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Domestic Material Culture and the Archaeology of Value: Beyond “Religion” vs. “Decoration”

March 8, 2023 @ 5:00 pm EST

Lecturer: Caitlín Barrett

This talk addresses the problem of determining which household artifacts served “religious” functions, and indeed, what we mean by “religious functions” in the first place. Debates about the functions of domestic artifacts often assume an opposition between “religious” and “decorative” uses, but the presentation of these options as mutually incompatible is often unproductive and anachronistic. This talk uses the case study of one common type of household objects – terracotta figurines – to argue for a more nuanced approach to function and value. Terracotta figurines are common finds in Greek houses from many periods, and discussions of their uses commonly treat them either as cult objects or domestic decoration. I argue for a less binary range of possible functions and values for domestic terracottas. Instead, I approach terracotta figurines from a perspective rooted in contemporary work on materiality, affordance theory, and the “archaeology of value.” Focusing on finds from Late Classical and Hellenistic houses and concluding with a case study from Hellenistic Delos, I use material and textual evidence to investigate the full range of ways that people interacted with terracotta figurines in household contexts. I argue that in addition to facilitating interaction between humans and divinities, figurines could also facilitate interaction between humans: impressing or amusing visitors, presenting their owners as cultural sophisticates, or even activating magical spells designed to bend other people to one’s will. Figurines could thus take part – often simultaneously – in activities ranging from cultic, to social, to practical, to magical. Additionally, people frequently treated figurines not only as objects upon which human agency could work, but as agents in their own right: capable of action, perception, and participation in social relationships that inextricably interwove the human, divine, and material worlds.

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March 8, 2023
5:00 pm EST
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Goetz Library, Department of Classics, University at Buffalo, 320 Academic Center
12 Capen Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260 United States
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