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Work Girl playing knucklebones

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Knuckle-bone player

© 2002 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Mathieux Néguine

The girl must have been throwing the knucklebones with her right hand, which has now disappeared, while clasping the bag they were in with the other hand. However, the figurine, which was found in a votive context, is more than just a depiction of a woman playing and is probably connected with Aphrodite. This work, one of the earliest terracottas fully in the round, comes from Athens, and highlights the city's role in the development of the Tanagran style.

Girl playing knucklebones

The girl playing knucklebones wears a crown, a chiton, which has slipped to expose her right shoulder, and a himation, the folds of which at the back have been sculpted with great care. As evidenced by many other similar figurines, she must have been throwing the knucklebones on the ground with her right hand, which has since disappeared, while holding the bag for the knucklebones (phormiskos) with her left hand. This motif of the kneeling woman was originally confused with that of the woman picking flowers. However, this work provides evidence of an evolution when compared with early examples that came out of vase-making workshops. The back of the statuette, which is worked with great care, shows that the use of the bivalve mold had been fully mastered. Modeled in the round, the figurine has lost the strictly frontal pose characteristic of the earliest work of the mid-4th century BC.

An Attic creation

This statuette from the Campana Collection belongs to a group whose provenance has recently been reconsidered. Unlike most of the works in this collection, these fifty-three pieces were discovered not in Italy, but in the Acropolis in Athens. Comparing these works with items in the Acropolis Museum confirms this origin and proves that they were Attic creations of high quality, characterized by a highly refined orange clay, small dimensions, and elegant reliefs. The work clearly emphasizes the role that Athens played in the production of these new Tanagran motifs, which were subsequently adopted all over the Mediterranean region from 330 BC. The original treatment of the drapery, playing on the arrangement of the lines that make up the folds, and revealing both the girl's body and her action, perhaps go some way toward explaining their success.

Playful or symbolic representation?

The significance of the knucklebones, which undoubtedly had a symbolic dimension and bore witness to new practices or beliefs, may also have been a factor in their rapid diffusion. Here, the girl playing is placing herself in the hands of chance, a reference to fate and the gods that preside over it. The young girl destined to be a wife is placing herself in the hands of Aphrodite, a divinity who became more and more important from the 4th century BC onward. Indeed, the "Aphrodite throw," where each knucklebone fell on a different side, was the best throw. Similarly, a girl waiting to be married was sometimes named philastragale, which means "loving knucklebones." If placed in the tomb of an adolescent girl, the figurine could have symbolized the thwarted fate of a future wife, who died before her time. If offered as an ex-voto in a sanctuary, it could also highlight the transition from the status of adolescent to that of married woman. The presence of real knucklebones, sometimes found in large numbers in certain tombs and sanctuaries, confirms the symbolic value of these game pieces.


Jeammet Violaine (sous la dir. de), Tanagra, mythe et archéologie, cat. exp. Paris, musée du Louvre, 15 septembre 2003-5 janvier 2004,
Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, 5 février-9 mai 2004, Montréal,
Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal ; Paris, Éditions de la Réunion
des musées nationaux, 2003, pp. 123-125, 164,165 144, 159, 248, n 111.

Technical description

  • Knuckle-bone player

    C. 330-320 BC

    Provenance: Athens Acropolis

    Attic production

  • H. 10.6 cm

  • Campana collection, 1861 , 1861

    Cp 5278

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Greek terracotta figurines
    Room 647
    Display case 11: Games and toys in ancient Greece

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