I found these beautiful pots online last week :
And they immediately set off a train of thoughts about ceramics and bodies, and how archaeologists interpret ceramics and bodies. But first, aren’t they stunning? I love how some of the breasts are asymmetric, how the aureolae vary in shape and colour, how the nipples are flat and erect, how some of the bodies are straight and some curvy, some with the hint of a belly (a reference to pregnancy?), some with a nipped in waist. Some have handles, some don’t. Some look like they would be perfect for your morning cuppa, some look like they definitely would work better as containers for your Instagram perfect succulent.
Iris Young, a feminist philosopher who I’ve found incredibly useful, writes about “Breasted Experience.” She describes what it is like to live in a breasted body, the impact of breasts on our day to day experiences of the world. This is something anyone with mammary tissue instantly appreciates: walking down the stairs without a bra on if you have larger breasts, the freedom of a backless top, that wonderful moment when you take your bra off at the end of the day. There are more specific feelings too, unique to particular experiences: that unique tingly aching, the prickling pain when your baby cries and the let-down reflex gets going, the looking down and seeing a wet patch on your t-shirt, the blood, pus, and pain of breastfeeding going wrong- and these are only my own more recent experiences. Breasts aren’t static, they change through the life course, adapting to weight, pregnancy, hormones, bringing different feelings and sensations as they shift, grow and shrink. Like clay, they can be shaped and formed through things happening around and to them: puberty, pregnancy, ageing. But these vessels catch this experience at a moment in time and freeze it in clay.
I’ve used Young’s work to argue that past bodies are shaped by the objects around them, as well as by social expectations and norms. Using her most famous example, that of a little girl throwing a stone into the sea, I argued that the shape, size, weight and her relationship to the stone all affect the girl’s throw as much as embodied sexist expectations for female behaviour. Objects are complicit in the way we use our bodies, and have their own agendas for getting us to act a certain way- a cup with a handle has a very clear implication for your interaction with it. These goddess cups are fascinating- where do you place your hand, how do you interact with the body of the vessel, literally. What do these objects want from us? Do they want us to consider our own bodies and think about the power of touch and representation? Is it about texture? Are some of them bought and sold as jokes, or risque talking points? These pots are the site of myriad interactions, some of which they can structure and others which are beyond their agency.
And how about pots in the past? As soon as I saw these I thought about this, and other examples like it:
This being the handle of a cup from Poggio Civitate (image (c) Poggio Civitate Archaeological Project) , one of many examples of Etruscan ceramics where a woman’s body is moulded in clay and placed where anyone interacting with the vessel will not only see but almost certainly touch it. These women have been interpreted as goddesses, as they are often represented (as here) with wings, or a pair of cats. I took this interpretation and ran with it in my PhD, arguing that the divine nature of these figures is connected to the experience of drinking alcohol, and the sense of liminality that comes with intoxication. I also argued that it may be linked to sexuality, and fertility- making use of the rush of desire that comes from drinking to get a move on making the next generation of elite Etruscan babies. Wrapped up in all of this is the need to touch, to physically feel with the hand the curves and contours of these sacred bodies. These pots require touch. The magic demands tactile interaction in order to work.
The goddess pots also made me think (inevitably) about other vessels, with supposedly erotic images like this one:
These vessels, imported pots made in Athens that ended up in Etruscan tombs, have fascinated me for years now, and the sexualised images really caught my attention right at the start of my PhD and shaped the whole thing. Seeing these goddess pots, and the wide variety of uses and interactions users were having with them, made me think of these vessels too. Are they jokes? Apotrophaic talismans to ward off evil? Are they designed to create desire? Are they pornographic? I argued that they formed part of an idealised set of primarily masculine identities, imported from Athens to Etruria, that shoved out the old tactile vessels. Visual imagery that needed to be interpreted by knowing the “correct” response, demonstrating that the user of a vessel belonged in elite company, replaced the tactile vessels and their goddess handles. It’s more satisfying to imagine yourself in control of your body, not some divine winged female with feline sidekicks.
If these lovely pots survive in the archaeological record, I wonder what sort of stories the archaeologists of the future will weave about and around them. Jokes? Powerful fertility talismans? Feminist icons? All of the above.
***Bodies. Pots. Touching. Magic. Uh oh. I’m back on this stuff, and it’s a heady brew. Over the last few months, I realised that I rushed out my thesis in a book, and actually there are more articles in there than just the appendix that I published as a standalone. I have some revisions to a different article that MUST BE THE PRIORITY but watch this space for some more formal discussion of these ideas. With less mention of pus. Thanks for the kick up the backside, Sonia Rose and your goddess pots.***