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Art History 142: Arts of South Asia. Research Paper: Female Terracotta Figurines.

*NOTE* This is a research paper from my art history 142 class about art in South Asia. I shared it because I enjoy researching and learning about such artwork. Please do not plagiarise my words/research paper. I should not have to mention that, but people tend to do so. Perhaps, ask me if you are a blogger and/or creative/academic writer. I will allow it if asked. As for sharing the blog itself, it’ll be crazy to prevent you to do so. Please share if you found this interesting, I sure did. And thank you for visiting and reading, bless! ❤

Terracotta statuette of a dancing woman3rd century B.C. (Greek, South Italian, and Tarentine). 📸

Title: Varied Values of Female Terracottas All Through South Asia

The perspective and significance of terracotta figurines differ throughout parts of South Asia from ancient times to the present. It is certain that back in ancient times, terracotta figurines created by craftsmen held a contrasting historical reference in the Harappan (Indian) culture as mother goddesses and royal women (Marque, 2021). Terracotta figurines were depicted as the representation of beauty for women because feminine beauty consisted of accessories like huge flared headdresses, heavy jewelry together with attributes of wide hips and ample breasts. Unlike the surface depiction of terracotta figurines, they are currently a constitutive part of the local culture in India. These figurines have played a pivotal role in Hindu religious practices and were offered to deities (Craven, 1976). There are a few more ideologies that need to be discussed about female terracotta figurines other than beauty. 

This research topic of mine is to explore the significance of terracotta figurines from different parts of South Asia and to specifically highlight how these figurines depicted women in ancient as well as the current time. Terracotta figurines were more than just “dolls” or “toys” as they were powerful pieces of artwork that greatly influenced history in ancient times. Even though these figurines were seen as a feminine role models (as meant lightly), they were used as examples in literature, fashion, painting, performance art, etc. Instead, I will restate that terracotta figurines were not just used for beautification which is considered vanity, shallow, and/or on the surface ideology. This said terracotta figurines hold and possibly still have merit.

📸 : Credit Line: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Referring back to Harappan (Indian) culture, terracotta figurines were found first in the Indus Foothills of Amri then found in the proto-Harappan settlements of Indus Valley. To note, this piece of information details the difference between the environmental structures from which terracotta figurines navigated. To mention, besides the great quantity of ‘mother goddess’ images, there are other terracotta toys, votive animals, and figurines though the prime focus is women depicted terracotta. Also, in ancient civilizations like Mesopotamia, terracotta figurines were essentially used to celebrate childbirth, fertility, and burial processes (Veer, 2004). This lead emphasizes the importance of the development of figurines (female figurines in this case), that involve different cultural origins, purpose, role in social organization, and iconography (Gregory, 2013).

Judaean female clay “pillar figurines”. Jerusalem, Beer-Sheva, Tel Erani (8th-6th BCE). Wikimedia / Israel Museum. Citation: Aaron Greener, “What Are Clay Female Figurines Doing in Judah during the Biblical Period?” (2016).
The Seated Woman of Catalhoyuk is a clay sculpture dated to around 8,000 years old. Credit: (Nevit Dilmen/Creative Commons. 📸 :

Oppositely, moving from the point of ritual meanings that terracotta figurines held, it is to be said that India deifies feminine beauty which is observable in the history of terracotta figurines. In correlation to feminine beauty, terracotta figurines in the Tang Dynasty were prosperous and through multiform forms. In this case, terracotta figurines are exactly linked to the ruler’s love for horses. The research article Cultural Value of Ancient Chinese Terracotta Rider Figurines by Chao Hong & LU Chunli, explains the social customs and conventions of Terracotta rider figurines. 

It is important to take note that ancient Chinese terracotta rider figurines found from the Tang Dynasty are part of South Asia and enlighten a different meaning behind terracotta figurines. The Tang dynasty is thought to be the golden age of Chinese arts and culture, as its culture translates through the practice of Buddhism which spread much of Asia. On the part of South Asia culture specifically art like Chinese terracotta rider figurines, there were women terracotta rider figurines too. For instance, a colored white glazed female figurine was historically linked to the Tomb of Zheng Rentai in Liquan County, Shaanxi Province in 1972. The particular female rider figurine has a colored white glazed which is a predecessor of tri-colored glazed pottery that integrates techniques of sculpture and painting. 

