During my PhD viva, my attempt to explain the physiological basis of miniaturisation was greeted with some amusement, and referring to an episode of the popular comedy series in which Father Ted tries to explain scale to the hapless Dougal, it was suggested that I had suffered a similar brainstorm. I was asked to delete the section, which I did, but again, for fun rather than scientific accuracy, here is what I had written:

There are no miniatures in nature; the miniature is a cultural product, the product of an eye performing certain operations, manipulating, and attending in certain ways to, the physical world

(Stewart 1993, 55)

As Susan Stewart suggests, miniaturisation is a function of vision, though not entirely. It is after all possible to physically touch a miniature. Our facility to understand, to make sense of miniatures, however, is, I suggest, a result of the manner in which our eyes and our brains work together. The human eye “sees” the world in miniature. The lens of the human eye creates an inverted image on the concave photosensitive area of the retina, at most about 30mm across. Thus everything we perceive visually is a highly miniaturised version of reality. Even the vast expanses of the Milky Way are reduced to specks of light on a patch of retina approximately 10 mm by 10mm.

The 120 million rods and 6-7 million cones, stimulated by photons, transmit tiny “pictures” as signals to the brain, which by some almost unimaginably complex process of neurological engineering, processes these thumbnail-sized matrices of photo-stimulated electrical impulses, inverting the pair of projected images, swapping them over and converting them into a stereoscopic, three-dimensional representation of the world which we interpret and “see” as “full-sized”.

The 1mm high inverted mountain projected on the retina is “seen” as being many thousands of metres high. The person standing in front of us, captured by our eyes as a 2mm tall image on the retina, is perceived as being 1.5m tall in reality. This ability means that we are able to look at something small-scale and convert it, mentally, into its full-sized equivalent. Model railway enthusiasts lay their heads on the baseboard and “see” their OO scale models as the monsters they once were. Dolls house lovers peer into tiny rooms and place themselves within full-sized decor. People examine grainy images on 6 x 4 pieces of glossy paper and transform them mentally into not only the Grand Canyon, but also detailed memories of their visit.

It is therefore surely no surprise that humans are comfortable when confronted by small-scale two- or three-dimensional objects. It also follows that humans are adept at the paradoxical procedure of converting a miniature image to a full-sized one using the eye/brain combination tool, then back to a miniature one (brain/eye) and then back to a full-sized mental version (eye/brain). This explains the occurrence of miniaturised art as the first creative output of humans. The objects, people and animals depicted on caves and rocks and the first sculptures are usually depicted as reduced in scale. Of course this is partly practical (but it would have been possible to paint life-sized animals). And perhaps there were early life-sized or larger statues that have not survived. It could be argued that early humans didn’t understand that the small mammoths they saw were actually reduced in size by distance, but surely even they realised that these beasts did not expand the nearer they came, but always possessed impressive dimensions.

It appears that we can look at a miniature object and “see” it as full sized. We can even look at a miniaturised giant and interpret it as gigantic (using relative dimensions, data or cultural expectations). Goliath is rarely more than a few cm tall in book illustrations, yet we nevertheless perceive him as a giant. Plastic dinosaurs are similarly diminutive, but are still “seen” as gargantuan. If asked to draw a cat, we rarely sketch one full-size, even given a large sheet of paper. A two-year-old draws its first stick versions of its parents a few cm high, independent of paper (or wall) size. We are all natural miniaturists.

Archaeologist Matt Edgeworth mulls the challenges of investigating artefacts that are very large and the very small (Edgeworth 2010, 138). Edgeworth includes examples from the mega to the nano, but he fails to recognise that we experience all these examples in miniature – via the microscope, the telescope, the camera, the computer screen. We “see” them in miniature. We can’t touch a star, the light from which has taken millennia to reach us – what we see is the past, the tiny image on our retinas. We can’t touch a long-destroyed plaster of Paris miniature figurine, but we can see images of it, or we can see it interpreted by our “mind’s eye” using data from texts.


Edgeworth, Matt (2010) Beyond Human Proportions: Archaeology of the Mega and the Nano. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress, pp 138-149.

Stewart, Susan (1993) On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.



Following my PhD viva I was asked to delete the following piece of whimsy from my thesis. Having enjoyed writing it, I’m including it here, just for fun rather than scholarship.

