a Tanagra figurine of a Phoenician princess

These lovely little statues enchanted ancient Greece

The elegant Tanagra figurines, so popular more than a thousand years ago, provide an intimate look into the lives of the everyday people who loved them.

Sacred Subjects

The Tanagra figures represented many ordinary scenes and everyday episodes, but they also depicted various mythological subjects such as the abduction of Europa, a Phoenician princess, by the god Zeus. He has taken the form of a beautiful bull, and she sits astride his back. The work retains part of its original polychrome, especially on the hair and clothing. Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology, Marseilles
D. Giancatarina/RMN-Grand Palais

In the 1860s peasants from the town of Bratsi, in the Greek region of Boeotia, north of Athens were plowing the soil when they unearthed an ancient grave, and then another and another. Although there were no lavish grave goods to be found, the burial sites did harbor a magnificent treasure of a different kind. As they dug, the peasants began to unearth beautifully made terracotta figurines. The fascinating little statues, mainly of female figures between three and nine inches tall, were everywhere. Eventually hundreds would be collected.

The accidental archaeologists offered the pieces for sale to anyone they met and news of the extraordinary find soon spread, attracting treasure hunters. Grimadha, near the location of the ancient city-state of Tanagra, was a popular target for looters. It is estimated that more than 8,000 graves were dug up as people hungrily searched for the figurines.

(This colossal Greek statue inspired art long after it was destroyed.)

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