Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves:
The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar

What is it about? 

2600 years ago Tell Ahmar was a bustling commercial city on the Euphrates River. A glorious royal residence, reminiscent of the magnificence of the Assur palaces, was built on the remains of thousands of years of prior occupation; King Shalmaneser III’s home away from home when visiting the outlying provinces of his great empire.

In the middle city, merchants created small-scale enterprises, selling their products as far away as the capital Assur.  One businessman, possibly named Hanni, may have had such a workshop, where archaeological excavations have recovered a number of baked clay figurines, human and animal…

Comprising standing figurines, horses and horse rider figurines, this never-before published collection of clay images is unique to the Upper Euphrates River Valley in North Syria.

Dr Victoria Clayton spent five years on three continents researching the meaning behind the 2500 year old baked-clay figurines from the Neo-Assyrian site of Tell Ahmar.

“There's a wealth of information here that is truly intriguing. It lights up the imagination of an almost lost people(s) history, and provides insights into the “common” man/woman, which is something not often found with historical/archaeological texts. It kept me interested all the way through and while I was familiar with a lot of the areas/people(s) of the time, there were many details I was unfamiliar with and was pleased to learn.” Amanda J Spedding

Fertility goddesses, the great goddess, the earth mother goddess... In Near Eastern archaeology there is a pervasive connection between human figurines and religious beliefs or magical ritual. Is this justified?

Some ancient figurines were certainly used for magical or religious purposes. This is known from texts. But how are figurines found without the benefit of texts to be interpreted?

  • What other questions can archaeologists ask about human figurines?
  • What ideas can be used to interpret human figurines?
  • Are there richer, more fascinating stories to be discovered about the makers of figurines?

Dr Victoria Clayton investigates the 2600 year old figurines from Tell Ahmar, North Syria - standing female figurines, horses and horse rider figurines – and poses questions of the figurine-makers' identity, intention and impact of these small images on their lives.

Figurines are fascinating!

Ancient figurines grab our attention like no other type of archaeological artefact.


Because they offer an insight into the thought-processes which led to the creation of that figurine. If archaeologists ask the figurine the right questions, we might be able to learn something of the world-view of the person who made it.

That’s what’s so exciting about studying figurines.

They give us a direct insight into how people thought in the ancient past because figurines are, above all, symbolic. They represent the thinking behind their manufacture.

Inside Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar:

  • The shape and style of the figurines and how archaeologists can use form to interpret figurines;
  • The archaeological context of the figurines; their find spots within the excavation and associated objects;
  • The historical, social and cultural context in which the figurines were made and used;
  • The controversial fertility cult in figurine studies
  • How archaeologists may better understand figurines by focussing on who made them and why
  • Use of gender, post-colonial and social theory to interpret the figurines by those who made them and those who would have seen them.
  • Victoria Clayton believes strongly that researchers should share their findings with a general readership and that is exactly what she has done with her doctoral research. Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves is the result of reworking her thesis to make the results accessible to people who have always had a fascination with the ancient past.

    …at no time did the narrative come across as sounding patronising. Anyone even a little familiar with archaeology understands the difficulty in precise answers to questions thrown up by found artefacts – it's that intrigue that keeps the reader reading. Amanda J Spedding

    Divided into 24 chapters, Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar describes the story of Victoria Clayton’s research into the baked clay figurines and especially there makers. The chapters are not long; they are presented as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that is figurine interpretation. They can be comfortably read in one sitting and give you time to digest the information before offering another piece of the puzzle.

    Victoria takes you on a journey of discovering into the meaning of the figurines. She leads you through her research process so you can see how her ideas develop and reach their brilliant conclusion.

    Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar includes many figures, including sketches, plans and photos which bring the Tell Ahmar excavation to life and provide sound material evidence for Victoria’s theory.

    The photos, maps and illustrations work decidedly well to create a fuller picture of life and times, and provides an atmospheric meld between narrative and visual stimuli. Amanda J Spedding.

    Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar is a riveting tale of life 2600 years ago. The characters - Hanni the businessman with Assyrian connections, Nannaya the slave, Neo-Assyrian soldiers – and their interactions in the city of Shalmaneser.

    Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar, is the result of 5 years of doctoral research into the meaning of figurines from the site of Tell Ahmar, located on the Euphrates River, North Syria. Resistance, power and the assertion of self are the themes of this journey back 2600 years to the world of the figurine makers, who are living in the household of a wealthy businessman during the period of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Their identities are revealed through a process of careful detective work. Based on solid research using post-colonial and gender theory but written for a general reading audience of archaeology enthusiasts, Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar, aims to demonstrate that archaeology can give voice to those who are not always heard.

    The conclusions are a rich and fascinating insight into power and resistance under the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the affirmation of self within slavery, mimicry and mockery in the post-colonial context and the riotous carnival of a world-turned-upside-down.