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Figurine of a young woman playing knucklebones

Material: Clay
Provenance: retria, probably from a tomb.
Date: End of 4th century BC
Dimensions: Height 15 cm.
Exhibition place: Room 58, Case 13, inv. no. 12112

A young woman in a long dress (chiton) and cloak draped over her chest, in a fashion characteristic of moments of intense action, is shown squatting. Her melon-like coiffure ends in a bun tied up with a ribbon. Traces of white and violet applied to her dress are preserved, as are traces of red to her lips, of terracotta to her hair ribbon and of reddish brown to her hair. Since she holds a little bag in her left hand and holds her right in midair with the fingers open above the ground, she is apparently playing knucklebones and is ready to gather the pieces up after throwing them.

Types of female figurines depict various phases of games of knucklebones, a pastime which is occasionally termed pentalitha or pentelitha by the ancient sources. The majority of such figurines seem to have been produced by workshops in Boeotia or are to be attributed to the traditions of such workshops. The prototype of such statuettes has been sought in the painting by Polygnotos depicting Odysseus' visit to the underworld (Nekyia). This piece, now lost, is mentioned by Pausanias and adorned the 'clubhouse' (lesche) of the Cnidians at Delphi. The painting showed, among many other subjects, the daughters of the Milesian king Pandareos, Klytie and Kameiro, all of whom are associated with colonization myths of East Greek cities, crowned with flowers and playing knucklebones. Women playing knucklebones are also found depicted on vases, lamps, gemstones and mirrors.

Knucklebones, dating from the Neolithic period onwards, have been discovered throughout the East Mediterranean and Near East. Games centred on casting knucklebones were known in Egypt and Greece, the latter from Homeric times. They were a favorite recreation for all ages and social classes. Knucklebones (in Greek astragaloi) were ankle bones of sheep, goats, bovines or deer. At least four pieces were necessary for the game, although a version intended for women seems to have required five. The players used bags for keeping and carrying the bones.

ibliography: J. Neils and J.H. Oakley, Coming of age: Images of childhood from the Classical past, (New Haven 2003) 276-279 nos. 85-90. Kaltsas, S. Fachard, . Psalti, . Giannopoulou (eds), . , Catalogue of an Exhibition in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (thens 2010) 212, no. 139 (A. lexandropoulou). . Chidiroglou, " ( 12112)", in Festschrift for ik. Romiopoulou (in preparation).

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Position in the museum