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Terracotta group of 'knucklebone' (astragalos) players


Height: 5.500 inches

GR 1867.5-10.1 (Terracotta D 161)

Room 73: Greeks in Italy

    Terracotta group of 'knucklebone' (astragalos) players

    Hellenistic Greek, about 330-300 BC
    Said to be from Capua; Made in either Campania or Puglia, southern Italy

    The two figures play a game similar to the modern game of 'jacks'. It involved throwing the 'knucklebones' up in the air and catching as many as possible on one hand as they fell. The 'knucklebones' were in fact the anklebones of sheep or goats, or models made of ivory, bronze or terracotta. This game was apparently popular with children and young women throughout the Classical and Hellenistic periods of Greek art; it appears on vase paintings as well as in three-dimensional figures. It is not clear why representations of this game were thought to be specially suitable for the tomb, but perhaps they provided poignant evocations of the dead as they had been in life.

    This group has been very carefully constructed. Each crouching figure is made from a number of separately moulded parts, joined together before firing. Each has a peg in the under surface, which slots into a hole in the rectangular base, so the figures can be detached for transport or storage.

    Although it is said to have been found at Capua, the high quality of the figures and the appearance of the clay suggest that it might have been made at Taranto in Apulia (modern Puglia).

    R.A. Higgins, Greek terracottas (London, Methuen, 1967)


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    On display: Room 73: Greeks in Italy

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    Hellenistic art and culture, £18.99

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