excavate, to do archaeology. I’d found my bliss in an archaeological trench and all I wanted to do was dig. But with student diggers at two a penny, how could I show that I had skills every dig director needed?

The idea of object conservation had been on my periphery for a while and I’d already written, yes written (back in the day when writing meant pen and paper, and overseas mail meant stamps and a three week wait) to universities in the UK which offered conservation courses.

I’d even done a short stint of work experience at the National Gallery of Victoria, painstakingly describing the condition of an Egyptian mummy case. Object conservation seemed a good idea at the time. The chance to carefully clean, protect and perhaps even display ancient objects; skills that would let me build my dig resume.

But I’d not taken into consideration the need for some understanding of how substances react to one another, and despite my scientist cousin’s best efforts to tutor me, I just couldn’t get my head around the subject. I wrote essays instead of lab reports and the tutorials I was hoping might comprise sitting around a table discussing chemical issues were instead self-guided ‘learning modules’ done individually on computers. I hated them and regularly failed the tests at the end of each session.

I persevered and begged the department of chemistry to allow me to sit the end of semester exam at Tell Ahmar during the 1995 season of excavation. After all, this was the scenario in which my future skills would be used and there was an actual conservator as part of the team this year. Jacob, from a world-famous art museum in America, had chuckled when he saw my diagrams of chemical compounds and I was so ashamed of trying to be like him that I steered clear of his work and focused on the cataloguing of objects coming in from the field.

Dr B tapped at the open door.

‘Time to finish now’.

I sighed again and put my pen down, closed the question booklet and piled up my answer sheets. I knew I’d failed.

It was time to rethink this archaeological conservation idea.

I spent the rest of the year pondering what to do with my life. I’d finished my honours year and been overseas for eighteen months with money earned working for a year when I finished my degree and during that time had excavated twice at the University of Melbourne’s site of Tell Ahmar. I was tired of research and wanted to do lots of field work, figuring that a qualification in object conservation might be the way forward but now I wasn’t sure. Perhaps further research was the answer after all.

Some of the other members of the Tell Ahmar team were doing master’s degrees and were looking at objects found there; the pottery and the iron pieces and the Bronze Age graves were all subjects for postgraduate study. I began to wonder if this wasn’t the direction for me.

I made an appointment with Tell Ahmar’s dig director, Dr B.

‘Well, you could look at the tannurs…’

The ovens... Oh well, ovens are important. People have to eat. I was slightly doubtful about the potential of ovens for an entire master’s thesis but I was willing to give them a go.

I went to the library to look for articles about Iron Age tannurs. They are squat cylinders of baked clay a couple of feet high. I’d excavated a few but never found anything particularly interesting, no old bread rolls or stew congealed at the bottom. I did try, really hard, for about three weeks to get excited about tannurs and then went back to Dr B.

‘I’m not sure about these tannurs…’

‘Ah! They don’t excite you.’

‘Not much….’

‘Well...there’s the figurines...’


Now I was excited. No, I was thrilled. The figurine collection comprised mostly lumpy bits of broken clay but I jumped at the idea and was just a little curious as to why no one else, including the co-directors of the dig, had not nabbed them for research and publication.

The figurines! Little clay men and women and little horses and goodness knows what else.  They seemed like golden treasures among the finds from Tell Ahmar, far more interesting than boring pot sherds and shapeless blobs of rusty iron.

Sometimes in the afternoons when the field work was over for the day, I would go into the workroom at Tell Ahmar and hold the little round pots.  Their bases fit neatly into the palm of my hand and for me the experience connected me immediately with those who had made them. Some 2500 years ago a person, like me, had held this pot in their palm.

For me, archaeology has always been about people, and archaeologists have the chance to come ‘face-to-face’ with ancient people through human images such as figurines. Archaeology offers not only the artefactual remnants of ancient lives, but chance to enter directly into those lives, if we choose to and what better way than through miniature clay figurines.

Dr B gave me copies of small computer disks with the data about the figurines; description, dimensions, find spots. I still couldn’t quite believe it, but I was certain I’d been offered the opportunity of a lifetime.

I got 50% for my chemistry exam, quit the course and threw myself into figurine studies.

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