Terracotta Bull from Cyprus

Terracotta Bull from Cyprus

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The word terracotta originates quite literally from the Italian translation "baked earth" and its use across the globe has a prominent place in history (and continues to be vastly used today).

One of its earliest reference points was in prehistoric art, with some of the oldest pottery of time being found as far back as 24,000 BC. Interestingly, these early pieces were found to be Palaeolithic terracotta figurines, rather than cooking vessels, as you might expect, demonstrating how widely terracotta has been used in the art. Perhaps, terracotta’s most famous use in art was China’s Terracotta Army, which is a magnificent collection of terracotta figures of over 8,000 soldiers and 520 horses. It was found in the First Emperor of China, Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum (246 to 208 BCE, but not discovered until 1974 by local Chinese farmers). Terracotta is widely preferred for sculpture, given its thick and malleable texture and eases to be molded. It’s a far easier material to work with than say marble or bronze. Terracotta also has a close link to architecture, most commonly in roof tiles and brickwork, as it’s incredibly durable, beautiful in color and one of the cheapest clays to work with.

It's also a material with a lowered fire risk in buildings. Terracotta is also very commonly used to make flowerpots and highly decorative dinnerware plates.

Inside the Ancient Bull Cult

King Minos and the Minotaur remain shrouded in mystery and mythology, yet evidence of a Bronze Age ‘Bull Cult’ at the Minoan palaces abounds. Were bulls merely for entertainment or did they have a deeper significance?

Detail from the Bull-leaping fresco from the Minoan Palace of Knossos.

I t was Greek mythology, as represented in the works of Homer and Apollodorus, that first prompted antiquarians to search for the fabled island civilization of King Minos, the backcloth against which the struggle of the hero Theseus with the Minotaur was supposedly enacted. Interest in locating ‘Homeric’ sites of the pre-Classical Greek world was stimulated in 1870, when the pioneering archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, claimed to have identified the city of Troy.

His later excavations at Mycenae, in the Argolid region of mainland Greece, soon revealed further spectacular evidence of an ‘age of heroes’, including the so-called ‘gold mask of Agamemnon’. By 1876, Schliemann was convinced that the epic poems of Homer were, in fact, reliable historical documents and when he turned his attention towards Crete, more sensational revelations were expected, this time of the lost civilization of King Minos. Schliemann, however, was unable to obtain permission to excavate and it was not until 1899 that the site of Knossos was explored, under the direction of Sir Arthur Evans.

Like his predecessor, Evans was aware of the mythology of Crete and the ancient travel accounts of Pausanias but he was primarily drawn to the island by his ambition to establish the origins of the Greek language. His excavations produced the curious Linear B tablets, which defied decipherment until 1952, when the outstanding researches of Michael Ventris and John Chadwick proved that the ancient Cretan script was the forerunner of Archaic Greek.

The tablets had defeated Evans but he was left with the triumph of having unearthed the vast royal complex at Knossos, parts of which he ‘restored’ in controversial fashion. Evans was certain that he had discovered the royal seat of King Minos he labelled the entire Bronze Age civilization of the island ‘Minoan’, after the mythical king. The account of the excavations at Knossos, published between 1922 and 1935, bore the grandiose title The Palace of Minos.

As in the case of Schliemann’s discovery of what he had believed to be the Homeric city of Troy, much of the romance that surrounded the findings at Knossos has now been dispelled. King Minos and the Minotaur remain shrouded in mystery and mythology yet Evans’ consummate achievement was the exposition of the remnants of a culture in which the image of the bull held portentous significance.

Cretan painters, sculptors and metal-workers have bequeathed to posterity a wealth of scenes and artefacts which show that the bull and the associated ‘bull-sports’ played a prominent part in the lives of the Bronze Age inhabitants of the island. The precise meaning of the bull-image has provoked a good deal of speculation throughout this century, as the continuing process of excavation has increased our knowledge of Minoan culture.

Many ancient peoples respected the bull as a symbol of strength and fertility its size, power and potency have impressed man for many thousands of years. Bronze Age Crete, however, constitutes something of a special case it has produced not only static representations of the bull itself, but also the highly mobile figures of the bull-leapers, young people of both sexes, apparently performing astounding acrobatical feats using a charging bull in much the same way as modern-day gymnasts might use a piece of fixed apparatus.

The palace at Knossos yielded the famous ‘bull-leap’ fresco painting seals and signets found at several sites bear the bull’s horns motif the image of the bull appeared on funerary furniture, and in the form of rhytons (pouring vessels).‘Bull-leapers’ were depicted in a variety of activities, and were fashioned from a wide range of materials, including bronze, ivory and terracotta.

