A donkey figurine from Gubbio

The small archaeological collection of the Duomo in Gubbio, Umbria, features a small terracotta figurine of a donkey, the most common pack animal of the ancient world.

Josho Brouwers

Like many other Umbrian towns, Gubbio is located on a hill and features architecture made from local stone, including many churches. It’s well known as the main filming location for the Italian television series Don Matteo, starring Terence Hill. The café located on the main square even claims to be the famous actor’s favourite place to have a drink.

A framed and signed photograph of Terence Hill, dressed as the character Don Matteo, is displayed proudly next to the entrance of Caffè Ducale during opening hours. There’s also a special table set aside nearby for tourists who want to re-enact a scene from the show.

Gubbio has a number of different museums, including the Palazzo dei Consoli and the Palazzo Ducale. Beneath the town’s Duomo, or Cathedral, is another museum where, if you descend down to the deepest level, there’s a room with dark walls that houses a small collection of archaeological objects, mainly pottery.

A figurine of a donkey

One of my favourite pieces from this collection is the small donkey figurine used as this article’s featured image, above. It has two jars strapped to its back. The figurine dates to the fifth to fourth century BC, but it isn’t that different in style or execution from similar examples from, for example, Greece of the sixth or even seventh century BC. As a concept, the donkey as a beast of burden is essentially universal throughout the Mediterranean.

The museum sadly doesn’t provide much in the way of context for this figurine. But considering the other finds on display, it was probably deposited in a grave, perhaps as a symbol of prosperity in the afterlife. It’s a noteworthy object because it doesn’t represent a deity, nor does it reference an aristocractic lifestyle like a drinking scene painted on a cup would. This is just a figurine of a donkey, the most common working animal of the ancient world.

In ancient times, only the wealthy could afford horses. Oxen could be used for ploughing or to pull wagons, but were relatively slow and cumbersome. If people had to go anywhere, they mostly did so on foot. But humans can only carry so much weight. A cart can obviously be used, either pushed or pulled by a human (or a slave). But donkeys are ideal in those instances when you have to transport goods across terrain that isn’t well suited for either carts or wagons.

A donkey can easily carry a load of up to 100kg. They can also be ridden: indeed, in vase-painting the crippled god Hephaestus is often shown riding either a donkey or a mule. (A mule is a cross between a male donkey and female horse; it can carry loads of up to 200kg.) They are sure on their feet and can travel across steep or narrow paths that are otherwise limited to pedestrians, making them ideal for cross-country transport of goods.

When we think of the ancient world, we often think about people. But the ancient world would not have been possible without the use of various animals, and the donkey first and foremost among them. Indeed, while donkeys have been supplanted mostly by motorized vehicles, they still have their uses in the Mediterranean world today.