Cypriot 2 headed plank figure: Middle Bronze Age I - II (2000-1750 BC)

2 headed plank figure

Multi headed plank figures are rare, and come almost exclusively from Lapithos in North Cyprus (plus one from Dhenia, nearby, and some with no known provenance). Vassos Karageorghis illustrated the 24 examples known to him and I know 7 more, 5 from the Pierides Museum in Larnaka, one in a private collection in Cyprus, plus this one). Most are 2 headed and in the Red polished Ware, dominant in the Cypriot Early and Middle Bronze Age. One is White Painted Ware and 4 have three heads. A few others are, no doubt, in private collections unknown to him and most probably looted from tombs, and possibly others in museums and represented by small fragments. They had always been classified (eg by V Karageorghis) as Early Cypriot III. However they seem now to be classified as early Middle Bronze Age, along with the other later modifications to the classic plank figure. Daisy Knox, in her 2012 PhD thesis says that “none is attested before MC II”, which would make it a very late arrival. I do not know what reassessment has caused this and what is now generally believed.  She was certainly wrong in stating that no plank figure is decorated near its bottom edge, though this is a general rule. 

Like the other plank figures they were probably intended for use in the settlements, since they have been found in both tombs and settlements and many of those in tombs show wear from having been handled. Possibly they constituted family shrines. Interpretation of the double headed examples have been various, including Campo who thought they depicted the divine marriage between a god and goddess, with an implied link to human marriage. However this does not account for the 3 headed ones and there is no sign that they represent different sexes. Either the single body has breasts (60%) or it doesn’t. This was at a time when the majority of scholars interpreted all planks as female fertility goddesses, despite only 30% of all plank figures having breasts (less than 10% of the classic, early type with one head and without arms). Now many explanations are offered. They might represent a god such as the Babylonian Marduk, (or perhaps the Syrian double eye-idols) who incorporate male and female.  Other interpretations see them as twins, since twins are considered to be magical in many cultures, especially identical twins, and even more so the one survivor of a deceased twin.  But why should this only be represented in one settlement? It has been suggested that plank figures began in Lapithos, since many planks were found in the tombs (though the settlement has yet to be located).  It is the only place with all the plank types, but perhaps other areas did not take up the double variant. Certainly this doubling is in accord with a general love of doubling and multiplication in Cypriot pottery, which includes a profusion of vessels with double spouts.

Other anthropomorphic figurines of the period are represented quite differently and more realistically and with almost no clothing represented. If plank figures represent spirits this might explain their two dimensional form. Priscilla Keswani has convincingly argued that, at least from ECIII (when plank figures began to be produced) it became the norm for those accorded proper burial to be buried twice, starting with a simple interment, then after an interval in which had allowed the bones to have been cleansed of their rotting flesh, and materials to be collected for the funeral, a much larger funeral with feasting and lavish grave goods in which the bones would have been put into the family or "kin group" tomb.  This would be in line with many known societies and, according to the classic anthropological theories of Robert Hertz, the second burial would have celebrated the rebirth of the spirit as an ancestor.  In line with this I  believe that plank figures represent ancestors (probably specific, recently deceased ancestors – to judge from ancestor cults investigated by anthropologists) and would have been intended to contain their spirits.  The figure would have constituted a family shrine in the home.  In that case then they might represent a married couple, or deceased twins.  Alternatively they might have represented generic, rather than specific ancestors, but in almost all examples known to anthropology the primary emphasis is on specific, individual, recently deceased ancestors. Two of the known cradle-figures (plank figures depicting babies tied to a cradle-board) depict the heads of two babies on one board.

The three headed version is a problem for some interpretations, such as the idea of the union of sexes in a divinity.   If plank figures are ancestor figures, could there have been this many twins and triplets in one village?  Well, not in proportion, but perhaps if there was a special cult of twins the numbers are not high. Similarly for the married couple theory, a man with more than one wife seems possible.  

