Figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia: Miniaturization and Cultural Hybridity

Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper, Figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia: Miniaturization and Cultural Hybridity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). 9781108769020.

Reviewed by Leticia R. Rodriguez, Florida State University, lrrodriguez@fsu.edu.

Intimacy, interaction and play, and social norms as activated and understood through the miniature are but some of the themes that Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper rigorously and playfully explores in this volume on various types of anthropomorphic figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia. With her chronological parameters less fixed than more canonical definitions (here, the “Hellenistic” extends well into the third century CE), Langin-Hooper examines the ways in which figurines—visual culture in miniature—reflected the complex, multicultural society that was Hellenistic Babylonia, and even reinforced cultural and social practices as “agents of cross-cultural identity production” (1). She divides her study into five chapters organized around figurine types and shared themes; for example, Chapter Three focuses on “group figurines” that represent various combinations and configurations of human bodies, e.g., woman and child, heterosexual couples, and musician pairings. In analyzing the relationship between figurine and consumer, Langin-Hooper demonstrates how these miniatures sometimes position the consumer as an uninvited spectator. Some figurine groups, such as mother-and-child pairings, also had the potential to serve as ideal role models, or otherwise carried an instructive function, as in how to nurse or properly hold one’s child.1

In the introductory chapter, Langin-Hooper does touch on previous scholarship of Hellenistic figurines, recognizing the difficulties that other scholars have encountered in their own studies, with the greatest hurdle being a lack of archaeological context. Langin-Hooper openly acknowledges that this particular quandary is not of great concern to her, as she is focused more on art historical questions and issues of human engagement. While she does examine broader Hellenistic and Babylonian figurine traditions, including practical considerations of production, display, and use (elaborated on below), her inquiry is heavily steeped in theoretical frameworks, specifically miniaturization theory, a concept that she expounds upon in her first chapter. The adoption of this theory is one means of avoiding the traps in viewing objects as simply “hybrid,” a label with reductive and flattening tendencies, insofar as the term ironically often reinforces strict categorizations of cultural groups—a particular problem when the groups in question are already multicultural. Miniaturization theory shifts the focus away from these more static understandings, and instead takes human attraction toward and enchantment with the tiny as a given. In doing so, it paves the way for a consideration of tactile interaction, and even vision, as forms of contact with the power to bring figurines to life, making them transmitters of culturally situated social messages, as well as conduits for self-reflection.

Chapter Four’s investigation of individual figurines involves an in-depth and intriguing exploration of these concepts, with specific figurines (i.e., males: mature, youthful, and/or athletic; females: nude or clothed, children, and servants and slaves) understood as “intensified versions of human identities” (148)—though, to be sure, it would be a stretch to say that these miniatures are fully mimetic, as they offer only a glimpse of the range of lived experience and the variety of roles both available to and assumed by humans. Visual characteristics (i.e., iconography and style), and even qualities associated with manufacture (e.g., a double versus single mold in some cases) lend these “miniature humans” the ability to comment on, among other things, socially acceptable forms of masculinity, femininity, and negotiations of identity for those with liminal status. For example, on the one hand, male figurines with beards served as retainers of conventional, traditional values associated with masculinity and power; on the other, these same figurines simultaneously allowed men in Hellenistic Babylonia to “not fit the mold of traditional bearded masculinity” (155)2 through the fact of their continued visual existence. Langin-Hooper suggests that figurines representing those with liminal status—specifically child figurines—may have been popular as a direct reflection of a multicultural society, representative of the negotiations of changing identities that stemmed from various forms of multiculturalism. This feels like an especially pertinent and relatable point vis-à-vis the present day, as we, too, constantly negotiate our own shifting identities in an increasingly heterogeneous world.

