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.