At first it was thought that the ‘bull-cult’ had been confined to the royal precincts at Knossos but examination of the palaces at Phaistos and Malia, the ‘summer palace’ at Hagia Triada and other important sites at Zakro, Armenoi and Pseira, has provided evidence that the phenomenon was fairly widespread throughout the island.

As has been noted, the bull had fascinated man both before and after the Aegean Bronze Age. Palaeolithic cave paintings from Lascaux in France, which depict the strength and ferocity of the bison, have been dated to c.13,500 BC by radiocarbon analysis. The civilizations that flourished in Anatolia and Mesopotamia between 6000 BC and 2000 BC have furnished us with many striking examples of the bull-image, from the vivid murals at Catal Huyuk to the intricate and delicately-made golden head of a bull from the city of Ur.

The theme of the bull persisted in Near Eastern artwork for centuries, culminating in the monumental winged bulls of the Neo-Assyrian age. There has been considerable speculation as to the possible magico-religious significance of such objects. The Ancient Egyptians observed the religious cult of Apis, the Bull of Memphis, and also revered Mnevis, a minor deity who took the form of a huge, heavily built black bull. Long after the waning of the Aegean Bronze Age, the Etruscan peoples of Italy decorated their funerary furniture with bull-scenes, in much the same way as the Cretans had done.

Greek vase-painters of the sixth century BC tended to depict some of the more outlandish mythological scenes yet the theme of Theseus and the Minotaur was not neglected, as the black-figure ‘Francois vase’ and the red-figure work of the ‘Panaitos painter’ show. The bull continued to have significance well into the age of Rome Cato gives an account of the rustic ceremony of the lustratio, the cleansing and purification of the land, in which a sacrificial bull is led around the field concerned, before its blood is scattered over the ground.

The wealth of bull-images found in Crete encouraged archaeologists to re-appraise some of the similar items found elsewhere. In particular, attention focused on two gold cups, called ‘Mycenaean’, discovered at Vapheio, near Sparta, some 20 years before the excavations at Knossos. These richly-wrought vessels, in the so-called ‘tea-cup’ style, depicted scenes very similar to some of those found in Crete, especially a rhyton from Hagia Triada. The first Vapheio Cup relief shows what is apparently a bull tethered by its hind leg, with a second bull recumbent nearby but the ‘second bull’ is, in fact, a cow, probably used as a decoy to attract the bull, who was then smartly roped by concealed captors.

The head of the bull is raised, its expression one of anger. The second cup depicts hunters, in the typically Cretan slim-waisted style, attempting to ensnare a bull by suspending a net between two trees. The bull is seen, on the next relief, to be apparently firmly enmeshed but the final scene reveals that the bull has broken free and trampled one of his would-be captors, while a second, thought to be a girl, seemingly wraps herself around the bull’s horns. The theme, the figures and the style of workmanship are all typically Cretan, despite their location at Vapheio the cups were probably imported from Crete, or produced on the Greek mainland by Cretan goldsmiths.

The not-so-gentle art of bull-catching is similarly portrayed on one of the reliefs of the Hagia Triada rhyton from southern Crete a young man is shown near a bull, but not engaged in any form of athletic activity. He is about to attempt to capture the bull. And a painting on a crystal plaque from Knossos shows a rope being used to capture a bull the resemblance to the subject matter of the Vapheio Cups is inescapable.

By far the most controversial of the finds from Knossos was the famous ‘bull-leap’ fresco painting. Executed around 1500 BC, the scene was discovered in a small enclosure in the eastern wing of the royal palace, and is thought to have once been part of a frieze. A huge bull charges forwards, a bronzed male seemingly performing a somersault along its back, while two attendants or fellow participants, painted in light colours to denote females, wait to catch or steady the performer. Sir Arthur Evans had no doubts about the interpretation of this amazing scene:

the girl acrobat in front seizes the horns of the coursing bull at full gallop, one of which seems to run under her left armpit. The object of her grip clearly seems to be to gain a purchase for a backward somersault over the animal’s back, such as is being performed by the boy. The second female performer, behind, stretches out both her arms as if to catch the flying figure, or at least to steady him when he comes to earth the right way up.

Given our understanding of gymnastics, such a feat as that outlined by Evans seems highly improbable. Many authorities, including Sir Denys Page and Professor John Chadwick, have argued that it would have been physically impossible for even the most highly trained athlete to have performed a backward somersault along the back of a bull charging at full tilt, much less to be caught by an assistant.

