Cypriot Plank figure: (Middle Bronze Age I) 2000 - 1850 BC

Plank figure

The almost flat idols known as Plank Figures were first found in 1913, but now nearly 300 have been found representing a production of about 350 years.  They date from the end of the Early Bronze Age (Early Cypriot III A) but continued into the start of the Middle Bronze Age (MC I & II). This one, a so called "shoulder type"  figure, may be a slightly later example of the classic type in that it has arms. The narrow head/neck is unique.  This, like most Plank Figures is incised Red Polished Ware and most came from the North and North-Central Cyprus, though a few stone ones exist from the south-west. In the MC II period some were also made in White Painted ware or Plain ware.

The basic, early Plank figures are almost completely flat with a protuberance for nose (the only part always depicted in relief), pierced ears (usually), and breasts in about a 10% of the classic type without arms (but 30% of all types). Eyes are depicted (as concentric circles or holes) but mouths only sometimes and ambiguously (as here). Why noses were clearly more important symbolically than mouths (and pierced ears than mouths) is unclear.  Often as in this one, zigzags indicating hanging hair behind. Sometimes they have vestigial arms, mostly found in central Cyprus and probably later in date, but most of the modified types are from the Middle Bronze Age.  Decorative incised patterns, filled with white lime, indicate necklaces, clothing, waistbands and sometimes headbands, or possibly tattoos or scarification. Usually, as here, there are strongly depicted shoulders, and head and neck are not differentiated in out-line. Legs are never indicated and either these were unimportant or the rectangular body may depict a figure in a long dress.  The emphasis on the nose may relate to the idea of the breath of life.  Interestingly the mouth, associated with eating, drinking and speaking is not seen as important in this kind of figure.

There are also versions with two narrow heads/necks, or even three and small versions mounted on pots. There are also "Cradle Figures", very similar depictions of one, or sometimes two, babies on a cradle board (i.e. strapped to a flat construction designed to be carried on the mother's back, as once used, for example, by Native Americans).  Desmond Morris thought that comb figures, which seem to have earlier antecedents and which look a bit like a wide decorator’s paintbrush, were abstracted human figures. Current opinion relates them instead to carding combs but my figurine does suggest a tenuous link.

Since more life-like figures are known from the time, represented in scenic models of communal activities (ploughing, wine treading, a ritual in an enclosure) it is reasonable to think that these planks, which also appear on some vessels, are not representations of living people but spirits, represented in only two dimensions, usually without limbs but defined by clothing - as in our popular representation of ghosts as draped in a sheet.

Priscilla Keswani has convincingly argued that, at least from ECIII (when plank figures began to be produced) most burials were double, 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, would have celebrated the rebirth of the spirit as an ancestor.

My figure has a uniquely tall, narrow neck/head (as attested by Vassos Karageorghis), similar to the head/necks of double and triple headed figures which are exclusively from Lapithos and Denia near the North coast (but also, with its long neck returns to the form of Chalcolithic cruciform figures). Since multi headed planks are thought to have been made in the mid Middle Bronze Age, along with modelled vestigial arms, this figure may derive from the Middle Bronze Age and possibly in that area.  However the inclusion of arms relates it more to Central Cyprus . 

Until fairly recently these figures were all considered to be female and identified as Earth Mother figures and fertility figures, even though only one third have breasts and only two have (ambiguous) genitals. Also unlike the Chalcolithic figurines, which similarly only sometimes show breasts, these austere angular depictions make unlikely fertility figures. Consequently this identification has been challenged by L Talalay & T Cullen who argued that an ambiguous sexuality might have been intended. Possibly this would have allowed them to have a more complex and varied social and ritual function. Certainly they must have been magical objects and may have ensured the continuity of human existence. In many cultures symbols can have different meanings in different circumstances, such as concentric-circles for the Australian Walbiri people, which can mean vagina, waterhole, campsite or entry into another world.   Many double-headed plank figures, found in one area by the North coast, may represent a symbolic marriage or some spiritual double-ness, or may derive from a two headed Chalcolithic deity. However see my interpretation below.

