Magna Mater

Anthropomorphic figurines have long intrigued researchers. They first appeared, marking the dawn of figural art, in the Early Stone Age (Palaeolithic), a time when core human beliefs and our comprehension of the world were inextricably intertwined with the fertility cult. The fertility cult encompasses a number of beliefs, ancillary to which are customs related to the maintenance of balance in the natural order, that is to say: the fertility of humans, plants and animals. Palaeolithic “Venus” figurines are one of the archaeological witnesses to the convictions that shaped this part of our past: figural or relief depictions of a woman that share a number of attributes in which some researchers see the inception of the cult of a Great Mother goddess, widespread in the Late Stone Age (Neolithic).

The Neolithic or Late Stone Age is a period in our prehistory that saw watershed changes in the development of human society, considered integrally among specialists as the Neolithic Revolution. The climate change that occurred at the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic initiated a lengthy process that was by no means equally distributed around the globe. The standout novelties that essentially define the Neolithic and also fundamentally differentiate it from the previous periods are the cultivation of plants and the taming of animals, that is to say: the development of agriculture and animal husbandry and the closely associated sedentary lifestyle. The old forms of resource management, such as fishing, hunting and the gathering of various plants did not by any means disappear; Neolithic humans did, however, begin to plan and consciously take part in the production of foodstuffs, in stockpiling reserves and—with the invention of pottery (the manufacture of ceramic products)—developed the preparation and preservation of surplus food.

The transition of communities to a sedentary lifestyle impacted the societal notions of religion and art. People’s abodes were primarily permanent residences in single locations, at least until the soil’s productive capacity was exhausted. Complex communities developed and turned increasingly to the earth and what it had to offer. This new lifestyle led to a shift in our worldview and our religion.

The most frequent appellation in the literature for the female deity associated with the fertility cult is Magna Mater, i.e. the Great Mother goddess, the giver of life, symbol of the fertility and prosperity provided by the new way of life associated with agriculture. The earth, from which plants grow and which sustains both the living and the inanimate, is seen as the foundation of life. Even past the Neolithic period, many creeds held that the fertile Earth from which life develops was female in nature, nurturing humanity.


The entrance to Pupićina peć, taken from photodocumentation of Archaeological Museum of Istria



Neolithic cultures abound with numerous symbols and depictions of the Magna Mater and they are most often associated with female figurines, a quite frequent find at Neolithic sites. And while the appellation Mother would imply a depiction involving birth or with a child, this is not always the case. There are many figural depictions in which there are no obvious visual indications of gender but that are nevertheless recognised as female. Many interpretations have been put forward as to the significance and function of the figurines—they are found in diverse contexts (in cult or residential structures, in middens and, rarely, in graves and hoards) and consequently evade a confident determination of their precise purpose. Most authors hold that the figurines are usually related to a given cult or ritual—their appearance has seen them associated with the fertility cult. Their functions and purposes may well have been quite diverse, and numerous theories have been posited: that they are portraits of living individuals, or of ancestors, or gifts for the afterlife; some authors see in them talismans, amulets, votive objects, healing aids, or objects used in initiation ceremonies or when making a covenant, or as objects signifying a community territory and identity, and we cannot rule out that some may have been toys.

In terms of their appearance, the figurines are often small and of simple form, although there are larger specimens. They are most often made of clay with the final product being a ceramic figurine. Some were made of stone or bone and possibly of organic materials that have not survived.

Many of these figurines are stylised depictions of a woman with emphasised attributes of the female gender. On some the breasts, belly and buttocks are overemphasised, on others, the figurine is bellshaped. The bodies are depicted either as naked or with some detailing of incisions and colouring serving as representations of clothing and jewellery. There is an abundance of similar figurines that are differentiated by the position of the body, the facial expression, material, details of fabrication and the like. The differences appear in distant geographic areas, but it is noteworthy that there is also differentiation among figurines found within the context of a single culture or a single area. They appear most frequently in the present-day Middle East, Anatolia and the southeast of Europe, but we do also see them in parts of central Europe. They appear frequently and in significant quantity in some areas and some cultures, and rarely or never elsewhere. This can likely be explained by the varying customs of different communities.

