They found her in the spring of 1889, lying eight metres under what was to become the Palace of Justice in Rome. Over the centuries her sepulchre had been flooded by the Tiber, so the first thing they saw when they removed the lid of the sarcophagus was her long hair waving in the water. They said that her head was leaning slightly to the left, as if gazing at the small wooden doll lying by her side.
Latin funerary inscriptions often explain the circumstances of a person’s life or death, but of this young patrician woman we’re only given the name: Crepereia Tryphaena.
Crepereia was buried in her wedding dress (although only the accessories have survived), which suggests an age of around thirteen. On her finger was a golden ring bearing the name Filetus, but this is not to say that the couple had been married. The fact that Crepereia was buried with her doll indicates that the ceremony might not have yet taken place, in light of the custom to offer the toy to Venus or the lares on that day.
The doll is also the reason why the name of Crepereia Tryphaena is still spoken. It was one of those fortuitous, unlikely discoveries: the child bride lying next to that smaller version of herself. The story of the unearthing, told in all its vivid detail, moved the city at the time and led to commemorations in the quarter for years to come. It doesn’t matter that the waving hair wasn’t hair at all, but an alga that had grown in thin filaments on the top of her skull. It matters even less that the doll was made not of oak but of ivory, browned and cracked by the elements. It was a story destined to be popular, and in that story the doll’s likeness will forever be linked to the girl’s name.
Crepereia-the-doll wore jewellery and likely a wedding dress of her own. Her tiny golden ring was attached to a key for opening an equally tiny chest containing two ivory combs and a silver mirror. The doll’s own things.
I saw all of these objects in 1982, at an exhibition at the archaeological museum in Milan. Perhaps because I was myself 11 years old at the time, the doll and her accessories left a vivid impression. I thought, I think, that there was something universal in that display, something essential, outside of culture, about being a little boy or a little girl. Yet at the same time uncanny: that this toy should be so modern, its flexible joints looking just like those of my own dolls (which, because I was a boy, were called robots).
Used as I was, due to my family’s interests, to seeing every year hundreds of vases and other adult accessories of the ancient world, I finally found an object whose use I could plainly relate to. But I underestimated culture. This doll had little in common with my toys, and not just because it would have been proportionately a great deal more expensive; there were meanings attached to it, pointing to a world of symbols and myth, of gendered norms and social roles, only some of which we can grasp.
Most obviously, there is the doll’s final use, as an offering to the goddess. This is the end that the Pixar toys could only dream of: not just an afterlife but a sublimation, an apotheosis. Yet in that final embrace there is another message: that Crepereia stood at a threshold between two stages of life. She was now as old as the doll, that idealised simulacrum of her young adulthood. Together they would go to marry, and then Crepereia-the-woman would go on living, but not the Crepereia-the-doll. In that votive offering, that radical repurposing – from toy to highly and wholly symbolic object – the doll would preserve the essence of Crepereia’s in-between state, thus crystallize an entire set of expectations concerning the lives of aristocratic women.
But it never happened. Crepereia died, in circumstances that we cannot know, and so ironically to us the doll now really is her: a fixed image, or frozen frame, of a person that really was. And it doesn’t matter that it’s unlikely that the doll was actually fashioned by its artisan in the girl’s image. We cannot help transferring that semblance any more than the ancients could help reading stories into the accidents of the physical world. There she is.
You can see the doll of Crepereia Tryphaena at the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The images are scanned from the small catalogue of the exhibition in Milan.