American ‘steer-wrestlers’, with first-hand experience of a similar kind of sport, have insisted that it would have been impossible to have grasped the horns of the bull in the first place, as the force of the charge – three times that of a ‘steer’ – would have thrown anyone standing in front of, or alongside, the bull off balance and the danger of being seriously gored is self-evident.

Art historians have claimed that the scene can be explained in terms of the failure of the artist to show perspective and this would account for the seemingly impossible positions of the participants. Yet other bull-leaping scenes are to be found on seals and signets depicting a variety of acrobatic skills sometimes the performer lands on the back of the bull hands-first, sometimes feet-first. Such scenes cannot have been entirely the figment of the artist’s imagination.

The object of the exercise may have been for the performer to excite the bull to charge, and then to leap forwards, high in the air, at the crucial moment, tucking up the legs so as to allow the bull to pass underneath without contact being made. This manoeuvre may well have succeeded, provided that the bull was not charging at a great pace. Alternatively, acrobats could have performed somersaults and handstands across the back of the bull rather than along it, while the animal was still, or by approaching it from an angle outside its field of vision. One seal does show a sideways leap being performed across a recumbent bull.

Even so, the risk of death or serious injury must have been appallingly high. We may never know the exact nature of the leaps performed since, as has been wryly observed, few of the world’s top-class athletes seem willing to put the theories to the practical test. Because of the obvious dangers of bull-leaping, the question has invariably arisen, were the performers participating of their own free will, or were they forced to do so? Were the ‘bull-sports’ a refined form of human sacrifice?

A study of Greek mythology provided interesting insight into the matter but the question cannot be answered on the basis of the archaeological evidence. It would seem unlikely that the Cretans practised human sacrifice to the bull, since they did not worship it as a major deity. Similarly, the question of the willing participation of the bull-leapers is one that cannot be answered it remains a topic for speculation.

The bull-leapers are invariably shown to be young, slim, supple and well-proportioned, both boys and girls. They are clad in a loincloth, wear decorative bracelets, armlets and ankle-gaiters they are long-haired, the hair usually curled. There was nothing particularly remarkable in the participation of women in the bull-cult a society that frequently depicted women as ‘goddesses’ in varying shapes would have seen nothing unusual in this. The bull-leapers are unarmed their activity did not correspond to a bullfight, but more to an exibition of athletic prowess.

There is little clear information on the subject of the location of the bull-leaping spectacles. Crete has yielded nothing in the way of bull-rings or amphitheatres as we know them. It has been suggested that, at Knossos, the area between the river and the state-rooms would have been a convenient situation for the staging of such events but they could have been equally well accommodated in the large central courtyard of the palace itself.

Examination of the plans of other palaces, notably those at Phaistos and Malia, reveals a similar form of construction, and therefore provides no conclusive solution to the problem. Traditionally, it was thought that the bull-leaping would have been performed for the benefit of members of the royal court only but modern opinion believes that the event would have taken place in public. But were the bull-sports merely for entertainment, or did they have a deeper significance?

There is a scene from a painted limestone sarcophagus from Hagia Triada showing a bull trussed up on a sacrificial table, while a priestess offers libation at an altar it follows from this that the bull would hardly have been seen as a sacrificial animal, had it been a major deity in its own right. The people of Crete, like those of many other ancient societies, recognised the bull as a symbol of strength, and probably believed that bull’s blood had certain magical properties. Recent work on the Linear B tablets argues that the Cretans worshipped prototypes of some of the Classical Greek deities.

They also appear to have worshipped the mother goddess in a variety of forms although the island is devoid of temples and monumental votive sculpture, there are many miniature likenesses of woman, the goddess of nature, usually shown in the company of her ‘subjects’, the snake, the dove and the bull. It is thought that the mother goddess was a nature goddess, the goddess of animals, the guardian of earth, sea and the harvest.

That the bull should occupy a prominent place in such a society was quite natural its power and potency constituted an important adjunct to the aura of the mother goddess. The bull-leapers are invariably shown to be young and beautiful the bull is usually shown to be ferocious and powerful. The bull-leap could be seen to combine the elements, almost, of ‘beauty and the beast’, which may well have held some form of magico-religious significance for the Cretans. Murals illustrate that the mother goddess looked down on the bull-sports, another factor which argues that the spectacle had some form of religious symbolism.

The bull’s head rhyton from Knossos may have been used as a libation vessel in religious ceremonies. Made from steatite, it was an exceptionally intricate piece the eyes, of painted rock crystal produce a shimmering effect and the muzzle is a fine example of shell-working. Such a vessel would have been far too elaborate for simple, everyday usage as a drinking vessel. The site of Pseira in eastern Crete has also yielded some unusual rhytons in terracotta, made from a mould, the size of which suggests that they may have been votive objects as well as pourers. They take the form of a bull in static, standing pose.

