Terracotta Figurine from Seleucia

Terracotta figurine from Seleucia

Puppetlike figurine, terracotta, early Parthian period (ca. AD 69-120), body 5.8 cm high

This terracotta figurine was excavated at the site of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, in the southern region of modern-day Iraq. Seleucia was founded as a royal capital during the Hellenistic period, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, and continued to be an important city with a multicultural population for several hundred years.

Several thousand miniatures found at the site of Seleucia yield intriguing glimpses into the lives of the people who lived there. This figure is similar to a modern puppet and may have been a child’s toy. As with many puppets today, the legs can be moved by pulling on a string. In this case, two strings are necessary: one connecting the legs to the back of the figure’s clothing (to hold the legs at the appropriate height) and one threaded down through the head to loop around the bottom string, then pass upward through the hole in the top of the head. It is this second string that can be pulled to make the legs dance. Please view the animation here for a visual tour of how these figurines were assembled and used.

Animation by Colleen Murphy and Kevin Kately

Puppetlike figurines from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris usually depict a performer who is playing a musical instrument while the owner manipulates its dancing action. These figurines probably imitated real-life entertainers. By collaborating with the figurine to create a performance, owners could pretend that they were on stage receiving applause—or perhaps even entertain a real audience.

This figurine and the animation of its movement are currently on view as part of the special exhibition "Life in Miniature: Identity and Display at Ancient Seleucia-on-the-Tigris" until April 27, 2014, in the Meader Gallery.

—Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper