The fertile world of figurines

Ian CollinsSmall is beautiful and bountiful in a new show of figurines at the Sainsbury Centre featuring ancient fertility symbols and maybe the odd modern fake. IAN COLLINS reports.Ian Collins

Small is beautiful and bountiful in a new show of figurines at the Sainsbury Centre featuring ancient fertility symbols and maybe the odd modern fake. IAN COLLINS reports.

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How wonderful if pride of place in the new Sainsbury Centre show of ancient figurines from Europe and Asia could go to a small, fat deity said to be from Neolithic Norfolk.

But in the event the Grimes Graves Goddess, on loan from the British Museum and on public display for the first time in 50 years, merely gives us the biggest talking point about origins and identity.

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The joy of the Sainsbury Centre is the connections it makes between peoples, periods and places. Art from all ages signposts a voyage of discovery and provides a picture of what it means to be human.

It's the same thrilling journey now being led by British Museum director Neil MacGregor in his A History of the World in 100 Objects, on Radio 4.

But lucky us. We have such guided time travel permanently on our doorstep on UEA campus, with additional temporary expeditions in one great modernist treasure house.

The current extra tour - Unearthed - takes in tiny figures made across Japan and the Balkans as many as 7,000 years ago, by cultures which had absolutely no knowledge of each other. And we have scant knowledge of them.

We can only wonder why these emergent communities - of Asian fishers, hunters and gatherers and some of the first European farmers - carefully crafted little images which they then often smashed and scattered.

Were they earth goddesses (and the occasional god), ancestors, ornaments, or dolls? Or somehow all of these things in a talismanic way of bringing luck and comfort to hearth and home?

And it is all the more fascinating how these fired-clay images have often been unearthed, whole or in shards, near the remains of domestic fireplaces.

Most intriguingly, this latest planetary trek through the art of human expression and identity across millenniums brings us to the heart of Breckland, and the Neolithic flint workings of Grimes Graves.

In 1939 - just as the world was squaring up to face the anti-culture of Hitler and militarist Japan - A.L. Armstrong claimed to have made an amazing discovery in the earth near Brandon.

A chalk figure, originally dated to 4000-2500 BC, was presented with a flourish as one of only three human-shaped relics from Neolithic Britain.

As a national treasure, the find was claimed by the British Museum but later removed from display - to be studied in private by ever-more sceptical experts.

BM investigator Gillian Varndell has now unearthed a detective trail worthy of an Agatha Christie novel but minus the corpse (the whodunit author herself being wed to an archaeologist). First, the excavation was never published nor properly recorded.

Armstrong's site notebook stopped on the day of the alleged discovery. And, strangely, on that fateful day he had ordered all the other experienced excavators to leave the site.

For an object said to be at least 4,500 years old, the figurine looks suspiciously freshly-carved. Worst of all, the Armstrong team included an expert sculptor whose souvenirs from the dig included carvings from the same chalk rock - including his take on an ancient Egyptian sphinx.

All pretty damning but, since there is no way of dating chalk objects, perhaps we will never know for certain. And where would art be without an element of enigma?

But in the vast space of the Sainsbury Centre these tiny relics, including six ancient and ornate Japanese Jomon figurines (known as dogu), gain a new authority and I now reckon that they include some of the finest things in the collection.

Now we can also see the horde of little loans in a new light. Freed from despotism, countries like Romania and Albania are using unearthed relics to underpin a new nationalism.

The political angle is most marked in the (show)case of Macedonia. Even the new state's name is controversial, since historically it covers larger lands - taking in a swathe of northern Greece.

A 2005 exhibition entitled Prehistoric Macedonian Ladies, comprising 100 figurines found within the realm of the 21st century territory, made a clear political point even if the message was unintended. One old lady is fused to the roof of a house, like a domestic goddess and national guardian.

Kosova - Europe's newest micro-nation - has a gem called Goddess on Throne which is deemed too valuable to travel. Superstition suggests that the state is just too small and fragile to risk even the temporary loss of this very protective symbol.

Then there are more tangible modern responses to the ancient power of small things. After all, Antony Gormley won the Turner Prize in 1994 not for the massive Angel of the North but a Field for the British Isles crowd of 35,000 terracotta midgets.

Now in Norwich we can see a surreal photo of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo dressed like a latter-day Mayan princess or priestess and holding an antique figure as if in a votive offering.

And here's the 1950s Bild Lilli doll, commissioned by a German tabloid from a cartoon character and the model for Barbie.

She delivers an explosive little line - telling her friend: 'Why should I swap my perfume just because Heinz doesn't notice it any more? I'll simply swap Heinz.'

t Unearthed is at the Sainsbury Centre until August 29, Tues-Sun 10am-5pm, combined admission ticket with Henry Moore Textiles �4 (�2 cons). Entry to the permanent collection remains free. 01603 593199,

t Each ticket secures a fired figurine by artist Sue Maufe and a chance to experience the tactile quality of objects on display. Subject to availability.