Figurines—miniature human representations modelled in clay or stone — are one of those key categories of prehistoric material which no archaeologist who finds one can ignore. Whether working in central America or southeast Europe, or in any of the many other contexts in which figurines abound, they form a central class of material which generates a heightened level of interest and attention. But however numerous and how-ever intriguing, prehistoric figurines have another crucial quality — that of ambiguity. Without the help of textual evidence, can prehistoric figurines be confidently interpreted or understood? Can we ever hope to know what an individual figurine was meant to represent, or why it was modelled in the way it was? Yet the challenge of interpretation can hardly be refiised. For figurines illustrate self-awareness, which is a unique human characteristic. It is this dilemma — the impulse to interpret, but the difficulty of doing so convincingly — which is the focus of the present Viewpoint.
Figurines are found in many (though not all) regions and periods of prehistory. The earliest — the female forms once referred to as ‘Venus figurines’ — date back to the Upper Palaeolithic. At the other end of the scale, figurines are still in active production today, in the form of dolls, models and statues. In a prehistoric context, figurines have multiple dimensions of interest and meaning. In first place, there is the issue of sex and gender. Many figurines are clearly female, yet their gender significance, in both social and cognitive terms (rather than in simplistic notions of Mother Goddess or sex object), has only recently begun to be considered in a serious and critical way. Then there is the aspect of human self-awareness which the figurines so vibrantly express. Figurines also encode important cognitive elements in the modelling and representation of the human form, their makers frequently exaggerating some features or concealing others. Nor, ultimately, can we avoid the question of belief, and the ritual context in which so many figurines were made or used.
The contributors to this Viewpoint feature all believe that figurines can indeed be interpreted. But they also lay stress on the vital importance of context and definition. Prehistoric figurines cannot be understood as isolated artefacts, but must be seen as products of particular societies. How far we can penetrate into their meanings — and into the minds of their prehistoric makers — is the fundamental question which underpins this discussion. Can we interpret figurines? And if so, how should we go about it?