Personally, I found Chapter Two to be the most engaging, perhaps because it takes the question of interaction as its focus. The case studies in this chapter meditate on our fascination with small objects and the allure of touch, but also tap into our innate human desire for authority and control, as manifested through our very tactile engagement with miniatures. As an example, those seemingly mundane objects that might otherwise simply be classified as “toys,” such as the horse-and-rider or soldier figurines that Langin-Hooper examines in great detail, offered through interactivity the opportunity for agency and control even over historical narratives and the creation of place for private refuge in an unstable and war-afflicted Hellenistic Babylonia. Additionally, the figurines’ general lack of representational specificity with regard to ethnic or cultural groups was, as argued by Langin-Hooper, both a reflection of the real world, which was intensely multicultural in every respect, but also a means of reinforcing notions of a collective effort in military victories and prowess; indeed, the Seleucid army was furnished with men from throughout the empire.3

On a different note, the most blush-inducing case study in this chapter, and the book overall, is an exploration of sexual experience in the private sphere, as facilitated through female figurines who do double-duty by providing both a figurative and physical outlet for arousal while simultaneously enforcing social norms. The Mesopotamian tradition of using composite materials—e.g., combinations of alabaster, gemstones, and gold in one exceptional example—to create a visually striking, and in some cases, enticing figure, together with particular design features—such as detachable and posable arms, slightly parted legs, or the inability to stand alone—invited interactivity of a more visceral variety, and constituted a concrete outlet for sexuality and eroticism. The figurines are nevertheless restrictive; they were receptacles for fantasies, and most likely not reflective of attraction and sexual encounters in real life, as such fantasies were not necessarily socially acceptable in the Greek or Babylonian cultures under discussion here. I admit that there were areas in this particular section where I had to suspend my disbelief with regard to the nature and extent of tactile engagement, and the ability for these objects to provide social commentary, but Langin-Hooper’s correlations between these figurines, their many functions, and modern pornography brought me back to the realities of human nature, especially where sensory engagement is invited.

One common thread that runs through Langin-Hooper’s case studies is an interest in examining forms, styles and motifs, and even technologies of production as indicators of cultural hybridity. In the final chapter, she examines the ways in which figurines were able to make connections with the larger Hellenistic world (through the use of koine figurine motifs and styles) and also tap into a “local flavor” (6). For example, figurines of Herakles might on the surface imitate a motif popular in Hellenistic koine art, but through elements of style (e.g., Lysippian versus stubby legs) and production (e.g., double versus single molds, as mentioned above), such imagery was not merely blindly adopted but rather carefully adapted and incorporated into a local, Hellenistic Babylonian figurine tradition—itself reflective of a society that was neither strictly Greek nor exclusively Babylonian. Her analysis of hermaphrodite, intersex, and ambiguous-gender figurines posits them as examples of experimentation with traditional gender norms, negotiating the boundaries between female and male on a very specific level, as well as the contours of the human on a broader, societal level. The “local” here fits in with “global” explorations of humanity, as understood through sculpture and figurines from throughout the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic period.

As a whole, Langin-Hooper’s study offers an exploration of relatable themes that touch on questions of engagement, and this leads me to a more general question of accessibility, which stems from a personal tendency to approach texts from a pedagogical perspective. Potential readers of this work presumably have some foundation in the Hellenistic figurine tradition, the archaeology and visual culture of the Hellenistic Near East, and Babylonia specifically. The text is also one that comes out of what I will call (out of respect, admiration, and recognition of her influence) the Feldman School, with an approach to visual culture of the ancient Near East through a heavily theoretical lens that is not for the faint of heart. This is not meant to detract from Langin-Hooper’s thoroughly researched, and lucidly written, study, but as a word of caution to those looking for an introductory text to Hellenistic figurines or supplementary reading material for an undergraduate course when, and if, the topic at hand involves plastic and miniature arts or stylistic and cultural hybridities in material culture. That said, Langin-Hooper’s monograph also never claims to be an introductory survey, and in this reader’s opinion, the case studies presented here are best understood within their larger context—that is, in relation to each other—and within the framework of the author’s larger project, which includes investigating the myriad ways in which cultural identities and differences are created and navigated.

