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Terracotta Figures

Used with permission from "Artifacts of Ancient Civilizations" by Alex G. Malloy. Updates and additions by Joseph Sermarini.

Terracotta Antiquities For Sale in the Forum Ancient Coins Shop

Terracotta is a type of hard-baked clay, produced by means of a single firing. Terracotta may be glazed but is most often left in its natural state, sometimes called "buff" pottery. Archaeologists and art historians refer to clay objects such as sculptures or tiles, made without a potter's wheel as terracotta. Objects made on the potter's wheel are called pottery.

Terracottas were initially hand molded. Later came the development of the clay mold, with which the artisan could push the soft clay into the mold, and produce a fine terracotta on the spot. This was certainly one of the first examples of mass production. This mold could provide a limited number of copies before it lost definition. The results were beautiful. The Greek terracotta craftsman was called coroplast, which is Greek for "doll maker." These terracottas were mass produced, and almost anyone in the society could afford them.

Figurative terracotta includes terracotta statuettes and other small portable objects. Terracotta figures were used either for religious purposes, as tools for the veneration of the gods and goddesses, or for secular purposes, as toys for the living and gifts from friends for the departed. They are usually not found complete. Votive figures, offered to the god or goddess, were intentionally broken so they could not be reused. Full figures are, much more often than not, highly restored. The head is the the most desirable fragment, and fortunately the most durable. The rest of the figure, which was frequently made of thinner clay, is often damaged beyond repair and not recovered. Both full figures and heads are widely collected today. Along with the humanesque heads, terracotta animals are also collected. Babylonian and other Mesopotamian terracotta plaques are available along with the later Parthian man-on-horse terracottas.

Architectonic terracotta was made as decorations for buildings. Architectonic terracottas are most often found in areas where marble was scarce. Fine examples have been found in Magna Graecia and in Corinth. Objects include be beam ends, rain-spouts, friezes, and pediment sculptures. Figurines and reliefs follow and exemplify the lines of stylistic development of the larger sculptures, e. g. Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. This field of collecting can be one of the most rewarding. A fine collection can be assembled today.

Terracotta goddess figures were manufactured in large numbers in Mesopotamian areas. The Early Northern Syrian Mesopotamian terracotta figures depict the "mother goddess," with large breasts. The nude goddess with her arms raised to her breasts was popular for a very long time and made in many periods. These terracottas often had a flat back like a plaque. These figures were ritually broken and are rarely found complete. Early mother goddess and primitive idol figures have been the subjects of special shows in Paris, London, and New York.

From 5000 - 4500 B.C. fertility gods were popular in the Middle East. Many areas produced idol figures, including Canaan, Anatolia, North Syria, Cyprus, Amlash, Uratu, Northern Pakistan, and India. The goddess Astarte was worshiped in Canaan in the late Bronze Age. Bizarre Syro-Hittite terracotta heads have long been an interesting type of collectible.

Greek terracottas were the finest made in ancient times. Greek terracottas offer archaic, classical and Hellenistic sculpture of Greek art in the round at much more affordable prices than stone sculpture. Early Greece produced "mother goddess" figures at Thessaly, and Mycenae, Boeotia. Even the Vinca culture of Yugoslavia produced early idol figures. The very finest Greek terracotta figures were made at Tanagra in the first half of the 4th century B.C.

The periods of Greek terracotta range from:
1) Prehistoric: 2000 - 1100 B.C. Crete (Minoan-Mycenae)
2) Dark Ages 1100 - 650 B.C. Geometric, Cyprus, Crete
3) Archaic: 650 - 500 B.C. Rhodes, East Greece, Boeotia, Cyprus
4) Classical: 500 - 330 B.C. Rhodes, Boeotia, Attica, Corinth, South Italy, Sicily, Crete, Melos
5) Hellenistic: c. 330 B.C. - 100 A.D. Attic-Boeotia (Tanagra), Alexandria, South Italy, Myrina, Smyrna

Greek Terracotta Characteristics






Orange-yellow brown


Small quantity of mica


Cream: greenish; orange

Extremely fine

No mica


Yellow ochre: pale orange-brownish

Fine before 500 B.C.

Mica present


Orange: cream: purple-brown


Large mica crystals




Much mica


Pale orange cream

Very fine

Encrusted with chocolate-brown


Orange-yellow brown


Much mica


Pale orange-light greenish gray


Some mica


Most colors except greenish


Small quantity of mica

Terracotta sculptures from central Asia include many interesting examples from the Indus Valley cultures, particularly figurines and chariot models.