Almost all multi-heads have long heads/necks, joined at the top, perhaps to make them less vulnerable, though one is known with independent heads/necks. The faces can be at the top or anywhere down to the middle of the head/neck, which seems to have been the case here.

As with almost all plank figures there are many details of clothing patterns and jewellery. In this example, the "necklaces" at the front are particularly fine and unusual and the object apparently hanging at the back below the central aperture should be noted. There are some single plank figures with a feature like this, which is sometimes seen decorating other objects.  It is a bit like the "comb figures" which have been seen as precursors of plank figures by Desmond Morris but are more widely seen as models of combs, perhaps carding combs.  This feature hanging at the back has been interpreted by some as a counterweight to necklaces, though not many think this. In any case it is an iconographic decorative element found on other pottery (such as my RPW bowl).

In my example the main body is complete, though broken across the middle and across one shoulder.  This may have been deliberate (perhaps killing the figure to go into the afterlife with the deceased) and may have applied to as many as half of them.  However it has been pointed out to me that most of these figures are not well fired and easily break accidentally.

Of the head/neck areas only one face and the start of the other neck are original.  The remainder of this region is a conjectural reconstruction. On purchase, the appearance of the necks as reconstructed appeared to me to be too squat and slot too short at the top, and the second face not quite satisfactory.  Consequently I have had the top slightly extended and the slot cut higher, and the currently concealed distinction between original and reconstructed portions (shown a little darker) made clearer. The restored face is a cast from the existing one. This will be its third version since the first was, I gather from a detail photo, wildly wrong.

The face has been placed at the lowest feasible level (and lowest known level for a face), with only a small insert of new material to allow the area below the "face" to echo the details on the other neck, as is always the case.  However even this small insertion seems too much at the back, where the zig zags presumed to represent hair  should start from roughly the same level. These hair zig-zags always go all the way up the head/neck so have been reconstructed.  I am considering reconstructing some similar horizontal parallel lines above the "faces" as there are below, on the basis that all of the extant 2 head planks which have room for a design above the "faces" repeat it at the bottom of the neck, with only one exception(Cat Bd20 in Karageorghis's book) which has a vertical feature below the nose often seen in single-head planks and sometimes interpreted as a philtrum, but this is the only multi-head I know of (out of 31) which has it.In one case there are a bunch of horizontal lines top and bottom of the head/neck and a different feature added below the "face"(but the low position of the face on my figure makes that irrelevant as a possibility).  The top edge usually has small parallel lines all along, either vertical, diagonal or chevrons, but the choice would be speculative so this area will be left blank.  The length of "neck" restoration above the heads I made about as long as it can be for the heads not to be below the mid point of the necks. However the necks are still a bit shorter than usual and the heads very unusually low. The only way to get over this would have been for the hair zig-zags to start at even more unequal heights. The shape of the top, joining the heads, is typical, and specifically based on the nearest known example (from Lapithos, tomb 18 – now in the Cyprus Museum).  The holes near the top corners, assumed to represent ear-piercings, are found on all multiple-headed plank figures (and most single-head ones) and can appear on both male and female figures in the scenic models.


Size: 22cm high

(Ex. Collection of J Patrick Lannan (1905-1983). Subsequently with Royal Athena Galleries.  Subsequently US private collection. J. Patrick Lannan was a business executive, financial consultant and patron of the arts. He was a director of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation for 36 years. He was also a director and member of the executive commmittee of the Macmillan Publishing Company, and a past chairman of the board of trustees of the magazine Poetry. established the Lannan Foundation to give financial help to needy artists and writers. His Park Avenue apartment became a showplace of paintings, sculpture and artifacts from ancient China to contemporary America. In 1981 he founded the Museum of the Lannan Foundation in Lake Worth, Fla. Although this piece could have been collected by Mr Lannan as late as the 1970s (he died 1983), his collecting was mostly prior to that.)

(Aquired ArtAncient January 17th 2018)