Terracotta goddess busts with corymbs from Olbia Pontica of the Hellenistic period





Olbia Pontica, terracotta bust, Demeter, Ariadne, Dionysus, typology, iconographic type, thymiaterion, votive, pseudo-thymiaterion, aroma bowl, Hellenism


Four terracotta busts of a woman with unique attributes were unearthed in Olbia during excavations of 1936 and 1959. The attributes include a cone-shaped bowl on the head, corymbs in the hair, a taenia on the forehead and floral décor. For a long time, scholars considered the woman a personification of goddess Demeter. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Danish scholar Pia Guldager Bilde was the first to change this attribution to Ariadne, Dionysus’ wife, based on five small fragments of similar busts found during N. O. Leipunskaia’s excavations in the sector of the «Lower town: North» (NGS) in Olbia. Following other scholars, she also identified them as thymiateria – utensils for incense burning in bowls. Despite the absence of other characteristic elements and traces of soot, they were named “Ariadne thymiateria”. Later, T. M. Shevchenko published seven more fragments of similar busts, which in her recent publications were identified as thymiateria depicting one of the participants of the Dionysiac thyasos: a nymph, Ariadne, Semela and others, or even young Dionysus himself. Such contradictory interpretations of the above terracottas led to their comprehensive analysis.

The first of two planned articles on this topic develops a typology of this group of terracotta busts, which distinguishes between three iconographic types. The first and the third type include one item each. The second iconographic type is the most numerous and has two variants. Variant A comprises eleven items from Olbia excavations from different years, including four fully restored terracotta busts with the abovementioned iconographic attributes. The hypothetical subvariant Aa is the head of a similar bust from the excavations of Scythian Neapolis. Variant B comprises one fragment from Chersonesos Taurica.

We have reasons to believe that terracottas of all three iconographic types were created in the 3rd century BC. This assumption is supported by the chronology of closed contexts, in which around half of them were discovered, including terracotta busts that are generally dated back to the 3rd century BC. Most likely, these busts were last used for rituals in family sanctuaries in the middle of the 2nd century BC.

We assume that the shape of the bowl on the head of terracotta woman busts was made by Olbian artists under the influence of local ceramic thymiateria in the form of a cone-shaped tall-stem bowl from the 3rd century BC. Taking into account the absence of any traces of soot in the bowls on the busts and their practical use of thymiateria, we believe that these original terracotta items were used for votive purposes. The pouring of essential oil into the coarse, widely open bowl is questionable considering the very high price of the aromas, discovery locations in blocks where artisans and middle-income merchants were living, the terracotta texture, and lack of proper coating and lids with holes. The shape and the size of the bowl, a white engobe on its inner sides, and the floral décor on the woman’s head let us assume that it could be used for putting inside small fruit or seeds. According to this use, these busts were used as votives, pseudo-thymiateria or a kind of aroma bowls for dry flowers or fragrant plants.



How to Cite

Rusiaieva М. (2021). Terracotta goddess busts with corymbs from Olbia Pontica of the Hellenistic period. TEXT AND IMAGE: ESSENTIAL PROBLEMS IN ART HISTORY, 1(11). https://doi.org/10.17721/2519-4801.2021.1.01



Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern art