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Sunday, April 1, 2012

More General History of Ancient Dolls; From one of my Forthcoming Books

The Goddess Figures and Ancient Dolls

No one could possibly know who made the first doll. As many have speculated before me, perhaps someone was walking along and found a root, a stick, a rock or piece of bone that looked like a human figure or face. From then on, human imagination took over, and primitive artists began to enhance the shapes they found into the first dolls, the Venus of Willendorf figures also called The Goddess Figures. There are modern artists who still make dolls and figurines this way; they pick up a found object and "read" its personality before enhancing it into a doll. And, dolls have been made from mandrake root for centuries because it resembles the human body. I have even seen ginseng root dolls created from natural roots in San Francisco. By the same token, the loess dolls or Losskindel dolls are made of loam found in Loess, and the loam often appears to assume human form. In von Boehn's time, the Strasbourg museum had examples of these (25). As von Boehn has noted when commenting on the views of one Ernst Vatter and others, "If the genesis of the doll is sought for it will be found . . . in a quality, which is shared alike by primitive races and by children--namely, the ability to discern human and animal forms in a all sorts of freaks of nature" (24). In other words, primitive people and children saw human and animal figures in rocks, horns, bones, branches, and roots. And, who among us has not looked at the clouds and seen shapes and figures of all kinds. I supposed the Rorschach inkblot test might work on the same principle, but so does abstract art of all kinds. If anything, some experts argue that the shape of certain "figure stones" suggested the subject because of their very shape to Neolithic sculptures.

Whoever that first Neolithic artists was, however, s/he started something that will never die, and doll making was born. In a tradition that is similar to many other religion including the Old Testament, the first dolls had no faces. They represented Mother Earth, and even then, it was taboo, apparently, to practice idolatry, or to look upon the face of God, whoever God might be. There is one very rare example with a scratched on face that is supposed to exist; Jean Auel writes about it in her Clan of the Cave Bear books (The Earth's Children Series), but I have not read of it anywhere else. The little Venus figures come from the Ice Age. They date to the Quaternary period, with a civilization called Aurignacian. These people lived in the first half of the fourth Ice Age. These limestone Venuses continued to be made through the Solutarian through Magdaleneian period, or about 30,000 to 50,000 years ago.

The Venus of Willendorf hails form the Willendorf culture, near Krems, on the Danube River. She is only 11cm high. Von Boehn postulates that the little figure was originally painted red. He believes other figures might have been painted as well. These are the oldest sculptures of the human figure, and the first doll. They are obese, and appear to celebrate fertility. Many believe that the figures were obese for other reasons, too. These scholars believe men preferred heavier woman, because many other statues similar to the Venus figures have appeared that also represent rotund women (29). Von Boehn presents figures from the late Neolithic period that are tattooed, and these are from Rumania.

Another example is much later than the other prehistoric figures. Dennis Michael Morrison, who calls himself an amateur archaeologist, unearthed a potter doll face from the Late Woodland Period, 600 A.D. The piece ids clearly a rough profile of a human face, with wide eyes and a protruding nose. Morrison writes that he has excavated many china dolls from the 1850's, but that the face he found in the fall of 1988 was his first prehistoric doll find (32). The face was found in near Lake Huron, in Northeast Michigan. Morrison implies that his face was a toy, because it was found with the remnants of at least ten pots that "would be considered children's" and dozens more that were very small in size (32). Of course, the pots associated with children could have been educational or ritual items, and the other small pots could have contained cosmetics or medicine. Or, they could have been toys. It will be hard for us to know. Morrison does say, however, that archaeologists he consulted him told him that a miniature port no more than 1/4 inch in height, was indeed a toy.

Morrison found the little face buried with a crude stone drill and a pottery shard, and he believes that the drill, or one like it, made the dolls face. I can imagine his excitement. I was nearly as thrilled myself when a dear friend sent me a tiny, Neolithic axe that she found on her property. On closer inspection, what appears to be a crude piece of rock or dirt is really an intricate object or tool used by someone before the dawn of time to go about his or her daily business.

More idols of the type von Boehn discusses appeared in the late Stone Age, for about 200 years. These were found in Europe, From Southern Russia, to span, through Moravia and Silesia. Others appeared in Serbia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria (Note that maps in the 199's have reverted back to the configurations and countries von Boehn discussed in the 1920's and earlier). These figures have faces, though their faces are very crude. Their noses do indeed resemble the beaks of birds, and they are nearly always female. They are clay, and naked. Their arms are also stumps, as in the earlier Willendorf figures. Marble
Figures resembling "bird women" have been found in the ruins of Troy (von Boehn 19-23).

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