Often, when we think of history we think of “very important” events involving “very important” people. History, however, is a vast topic and just as important is understanding how everyday people lived their lives. Miniaturists, who often create exquisite period miniatures, perhaps know this better than anyone. But how often do we take a look back at our own history? The human preoccupation with “small” things is nothing new. Examples of tiny works of art abound throughout history: Japanese netsuke, Persian miniature paintings, and Renaissance miniature paintings (where we get the word miniature meaning “small”).
However, for our purposes we are going to concentrate on the miniature recreation of domestic settings, i.e. dollhouses. While the doll is often called the world’s oldest toy, examples of which are found in every culture in every period around the world, the history of dollhouses is a bit murkier. The first recorded dollhouse does not appear until the 16th century. There are, however, plenty of examples of domestic miniatures in the ancient world. Unlike modern miniatures, these miniature are not those of collectors, instead they appear in the religious sphere.
From the Tombs of the Ancient World
In 1919, while surveying the vandalized and plundered tomb of Meketre in Egypt, Egyptologist Herbert Winlock discovered an unopened hidden chamber. Unlike an Indiana Jones movie, it did not contain piles of gold. Rather, it held a miniature treasure–twenty-five wooden models depicting everyday life in ancient Egypt. Meketre was the royal chief steward to many of Egypt’s kings during the Middle Kingdom period, and the models depict scenes that he would have overseen as part of his position. Dating from somewhere between 1981-1975 BCE, they include a model garden, granary, bakery, and other crafting shops, as well as several model ships. These models were believed to serve the needs of Meketre’s spirit in the afterlife.
Models like these were common during the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom (2100-1800 BCE). Thousands of examples survive, like those of Meketre or those from the tomb Djehutynakht, a local governor during the Middle Kingdom. The models themselves are approximately 1:10 scale. They were most likely made by craftsmen who specialized in model making. They are primarily made from local wood, such as acacia and sycamore. Some of the figures are dressed in linen wrappings. The figures in these rooms are not static and illustrate how these trades were carried out. In the granary, workers are seen carrying and dumping bags of grains into bins which contain actual grain while overseers take count in the front room. The looms in the weaving shop are strung with thread. Figures in the butcher’s shop prepare cattle for slaughter. In the bakery, workers are busy making dough and tending to the ovens, while in the next-door brewery a figure can be seen pouring something in a large vessel. Even in the carpenter shop, one worker is posed mid-saw while another appears to use a hammer and awl to carve wood.
The garden is perhaps of most interest to modern dollhouse enthusiast because not only does it depict a garden, but also a miniature representation of Meketre’s house–one of the earliest detailed miniature recreations of a house. Two rows of carved and painted columns hold the porch roof on which tiny drain spouts are placed. Two small doors and a latticed window are on the back wall and visible from the back of the model. Presumably, in real life, they would have lead into the house. The surrounding garden is filled with tiny trees complete with tiny leaves and copper reflecting pool that may have actually held water.
While Meketre and Djehutynakht would have been amply provided for in the afterlife, thanks to numerous models of servants and workshops buried with them, even the poorest Egyptians were often buried with a miniature house. Unlike the fine example of Meketre’s, these houses, called soul houses, were more crudely constructed of clay and terracotta. Like Meketre’s house, they depict the front of the house with a courtyard. However, this courtyard was meant to hold miniature food stuffs in order ensure the spirit did not go hungry in the afterlife.
The Egyptians were not the only people to use miniatures to create a new world for themselves in the afterlife. In China between 246 and 208 BCE., the first emperor of China, Qin SHi Huang wanted to remain an emperor in death and sought to recreate his empire in large necropolis. The tomb was reported to contain miniature replicas of both his palace and all of his empire crafted out of rare and precious materials, including pools of mercury to represent water. The tomb remained somewhat of a mystery until 1974 when its full-sized Terracotta Army was found when excavating for a well. While the Chinese are hesitant to excavate the tomb because of preservation issues, preliminary studies of the tomb have found high concentrations of mercury which seem to substantiate the legend. In 2012, archeologists discovered the foundation of the palace which appears to be a quarter of the size of the Forbidden City imperial complex as it would have appeared in Qin Shi Huang’s reign.