Sir Arthur Evans believed that the bull had an even greater significance to the ancient Cretans than has been shown. In the basement of a small house at Knossos he found the skeletal heads of two bulls, ‘the horn-cores of one of which were over a foot in girth at the base’. Taking a line from Book XX of The Iliad (‘In bulls does the Earth-Shaker delight’), Evans reasoned that there must have been a connection between the roar of a bull and the rumbling of an earth tremor, to which Bronze Age Crete was frequently subject.

He himself claimed to have experienced tremors in which ‘a dull sound arose from the ground, like the muffled roar of an angry bull’. Perhaps romance was beginning to gain the upper hand on reason. Yet was there not a slight possibility that the Cretans might have experienced similar sensations? It is hardly a scientific explanation of the importance of the bull-cult in itself. But remembering the reverence with which ancient rural societies treated the bull as a symbol of power and fertility, and given the seismographic fluctuations on the Aegean, dare we dismiss the idea altogether?

This article originally appeared in the April 1978 issue of History Today.

The sanctuary at Kako Plaï

  • 4 See e.g. the fragments illustrated in Pilz 2015, figs 2-3.
  • 5 Eliopoulos 2004 Gesell 2004 Tsipopoulou 2009.
  • 6 For an overview, see Gaignerot-Driessen 2014.

2 During the 2015 survey, the trenches opened by Demargne at Kako Plaï were located and more coroplastic material, very similar to that found in 1929, was collected from the surface. Some potential lines of walls and an anomalous accumulation of limestone rubble were also noticed on the terrace immediately above, where in the summer of 2017, a small single-room building with a bench was brought to light. Within and immediately outside the building, fragments of Daedalic plaques and archaic to classical figures were found in disturbed contexts. On the floor in the south-west part of the room was found a protogeometric skyphos in situ, while in the south-east corner was the head of a female terracotta figure (fig. 2), obviously fallen from the bench. It is possible that some of the fragments collected by Demargne in 1929 4 in fact belong to the same figure. Iconographically and technologically the head clearly echoes the large, wheel-made figures with upraised arms that are common in LM IIIC bench sanctuaries, notably at the neighbouring sites of Kephala Vasilikis, Vronda and Chalasmenos. 5 The Kako Plaï figure must, however, have been slightly smaller and it does not have the tiara and attributes characteristic for the LM IIIC examples. Moreover, it was found on its own in an extra-urban building, whereas the LM IIIC figures with upraised arms generally appear in groups, within urban sanctuaries, and associated with a set of vessels (kalathoi, tubular stands and plaques) made in the same clay fabric. 6 On the basis of these observations and of the find context, the head from Kako Plaï can provisionally be dated to the LM IIIC – Protogeometric period. Finally, it is worth noting that both the figure and skyphos were still on display in the sanctuary at Kako Plaï up to the most recent use of the building, which was in classical times, if not later.

Fig. 2 Head of a figure from Kako Plaï.

Terracotta Sculpture (c.26,000 BCE - 1900)

Sarcophagus of the Spouses
(late 6th century BCE)
National Etruscan Museum,
Villa Giulia, Rome.

In fine art, the word Terracotta ("baked earth") is most commonly used to describe a type of sculpture, unglazed ceramic art, or decorative architecture, made from a coarse, porous clay, which is noted for its versatility, cheapness and durability. In addition, ever since the era of Mesopotamian art along the Tigris and Euphrates, and Egyptian art along the Nile, terracotta bricks and tiles have been used for centuries in the building of domestic as well as civic structures. Terracotta was widely used in ancient art, notably in Chinese Pottery (from 10,000 BCE) and in Greek Pottery (from 7,000 BCE), as well as Mesopotamian sculpture and Egyptian sculpture, plus Minoan art from Crete, and Etruscan art on the Italian mainland. Terracotta statues were prevalent in Greek architecture - notably for temple decoration - while terracotta reliefs were a common feature of Roman architecture. The art of terracotta was revived during the Italian Renaissance, and underwent a further revival during the 19th century.

