Unit Book J5
J5 Synthetic View / Typology / Objects

Figurines from Unit J5

Rick Hauser – January 2010

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Of the 27 figurines recovered in area J5, several are quite provocative, raising questions about how all figurines are used and the relationship of those recovered here to those found elsewhere at Urkesh. The complex net of intention and meaning that we will eventually discover will be woven from discrete perceptions about many different artifacts, and it will be constructed over time. The figurines here considered provide tantalizing clues and point us in new directions. I’ve been led to think about the matters that follow as I analyzed the J5 figurines.

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Is there a relationship that we can discern between these artifacts and where they were found? Is, as an example, the fact that the monumental staircase is nearby a determining factor in the way these figurines were used? Do the exemplars cluster in certain areas, because of similarities amongst them and/or their proximity to certain architectural elements? What is the life history of these artifacts that has brought them to this place? In what strata were they recovered? Contemporaneous with the royal residence? Or coeval with later occupations?

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Why is it that the J5 figurines are so fragmentary? Of course, we are used everywhere to finding fragmentary artifacts. Here, however, diagnostic detail is more often than not either totally absent, shattered, broken off, or fatally obscured. It is often very difficult, not to say impossible or ill-advised, to hazard a guess as to the genus, the form, or the class to which a given exemplar may belong. It has not been my experience that this is the case elsewhere at Urkesh.

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Usually I am able, through a slow process of study and reflection, to determine parameters of meaning for any given artifact. Here, in J5, more often than not, I have been frustrated and sometimes I have been unable to design a useful commentary about the given exemplar. This is due to a number of factors. First, of course, the figurines are for the very great part damaged almost to the point of not being recognizable. Other factors, too, obscured meaning and hampered analysis.

There is no consistency in the way artifacts are photographed. A caudal view may precede a cranial view – upside-down! – and follow a vertical view of a quadruped stood on end! Lighting often obscures diagnostic detail. I have the feeling that occasionally important information has been brushed away in a well-intentioned effort at cleaning.

But I am particularly concerned by the manner in which the figurines are described in the Global Record. There seems to have been, on the part of excavators, little or no familiarity with corpora that have already been thoroughly and amply studied at Urkesh. This is not invariably true, but largely so. Most disturbing, to me, have been the “guesses” hazarded by the excavators.

I say this advisedly, knowing that we all aim to explicate and to help others in the field understand what we have been studying. It is nonetheless important to take into consideration what has been learned prior to our work. To come upon the standard collection of “oxen,” and “horses,” and other feeble constructions encountered far too frequently in the literature is disheartening. This is particularly disturbing at Urkesh, where excavation is buttressed by exactitude and by such a fine sense of analysis and recording of all excavation detail.

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Using the Typology

The typology and the methodology that informs it elaborated here at Urkesh should obviate such errors.

In conducting the present research, I made the experiment of referring to my volume on the figurines from the Royal Storehouse. If I leafed through the book randomly, hoping to be struck by a similar image, I was able to glean little from its pages as regards the specific artifact. It was a little like looking for a diamond in a sand dune.

Help is at hand. Indisputably, there are in that volume working tables and guides to understanding the form of animal representations – in particular those that have been recovered at Urkesh. There are also any number of formulas that can easily be reviewed and applied in the specific instance. As an example, it is a simple matter to evaluate whether or not a given figurine is “a cow” or not – the proportion of forequarters to torso to hindquarters is 1 : 1 : 1. Nothing could be simpler nor easier to grasp for the novice excavator.

In the same way that time is spent on learning the various categories of the Global Record so that recording will be accurate and understandable to others, a modest amount of time could be devoted at the beginning of each season to the figurine typology and its supportive methodology. The record would be enriched.

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I have tried to ask questions as I worked on the J5 figurines. I have sometimes proposed tentative answers. Many of these speculations deserve to be treated as such, and discarded, but some deserve extended and serious thought –particularly those observations that relate to domestication and its success or failure at Urkesh; and also, although I really do not know where to begin here, the possible relationship of the figurines and other artifacts to the pathway that led to the temple and their function with respect to their owners who were making this pilgrimage. These observations will be apparent as the reader considers the commentary here presented.

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Evaluation of Figurines

Each figurine has been evaluated and the expert analysis for individual figurines can be found in the typolgical index tabulation “figurine”.

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Editorial Comment

The observations of Rich Hauser are very relevant as he has spent many years studying figurines and his expertise has been recognized in the archaeology community. However, his criticism of the efforts of the excavators does not recognize the difficulties experienced when he is not present at the excavation. Yes he has written a marvelous book and charts of the characteristic shapes are posted in the laboratory. In the press of all the actions expected of even the most inexperienced excavators these resources are often overlooked. In future seasons we might consider what other specialties do to avoid the issues he raises. Routine evaluation of technical subject matter, for example ceramics, is done by local assistants who have been trained by the experts.

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