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Beyond Typology: Investigating Entanglements of Difference and Exploring Object-Generated Social Interactions in the Terracotta Figurines of Hellenistic Babylonia

  • Author(s): Langin-Hooper, Stephanie Marie
  • Advisor(s): Feldman, Marian H
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates the social role played by terracotta figurines in the Greek-Mesopotamian cross-cultural interactions of Hellenistic Babylonia. Previous studies of Hellenistic Babylonian terracotta figurines have largely been organized as typological catalogues, with an emphasis placed on organizing the vast number of figurines within an understood dichotomy of "Greek" or "Babylonian". This dissertation makes two unique contributions to the study of these figurines. The first is to highlight the limitations of typology, an organizational tool that has the effect of privileging some features of the figurines over others, as well as using those features to cement figurines into rigid, artificial hierarchies. Through deconstructing typologies, this dissertation allows for the methodological substitution of more flexible, "real life" systems of categorization. The second major contribution of this dissertation is to investigate how Hellenistic Babylonian figurines actively participated in social interactions that were organized not only along the lines of Greek vs. Babylonian ethnicity, but also other social roles such as gender, age, class, and profession.

In this dissertation, typologies are replaced by a new methodology of investigating "trends" of similarity and difference, which can be used to access object identities and trace entanglements of human-object interaction based on the shifting, mutable affiliations suggested by bundled features of the figurines. I address these methodological and historiographic considerations in Part I of the dissertation. In Part II of this dissertation, these methodological approaches are used to trace the "trends" of similarity in the Hellenistic Babylonian figurines. Figurines are treated as interconnected social actors: through the sharing of particular features, some figurines have closer associations than others; however, no figurines are assigned as part of a set "type". Rather, the shared features of figurines with visual, technological, or contextual similarities are interrogated, in order to determine which assemblages were the most popular, and thus bore widely-accepted meanings. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 each address a different (but interconnected) aspect of the figurine corpus. Chapter 4 contains a discussion of male social roles and gender ambiguities. Chapter 5 contains a discussion of human-figurine interactions conditioned by the materialities of the objects, with particular reference to figurine features that either beckon the human interlocutor into closer interaction or, conversely, discourage tactile and visual engagement. Chapter 6 contains a discussion of the closely entwined visualizations of many female figurines, and the social implications of that cohesive visual ideal. Within each chapter, the interpretation of figurine trends are approached through such theoretically-informed lenses as the social construction of gender, the psychological effect of miniature scale, and the controlling power of the Gaze.

This object-agency approach to studying social interactions between humans and figurines in Hellenistic Babylonia leads to the second major contribution of this dissertation: ethnic identities of "Greek" and "Babylonian" may not have been primary, or even particularly important, in all social interactions. The terracotta figurines both generated and reflected new pathways of social meaning-making in Hellenistic Babylonia. In many cases, these figurines were not particularly adherent to earlier, pre-Hellenistic motifs and meanings. Rather, "trendy" figurines tended to have been those that engaged with aspects of both cultural traditions, frequently becoming hybridized in the process. This finding indicates that the scholarly world's focus on determining the political roles, power balances, and social identities of "Greeks" and "Babylonians" in these Hellenistic communities may be misdirected. In the conclusion of this dissertation, I argue that we need to dramatically rethink our understanding of Hellenistic Babylonian cross-cultural interactions by placing less emphasis on the role of ethnicity, and more importance on investigating the social significance of other identity roles.

The scholarly contribution of my dissertation is to both begin a broader exploration of identity in Hellenistic Babylonian society, and also to demonstrate how material culture - such as, but not limited to, terracotta figurines - can be used in innovative and theoretically-informed ways to further explore the "hows" and "whys" of identity formation.

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