An Ancient Figurine's Unknown History

Image of the Week: This second-century B.C. statue raises more questions about race in ancient Greece than it answers.

Statuette in imitation of the Spinario. Priene, 2nd century B.C.
Terra-cotta. Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Antikenabteilung.

(The Root) -- This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

A perfectly matched intimacy of scale and subject resides in this remarkable image from the ancient past. A young black man sits on a low mound, looking down with puffed cheeks as he extracts a thorn from his foot. He is dressed simply in a cap and a short cloak pinned at the shoulder with a gem. Some of the original skin color remains on the youth's face, and the cloak crossing his chest bears slight traces of yellow stripes.

Less than 7 inches high, the figurine preserves the subtlety of a larger, lost original of the third century B.C. The type is known as the Spinario, or "thorn puller." The terra-cotta version shown here dates from circa 135 B.C., a good deal later than the original but still much earlier than other surviving copies. The engaging candor of self-absorbed, fleeting everyday activity typifies the Hellenistic culture of the last few centuries before the common era.

The statuette was found amid the rubble of a house in the Greek city of Priene, situated in Ionia, now the western coast of Turkey. From such contexts have come other small-scale works with images of black people, very often utilitarian in nature, such as lamps and incense shovels. This work, however, was made purely for contemplation, perhaps as a table piece placed among figures of similar size and subject matter.

The figure was cast from several molds, assembled, fired and then painted. Since it was mold-made, a large number of casts may once have existed, giving this remarkable image a far wider currency than a "one-off" would have allowed.

The most tantalizing question concerns the relationship of this work with its prototype. Ancient copyists commonly produced free variations on an original instead of making exact replicas, often significantly altering its features for any number of reasons. All other known examples of the Spinario do not have black features, their makers instead producing images consistent with the ideal Greek figural type. We can only guess at the effect that this terra-cotta version of the original was intended to produce.

Since the piece's discovery more than a century ago, modern critics have run the interpretive gamut from the comical or satirical, in the way of a spoof on the original, to its consideration by the eminent scholar of Greek art R.A. Higgins as a "creation of unusual charm ... transformed into a human document, a sympathetic study of a racial type."

Frank Snowden, in his notable study Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks, called into question the existence in ancient times of racism as it is understood today, thus leaving ample room for feeling that the original reception of this piece was not at all pejorative but instead on the whole accepting and positive. This small figure, for so long lost among the rubble of the past, can teach us the virtue of a more open response to "the other." This insight, after all, may be the most important lesson we can glean from our ancient heritage.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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