These figures are not so much representations of spirits as material objects for spirits to inhabit. In a sense they are the spirit.  In African belief systems the spirit is not always in the object that  has been made for them, but always knows what is going on in its vicinity.

Like most figures of this type and almost all the later Middle Cypriot and early late Cypriot figurines, however crude, the pierced ears are insisted on. This even where there are almost no other references to human features, such as limbs or mouth, though nose (and in these later figures, breasts) are usually present. Usually 2 or 3 piercings are depicted and this is also true in half the Late Cypriot figurines (the so called "Earring Figures") where actual pottery earrings were inserted through the holes in huge ears. Before plank figures in the Earl Cypriot period, the chief figure in the famous Vounous bowl has pierced ears, and earlier still, in the Chalcolithic period, earring holes are shown in some small pottery figurines (eg a fragmentary figure from Choirokoitia 7000-5800BC). Why was it so important? Is this a marker of status (obviously male figures in the scenic models, made at this time, also sometimes show pierced ears)? 

However, the most obvious question is, why are plank figures so flat and abstract when animal figures and human figures in contemporary group scenes are more naturalistic? Some believe they derive from cradle boards: the infant may have been swaddled attached to a board to be carried, as is done in some societies still. There are, indeed,  a whole genre of plank figures actually depicting this. If this is so the breasts depicted on some figures might not be breasts, or there might be a conflation of mother and baby in one fertility figure.  It has been argued that the origin of the plank form must be in some pre-existing (wooden?) object which, as is common in Cypriot pottery, has been given a human (or animal) persona.  However, since the human figures in the pottery "Scenic Models" of the same EC III - MC II period, are modelled in the round and have arms and legs it seems obvious that these are not representations of live people A spirit has no three-dimensional physical presence and no need to get about on legs so could sensibly be represented flat and limbless. If as now seems to be generally agreed they are not goddesses, the most likely identity of these figures is deceased family members who were especially loved or revered. Others have mentioned the possibility that they are generic ancestor figures but ancestor cults normally appeal to particular ancestors rather than a generic one. These ancestors are believed to still be able to affect the material world of the living so that they need to be propitiated and can be appealed to to work for the health, fertility and prosperity of their living relatives. They also constitute a focus for the identity of the family and often the authority of the (normally male) elders.  

As mentioned above, there is plenty of evidence now for an ancestor cult.  Shrines are found  by the entrance of some tombs, often with a pot for offerings, and funerals had become extremely elaborate and costly, often involving two stage funerals, the second and more elaborate one following the de-fleshing of the body and reburying of the bones in a different tomb. In Cyprus, however, if I am right that these figurines are homes for the spirits of dead relatives, we have an early, developing form of the ancestor cult, less patriarchal and more attuned to individual sentiment. After all, one third of them seem to have breasts (20% of the canonical, early type) so are presumably female.  About 8% are babies, individual large cradle figures, on top of the babies carried by some "adult" plank figures. The multiple headed figures may represent married couples. In that case the 3 cripple-headed examples might be a man with two wives. Since, in Lapithos, where all but one of those with known provenance have been found they constitute 40% of the plank figures they might seem too common to be twins, which would be the other possibility. However, if there had been a cult of twins (which anthropologically have often been seen as magical) the total number is not great and the interpretation is reasonable.  It would also make sense of triple-headed examples.

Plank figures have been found equally in houses and tombs and many of those in tombs show signs of wear.   Consequently their primary function was probably primarily in the settlement (almost certainly in the home since cult houses have not been found except in one possible case). We can imagine them set up in the corner of mud-brick houses to be looked at and touched. They have wear marks on nose and head and edges. The bottom end is often degraded or broken off, and where it exists rarely has decoration (though mine has). From this it has been suggested they may have originally been stood vertically, lodged into the earth floor of house or tomb, though in the case of this example this would conceal the decorative lines at the bottom edge (which were somehow left out of the Karageorghis drawing of the back). Sometimes small plank figures appear on pots, standing in pairs facing each other, which seems to reinforce this view. In at least one case only one of these figures is plank shaped so might represent a couple, one of whom has died.

