The Making of Terracotta Statuettes in Antiquity

Terracotta as a Favourite Medium

Terracotta was the favoured material to create statuettes of modest size all the way from the Archaic Period up until the Late Hellenistic Period. Such statuettes became extremely popular in Antiquity, and have been recovered across all the Mediterranean area. Most of the Ancient Greek and Roman terracotta figurines were moulded. This proved to be very convenient, as once a mould was created, it could replicate the same design many dozens of times, until it wore out.

Greco-Roman Terracotta Statuette of a Reclining Woman
south italian greek terracotta head


The first step in the making of a figurine was to make an archetype from which a number of moulds may be taken. The archetype was generally modelled by hand in clay. If the figurine featured complex details, such as projecting limbs or intricate details on the head, these would be cut off the archetype and fired separately in order to act as the basis for a separate mould. Moulds could be made in either plaster or clay and they were applied on the archetype until the required thickness was reached. They were then left to dry and were cut into two or more sections. Usually for the human form the two sections were front and back, whereas for animals the two sides were possibly favoured. A third section could be produced for intricate surfaces, such as elaborate garments on female figurines.

Painting and Firing

After removal, the moulds were touched up if flawed and finally fired. Plaster moulds offered the advantage of a being easier to make and also offered better adherence, but were more frail than their clay counterparts and could only offer a life span of fifty to one hundred uses. Now having the two half moulds, the craftsman would have dusted them with a little powdered chalk and would have pressed wet clay to a certain thickness, doing the same on the other mould and then joining the two halves trough the aid of slip. Once the clay was dry, the moulds were removed, details enhanced or added, projecting limbs attached and a hole for ventilation was cut out either in the back or at the base of the figurine. The maker’s mark could be impressed at this point. Finally, either the whole statuette or simply the front would be covered in a layer of white slip, which acted as the basis for the following painted decoration and now the figurine was ready to be fired.

Hellenistic Terracotta Eros with Pigments

Our Collection of Terracotta Statuettes from Ancient Times

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