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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: March 2011



This book is about the comparison of objects that at first glance seem similar but that, on further reflection, cannot be compared. My interest is in the interpretive implications of that first glance.

The objects in question are small statuettes – figurines – made in clay, stone, and bone by unknown artisans, deep in prehistory. Although archaeologists have found vaguely similar figurines at prehistoric sites in different parts of the globe, the objects in question had no straightforward utilitarian purpose but were instead expressive and meaningful. Whatever those meanings were, we can be sure that they differed from place to place and epoch to epoch. In that sense, the figurines are not comparable.

Yet, when the figurine in hand reminds us of those from elsewhere, it can be difficult to resist the urge to compare. Indeed, in an earlier era of interpretation, archaeologists abandoned themselves to that impulse. They claimed that similarities among figurines bespoke similarities in meaning. If prehistoric figurines from different continents were predominantly female, then the objects must have been depictions of goddesses or perhaps a single primordial Goddess.

Archaeologists today congratulate themselves for being beyond that interpretation. We are not so naïve as to treat “female” as a stable category that would have the same meanings in all cultures. We also do not imagine a “primitive psychology” that would lead all prehistoric peoples to the primordial Goddess. Societies, we insist, are organized by culturally constructed – not predetermined – categories.

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