How to Make Terracotta

Terracotta is usually made from a fairly coarse, porous type of clay. This is first shaped (or sculpted), then fired until hard. In the ancient world, it was left to harden in the hot sun later, it was baked in primitive ovens created in the ashes of open fires. Ultimately, it was fired (at about 1000°C) in special ovens, known as kilns. Once fired, the clay assumes a brownish orange colour, ranging from an earthy ochre to red. Baked terracotta is not watertight, a layer of glaze is required for this. Sometimes recycled terracotta ("grog") is mixed with fresh clay to make a new batch of the material. Terracotta objects are far simpler and cheaper to create, replicate and decorate, than stone or bronze objects: even molds can be re-used. Furthermore, although terracotta is usually left unglazed, a range of different colours and textures can be obtained with a variety of glazes.

Terracotta was first used in Prehistoric art, as exemplified by the remarkable Venus of Dolni Vestonice (26,000-24,000 BCE), found buried in a layer of ash at a paleolithic encampment in Moravia. Paleolithic terracotta figures were fired in primitive kilns, created underneath open fires. Famous terracotta figurines from the era of Neolithic art include: The Enthroned Goddess Figurine (c.6,000 BCE) from Catalhuyuk, Anatolia, and The Thinker of Cernavoda (5000 BCE) from the lower Danube region in Romania. Bronze and Iron Age artists continued the terracotta tradition, see, for instance, the female fertility cult figures unearthed at Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan (3000-1500 BCE), and The Burney Relief (c.1950 BCE) from Ancient Mesopotamia. In China, potters and sculptors have proved equally skilful with clay. In fact, Chinese art is responsible for the biggest collection of terracotta sculpture ever found - The Terracotta Army (246-208 BCE). (See below.) For an outline of the principles which underpin Oriental sculpture, see: Traditional Chinese Art. For more about the evolution of sculpture in China, please see: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present).

Early Egyptian, Minoan, Mycenean, Greek and Etruscan cultures, from around the Mediterranean, all employed terracotta for figurative works - such as the Tanagra Figurines from Boeotia in central Greece - and for various types of decorative art and architectural ornamentation. It was widely used by sculptors during the era of Hellenistic art (323-30 BCE), in particular. It was also used in Early Christian art, for tomb reliefs (from c.200 CE).

Terracotta was also popular in sub-Saharan African sculpture: it was first developed by the mysterious Nok culture of Nigeria, about 1000 BCE, and by the Igbo culture of eastern Nigeria. It was also a feature of Pre-Columbian art, beginning with the Olmec culture (1000-500 BCE).

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire (c.450), the use of terracotta declined dramatically. It wasn't until the Early Renaissance that it was properly revived as an artistic medium. Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti were among the first Renaissance sculptors to rediscover the potential of terracotta for making images of Christian art (notably that of the Virgin and Child): a discovery which came about through their close knowledge of bronze sculpture - the use of clay being central to the production of bronze statues. Before long, clay was being molded to replicate devotional images, and other figures, which were then fired, painted and gilded, thus creating a low-cost alternative to more expensive materials, like marble and bronze. Other artists, including the Della Robbia family, popularized the use of glazed terracotta for relief sculpture and church altarpiece art. See, for instance, the pulpit reliefs for Santa Croce in Florence (1481), by the Florentine artist Benedetto da Maiano. For more details of the Della Robbias, see works by Luca della Robbia, as well as his nephew Andrea della Robbia. Terracotta was also used in Renaissance portrait art, as exemplified by the wonderful Bust of Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici (later Pope Leo X) (c.1512, Victoria and Albert Museum) by Antonio de' Benintendi. Terracotta models were also used by most sculptors when submitting designs, or when creating studies for larger sculptures or for paintings.

In short, Renaissance sculpture re-established terracotta as a major medium of artistic expression and creativity. During the era of Baroque sculpture, the tradition was further developed by Bernini (1598-80) and Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654), notably in the area of relief sculpture and portrait busts. During the 18th century, terracotta was explored for its decorative qualities, while the great Antonio Canova (1757-1822) continued to use it for models, until he replaced it with plaster in the early 19th century.

Use of Terracotta in Architecture

During the 1860s in England and the 1870s in America, architects began using unglazed terracotta to decorate the exterior surfaces of buildings. It was used, for instance, on a number of buildings in Birmingham on the elaborate terracotta facade of the Natural History Museum, in London the Victoria and Albert Museum (1859㫟) and the Royal Albert Hall (1867㫟). Earlier, in 1842-45, St Stephen and All Martyrs' Church, at Lever Bridge in Bolton had been built almost entirely from terracotta. Curiously, terracotta received approval as a building material from the Arts and Crafts movement, since it was deemed to be a handmade material, designed by craftsmen.