Ancient Greek tombs have also yielded miniature figures. Dating back to mid 10th century BCE, these jointed “dolls” were made mostly from terracotta and had detailed features. They ranged in size from three to ten inches. Originally, it was believed that these figures were dolls belonging to Greek children who were buried with them. However, there is much skepticism about this claim. The figures themselves are very delicate and seem unsuitable for play. A recent depiction found in Southern Italy shows the figures being used by adults in a symbolic pre-burial ritual. The figures are of interest to a miniature historian because not only are they small recreations, they were sometimes buried with miniature accessories. The most common are the chairs in which they were found seated in on occasion, but a figure on display at the British Museum not only has a chair but miniature shoes, a marriage vessel called a lebes gamikos, and epinetron, a cover for the knees when carding wool. These were made from clay, and the shoes were not made to fit the figure. It is likely that they were a symbolic statement about the marital status never to be achieved by the young girl they were buried with.
Roman tombs have also yielded jointed figures like those of the Greeks, though very different in their construction. These figures were made from bone, ivory and sometimes wood. They were much more elaborate and sometimes found with gold jewelry. Found in the tombs of the wealthy, these figures may have been instructional or used symbolically in ritual.
Spiritual Miniatures from the Medieval Periods
While miniatures primarily seemed the realm of the dead in ancient history, they would move into the realm of the living, but still in a religious context. The Japanese celebrate the Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival), also known as Girls’ Day, is a tradition celebrated on March 3rd that dates back to an earlier tradition called Hinanagashi (Doll Floating). In the older festival, ceremonial dolls were placed in boats and set out to sea as a charm to protect young girls. As the celebration grew in popularity, Japanese fisherman began to have problems when dolls ended up in their nets. During the Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.), the festival evolved into elaborate displays of the dolls with miniature furniture and accessories, called a hina-ningy0. The festival is still an important part of modern Japanese culture and is still seen as way to protect daughters and bless them. Displays that have been handed down for generations are put out, and the young girls of the household are expected to set up the display and provide a miniature meal for both the dolls and their real families. During the festival, local bakeries will make miniature cakes to serve the dolls, and local fishmongers provide tiny fish.
The display is made up of five to seven shelves, draped in red. On the topmost shelf sit the Emperor and Empress dolls. They are usually accompanied by a folding screen, small trees, and lanterns. The shelf below them holds the court ladies and tables to hold traditional treats. The next shelf has the musicians who each hold their instrument, or in the case of the singer, a fan. The next shelf contains two ministers, as well as more tables to hold food. The fifth shelf contains three samurai to protect the Emperor and Empress. The last shelves will be then filled with miniature furniture and accessories such as a chest of drawers (tansu), a kimono chest (nagmochi), a sewing kit (haribako), or a tea ceremony set (daisu).
While dolls and miniatures took their place as part of Japanese culture during this period, the history of miniatures in medieval Europe is much more unclear. Some historians believe that this is because the early Christian church frowned upon such frivolity. However, there is little historic record to back this reasoning. A much more likely explanation is that the church frowned upon the Pagan practice of burying people with their possessions, so few examples of medieval toys survive to modern day. The medieval period would, however, provide the impetus for a miniature setting that is familiar to many today–the Crèche or Nativity scene. The first one was created by St. Francis of Assis in 1223 and used full-sized actors to portray the figures. In the 1300’s, the actors would be replaced with statues and would continue to grow smaller in scale, allowing the displays to move from the Church into the homes of the faithful.
A special thanks to the staff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for use of their pictures for this article and the expertise of their staff.
101S is a LEARN Section series of articles teaching you everything you need to know about a mini subject.