To close, I will caution the reader on one further point: a Google Books summary writes in its first sentence that in this volume, Langin-Hooper “investigates the impact of Greek art on” these miniature figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia. Rooted in a unidirectional, Western-centric discourse, this statement sadly shortchanges and oversimplifies what is a theoretically and visually rich exploration of identities in Hellenistic Babylonia; consequently, it denies the existence, value, and power of those identities. Like the figurines themselves, the text is neither tethered to the Greek world nor any facile conceptualization of it, but rather is much more complex. Langin-Hooper invites reader engagement and reflection with themes that are highly relevant to both an understanding of, and negotiations within, our own contemporary multicultural worlds.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–12)
1. A Question of Intimacy: Miniaturization and Figurines (13–51)
2. Fascination with The Tiny: Interacting with Figurines (52–99)
3. Three’s A Crowd: Spectatorship of Figurines (100–146)
4. Images of The Self: Identifying With Figurines (147–202)
5. The Global and The Local: Making Cultural And Social Choices With Figurines (203–46)
Conclusion: Life in Miniature (247–48)

Notes

[1] On your left side, for those who are wondering. Indeed, after reading this section I examined the way in which I hold my own child, and found that I instinctively favor my left side—fascinating.

[2] As far as puns go, this one is razor sharp.

[3] On this point, I cannot help but think of modern U.S. military recruitment videos, which focus not on the identity of the individual but on the common cause and purpose shared by soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and “coasties.” These might have a common cause, but woe to anyone who would confuse the group identities of these distinct forces. “Coasties” is an informal term for Coast Guardsmen, which is decidedly less amusing, and a mouthful. I suppose members of the newest force might be called “spacemen”? But I digress…

Discussion

1. On pp. 28–29, you discuss manufacture marks, and suggest a level of acceptability in seeing traces of the manufacturing process, though it does not appear that there was a broad appeal. How do we know that these traces were “acceptable”? By “acceptable,” are we to understand that they were allowed to physically exist, rather than be destroyed? If so, could they have been rejects, discounted or discarded objects that managed to make their way into the archaeological record? That is, do we know that people actually possessed these objects and “used” them? I am thinking of a modern analogy, clothing, in which items with defects cannot necessarily be sold as “new” and at market price, but can be cast off and donated, or sold in alternative markets and “accepted” simply because they are discounted or donated.

Thanks for your question. Yes, I am arguing that these traces of the manufacturing process must have been acceptable because they were allowed to physically exist despite the fact that many are quite noticeable. While I understand your analogy of the modern capitalist market for clothing, I think there are a few differences here. First, most of the figurines I discuss in my book were made from clay. When clay is still in its wet, pre-fired form, it is extremely easy to recycle. In fact, there is considerable evidence that this happened all the time with clay tablets in Mesopotamian scribal centers or schools, where a tablet that contained errors or had simply fulfilled its useful purpose would be deposited in a wet bin or bucket filled with clay that would eventually be reused. Presumably clay figurines could meet a similar end if they were unsatisfactory in form. Second, the necessary techniques and practices of working with clay were millennia-old skills in Mesopotamia by the Hellenistic period. Indeed, I am currently working on an article that compares the materiality of the clay figurines with that of Hellenistic Babylonian tablets, which are very finely made with nearly pristine surfaces, smooth and without fingerprints, despite also being made of clay. Thus the knowledge of how to handle clay without leaving marks was alive and well in Hellenistic Babylonia, which makes the inclusion of many such marks on the figurines seem like a deliberate choice—or, at the very least, not objectionable. Third, the clay figurines that survive from Hellenistic Babylonia are fired. Clay was cheap in Mesopotamia, but fuel for the kiln was (relatively) expensive. Since fingerprints, mold-lines, and other marks of manufacture would all have been introduced to the object before firing, these figurines must have nevertheless merited the expense of kiln firing despite what we today might see as flaws.