Many of those in tombs are worn or have been broken and mended which suggest they had been the possessions of those in the graves (though some seem to have been made especially to accompany them into the after life). They are especially associated with the bones of females and sometimes set up by the head. Often, but not in this case, they seem to have been deliberately broken across the middle to symbolically put them into the world of the dead. Modern restorers have repaired them.

Plank figures appear at the point that Cypriot people moved away from conjoined houses to separate ones and at the point that graves seem to be used by succeeding generations rather than cleared for new use. They particularly correlate with tombs which contain bronze objects, spindle whorls and comb figures and terracotta animals, so they may be an elite item. D Morris thought that comb figures (shaped like a large, house-painters brush) might be a version of the plank figure but this has not been the general view. They may depict carding combs, rather as other models are accepted to depict knives. They are smaller than plank figures and usually pierced at the top as pendants (occasionally depicted as such on figures, though they seem rather heavy for this).

There were plank figures made in various cultures, some far away, but there is probably no connection except possibly with Anatolian examples (though those look rather different). They follow on from the Neolithic stump figures and Chalcolithic cruciform figures which had been made of stone or pottery. The Chalcolithic figures were especially made of Picrolite, a soft blueish-green stone, and were particularly found in the graves of women and children. Except for small ones pierced as pendants they are all in a crouched, birthing position. Only fragmentary possible human figurines remain from the Philia period. In the Early Cypriot period animals or animal heads, particularly birds, bulls and stags, are found modelled on jugs and bowls. Possibly the bird was considered a spirit vehicle, though one writer has speculated that perhaps exposure of bodies to scavenging birds may have been practised. Other pots famously depict group scenes from daily life, but all these complex creations were less well fired and seem only to be made for tombs. They would have been impractical for use. After plank figures, figurines gradually acquired limbs and more realistic characteristics until they reached the two Late Bronze Age types (the Earring and Flathead figures - I own one of the latter) which remained unchanged for about 300 years.  

Late bronze Age figurines are much more naturalistic (and were probably intended to lie on their backs) and feel like they should have had a different spiritual function, though it is difficult to be certain if this was the case.  Most likely they represent the influence of foreign deities, especially the very similar (but slightly earlier) figurines from the Astarte cult of the Hittites.  Cypriot plank figures have a particular appeal to modern eyes, used to contemporary art.

 The right shoulder area had been completely restored a long time ago, including the small right arm, but unfortunately without restoring the right breast, which looked very odd .  I have since had the breast added on the restored part, without touching any of the original fabric (June 20180).  Has part of the left arm broken off?  It could originally have been more explicitly modelled. There are a few other minor restored patches and a mended break on the neck. The polished red-slip has been eroded over much of the front surface and the slip lost – a diagonal division between eroded and un-eroded on the front possibly indication of partial submersion under silt from flooding of the tomb.

[I am currently (02.2017-) writing a paper on Plank Figures. I have partially updated the above entry in line with this, though the now jumbled ordering of ideas needs revision.]

I now have 6 Red Polished Ware plank figures and one cradle-figure.

Size: 27.5cm High

((Ex collections of Mr. and Mrs. S. Matantos, and lent by them to exhibition 1968 (see below). Acquired by H. Wagner, Berlin, between 1992 and 2003. Published: F. Nicholson, Ancient Life in Miniature – An Exhibition of Classical Terracottas from Private Collections in England, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery 1968, Plate 10 no. 224. Also published: V. Karageorghis, The Coroplastic Art of Ancient Cyprus, Vol.I (1991), fig. 83, Bi2. p.82,83,94.)

(Aquired Aaron Gallery October 2015)