Terracotta was used extensively in ancient Egypt from the earliest times particularly for the production of sculptures of various sized. Pottery sculpture on a small scale - statuettes, effigy vessels, figurines, and the like - was an important part of Roman-Egyptian daily life. Pottery sculpture representing deities, animals, objects, people, and even toys, is found in large quantities in Roman-Egyptian sites. Because of this, Roman period Egyptian sculpture is relatively cheap on the antiquities market. The Roman-Egyptian terracottas produced are of Egyptian and Greek deities. The quality is cruder than the Hellenistic period, but often attractive. These terracottas were manufactured with a light red-brown clay. Pottery sculpture of earlier periods is rarer, although tomb models and other magical figures such as New kingdom "concubine figures" appear with some regularity on the market.

Roman terracottas from outside Egypt are scarce and most are less attractive than Greek Hellenistic and Roman Egyptian terracottas. 


For oil lamp references see the lamps page.

Greco-Roman Terracotta Figures
Badre, L. Les Figurines Anthropomorphes en Terre Cuite a L'age du Bronze en Syria. (Paris, 1980).
Bailey, D. Catalogue of the Greek Terracottas in the British Museum, Vol. IV: Ptolemaic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt. (London, 2008).
Besques, S. Catalogue Raisonn des Figurines et Reliefs en Terre-Cuite Grecs trusques et Romains. (Paris, 1954-1992).
Besques, S. Figurines et reliefs grecs en terre cuite. (Paris, 1994).
Besques, S. Tanagra Collection des Maitres. (Paris, 1950).
Burn, L. & R. Higgins. Catalogue of Greek Terracottas in the British Museum Vol. III: Hellenistic. (London, 2001).
Chesterman, J. Classical Terracotta Figures. (London, 1974).
Grandjouan, C. The Athenian Agora, Vol. VI: Terracottas and Plastic Lamps of the Roman Period. (Princeton, 1961). Available Online
Higgins, R. Catalogue of the Greek Terracottas in the British Museum, Vol. I: 730 - 330 B.C. (London, 1954).
Higgins, R. Catalogue of the Greek Terracottas in the British Museum, Vol. II: 730 - 330 B.C. (London, 1959).
Karageorghis, V., G. Merker, & J. Mertens. The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art: Terracottas. (New Haven, 2018).
Kaufmann, C. gyptische Terrakotten der griechisch-rmischen und koptischen Epoche, vorzugsweise aus der Oase El Faijum (Frankfurter Sammlung). (Cairo, 1913).
Rohde, E. Griechische Terrakotten. (Tbingen, 1968).
Skupinska-Lovset, I. The Ustinov collection: Terracottas. (Oslo, 1978).
Stevenson, W. The Grotesque Pathological Representations in Greek and Roman Art. (Ann Arbor, 1975).
Torok, L. Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt. (Rome, 1995).
Uhlenbrock, J. The Terracotta protomai from Gela: A Discussion of local Style in archaic Sicily. (Rome, 1989).
Walters, H. Catalogue of the Terracottas in the British Museum. (London, 1903).
Young, J. & S. Young. Terracotta Figurines from Kourion in Cyprus. (Philadelphia, 1955).

Western Asiatic Terracotta Figures
Badre, L. Les Figurines Anthropomorphes en Terre Cuite a L'age du Bronze en Syria. (Paris, 1980).
Harper, P. The Royal City of Susa: Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre. (New York, 1993).
Jones, F. "Heads and figures: a bequest" in Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 32, no. 1 (1973), pp. 4 - 9. Available Online
Keel, O. Gott weiblich: Eine verborgene Seite des biblischen Gottes. (Freiburg, 2008).
Koldewey, R. Das Wieder Erstehende Babylon. (Leipzig, 1913). Available Online
Legrain, L. Ur Terracottas Catalogue. (Unpublished, no plates). Available Online
Muscarell, O., ed. Ladders to Heaven: Art Treasures from Lands of the Bible. (Toronto, 1981).
Press, M. The Iron Age Figurines of Ashkelon and Philistia. Ashkelon 4 (Winona Lake, IN, 2012). Available Online
Spycket, A. The Human Form Divine: From the Collections of Elie Borowski. (Jerusalem, 2000).

Central Asian Terracotta Figures
Casal, J.-M. "Mundigak: l'Afghanistan l'aurore des civilisations" in Archeologia, No. 13, Nov. 1966, pp. 30 - 37.
Tripathi, V. & Srivastava, A.K. The Indus Terracottas. (New Delhi, 2014).
Urmila, S. Terracotta Art of Rajasthan (From Pre-Harappan and Harappan Times to the Gupta Period). (New Delhi, 1997).
Zwalf, W. ed. Buddhism Art and Faith. (New York, 1985).

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