In these ways, I think the clay figurines differ from modern fabrics, where the raw material cannot be easily reclaimed or recycled, and visible flaws are often the result of accidents and errors in the late stages of production (such as garment stitching versus cloth weaving). Additionally—although I am not an expert on modern history, of course—I suspect that modern consumer capitalism (including the “fast fashion” industry) has changed how we look at traces of manufacture on the objects that we buy: as “errors” made by automated machinery or the “carelessness” of underpaid and marginalized laborers, and thus as indications of cheapness (or, perhaps, unpleasant reminders of the human cost of the global supply chain), rather than as more positive social indicators of an artwork’s and artisan’s participation in a shared social imaginary.

2. In Chapter 5, pp. 242–43, you ruminate on the separately molded arms of some reclining female figurines. In your discussion, you suggest that visibly sloppy techniques for affixing said limbs to the body both highlight their original disjointedness, while also causing them to act as a visual bridge between object and viewer. You note that their execution may even have implications for cross-cultural negotiation. Is it possible that such a reading is overly theoretical, and that a sloppily appended limb is just that? If not, could we then go further and also hypothesize what this means from the maker’s perspective, and not just the viewer’s?

Thank you for this question. On one level, I think you are absolutely correct that a sloppily appended limb can just be sloppy—as in, the maker did not intend a poor execution, but rather it resulted from the maker’s carelessness or lack of expertise. This might particularly have been true with the appended limbs on clay figurines, which were joined after firing, when most of the craftsmanship and kiln fuel that had gone into the figurine was already expended (as discussed in my answer to your first question), and so a slightly shoddy figurine might have been a sunk cost. The expertise needed to craft more seamless limb joins for figurines certainly existed in Hellenistic Babylonia, and if anyone is interested, they can read a comparison of the reclining figurines with other figurines with added limbs in my chapter, “Stronger at the Broken Places: Affect in Hellenistic Babylonian Miniatures with Separately Made and Attached Limbs,” in The Tiny and the Fragmented: Miniature, Broken, or Otherwise Incomplete Objects in the Ancient World, ed. S. Rebecca Martin and Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 116–44. However, just because some artisans were capable of more elegant work does not mean that all sloppy work was intentional.

Yet I might also suggest that this is a bit of a false dichotomy, and propose instead that unintentional sloppiness does not necessarily preclude a social meaning. I am drawing on theoretical constructs here, but I am a firm believer that solid theoretical frameworks are not alien to the human experience—rather, they simply allow us to better articulate aspects of human behavior or perception that feel intuitive but that we might not otherwise have clear words and explanations for. So, in this case: people interact with objects constantly throughout our daily experience, but most of those interactions are somewhat habituated and automatic, and thus do not rise to the level of conscious and thoughtful consideration. However, there are certain times and situations when an object can become particularly noticeable. This includes when an object is unusual / out of the ordinary, and when an object is broken or looks like it might become broken. The reclining figurines with separately added arms fall into both of these categories. Because literally thousands of Hellenistic Babylonian figurines survive archaeologically, we can say with some certainty what a “usual” and an “unusual” figurine would look like. The vast majority of these figurines have arms that are modeled as one piece with the rest of the body—and these figurines establish what we might call the “Horizon of Expectation” (a term from Reception Theory) or, more simply, what counted as “normal” for a figurine in Hellenistic Babylonia. So anything that was different—such as any figurines with separately added arms—were going to be more noticeable, and the visible differences were likely going to be presumed to be meaningful. Now, even if the arm join had been perfect, the position of an arm sticking out at an odd angle from the rest of a figurine’s body would have been unusual and called attention to the arm. But the fact that most of these joins are clumsily executed both highlighted and was probably due in large part to their uniqueness: whoever made these figurines probably didn’t have tons of practice attaching these arms because they were rare. So in this sense, these two issues are not just compatible but cyclical: the sloppiness of the join highlighted the figurines’ rarity, and the rarity in turn might have caused the sloppiness, and both factors reinforced (intentionally or not) that the arm’s position was particularly notable and meaningful.

