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A ‘Tanagra’ figurine of a woman in a sunhat  (GR.64.1937), photographed when it was in  the collection of Charles Ricketts and Charles  Shannon in the early 20th century. Photo: The Fitzwilliam Museum Archives. © The Fitzwilliam Museum

 

The name ‘Tanagra’ has come to be synonymous with one of the commonest types of Greek terracotta, the elegant draped, female figures produced in vast quantities throughout the ancient Greek world between about 300 and 50 BC. But Tanagra is also the name of the ancient city where many of them were made and found. The site lies about 20 km east of Thebes and 5 km south of the modern town of Schimatari in central Greece.

The city of Tanagra was never a place of great political importance, nor likely to have been in the forefront of artistic innovation. But its people were reasonably prosperous at most periods, and its potters and figurine makers had access to excellent supplies of clay. The ‘clayey’ appearance of the city was remarked on in antiquity: as the traveller and writer Herakleides observed around 250 BC:

The city ... has a white argillaceous [clayey] appearance. The houses are handsomely adorned with porticoes and encaustic paintings...

In the 1870s many thousands of terracotta figurines came to light through the illicit looting of the cemeteries of Tanagra: between 8,000 and 10,000 graves are believed to have been found and emptied of their contents. The figurines were the looters’ prime interest, and found a ready market in the museums and private collections of Europe and America. When the supply of genuine articles became exhausted, talented forgers took over production. As they frequently used moulds taken from genuine figures, and local clay, or combined modern heads with ancient bodies, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish true from false.

The so-called ‘Tanagras’ were actually the latest products in a long tradition of figurine-making at Tanagra. In the archaic period of around 650-500 BC, characteristic products included flat, plank-like goddesses, some with high polos head-dresses, and lively, zebra-striped horses standing on four stiffly splayed legs. The typical ‘Tanagras’ of the later, Hellenistic period are mainly women, sometimes seated but more usually standing. They wear intricately folded and tightly stretched garments, and sometimes high, conical sun-hats with broad brims; often they carry fans. They stand in an apparently infinite variety of poses and their dress is similarly varied. The figures were made in two-part moulds for the back and front of the body, with the heads made separately and inserted on long tangs. After firing they were coated in a white slip and then painted in a variety of colours using mineral and vegetable pigments, which often survive only very faintly, if at all.

The origin of the ‘Tanagra’ type has been much debated. Although thousands of them were certainly made at Tanagra itself, most scholars believe that they were first made at Athens. From there the idea spread first to Tanagra, and from there, via exports of both figurines and moulds, throughout the ancient Greek world.

Further reading

R.A. Higgins, Tanagra and the Figurines(Princeton, 1987).