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The Social Lives of Figurines: Recontextualizing the Third-Millennium-BC Terracotta Figurines from Harappa

Sharri Clark
Bibliographical reference

Sharri Clark, The Social Lives of Figurines: Recontextualizing the Third-Millennium-BC Terracotta Figurines from Harappa362 pages, 789 color illustrations, 10 line illustrations, 3 maps, 13 tables, CD ROM. Papers of the Peabody Museum 86. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press, 2017


This book is a critical examination of representations of the body in the Indus civilization, focusing on the anthropomorphic terracotta figurines from Harappa and using more flexible notions of sex, gender, and sexuality to explore Indus conceptions of sexual difference as it relates to other aspects of social difference and identity.

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1After more than eighty years of international research on the Bronze Age Indus civilization (ca. 2600–1900 B.C.E), this geographically extensive ancient society remains deeply enigmatic. With no known monumental art or deciphered texts, the largest category of representational art recovered from many Indus sites is terracotta figurines. In this detailed research, archaeologist Sharri R. Clark examines and recontextualizes a rich and diverse corpus of hundreds of figurines from the urban site of Harappa (ca. 3300–1700 B.C.E) to reveal new information about Indus ideology and society.

2The figurines are one of the richest sources of information regarding Indus ideology and society. Unfortunately, the figurines often have been considered selectively without evaluating their archaeological or socio-cultural contexts, resulting in biased interpretations that ignore the richness and diversity of the figurine corpus.

3The hand-modeled figurines – including anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, fantastic creatures such as unicorns, and special forms with wheels or movable parts – served as a medium of communication and exchange that reflects underlying structures of Indus society and cultural change. The author focuses on the figurines as artifacts whose “social lives” can be at least partially reconstructed through systematic analysis of stylistic and technological attributes and spatial and temporal contexts.

4This research adds significantly to our understanding of Harappa figurines and dispels some long-standing misconceptions. This research provides the first (provisional) chronological typology for an entire corpus of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and special forms figurines from any Indus site. In addition, it provides insights into Indus society, including an interpretation of ancient Indus concepts of sex and gender based on a large corpus of figurines that indicates a dynamic and probably fluid view of sex, gender, and sexuality. The research suggests that there was a rich religious ideology that probably focused on transformation and sympathetic magic and possibly even shamanism, rather than on a single Mother Goddess, a long-standing myth. Manufacturing choices, including modeling from vertical halves and targeting bone pigments, rather than readily available mineral pigments, also suggest ideological significance. Finally, this study also focuses on the large variety of figurines rather than selected, more complete, and often female, figurines, and provides insights into the Indus “veneer” and changes in material culture over time.

5Comparisons with ethnographic data, historic texts, and contemporaneous ancient societies enrich and inform the groundbreaking interpretations. Lavishly illustrated, the volume contains appendices, including the first chronological typology of Indus figurines, on disk.

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Electronic reference

Sharri Clark, The Social Lives of Figurines: Recontextualizing the Third-Millennium-BC Terracotta Figurines from HarappaLes Carnets de l’ACoSt [Online], 16 | 2017, Online since 01 June 2017, connection on 02 October 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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