Similarly, when an object is broken, or looks like it might easily be breakable, it becomes more noticeable to people. This happens to me all the time: my reusable water bottle has a small rubber mouthpiece that slides on the metal straw, and that thing pops off a lot, so I am often checking to see if it is attached. In other words, I am thinking about it, when I might not normally be (or might even prefer not to be). I used the words “that thing” deliberately, because my work here is in dialogue with Thing Theory, which posits that when objects revert to their inherent “thingness” (i.e., when they do not conform to their desired functionality as objects because they are broken, dirty, etc.), their materiality becomes especially noticeable as they exert pressure on humans to care for them (through repair, cleaning, etc.). Applying this concept to the figurines with attached arms, the sloppiness of the join—whether intentional or not—would have highlighted the fact that the arm was added separately to the figurine, and was therefore at risk for breakage. The potential breakability of the arm would, in turn, have highlighted its unusual existence—and, thus, its importance.

From the maker’s perspective, he or she would probably have spent more time on assembling the figurines of reclining women with added arms than he or she would have spent on the average figurine. It is difficult to hypothesize how the Hellenistic Babylonian person who made these joins would have felt about such figurines, in part because the figurine designer—who made the prototype and the original mold—could very likely have been a different person than the artisan who pressed the clay into the mold, who might in turn have been a different person than the artisan who assembled the finished figurine (including adding the arm). The figurine designer likely intended the arm to be particularly noticeable: indeed the choice to model the limb so it would need to be appended after firing, rather than before (by hand pressing the clay together while moist), would have both encouraged the use of a bulky joining apparatus and made the arm join more fragile. But the person tasked with assembling these unusual figurines might have given the time and effort begrudgingly on an annoyance, something along the lines of, “These figurines are so tricky, I dislike having to attach this extra arm!” For this reason (as well as others), I prefer not to focus on artist intentionality as a major component of my research. It is so difficult to access! Instead, I prefer to examine the sensory experience of the object as conditioned by the object itself—and the possible social meanings that those object features might have both reflected and influenced. That is what I hoped to illuminate in my book.

3. Within the context of your examination of figurines of children, on p. 200 you discuss the “shifting identities for next generation(s)” and the emphasis on male gender, with adult male roles in Hellenistic Babylonia perhaps having greater significance, which subsequently results in more depictions of males. Do you have any additional thoughts as to why there might be so few surviving depictions of prepubescent girls? I ask this having in mind your examination earlier in the text of mother-and-child groups, and even single female figures, which all seem to have played important social roles, as you have convincingly argued.

Thanks for your question, and you are absolutely right that this absence is a conundrum. My additional thoughts might be to flip the question around: instead of asking, “Why so few girls?,” we might ask, “Why so many boys?” In the long history of Mesopotamian figurine use, there really had not been figurines depicting children, other than the babies held in the arms of the mother-and-child figurines. Thus there was not an established Babylonian cultural tradition of finding meaning and purpose in figurine motifs representing children. These figurines were an artistic innovation of the Hellenistic period, and they reflect the broader Hellenistic interest in depicting children and childhood as charming and captivating for its own sake. Yet, I’m not certain that this meaning ever really resonated with most people in Hellenistic Babylonia: the Hellenistic Babylonian figurines of boys are often quite stiff and serious, losing much (if not all) of the playfulness of the Hellenistic koine sculptural types from which their motifs were derived. So, if these figurines aren’t really about celebrating the charm of childhood in the way that Hellenistic-era people living in other regions liked to do, then, again, we might ask, “Why so many boys?”

This is where I have two thoughts. The first is that, as I mention in the book, many of these boy figurines are depicted with iconography that indicates a supernatural identity, particularly Eros or Harpocrates or some combination of the two. Thus, these are not just “boys” but “boy gods,” and the relative popularity of such figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia may have been more about honoring a particular god (for which there were no corresponding “girl gods” of similar Hellenistic popularity) than about the figure’s age and maturity level per se.

