Ritual and identity: British Collections of bronze figurines from third millennium BP/first millennium BC pre-Roman Italy

Italic bronze figurine, female statuette, 500 B.C.

Italic bronze figurine, female statuette, 500 B.C.

© The Fitzwilliam MuseumUniversity of Cambridge, UK.

Supervisory team: Eleanor Betts (Classical Studies, The Open University) and Anastasia Christophilopoulou (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Italic bronze figurines - simple anthropomorphic and sometimes zoomorphic bronze figurines a few centimetres high, found in great numbers in upland central Italy - are some of the most frequent objects in European Museum collections. The aim of this project is to give new life to these enigmatic objects removed from their context, by providing comparative examples across Europe, fresh interpretations, added technical information on their manufacture and the insightful context of their use from excavated sanctuaries. The results will take our knowledge beyond the important catalogue of these objects published by Giovanni Colonna in 1970: Bronzi votivi umbro-sabellici a figura umana. I. periodo arcaico.

The principal supervisor (Betts) has extensive experience of the analysis of these upland sanctuaries (focused on Monte Primo in the Marche of eastern central Italy). The co-supervisor (Christophilopoulou) is a Mediterranean archaeologist with wide curatorial experience and a keen interest in material culture studies, currently leading a project on island identities in the Mediterranean, incorporating extensive metallurgical analysis. The student will be registered with the Open University, but part of a network that will include a commitment of detailed advice provided by Simon Stoddart (University of Cambridge), Charlotte Potts (University of Oxford), Philip Perkins (Open University) and Dan Hicks (University of Oxford).

Simon Stoddart has excavated and published similar figurines on Monte Ansciano above Gubbio. Charlotte Potts has written more widely about sanctuaries in central Italy. The network will provide integrated, reciprocal, intellectual stimulation from other students studying the similar themes, regions and period from the three universities and access to scholars in key museums in the UK (e.g British Museum) and Italy (e.g Perugia, Ancona and Villa Giulia) for comparative material. The Fitzwilliam Museum will also provide student training and support in technical and scientific analysis as needed to answer relevant research questions.

Potential research questions for consideration
  • How can we interpret the dramatic gestures of the figurines?
  • What role does their clearly expressed gender have in the ritual action?
  • Can we detect quantifiable patterns in the styles and gestures when related to the corpus of Colonna (1970) which will be itself updated as part of the research?
  • How do these patterns fit within time and space?
  • Can these gestures be transferred into a phenomenology of pilgrimage to upland places?
  • What does detailed study of craftsmanship, including tooling, reveal about use and value?
  • What does their metallurgical composition reveal about value and exchange?
  • Can digital scanning technology add to the 3D representation of these objects?
  • Can we study the collection history of the objects to secure their precise context?
  • What does the excavated context of similar figurines reveal about ritual practice?
  • How is ritual practice related to the identity of these upland communities?
  • To what extent was there continuity of social and ritual practice between the Late Bronze Age levels and the Archaic (6th century BC) levels in which many such figurines were discovered?
  • How was this ritual practice connected to later literary evidence from texts such as the Iguvine Tables?
  • How closely was this ritual practice connected to contemporary processes of state formation?
  • How do these interpretations affect our understanding of the lived contemporary landscape of the period, with sharp differentiations in altitude and inter-visibility between ritualised natural locations, affected by the cycles of the seasons and weather?