In America, the Chicago School of architecture was an early convert to terracotta. The architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), for instance, was noted for his elaborate glazed terracotta decorations, that would have been extremely difficult to produce in any other medium. Fired clay was also used by Chicago designers Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) and John Root (1850-91) in the curtain walls of their Reliance Building (1895), and by William Le Baron Jenney who pioneered its use in skyscrapers as a way of reducing the risk of fire.

The Venus of Dolni Vestonice (c.26,000 BCE)

The Czech Venus of Dolni Vestonice (Vestonicka Venuse) is the oldest surviving item of ceramic art in the world. Roughly 4.5 inches tall and 1.7 inches wide, it was made from local clay, combined with powdered bone and baked in an earthen oven at about 700°C. One of many Venus figurines mostly sculpted during the Gravettian period of Paleolithic culture, it was discovered at a Stone Age settlement in the Moravian basin, near Brno, in the Czech Republic. It now resides in the Vienna Natural History Museum.

The Thinker of Cernavoda (5000 BCE)

One of the greatest sculptures of early art, The Thinker of Cernavoda (Ganditorul) was found in 1956 - along with a similar (female) figurine, known as The Sitting Woman of Cernavoda, amid the remains of a prehistoric settlement near Cernavoda in Romania. Its unique character and name derives from its extraordinary "thinking" pose, quite unlike the usual shape of other figures. It is dark red/brown in colour, about 4.5 inches in height and is made from terracotta. It was created during the Hamangia culture (5250-4500 BCE) centered on Dobruja, between the River Danube and the Black Sea. The sculpture is completely lacking in the sort of ornamentation which is usually seen in ceramic works from the Hamangia culture. It resides in the National Museum of Romanian History, Bucharest.

The Chinese Terracotta Army Warriors (246-208 BCE)

One of the greatest works in the history of sculpture, the set of fired clay figures known as the Chinese Terracotta Army - made during the short period of Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE) - consists of 8,000 clay warriors and horses which were unearthed in 1974 adjacent to the tomb of the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, in Shaanxi province, China. According to curators of the tomb, there are many thousands of additional figures still to be uncovered. The figures were commissioned by the Emperor after he became Emperor in 247 BCE. Work started in about 246 BCE and is estimated to have taken almost 40 years to complete, using 700,000 workers. The role of the army was to serve the Emperor in the afterlife.

Terracotta Sculpture can be seen in some of the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world.

History of Terracotta

As mentioned, terracotta has been used throughout history. Some of the earliest examples date back to 24,000 BC, during the prehistoric age, and have provided valuable insight into life during the Paleolithic era. Interestingly, ancient terracotta was shaped into small figurines rather than more utilitarian pieces, indicating that prehistoric cultures valued some form of art. Most of these earliest forms of terracotta were likely left to bake in the sun, rather than heated in ovens or directly over fire.

Archaeologists have uncovered a number of terracotta pieces around the world and each has given important information about historic cultures. In Pakistan, for example, researchers discovered terracotta figures of women that date back to between 3000 BC and 1500 BC. This discovery led academics to conclude that the society worshipped goddesses and perhaps focused their spiritual attention on fertility. The ancient Roman Empire also made use of terracotta, using it to create artistic reliefs (a three-dimensional piece where the subjects are raised from the background). Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, terracotta was the primary medium for cookware, pottery, and sculptures.

In addition to art and cookware, terracotta has also been used to create entire buildings. Additionally, it has been used to create roofing tiles and plumbing lines.

Terracotta Bull from Cyprus - History

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Ancient Coins & Artifacts:

Authentic Indus Valley Terracotta Animal Figures

Indus Valley, c. 2900 - 1800 BC. A nice Nal culture ceramic figure of a bull. Hand-modeled, with long body, short tapered legs and horns and large hump at shoulders. The body with vertical bands in dark brown slip. L: 3 3/8 in (8.5 cm). Calciferous deposits in eyes. Ex Georgia private collection. #AP2518: $399

Amlash, Indus Valley. A finely rendered terracotta vessel spout, 2500 - 1200 BC. With a stylized face of an ibex with long horns, long ears and large eyes. An amazing piece. Measures 10 cm (4 inches) long. #indus8379-23781: $225 SOLD

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Indus Valley. 3000 -- 2500 BC. Painted terracotta bull in classic Indus Valley style. A beautiful piece with light creme-color surfaces and circular painted details down both sides. Measures 90 mm (3 1/2 inches) long. Completely intact, minus the tip of one horn. #ind5975: SOLD

Indus Valley Culture. Classical period. Terracotta horse head. With finely crafted bridle and mane details. Custom-mounted on brass and marble stand. Very nice. #indus8381: $250 SOLD

