Friday, May 14, 2021

Apotropaic infant rattles

Baby rattles go back at least 2500 years. Ancient rattles were made of various materials, including clay, wood, bronze, dried heads of poppy flowers, and pebbles. One of the oldest infant rattles in central Europe was found in Poland  in a grave of a baby who was a member of the early Iron Age Lusatian culture (1300 BCE – 500 BCE).  That hollow clay rattle was shaped like a pillow and was filled with little balls. It was found next to a tiny urn containing the cremated remains of the baby.  

Children in ancient Greece and Rome would have been amused by mold-made rattles like those pictured here. In his Politics, Aristotle observed  that young children should be given a rattle (particularly one designed by Archytas) to keep them quiet. 

Greek mold-produced terracottas began to appear in the archaeological record around the 7th-century BCE. These figures were formed by pressing wet clay into a two‑part mold to form a small sculpture in the round that can be seen from any side. After the figure was fired in a kiln, it was removed from the mold and painted in bright colors. 

Rattles came in a variety of shapes such as spheres, boxes, and animals like owls, pigs, or dogs. Rattles in the shape of pigs probably had further significance, though, since pigs were associated with the Greek goddess Demeter, who was invoked in rituals intended to protect babies in life and death. The sound produced by rattles was thought to ward off evil. 

Most mold-made terracotta rattles have been found in children's graves and sanctuaries where they were deposited as gifts to the gods. Children were typically buried with their toys but, sometimes, even their  actual pet dogs and pigs were sacrificed.

Rattle in the form of a child sitting on a pig, east Greek, possibly Rhodian, 2nd - 1st century BCE (Roman period). A boy sits atop a rotund pig. The pig's large stomach hangs low and touches the ground. The animal's small legs seem barely able to support its weight. The boy's long hair is pulled into a central braid, a common hairstyle for both boys and girls in ancient Greece. One of the child's hands touches his chin; the other rests on the pig's back. Traces of pink and white pigment are still visible on the figurine. Inside the pig, small pieces of dried clay produce a rattling sound when shaken. This figurine is part of the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Image courtesy of the museum.

A terracotta rattle depicting a dog similar to a Maltese lapdog, a favorite pet in antiquity, 4th-1st century BCE, Greece, in the collections of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Due to its large size, it is possible that this rattle was meant to be handled by an adult who might have used it to entertain and distract a child. Image courtesy of the museum.

Another terracotta rattle with a child seated on a pig recovered from Pompeii, 1st century CE, that I photographed at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

Terracotta rattles in the shape of animals, Cypro-Archaic II period (ca. 600-480 BCE), Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, courtesy of Dan Diffendale (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Terracotta Rattle in the Shape of a Lion, Greek made in Corinth, 600-575 BCE, that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

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