Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 921–948 | Cite as

Identifying Female in the Halaf: Prehistoric Agency and Modern Interpretations

  • Ellen H. Belcher


This article considers ways that representations of anthropomorphic imagery in the form of figurines from prehistoric village communities have been interpreted and provides a new framework for analyzing figurines. It has been long suggested that prehistoric figurines should be interpreted as representations of female gendered qualities related to ritual, fertility, and motherhood combined into a concept called “mother goddess.” The impetus for the adoption of this interpretation and evidential association with prehistoric figurine assemblages and bound to binary gender is briefly critiqued. The methodology for studying figurine assemblages presented here utilizes typological, archaeological, and comparative analysis and is cognizant of inherent ambiguities in the object biographies of the full assemblage. This study applies this methodology to a corpus of figurines excavated from sixth millennium settlements associated with the Halaf material culture. This approach is then operationalized with case studies of figurines excavated from Domuztepe (Turkey) and Chagar Bazar (Syria) as examples of engagement with those who conceived, made, used, and discarded them. The Halaf figurine corpus is shown as nuanced, displaying sexual difference and humanness on a spectrum from overt to ambiguous. Considered as a whole, the Halaf corpus is shown to have had mundane and mutable use lives related to embodied identities entangled with culture and community, unconnected to gender binaries, ritual, fertility, or motherhood.


Mesopotamia Halaf culture Prehistoric figurines Prehistoric art Ambiguity Object biography Typology (archaeology) Gender identity 



I am grateful to three anonymous reviewers whose comments and suggestions have improved this paper considerably. Thanks also go to the organizers of the original conference session in September 2014, who became careful, patient, and steadfast editors of this special issue. Appreciation goes also to Brian Boyd, the Columbia University Center for Archaeology, Karina Croucher, Bradford University, and Philipp Rassmann for their support as well as their comments and critiques on earlier versions of this paper. This article is much better as a result of this feedback; I take full responsibility for all remaining problems and errors in this paper. I am grateful also to the many museum curators and excavations directors who allowed me to study the Halaf figurine assemblages under their care. Travel to Istanbul both to present this paper at the European Archaeologists Association in 2014 and to conduct the research presented here was supported by John Jay College and The Research Foundation, City University of New York.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.John Jay College of Criminal JusticeCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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