It all further perplexes their interpretation and indicates that they were made for differing socio-religious purposes which researchers have yet to fully elucidate.


Figurines from 1. Pupićina peć, Istria and 2. Porovac, Bulgaria, taken from Hulina, M. 2012., photo 3.



The Neolithic Figurine from Istria

Pupićina Peć, a cave, is situated in the northeast of the Istrian peninsula, on the western slopes of Mount Učka, at about 220 metres above sea level. It was the site of systematic archaeological investigation from 1995 to 2002. The numerous artefacts discovered in the cultural strata tell us that this cave has seen human occupation, with interruptions, from the Old Stone Age (more precisely from the Late Upper Palaeolithic) through to the Middle Ages. In the summer of 2001, the efforts of archaeologists were rewarded with the find in the Neolithic layer of a flat anthropomorphic figurine of which the legs and lower part of the torso are preserved. It is particularly interesting because, while anthropomorphic Neolithic figurines are quite frequent in continental Croatia, they are rare in our coastal regions, and this is the first such find in Istria. Also noteworthy is that its form differs from other published finds of figurines found on our seaboard: the knees are bent, the thighs are outspread, and the feet stand apart. There is a simple triangular band incised around the hips and thighs. The figurine has no explicit depiction of its gender, but it is posited to be the depiction of a female.

Spatially and culturally the closest parallels for this figurine are to be sought within the central Neolithic Danilo culture at sites on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, and with figurines found in the Triestine Carso (karst region), given the close contacts of Istria with these areas in the Neolithic period.

The figurine recovered at the Pupićina Peć site has no direct typological parallels in Dalmatia, nearby Italy, or in the nearer neighbourhood. We do, however, see partial analogies in the broader region. The decoration taking the form of an incised band, for example, which likely represents an article of clothing, is also seen in Anatolia, Greece, the Balkans and sporadically in central Europe. Figurines found in Greece often have an incised triangle in the pelvic area depicting clothing, or, with additional incisions, denoting the female gender. As the figurine recovered at the Pupićina Peć site has no indication of gender we can assume that its band denotes an item of clothing.

In terms of the actual form of the figurine, the closest analogies are to be found in the anthropomorphic or zoomorphic stone figurines found in Greece, North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey, described as female figures with outspread thighs or legs, as depictions of frogs, or perhaps stylised M-form figurines that also depict either women or frogs.


Drawing of figurine from Pupićina peć, taken from Hulina, M. et al. 2012., T1:10



The last of these types, the M-form figurines, are in form most similar to the Pupićina Peć figurine and have been recovered at the Porovec, Ruse and Azmaška Mogila sites in Bulgaria, and Hoca Çeşme in Turkey. They depict largely flat figures with outspread thighs and legs and have representations of the feet, with a triangular area between the legs and an upper portion that is either semi-circular or triangular. In general, the woman/frog figurines are associated with creation, birth-giving or fertility, and it has been proposed that in some figurines the outspread positions of the legs and thighs indicate the depiction of a woman giving birth rather than the depiction of a frog. Other theories posit that frogs were symbolically associated with birth-giving or the creation of life. Some of the frog/woman figurines are made of stone, and some are perforated, indicating an amulet or pendant. The Pupićina Peć figurine is ceramic but very similar in form to the cited stone figurines, which are chronologically dated from the last quarter of the seventh to the mid-sixth millennium BCE. That means that the Pupićina Peć figurine is both typologically and chronologically consistent with the cited stone figurines, having been recovered from a cultural layer that has been dated to around the mid-sixth millennium BC.