Indus Valley Civilization, c. 2900 - 1800 BC. Great Nal culture ceramic bull figure. Hand-modeled, with short tapered legs and horns and large hump at shoulders, large black spotsand eyes detailed in dark brown slip. L: 7.6cm (3"), great surfaces. Ex Los Angeles, CA private collection. #AP2485: $450 SOLD

Indus Valley Civilization, c. 2900 - 1800 BC. Great Nal culture ceramic bull figure. Hand-modeled, with short tapered legs and horns and large hump at shoulders, long horns (one missing). L: 8.6cm (3 3/8"), great surfaces. Ex Los Angeles, CA private collection. #AP2484: SOLD


The city of Çatalhöyük points to one of man’s most important transformations, from nomad to settled farmer.

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations by James Mellaart and his team (photo: Omar hoftun, CC: BY-SA 3.0)

Çatalhöyük or Çatal Höyük (pronounced “cha-tal hay OOK”) is not the oldest site of the Neolithic era or the largest, but it is extremely important to the beginning of art. Located near the modern city of Konya in south central Turkey, it was inhabited 9000 years ago by up to 8000 people who lived together in a large town. Çatalhöyük, across its history, witnesses the transition from exclusively hunting and gathering subsistence to increasing skill in plant and animal domestication. We might see Çatalhöyük as a site whose history is about one of man’s most important transformations: from nomad to settler. It is also a site at which we see art, both painting and sculpture, appear to play a newly important role in the lives of settled people.

Relief map of Turkey noting the location of Çatalhöyük (map: Uwe Dedering, CC: BY-SA 3.0)

Çatalhöyük had no streets or foot paths the houses were built right up against each other and the people who lived in them traveled over the town’s rooftops and entered their homes through holes in the roofs, climbing down a ladder. Communal ovens were built above the homes of Çatalhöyük and we can assume group activities were performed in this elevated space as well.

From left: A hearth, oven, and ladder cut in Building 56, South Area, Çatalhöyük (photo: 20060617_jpq_004, CC: BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Like at Jericho, the deceased were placed under the floors or platforms in houses and sometimes the skulls were removed and plastered to resemble live faces. The burials at Çatalhöyük show no significant variations, either based on wealth or gender the only bodies which were treated differently, decorated with beads and covered with ochre, were those of children. The excavator of Çatalhöyük believes that this special concern for youths at the site may be a reflection of the society becoming more sedentary and required larger numbers of children because of increased labor, exchange and inheritance needs.

South Excavation Area, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC: BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Art is everywhere among the remains of Çatalhöyük, geometric designs as well as representations of animals and people. Repeated lozenges and zigzags dance across smooth plaster walls, people are sculpted in clay, pairs of leopards are formed in relief facing one another at the sides of rooms, hunting parties are painted baiting a wild bull. The volume and variety of art at Çatalhöyük is immense and must be understood as a vital, functional part of the everyday lives of its ancient inhabitants.

Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük (head is a restoration), The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey (photo: Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many figurines have been found at the site, the most famous of which illustrates a large woman seated on or between two large felines. The figurines, which illustrate both humans and animals, are made from a variety of materials but the largest proportion are quite small and made of barely fired clay. These casual figurines are found most frequently in garbage pits, but also in oven walls, house walls, floors and left in abandoned structures. The figurines often show evidence of having been poked, scratched or broken, and it is generally believed that they functioned as wish tokens or to ward off bad spirits.

Nearly every house excavated at Çatalhöyük was found to contain decorations on its walls and platforms, most often in the main room of the house. Moreover, this work was constantly being renewed the plaster of the main room of a house seems to have been redone as frequently as every month or season. Both geometric and figural images were popular in two-dimensional wall painting and the excavator of the site believes that geometric wall painting was particularly associated with adjacent buried youths.

Neolithic Wall Painting in Building 80, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC: BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Figural paintings show the animal world alone, such as, for instance, two cranes facing each other standing behind a fox, or in interaction with people, such as a vulture pecking at a human corpse or hunting scenes. Wall reliefs are found at Çatalhöyük with some frequency, most often representing animals, such as pairs of animals facing each other and human-like creatures. These latter reliefs, alternatively thought to be bears, goddesses or regular humans, are always represented splayed, with their heads, hands and feet removed, presumably at the time the house was abandoned.