[Miniaturisation] is present in many different cultures all over the world throughout time, and it seems that the miniaturisation of mundane objects is, in fact, a recurrent pattern of human behaviour 

(Pilz 2011, 16)

Perhaps…one day in the far distant past, a human felt safe enough, full enough of berries and seeds, warm or cool enough, peaceful enough, sexually-sated enough, to turn her or his attention to an activity that served no purpose in providing shelter, or food, or sexual satisfaction. Perhaps they allowed themselves the luxury of engaging in thinking, or exploring, or curiosity, or the extravagance of simply being bored. Perhaps they had already mastered the basic techniques of flint-knapping, or afternoon-napping, or weaving baskets, and were casting around for something else to do other than tattooing themselves, or knocking out teeth, and the afternoon hung heavy. And the clay beside the water hole felt smooth and squidgy as they idly squeezed it between their fingers, having playfully daubed it in zigzag patterns on their companions.

Perhaps…almost without thought, they moulded a handful of clay into a ball, into a sausage shape, into an egg shape, into the shape of a gourd, into the shape of a snake, a worm, a hippopotamus, into a…person…a person the size of a handful of mud, a person whose podgy shape was limited by the properties of sloppy clay. Perhaps they thought nothing further, the clay figure was abandoned, or squished, or something distracted them, or a child came along and, having quizzically observed the lump-person, trod on it. But perhaps the making of lump-people became fun, perhaps they were stood in rows beside the water hole, where they dried. Perhaps they were decorated with the same zigzag lines that scarred the skin of their sculptors. Perhaps they became baked in the camp fire. Perhaps they were given names, perhaps they were moulded into lump-animals, podgy versions of animals to be feared, to be hunted. Perhaps they became lump-spirits, solid representations of the strange things that whispered in the jungle, in the wind, in the night. Perhaps the sculptors, wielding a finger-tip, or a stick or a grass stem, discovered that they could poke expression into lump-faces – a couple of eyes, a mouth, creating things that were funny, or monstrous, or mysterious.

Perhaps…they smiled as they created miniature versions of themselves, of their worlds, of their thoughts and imaginings. Perhaps they squeezed clay into miniature caves or miniature huts, miniature villages. Clay lump-deities watched over them, and lump spirits could be made visible and, if desired, worshipped or exorcised. Perhaps they grinned as they accentuated body parts. Perhaps clay or wood or ivory versions of ancestors aided the remembering of loved ones, whose faces had soon faded. Perhaps they breathed “life” into these lumps of clay, or wood, or twisted grasses, or hammered stone, even though they knew that they were nothing more than natural materials grubbed out of the ground or torn from trees and bushes.

Perhaps…at the same time they drew on the sand, on the mud, scratched on stone, into wood, they communicated: “this way for the best berries;” “here be monsters;” “this is a hyena;” “here’s silly old grandma;” “this is the spirit I heard in the dark night;” “this is us walking to the river.” Perhaps they recorded important things – a vulva here, a phallus there, drawing and painting on the rocks, on the walls of the cave…people, animals, events…each doodle a small-scale representation of something, real or imagined. Perhaps some individuals were especially good at creating meaningful lumps of human-looking clay, and others traded baskets of fruit or the occasional dried lizard for a representation to place in a niche to scare away evil spirits, or remind them of a dead relative, or tell a story…

The oldest miniatures

Early in their development, humans demonstrated that they could assign meaning to objects, many of which they had picked up, chosen, or altered: cave and rock paintings, whittled wood or ivory and dried or baked lumps of shaped clay. There are few examples that represent originals 1:1. The oldest works of “art” are, it seems, miniatures.

Once they had solved the challenges of day-to-day survival, it seems that humans soon took advantage of their abilities to act as a sort of reverse telescope. They began to create smaller-than-life two-dimensional representations on cave walls and rock faces of the world around them, especially its inhabitants, and three-dimensional scaled-down representations using stone, umps of clay or altered wood and ivory. The controversial Tan-Tan (c 400,000 BP) (Bednarik 2003) and Berekhat Ram (c 230,000 BP) (d’Errico and Nowell 2001) figurines – both possible miniature representations of the human form carved from stone – are candidates for the earliest known pieces of figurative art, though both might be the result of natural weathering. But at least 40,000 years ago, humans were stencilling their own full-sized limbs on the walls of caves. A Griffith University team led by archaeologist Maxime Aubert reported in Nature that cave paintings in Sulawesi, Indonesia were at least 39,900 years old. A painting of a barbirusa (pig deer) was estimated to be at least 35,400 years old (Aubert et al 2014, 223). These particular images are not reduced in scale, but other paintings show both humans and animals as miniatures. They also painted smaller-than-life animals and other humans.