The issue of the function and significance of these Neolithic figurines has intrigued researchers since they were first discovered. The great variety of contexts in which they have been discovered has complicated our comprehension of their role in Neolithic communities. Are they some form of jewellery, bereft of any particular symbolic significance, or are they objects associated with birth-giving or fertility? The Pupićina Peć figurine is even more intriguing because it was not found intact and is the only such artefact found in Istria. It was discovered in a settlement context, broken and discarded along with other Neolithic pottery. The archaeological investigation has established that the cave likely served as a temporary shelter for herders and their flocks during the Middle Neolithic and—besides the figurine—there is no evidence of any activity related to the religious aspects of a Neolithic community. It is noteworthy that the closest analogies to the Pupićina Peć figurine are found in Bulgaria, evidence of the great distances across which influences and concepts were transmitted in the Middle Neolithic period. In the Balkan region, in continental Croatia, and Greece, the female figurines are numerous. On our seaboard, conversely, they are a rarity. If one were to accept the theory that these are objects of religious significance, it would lead us to conclude that this creed from the east did not find a strong foothold along the eastern shores of the Adriatic. Whatever the case, the Pupićina Peć figurine is a singular find that has enriched our knowledge of the legacy of the Neolithic communities on the Istrian peninsula.





Ceramic figurine
Pupićina Peć
Middle Neolithic (mid-6th millennium BC)
Location (collection):
Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula
Inventory code:
Dimensions: length:
2.87 cm, width: 3.14 cm, thickness: 1.18 cm






Bailey, D. W. 2004. Prehistoric figurines. Representation and Corporeality in the Neolithic, New York.

Facchini, F. et al. 2004. Religioznost u pretpovijesti, Zagreb.
Karavanić, I., Čondić, N. 2018. Religije kamenog doba, Katalozi i monografije 31, Zadar.

Hansen, S. 2001. Neolithic sculpture. Some remarks on an old problem, The Archaeology of Cult and Religion, P. F. Biehl, F. Bertemes, H. Meller (eds.), Archaeolingua, Budapest, 39-52.

Hansen, S. 2007. Bilder vom Menschen der Steinzeit. Untersuchungen zur anthropomorphen Plastik der Jungsteinzeit und Kupferzeit in Südosteuropa. Archäologie in Eurasien 20, Mainz.

Hulina, M. et al. 2012. Prapovijesna keramika iz unutrašnjeg dijela Pupićine peći (iskopavanje 2001. godine), Histria archaeologica 42/2012, Pula, 137-184.
Hulina, M. 2012. Neolitička keramička figurica iz Pupićine peći, Tabula 10/2012, 39-49.

Miracle, P., Forenbaher, S. 2006. Prehistoric Herders of Northern Istria, The Archaeology of Pupićina Cave Vol. 1 / Pretpovijesni stočari sjeverne Istre, arheologija Pupićine peći, sv. 1. Monografije i katalozi 14, Pula.

Težak-Gregl, T. 1983./1984. Neolitička i eneolitička antropomorfna plastika iz fundusa Arheološkog muzeja u Zagrebu, Vjesnik Arheološkog muzeja u Zagrebu, 3. s. No. XVI-XVII, Zagreb, 15-48.

Težak–Gregl, T. 1998. Neolitik i eneolitik, Prapovijest (S. Dimitrijević, T. Težak-Gregl, N. Majnarić-Pandžić), Zagreb.






Carrarina 4, Pula

Window to the Past
15. 9. 2020. – 26. 1. 2021.

Exhibition and text author:
Maja Čuka

Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:
Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design:
Vjeran Juhas

Tanja Draškić Savić

Exhibition coordinator:
Monika Petrović

 Translation in Italian:
Elis Barbalich-Geromella

 English translation:
Neven Ferenčić

Irena Buršić, Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić,
Katarina Zenzerović

Proofreading in Italian:
Sarah Zancovich

 Print: MPS Pula

 Print run: 500

Pula, 2020.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.