Mapungubwe Clay Figurines: Prehistoric Miniature Sculpture

The Mapungubwe Collection of 13th century archaeological figurines from Africa - Curated by Sian L Tiley-Nel

By University of Pretoria Museums

"Clay figurines represent ideas. Clay figurines, of course, have physical dimensions, as they are tangible objects created through shaping, carving, or other manipulations to create some identifable meaningful form" Naranjo-Morse 1992

Archaeological clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Narratives in Clay

The Mapungubwe figurine collection originates from the archaeology of a world heritage site. Unearthed by archaeologists in the 1930s, they are  more than stylistic narratives or representations. Instead, they are images of identity miniaturised in clay by human construction.

Both ancient and modern clay figurines are miniaturised three-dimensional small sculptures or representations of humans, animals and sometimes unknown forms. They are also primarily a form of prehistoric art to express social, symbolic and other ideas, depicting both indigenous technology and cultural significance. This online exhibition showcases the extraordinary clay figurine assemblage from the Mapungubwe Collection dating CE 1030 to CE 1290 publicly exhibited by the University of Pretoria.

Archaeological clay figurine (1260/1295) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Abstractions of Art

There are over 300 complete, incomplete and partially stylised naturalistic human and animal clay figurines within the Mapungubwe Collection. Realistic portrayals or not, each mini work is a sculpture produced by a past artist and provides a glimpse into past societies.

Archaeological clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Multiple Meanings

Clay figurines are constructed by hand from raw clay, moulded, shaped and formed by an idea into a tactile object. Such ideas carry social meaning and beliefs. Figurines are formed to hold multiple meanings or several puposes, reflecting a shared visual of human and animals forms.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Clay as Social Meaning

Prehistoric figurines are sculptured then sometimes decorated within incisions, lines, punctates and perforations. Artisans select, make, shape, and visualise their ideas in clay. They use, symbolise, ritualise, and create figurines for social meaning - clay is not just material.

Archaeological clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Past Becomes Present

Over time, the meaning of figurines changes. Once used in a household or within a community, they are eventually discarded, buried, break, and deteriorate. Once excavated, they acquire new meaning and are for research then described, catagorised, analysed, and interpreted.

Archaeological animal clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

The Animal Clay Figurines

Clay was shaped to represent domestic and wild animals as physical and abstract forms. The clay figurines were an embodiment of both human nature's preference for animals within their immediate environment and their place in the natural world.

Archaeological clay animal figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Animating Animals

The clay animal figurines in the Mapungubwe Collection are mostly depictions of domestic animals such as cattle, cows, goats and sheep. Wild animals are rare, with the expection of a clay figurine of a giraffe and a springhare.

Archaeological animal clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Horned Cattle Figurine

Short horned cattle figurine (73mm x 46.09mm) from site known as K2, test trench 3, square A2. Low-fired clay dating from CE 1030 - CE 1220. Distinguished by small thoracic hump, of the indigensous Sanga cattle. Part of Mapungubwe declared National Heritage Collection # N311.

Archaeological clay animal figurine (1220/1290) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Humped Cattle Figurine

A blackend clay humped cattle figurine (48.05mm x 32.17mm) from Mapungubwe Hill CE 1220. Roughly hand formed with a high, small cervicothoracic hump, with a high convex poll between the horns and short-forward curved horns. Characteristic of African indigenous Bos taurus cattle.

Archaeological animal clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Cattle Figurine

A small cattle figurine (53.63mm x 26. 70mm) with horns now broken away and a stumpy tail. Excavated from the site of K2, block A2, section 2 dating approximately from CE 1030 to CE 1220 and produced from low fired clay. Part of Mapungubwe National Heritage Collection #N308.

Archaeological clay animal figurine (1220/1290) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Domestic Sheep Figurine

Domestic ewe or female sheep (Ovis aries) figurine (58.01mm x 25.35mm) with visible dewlap and distinct udder beneath belly. Excavated from Mapungubwe Hill in the 1930s from block 6, section 1, dating CE 1220 to CE 1290 and produced from low-fired clay.

Archaeological animal clay figurine (1220/1290) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Domestic Goat Figurine

A small ( 30.40mm x 20.15mm) domestic goat, Capra hircus clay figurine excavated from Mapungubwe Hill, block 5, section 5. Formed from low-fired clay and dating to CE 1220 to CE 1290. Part of Mapungubwe National Heritage Collection #N317.

Archaeological clay figurine of giraffe (1220/1290) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Giraffe Figurine

A giraffe clay figurine excavated from the southern Terrace or base of Mapungubwe Hill, block 8, section 6. From low-fired clay, the neck is formed very elongated, with finger prints evident in the clay and a curled tail which shows a giraffe in a running posture  CE 1220-1250.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

The Human Clay Figurines

The human figurines depict both the male and female figure. There is a presence of breasts, navals, buttocks as well as stumpy arms, stubby legs, with facial features almost non-existent. The human torso is also frequently decorated, appreciating the beauty of the human body.

