Figures from the past

Written by Michele Greenan, natural history collections manager at the Indiana State Museum

Have you ever wondered how archaeologists come up with ‘educated’ guesses as to how people in the past looked or behaved? For the archaeologist, art can sometimes be the vehicle that delivers that element of humanity. A few weeks ago, archaeologists at the Indiana State Museum began the long, arduous process of cataloging some of the beautiful artwork created by the people of Southern Indiana some 1,700 years ago.


Figure 1: Figurine Faces

There are many occasions during the day when non-archaeology staff comes traipsing through the lab spaces. Archaeologists are always cataloging something in the labs, so there is a continual flow of things to look at. When these figurines were laid out, the reaction was one of sheer amazement. People would start to walk by then catch a glimpse out of the corner of their eye and stop dead in their tracks. In a low voice, you’d hear something like “…Oh my God!”


Figurine 2: Figurine Bodies

As we pick each figurine up and get a good look at it, we can’t help but think – just for a second – that we are somehow looking into the faces of the people who made these figurines 1,700 years ago. As we catalog these beautifully crafted objects (there are over 400 in the collection), we can see evidence of how they wore jewelry and what their hair and clothing styles were like. Other figurines may indicate religious practice or perhaps social standing. We may never know the intended meanings of these figurines, but they certainly provide a unique glimpse into their culture.


Figure 3: Figurine Fragments

Nowadays, our lab looks a bit more like a CSI episode. We have over a hundred fragments of figurines left to catalog, most of which are parts of feet, torsos or limbs. The amount of information we can obtain from these fragments (we will try and fit them together) as well as the faces and bodies are immeasurable. Staff from the Indiana State Museum discovers something new about them almost every day.

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