An exceptional survival is the group of miniature figures, dated to about 35,000 years before present, that were discovered in the Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geißenklösterle and Hohle Fels caves in the Lone Valley, Ulm, Germany. Along with the so-called Der Löwenmensch or “The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel”, a number of miniature animals and a single, 6cm-tall, “human” figure, the Venus of Schelklingen (Conard 2009), all carved in mammoth ivory and claimed to be “the oldest collection of portable art objects” (Ulm Museum).

The oldest known “ceramic” figurine of a miniature human was made from loess mixed with a little clay: the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech: Věstonická Venuše) is a ceramic statuette of a nude female figure dated to 29,000–25,000 BCE (Gravettian industry) that was found at a Paleolithic site in the Moravian basin south of Brno (Vandiver et al 1989). These miniatures are simply creations that have survived. It is likely that there were many other figurines made of less resistant materials.

Later, in the Neolithic, the subjects of miniatures included representations of buildings and villages, as well as animals and humans. By the time that Greeks and Romans were creating large numbers of figurines and other miniatures it is apparent that they played roles in almost every aspect of life from birth to death, such as religion, play, humour, status, sexuality, symbolism, identity and power, roles that have been added to and still exist but have been little studied.

Our knowledge of prehistoric “art” is based mostly on cave paintings, or on other two-dimensional representational images. Cave paintings have survived because they tend to be preserved in dark, stable atmospheres. Their presence in the mysterious, eerie, difficult to reach depths of caves has also encouraged archaeologists to interpret most prehistoric images as somehow associated with ritual, religion shamanism and the like. Had the same images been found in domestic settings, in the prehistoric equivalent of the parlour for instance, they might not have attracted such complex, imaginative interpretations. The absence of representations of human figures in cave images has also been noted. On the other hand, most early three-dimensional images are of humanoid beings, however distorted. Just because few cave images are of aunt Mabel doesn’t rule out the likelihood of other contemporary media including more humdrum originals. That we might still be able to empathise with miniatures from the distant past is suggested by the fact that it is possible to purchase reproductions of the Hohle Fels figurine for €39.00 from a German company (Top Geo GmbH markets a range of 95 prehistoric “Venus” figures).


Aubert, M. et al (2014) Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature 514, pp 223-227.

Bednarik, Robert G. (2003) A Figurine from the African Acheulian. Current Anthropology 44(3) pp 405-413.

Conard, Nicholas J. (2009) A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany. Nature 459, pp 248-252.

D’Errico, Francesco and Nowell, April (2001) A New Look at the Berekhat Ram Figurine: Implications for the Origins of Symbolism. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10 (1) pp 123-167.

Pilz, Oliver (2009) The Semantics of Greek Miniature Objects. Conference (The Gods of Small Things) abstract. [Online] [Accessed 31st July 2016]

Vandiver, P.B., Soffer, O., Klima, B. and Svoboda, J. (1989) The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia. Science 246, pp. 1002-1008.

Standing on a fringed stool, the girl wears a check skirt, dark blue blouse and a red sash. On her head, a tilted cockade hat. She has button eyes. She holds out food to a parrot that is perched on a clock face surrounded by grapes and vine leaves. A slightly deranged-looking Staffordshire dog rolls its eyes in the foreground. The time is forever 11:17.



Figure of girl with clock face, parrot and Staffordshire dog

I pounced on this “flatback” figure in a Devon charity shop. It is not a thing of outstanding beauty. The under-glaze painting is crude, the girl’s nose is slightly damaged, and the whole thing might be what one antique shop I noticed calls “faux-Staffordshire.”


The figure, however, speaks to me of several relevancies to my research, in which I explore the meanings of both parrots and Staffordshire dogs . The grapes tell of a wish for the exotic. The non-clock speaks of poverty, the desire for a real timepiece assuaged by the purchase of a cheap ornament that possesses the idea of a clock. The whole object also reminds me of how colourful nineteenth-century mantelpieces would have been.



In the late summer of 2015 I spent a pleasurable couple of hours in Ghent’s MIAT museum of industry and technology. On my way back into the city centre I passed an antiques centre, doing desultory business on a warm and sleepy Sunday afternoon. In a display of vintage railway rolling stock I noticed a single wagon that I could afford to buy – an O gauge (1:45) tipper wagon manufactured by Marklin in Germany before 1946. I handed over €15 and carried on, triumphant.

The wagon is a relatively crude representation of its original. It is made from tinplate, held together by tabs fitted through slots and bent over. The body of the wagon is held upright by a simple U-shaped double-ended rod that if moved from its upright position allows the body to tip sideways, dumping its load (presumably into some form of hopper). The wagon’s scarred paintwork shows evidence of a fair degree of use. Beneath the truck’s body is a label in several languages indicating where it should be oiled.

