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A Century of Giving

Terracotta figure of an actor wearing a bird mask

Hellenistic period

3rd - 1st century BC

terracotta, height 8.6 cm

The Fitzwilliam Museum: GR.1.2002

This unusual terracotta figure (some 8.6 cms high) represents an actor wearing a bird mask, with a gaping beak. The arms are hidden and the body disguised by a long, tightly gathered cloak. It was produced in the Hellenistic period when Greek culture and traditions spread throughout ancient Egypt.

Theatre occupied a central place in peoples' lives. In order to be seen by the audience, actors wore exaggerated costumes and masks made of wood, linen or cork. Although none of these have survived, we know what they looked like from statues and paintings. There are also terracotta models of actors' masks in the Fitzwilliam collection which may have had some religious or symbolic significance.

The squat figurine, which may have come from a tomb, also wears a thick wreath around its neck. It resembles the wreaths worn by numerous 'Tanagra' figures which were made in large numbers in this period, and can also be seen in the Fitzwilliam collection. Dense, floral wreaths were worn as crowns during religious ceremonies and other festivities in the Egyptian, Greek and Roman worlds and were often buried with the dead.

Since the 1970s, international agreements have brought in strict controls on the acquisition of antiquities by those museums which take a responsible approach. These days, purchases, gifts, even bequests of antiquities cannot be accepted unless a museum is convinced about an object's provenance history - as in the case of this terracotta, given by the Friends in 2002, which came from a well-known collection, formed considerably before the 1970s.

As a result of these agreements, the Friends now have less financial involvement with this department. However, volunteers from the membership are active in helping to run Antiquities-based public events in the Museum.

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