The second thought is the one to which you have already referred in your question: namely, that as adult men in Hellenistic Babylonia were more socially powerful than women, and that men in the figurines are often depicted as more culturally rigid than women in their dress and comportment, then the question of (and negotiation about) who a Hellenistic Babylonian boy would grow up to be was particularly urgent—as well as open to a variety of options. In contrast, Hellenistic Babylonian figurines of women consistently depicted them as similar in age (or, rather, adult “agelessness”) and body type, and were often more fluid and non-specific in their cultural markers. In other words, figurines of women are, in many ways, the same, and so it may not have been as urgent to “negotiate in miniature” the identity of a Hellenistic Babylonian girl because it was already quite clear who she would (ideally) grow up to become.

4. In reading Chapter Two, which deals heavily with tactile interaction, I did initially ask myself, “Well, how does she know? Has she actually held these and played with them?” These questions were prompted in part by the fact that, when studying ancient objects, we are so accustomed to being limited in our engagements to looking and not touching. Of course, you answered that question on p. 55, where you describe your experience handling one of the horse-and-rider figurines (had I looked ahead at the images and seen said figurine held in your fingers, I might not have asked what now appears to be a foolish question). Were there other figurines from your study that you were able to handle, and would you say that this had a significant effect on your understanding and interpretation of the object? Did you feel limited by your inability to engage directly with these objects, with the barrier of a modern glove that prohibited direct skin to material contact?

This is an excellent question, and the answer is that I have in fact touched and held an enormous number of Hellenistic Babylonian figurines, including many of the figurines pictured in my book. This direct physical access to figurines was facilitated by the generosity of many museums (listed in the book’s acknowledgments section), and I am very grateful to these curators, collections managers, and other museum staff members for allowing my access to the objects that they steward.

I have received several comments from colleagues who have similarly remarked upon the point your question is making here—namely, that my embodied and tactile approach to figurines utilized in the book is somewhat more innovative and unusual than I emphasize in the writing, and that perhaps I should have been more descriptive about my methodology and personal experience with these objects. So, if I may take the opportunity here (briefly): Handling the objects is absolutely central to my approach to figurines, because this is how these objects were meant to be experienced. The size range of these figurines (not too small and not too large) particularly accommodates itself to the human hand; they can easily be not just touched but held. Of course, small size alone does not completely determine how likely an object was to be handled. For instance, I also manipulate the figurine to determine whether or not it was made so that it can stand alone. Looking inside a figurine (if it is double molded), as well as at the back and bottom of the object are crucial for determining this—as well as a small bit of (very careful!) experimentation. While even figurines that can stand alone could also, of course, be held in the hand, they didn’t necessarily need to be—which I think is important information, indicating distance, display, and a focus on visual engagement (rather than tactile engagement). On the other hand, figurines that must be held suggest a more intimate encounter and, thus, a different kind of function and meaning.

Thus, when I first approach a figurine, I look at its visual features, but I also pick it up almost immediately. Picking up a figurine gives a sense of weight and delicacy, which can vary significantly: some figurines are so fragile that they must have been handled with care, and some are so sturdy and robust that you could knock them over and they wouldn’t break (not that I attempt this!). The texture of the clay also varies significantly, due both to the quality of the clay (how finely levigated and the size of the temper material), as well as any remaining surface treatment such as paint. To your question about gloves: much of this can be felt through gloves, but several museums where I have conducted research actually prefer that visiting scholars do not wear gloves (it can make people more clumsy than bare hands). So I have actually made skin-to-clay (as well as skin-to-stone and skin-to-bone) contact with several of these figurines. Some are quite smooth while others are very rough, and this can vary over the surface of a single object (often the front is smoother). Picking up a figurine also allows me to feel how the figurine sits in my hand. Some figurines fit very well into the hand or fingers—in fact, some figurines have features that appear “odd” visually (sharply pinched waists, for instance) but make perfect sense when you pick them up and discover that they fit easily into the hand. In other cases, picking up a figurine means that my hand must assume positions that feel unnatural to me—and, while this doesn’t mean that such gestures felt odd to ancient people, it does give me some sense of how figurines recruited and trained the bodies of ancient people to perform certain actions and gestures. In this sense, the figurines can provide direct information about the ancient embodied experience because they can suggest, or even force, the modern researcher to replicate that embodiment—even if it is just a small gesture held for a brief period.