Tang Painted Terracotta Sculpture of a Horse and Female Rider. SKU: H.686
Circa: 600 AD to 700 AD
Dimensions: 19″ (48.3cm) high
Medium: Painted Terracotta
Origin: China
Gallery Location: UK

An example of beauty would be the female terracotta figurine which reflects a beautiful face, thick eyebrows, and appealing lips. The female’s attire based on historical records demonstrates the reality of rider figurine cultures in ancient times. For example, she is wearing a dress with red patterns stitched into the white sleeves of her outfit along with a kerchief and bamboo hat. Accompanying her is a yellow horse that is more benign than a warhorse, and it is described that they are on a spring outing. With attention to the colored white glazed female rider figurine, I find this sample to be important because it focuses on the outing clothes that women wore in the Tang Dynasty (Hong and Chunli, 2016).

Furthermore, besides beauty standards and horse riding, the significance behind female terracotta figurines portrays motherhood. Motherhood is shown in the Indus society as described in the report from a book chapter, The Sincerest Form of Flattery?: Terracotta Seals as Evidence of Imitation and Agency in Bronze Age Middle Asia. There are female terracotta figurines that are designed as she is lying on her right side breastfeeding an infant on the bed. While on the subject of motherhood, there are extensive interpretations of Indus female figurines as ‘fertility deities’, either or multiple depictions of the Mother Goddess in South Asia that differ characteristically from other female terracotta: still have the meaning of human reproduction (Ameri, 2018). With these given points, day to day life of the role as a mother was interpreted through terracotta figurines too. 

Terracotta statuette of a woman holding a baby2nd–1st century B.C.
Greek, Asia Minor, Myrina Period: Late Hellenistic
Date: 2nd–1st century B.C.
Culture: Greek, Asia Minor, Myrina (?)
Medium: Terracotta; mold-made
Dimensions: H. 8 7/16 in. (21.4 cm)
Classification: Terracottas
📸: Credit Line: The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76

Correspondingly, my point about females’ contribution to human reproduction is corroborated by the source: Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa. Author Sharri Clark informs that nearly all figurines from Harappa abstain from any certain pursuit of trade associated with either sex or gender, but a few examples bring forth into Indus gender roles. To give an instance, biological and social reproductive roles of adult women, but not men, are occasionally delineated. To put it another way, female figurines’ gender role may have incorporated domestic production of food and craft production (Clark, 2003). This is to say that Indus women were considered to be in wide-ranging fields of production which greatly highlights their roles in Indus society altogether.

Tanagara sculpture of a female minstral.
Early 19th Century Italian Terracotta Sculpture of ‘Hebe and the Eagle’
Indus Valley Terracotta Figurine of a Standing Woman
Circa:2800 BC to 2000 BC
Dimensions:9.25″ (23.5cm) high
Gallery Location:UK
A dancer statuette from Tanagra
250 BC
📸 and/or All content Copyright Ceramics and Pottery Arts and Resources

In essence, as mentioned above, I discussed the context of terracotta figurines from different parts of South Asia, and specifically of those that depict women in ancient times. I introduced supporting facts of the varying roles that these figurines held. They were viewed throughout the 19th century as sexual with erotic undertones plus endured negative connotations resulting in misogyny in popular culture. Now, female terracotta figurines are treated as if they have little to no importance even in the art world like to be exhibited in museums. They are at-present looked upon as miniature size, discolored and stylized toys that have a feminine connotation that has always been poorly scrutinized. I aim in my thesis to reassure you that female terracotta figurines are more than just a sexual representation and uplift women’s diverse roles as they should. 


Fresno County Archaeological Society Lecture Series. Girls Being Girls: Playing with Figurines in the Field and the Museum. 

Craven, Roy C., and Roy C. Craven. Indian Art: A Concise History. Thames and Hudson, 1997. 

A glimpse at the human figurines of the Indus Valley Civilization. Accessed November 23, 2021. 

  Wiecek, Matthew Gregory. “South Asian Figurines in the British Museum: Literature Review and Analysis”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2013.

Chao Hong, and Lu Chunli. “Cultural Value of Ancient Chinese Terracotta Rider Figurines.” Journal of landscape research 8, no. 2 (2016): 90–.

 Marta Ameri. “The Sincerest Form of Flattery?: Terracotta Seals as Evidence of Imitation and Agency in Bronze Age Middle Asia.” In Walking with the Unicorn: Social Organization and Material Culture in Ancient South Asia, 19–. Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, 2018.

CLARK, SHARRI R. “Representing the Indus Body: Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and the Anthropomorphic Terracotta Figurines from Harappa.” Asian Perspectives 42, no. 2 (2003): 304–28.

Ceramic/sculptor, figurine artists:

Marlene Steyn. Instagram:

Annie Attridge. Instagram:

Sally Hacket. Instagram:

Also, check out my blog about Frances Gallart Marques’s lecture talk “Girls Being Girls: Playing with Figurines in the field and the museum”



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