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Richard G. Lesure. Interpreting ancient figurines: context, comparison, and prehistoric art.

RICHARD G. LESURE. Interpreting ancient figurines: context, comparison, and prehistoric art. xiv+256 pages, 95 illustrations, 6 tables. 2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 978-0-521-19745-8 hardback 60 [pounds sterling] & $95.


Richard Lesure provides an ambitious alternative to current work on prehistoric figurines by following an art historical approach to comparison. The task he sets is significant: how should archaeologists best handle similarities among objects that come from distant regions and periods, specifically objects that are representations of the human form?

Drawing on the work of Erwin Panofsky, T.J. Clark and, more particularly, George Kubler's hexagonal dimensions of visual style, Lesure provides a six-approach framework for comparing figurines on a global scale: iconography (what a figurine was intended to represent); iconology (what a figurine symbolised); synchronic and diachronic analyses (what are the similarities and differences among figurines over distances of time and spaces); use (what purpose did a figurine serve); and window-on-society (what structures of social discourse does a figurine refer to).

Panofsky's work will be known to many archaeologists, as will Clark's; Kubler's work may be less familiar, and it is unclear why Lesure was attracted to Kubler's system (it may have been a desire to take a comparative position where style is a central variable) and why he includes little discussion of the substantial debate in archaeology about style. But we must remember that Lesure's approach is art historical and thus removed from current archaeological concerns with intention, meaning, and interpretation. This is the subject of much of this review: by listing what an archaeologist would expect to see and could not find, the intention is not to berate the author but to assess the usefulness of a global, comparative art historical approach to figurines.

Framework described, Lesure takes the reader on a vigorous voyage through the figurines of Palaeolithic Eurasia, the Neolithic of the Near East and Formative Mesoamerica, and tests the applicability of each of the six approaches to each figurine tradition. Different images demand different approaches and individual approaches contain further specifics of method (comparison of form through time requires an investigation of four patterns: stability, divergence, convergence, directional transformation). Lesure's detailed reviews of these figurine traditions are impressive and thorough, with important discussions of trends in surface patterns and of the numbers of objects recovered from individual sites.

Central to the book is a Goss-cultural search for 'femaleness', however that is defined or whatever it might represent or mean. The argument that femaleness is a common theme is however weakened by insufficient regard for specific cultural context. Indeed, while female attributes are clear in many examples, for other traditions presented, the record is less amenable, leading the author towards uncharted territory, driven by his determination to see femaleness as a valid category of analysis across cultures (to wit, the statement that femaleness is part of a "fan of references prompted by the schematic images even if they themselves were not identifiable as female").

Lesure's focus on femaleness is thus severely blurred and restricts the potential impact that his detailed and wide-ranging study might have had, had he stepped away from such a simplistic vision of identity and asked more general questions (i.e. why does the human body become a vehicle for modelling and decoration in so many prehistoric cultures across the globe?). To ask that question requires a commitment to modern social theory about the body, about materiality and material culture, and to a more holistic treatment of the human and non-human representational histories within the communities studied. Equally, the substantial work by archaeologists on gender should be tapped; there key debates in archaeology will be found, over sexuality, heteronormativity, materiality, gender and material culture, and particularly the constructed nature of identity, including femaleness and concepts of body.

Lesure's decision to avoid these rich and vital debates in the humanities and social sciences undermines his otherwise deep and detailed descriptive research. The author calls for a return to grand history, an approach be feels is suited to figurines because of their cross-cultural formal similarities. If anything, the book provides a good example of how a grand, global comparative approach can handle neither the local variety and diversity of material culture nor the deeper complexities of particular schemes of meaning and use. Lesure is aware of the problem; he terms his work an experiment in placing contextualism at the service of universalism.

Unfortunately tortuous writing further weakens Lesure's argument: "patterns are synthesized according to how they promote or hide the various analytical modes available for the investigation of imagery. Textural wrinkles correspond to shifts among applicable analytical modes. Such shifts signal likely changes in interpretive outcomes of localized contextualizations" (p. 212). I have no idea what these sentences mean. When clarity is needed, fog descends: students (undergraduate or postgraduate) will find much of the writing (and thus the reasoning) impenetrable. Regrettably the publishers did not provide the firm editorial guidance that a work, originally a doctoral dissertation and a book long in gestation (p. xiii), needed. On a more positive note, some illustrations are outstanding (the detailed Sha'ar Hagolan figurines).

Despite its title, and as its author points out, this is not a book about figurines and what they might mean. The approach is to analyse different approaches to the material. Bur as a source for a methodology for figurine analysis, the book is a disappointment: the figurines take a backseat to a comparison of approaches, and archaeologists seeking insights from comparative art history will be left deeply frustrated.


Department of Anthropology,

San Francisco State University, USA

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Author:Bailey, Douglass W.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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