5. Admittedly, I found Chapter Four’s section on “Diversity and the Male Body” the least engaging, and I have determined that this has to do with the fact that I do not identify as male, and thus cannot relate to the roles, experiences, and even physical forms that they embody, as represented through these figurines. I think this actually strengthens your arguments about these figurines’ role in constructions of the self. Did you find it difficult to engage with certain groups of figurines beyond a superficial treatment because of your own self-identifications? Related to this question, did you find that your level of engagement and perceptions of certain types of figurines changed, alongside your own shifts in identity? I am thinking in particular here about the mother-and-child figurines. As a mother myself, I connected with these more so than any other, and I am certain that my reception of these images would have been decidedly different, and the messages embedded within less readily understood, if not completely lost on me, in a pre-maternal state.

This is an excellent question, and yes, I absolutely agree with you that some figurines were easier for me to engage with because of my own identifications. Interestingly, the figurines I had the most difficulty engaging with were not the male figurines but the musicians. I am not musically talented, I have only a superficial appreciation of music, and I do not find the process of watching someone play music (such as at a symphony or concert) to be particularly interesting. So I do not have a deep embodied understanding of the musical and performance experience that those figurines represent.

It has been particularly interesting for me to age alongside these figurines: I first began researching Hellenistic Babylonian figurines as part of my undergraduate thesis, and I made my first research trip to the British Museum when I was 20 years old (so, a relatively young cisgender woman). I am now 40 years old, and in the intervening two decades I have married my husband and given birth to two children, who are now ages 3 and 5. The mother-and-child figurines, as well as the figurines of children, are more accessible to me now—I recognize body positions and gestures, for instance. This is part of what I allude to in the acknowledgments of my book, which I dedicate to my two sons, whose lives have enriched my own in so many ways, but who have also made me a better scholar by broadening my lived experience.

This process continues, and just to give a short (and perhaps overly personal example): I did not nurse (breastfeed) my first son, and I finished writing my book while pregnant with my second. I did nurse my second son—which, for any readers who have not had this personal experience, can be very challenging—and in my early days of mastering the necessary techniques, I found myself assuming bodily postures that were very similar to those seen in some of the figurines. I was not expecting this—I wasn’t even thinking of the figurines at all—but I had this sudden shock of “Wow, now I know what this means!” At some point, I am hoping to incorporate this story and realization into a future article.

To be clear, I don’t think that means that scholars are unable to write accurately and thoughtfully about artworks and objects that are outside their lived experience. And, of course, despite the fact that I share certain identity characteristics with particular ancient people, such as mothers, and the artworks that represent them, I think we should always be very careful about assuming the universality of even deeply biological experiences—even these are shaped by culture, geography, time period, etc. However, I think there are some insights to be gained and I especially think this is a very strong argument for the absolute necessity of making our field and profession open to and accepting of scholars from all backgrounds, all life experiences, and all personal identity groups. For instance, while I would imagine it could be painful, I do not truly know what it would be like to view the mother-and-child figurines as a woman experiencing infertility, nor can I easily envisage the peer pressure such images might exert on women who wished to remain child-free throughout their lives. I am also certain that there are insights that people of color, members of the LBGTQI+ community, people of religious backgrounds other than Christianity, etc., etc. could bring to these figurines that I cannot fully access. Of course, scholarship (including university and museum institutions) should be accepting of people of all backgrounds and identities for reasons of equality and human rights alone: no person should need to add value through their “diversity” to deserve inclusion. Yet I think our scholarly communities should also be open to acknowledging the fact that one’s personal identity and lived experience can shape how we engage with and understand the past, and that this is a good thing! Increasing the diversity of our research community—and allowing people to be their whole selves while also being scholars—means that we all will benefit from broader and more insightful understandings of the past.

Thank you, Dr. Langin-Hooper, for taking the time to answer my questions, and for discussing your engagement with the material and your process in greater detail. Congratulations to you on the success of your many years of research!

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