Archival illustration of clay figurines I (1941) by John SchofieldOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Beautifying the Body

The human figurines in the Mapungubwe Collection represent the artist's social and religious beliefs, their cultural values and technological skills. They suggest societal views of gender and identity, and most of all symbolises the past beautification of the human body.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Decorated Human Clay Figurine

Fragment of decorated human torso (47.89mm x 29.97mm) with punctates running down to legs. No navel present, but pronounded buttocks. K2, block 5, section 14, produced by hand into low-fired clay dating CE 1030- CE 1220. Mapungubwe National Heritage Collection #N302.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Decorated Human Figurine

An elongated torso of human clay figurine (66.50mm x 28.44mm), decoarted with punctates/ dot patterns down and around protruding navel. K2, test trench 3, block 2 layer 20, made from low-fired clay dating CE 1030 to CE 1220.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1220/1290) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Decorated Stylised Human Figurine

Decorated clay figurine fragment of possible female torso with horizontal lines around a pronounced navel. Excavated from Mapungubwe Hill, block 5, section 1, produced by hand from low-fired clay. Dating CE 1220 - CE 1290. Mapungubwe Declared National Heritage Collection # N303.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Decorated Human Figurine Fragment

Fragment of decorated human torso (77.48mm x 32.98mm) with perforations on the torso from K2, block 4, section 4, produced by hand from low-fired clay dating CE 1030 to CE 1220. Mapungubwe National Heritage Collection #N298.

Archaeological clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Small Human Figurine

Very small human figurine with two legs and a perforation below a rounded head (148mm x 63mm) from K2,test trench 3, block A2, layer 2. Produced by hand, from low-fired clay dating CE 1030 - CE 1220.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Partial Human Figurine

Partial human figurine depicting two stumpy arms and protrusions as breasts, with decoration above the navel (103.62mm x 38.90mm) from K2, block 1, section 13, produced by hand, from low-fired clay dating CE 1030 - CE 1220. Mapungubwe National Heritage Collection #N295.

The Mapungubwe Collection also holds some truly unique clay figurines depicting complex details of the human form. There is only one male figurine depicted with genitalia. There is also an exceptional anthrozoomorphic figurine with embedded blue trade glass beads for eyes. Another unique female figure, nicknamed Venus Afrique du Sud or Venus of southern Africa. Many of these figurines have not been interpreted, nor scientifically analysed and may hold valuable new research knowledge.

Close-up detail of anthro-zoomorphic clay figurine (1030/1220) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Some Remarkable Figurines

The Mapungubwe Collection also holds some truly unique clay figurines depicting complex details and decorated forms. These 13th century African clay figurines originate mostly from K2 and much lower quantities were from Mapungubwe Hill, where 18 clay figurines were unearthed.

Archaeological human clay figurine, Unknown Maker, 1030/1220, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Archival illustration of clay figurines III, John Schofield, 1941, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Human clay figurine with conical head and elongated body. K2, block 4, section 13. Low-fired clay, CE 1030 - CE 1220. Mapungubwe National Heritage Collection # N294. The cylindrical clay figurines are partial with protrusions form arms, a navel and extended buttocks and a partial leg, It remains unknown if there are symbolic or ritual items, yet probably do hold cultural and societal significance. 

Archaeological clay figurine, Unknown Maker, 1030/1220, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Archival illustration of clay figurines IV, John Schofield, 1941, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Anthrozoomorphic clay figurine. This very rare K2 clay figurine both anthro and zoomorphic is an exception clay figurine specimen. Excavated from K2, block 1, section 13 made from low-fired clay and dates from CE 1030 to 1220. Symbolically it has a human body with two turquoise trade glass beads for eyes, pinched clay depicting ears, and a visible snout. Interpreted by archaeologists as possibly hippopotamus or crocodile, yet also the lower torso represents a broken portion of a stylised human.

Archaeological human clay figurine, Unknown Maker, 1030/1220, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Archival illustration of clay figurines I, John Schofield, 1941, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Male clay figurine of lower torso depicting genitalia. Excavated from K2, block 1, section 3 and made from-low-fired clay, dating CE 1030 - CE 1220. This is the only clay figurine in the Mapungubwe Collection depicting the male gender. A majority of the human form clay figurines have been mainly excavated from K2, and only a few from the later site of Mapungubwe Hill.

Archaeological human clay figurine (1220/1290) by Unknown MakerOriginal Source: University of Pretoria Museums

Mapungubwe Human Figurine

This large human clay figurine (47.70mm x 63.32mm) is the only one recovered from Mapungubwe Hill block 1 section 3. It is the only figurine that depicts facial features such as eyes and a mouth represented by three impressed dots. The figure dates from CE 1220 - CE 1290.

Archaeological clay human figurine, Unknown Maker, 1030/1220, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Archaeological human clay figurine back view, Unknown Maker, 1030/1220, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Archaeological human clay figurine front view, Unknown Maker, 1030/1220, Original Source: University of Pretoria Museums
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Venus Afrique du Sud - the Venus of southern Africa. This is the largest example of a human female clay figurine in the Mapungubwe Collection. The broad cylindrical torso features impressed dotted decoration around the navel, leading onto the waist and abdomen. The figurine also has dots down the centre of the spine leading down onto the steatopygous or pronounced buttocks. Female form from K2, block 3, layer 8. Hand-formed by raw clay and then low-fired dating CE 1030 to CE 1220.

Credits: Story

The following persons are acknowledged for their invaluable contributions towards the research, conservation and public display of the Mapungubwe clay figurine assemblage over many years: Julia Greiner (Conservator) and Adri Humphreys (Archaeologist & Researcher). Primary sketches courtesy and copyright of the Mapungubwe Archive, all images copyright to the University of Pretoria. Research content and curated online exhibition by Dr S L Tiley-Nel, Curator of the Mapungubwe Collection, University of Pretoria.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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