An introduction to Phase 2 and anthropomorphic wooden figurines

Dr. Benjamin Gearey

In the second phase of the Pallasboy Project we will be developing and extending our practical and theoretical investigations of creativity, craft and woodworking in prehistory. We will broaden our chronological focus to consider woodworking during the Bronze Age (2500-600 BCE) and our geographical focus to take in a particular form of prehistoric wooden artefact: the striking anthropomorphic wooden figurines recovered from wetland contexts across Europe.

Approximately 40 figures are known from the peatlands of northern Europe (van der Sanden & Capelle 2001), although fewer have been found in England and Ireland. Examples of the latter include The Ralaghan Figure (Sherlock, Co. Cavan, Ireland), the Roos Carr Figurines (Holderness, east England) and the ‘God Dolly’ (Somerset Levels, southwest England). The majority of these artefacts date to the Middle Bronze Age and the Iron Age, although some examples (the God Dolly dates to the Neolithic) are much earlier. Until recently only three Irish figures were known, however a spate of discovery in the early 2000’s saw an additional eight figures uncovered within a 7km radius of Co. Offaly (Stanley 2006).

Their broad similarity of form with European examples suggests a shared culture of carving highly stylised anthropomorphic figures with distinct heads and notched torsos. Coles (1990) has observed that this general similarity of form over a period of over 2,500 years (from c. 3000 BCE to c. 350 BCE) is notable, given the changes in other aspects of material culture across this span of time. Who or what the figures represent has been the cause of much debate with suggested functions as fertility gods, warriors and guardians (van der Sanden & Capelle 2001, 85-96). These artefacts were probably highly symbolic and it has been suggested that in some cases, their deposition in peatlands may have been a ‘ritual’ act perhaps echoing that of later prehistoric ‘bogbodies’ (Coles, 1990). As the project progresses, we will reflect in greater detail on some of these questions and issues.

Coles, B. (1990) Anthropomorphic wooden figures from Britain and Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56, 315-333.

Stanley, M. (2006) The ‘red man’ of Kilbeg: an Early Bronze Age idol from County Offaly. PAST: The newsletter of the Prehistoric Society No. 52.  [Online] Available from: http://www.le.ac.uk/has/ps/past/past52/past52.html#kilbeg

Van der Sanden, W. and Capelle, T. (2001) Mosens Guder/Immortal Images: Ancient Anthropomorphic Wooden Carvings from Northern and Northwest Europe. Silkeborg: Silkeborg Museum

Examining the Kilbeg Figure with Michael Stanley at the National Museum storage facility in Swords.
Examining the Kilbeg Figure with Michael Stanley at the National Museum storage facility in Swords.

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