Bull bucrania, corner installation in Building 77, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC: BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The most remarkable art found at Çatalhöyük, however, are the installations of animal remains and among these the most striking are the bull bucrania. In many houses the main room was decorated with several plastered skulls of bulls set into the walls (most common on East or West walls) or platforms, the pointed horns thrust out into the communal space. Often the bucrania would be painted ochre red. In addition to these, the remains of other animals’ skulls, teeth, beaks, tusks or horns were set into the walls and platforms, plastered and painted. It would appear that the ancient residents of Çatalhöyük were only interested in taking the pointy parts of the animals back to their homes!

How can we possibly understand this practice of interior decoration with the remains of animals? A clue might be in the types of creatures found and represented. Most of the animals represented in the art of Çatalhöyük were not domesticated wild animals dominate the art at the site. Interestingly, examination of bone refuse shows that the majority of the meat which was consumed was of wild animals, especially bulls. The excavator believes this selection in art and cuisine had to do with the contemporary era of increased domestication of animals and what is being celebrated are the animals which are part of the memory of the recent cultural past, when hunting was much more important for survival.

Terracotta Bull from Cyprus - History

The Minoans, Europe&rsquos first civilization.

The Minoan civilization thrived on the island of Crete, and the smaller islands in the vicinity of Crete, like the island of Thera to the north. The English archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, named the civilization after the legendary Cretan king, Minos, who was said to have kept a monster, called the Minotaur, in a complicated maze, called the Labyrinth, under his palace at Knossos. The Minoans are not Greek, but they are part of the Greek history. By trading with the early Greeks, the Minoans spread their ideas and art to the Greek mainland.

Crete is located in the Mediterranean Sea, with the Aegean Sea on its northern shore. Crete is sometimes called the, "stepping stone to the continents," since it is located within reach of Europe, Asia, and Africa by boat. Indeed, we have evidence that the Minoans traded with ancient people on all three continents. The Minoans had a surplus of olive oil, which they traded for Egyptian gold, copper from the nearby island of Cyprus, and tin from Turkey and Afghanistan. The Minoans were not only farmers of olives, but fine craftsmen, making pieces of jewelry, pottery, seals and figurines. Their bronze work places this civilization in the Bronze Age.

At the height of their civilization, between 2,000-1400 BC, the Minoans developed a palace-centered civilization. The Minoan cities of Knossos and Phaistos are two examples of palace cities. Palaces acted as the economic and religious centers of the island. Palaces were large and three to five stories tall. Interestingly, there were no defensive walls around palaces. The Minoans must have lived in peace on the island and relied on the sea and a navy for protection from outsiders.

Akrotiri was the large settlement on Thera. On Thera, a large volcanic explosion could have led to the ending of the Minoan civilization. It also preserved the Minoan city of Akrotiri by covering it with volcanic ash, creating a kind of Minoan time capsule. Some people think that Thera was Plato's Atlantis, an advanced civilization that the Greek philosopher talked about being, "swallowed by the sea." The Minoans had a high standard of living, and it shows in the ruins of the beautiful palaces and homes.

The Minoans had at least two different writing systems. The earlier is hieroglyphic, similar, but not the same as the Egyptian writing system. One example that has survived is the Phaistos Disc, discovered in the ruins of the city of Phaistos. The later system of writing is called Linear A. Linear A is written on clay tablets along lines, like our writing. As of now, no one has deciphered the mysterious Phaistos Disc or Linear A, therefore the Minoan language remains a secret. One other script, called Linear B was also found on the island of Crete. We will learn more about Linear B in the next online chapter.

Without a written history, what we know about the Minoans comes from the artifacts and frescoes that have survived through the years. Frescoes indicate that men and women attended meetings and parties together this suggests that women enjoyed equal social status to men. If this is true, the Minoans were far ahead of their time. The artwork also tells us that the Minoans enjoyed spectator sports. Both men and women attended and performed in these sporting events. The most popular, and intriguing, is bull leaping.

The Minoan religion seems to be centered around a goddess, as many similar goddess figurines are found throughout Crete. She is sometimes referred to as the snake goddess, because her figurine is holding two snakes in her outstretched arms. The bull seems to be important to the Minoan culture. Bulls were originally brought to the island by people. The palaces of the Minoans have many carvings of the bull's horns. Another possible religious item is a double-sided axe, we call the labrys.

There is discussion as to why this advanced civilization disappeared. Clearly there were natural disasters, including earthquakes and the volcanic explosion on Thera, which caused a tsunami that hit the northern shore of Crete, but the civilization, though weakened, recovered. The invasion of the Mycenaeans, a warrior people and the first Greeks, seems to have ended the Minoan civilization. We will learn more about the Mycenaeans in the next online chapter.

Watch the video: Cyprus Traditional Pottery in Kornos Village (July 2022).


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