This paper presents a new approach to analysing and interpreting the Neolithic and Chalcolithic clay figurines of Southeastern Europe. Using an example from the Gradešnica-Krivodol culture complex, a contextual approach based on attribute analysis is discussed. This new approach has the potential to replace earlier approaches, all of which were based on form-typology and analogy. The interpretation of the figurines as representations of ‘acting human beings’ rather than of mother-goddesses, deceased villagers etc., is demonstrated by analysing decoration, gender, gesture, masks and the breakage of the figurines. A contextual analysis of the decoration of the figurines in relation to all these attributes indicates that a known system with rules of creation existed, that the makers were aware of it and that they conformed to it. Decoration represents much more than clothing, jewellery or aesthetic ornaments. Seen as a combination of elaborate symbols, it can be a first step in uncovering a communication system. When understood, even if only in part, such a communication system can provide great insight into the figurines’ functions through time and place.