The wagon is firstly a personal souvenir of Ghent, something that will trigger memories of my visit. It also has a number of other meanings for me, as its collector. It will join a small number of other railway artefacts on display in my study, including a much smaller tipper wagon in HO9 scale (1:87). This collection is evidence of a continuing interest in miniature railways and of a so far frustrated dream of constructing a model railway of my own. As a tinplate railway artefact it also reminds me of the long-lost Hornby O gauge clockwork railway my brothers and I would construct around the floor of our bedroom, the track winding amongst the legs of our beds.

The wagon, despite being of a reasonable size, is hugely simplified. This reflects the limits of affordable technologies at the time of its design and manufacture. A present-day example would use plastic  or metal casting techniques allowing much more accurate detailing. These are, in their turn, being replaced and refined by 3D printing technologies that will eventually no doubt become so commonplace that they will allow low-cost replication of almost any original. Yet the relatively crude Marklin wagon still has its attractions.

Despite its simplicity, when it was created the wagon would have satisfied the demands of its target purchaser. It was robust enough to be handled roughly and used on track that was usually located on the floor. It had a semi-automated action (a trackside trigger would strike the lever to operate the tipping action). Clockwork trains had limited controls, so derailments, both accidental and deliberate, were frequent, so rolling stock had to be robust. And perhaps for reasons, some of which might be similar to my own, these inaccurate, battered objects are still loved, and enthusiastically and sometimes obsessively collected.

In 2011, not long after I gained my MA, I received an email from one of my ex-lecturers. He was putting together a book on nineteenth century material culture in  Britain and one of his authors had dropped out because of a family tragedy. Could I write something in six weeks? I bashed out something resembling a chapter, and by the fifth draft had met his deadline. One reviewer was a bit sniffy, which was a somewhat depressing experience for a novice like me, but after adding a little more evidential stuff my contribution passed muster. I sorted illustrations and permissions, and sat back to await publication. And waited. And waited.

Yesterday a copy thumped through my letter box.

Of course, since writing that chapter I’ve gone on to continue my research, and my thinking has expanded and evolved over the four years. So it is slightly uncomfortable to read what I wrote in 2011. I wasn’t wrong, but now I could add many new discoveries, new nuances, new experiences and new questions. Perhaps this feeling is familiar to established researchers and academics, and I guess what I publish next year (at least in hard-copy print) will also be almost immediately out of date. And perhaps I am over-accustomed to this digital sharing of thoughts, in which I can suggest something one day and change my mind the next. Hmm. And it makes me think of all the articles, papers and chapters I’ve cited and wonder if some of those authors have changed their thinking over subsequent years and, in some cases, decades. Interesting…


In 1853, Queen Victoria bought three objects from an “Italian Boy”. I wonder if they arrested in the Royal Collection, probably in some dusty store room?

Morning Post 21-07-1853 p3

Research is usually great fun. I am simply an ultra-curious detective, poking about all sorts of messy evidence until I stumble across something that I can add to my store of narratives, rather like a jackdaw pouncing on something shiny to weave into its nest. But occasionally i come across something that I desperately want to identify but can’t, and here’s an example.

In 1939, C Gardel wrote an article in the French journal Folklore, in which he described the cries of street traders of Bize during the nineteenth century. Here’s what he wrote about the “sellers of  beautiful saints”:

Le marchand de statuettes de Saints de plâtre, vêtu d’une longue blouse blanche, étalait ses modèles sur un éventaire à rebords bien équilibré sur sa tête. Le petit Saint-Jean, la Vierge, la Sainte-Famile, etc., s’alignaient à côté des tirelires «dinhèirolos» à couleurs vives : tomates, pommes, etc.et des jouets naïfs:canaris, petits lapins blancs à collier pointillé de rouge, dans lequel balançait la tête.

“Santi belli, belli !” annonçait sa voix trainante, et, en un clin d’oeil, un essaim de jeunes mamans, bébé sur le bras, s’empressait autour du modeleur italien. Et ce n’étaient que cris de joie et petits bras tendus vers ces fragiles merveilles, jouets d’un jour, dont les mamans, aïeules aujourd’hui, n’ont pas perdu le souvenir.

I’ve managed to apply my schoolboy French combined with Google Translate and have made sense of all of this except for the word dinhèirolos, which has so far defeated the entire Internet! That doesn’t happen very often these days. Was it cod-Italian? Bad Portuguese? I’m horribly frustrated, not knowing what these brightly-coloured objects were! Some sort of piggy-bank? Grrr!