Cycladic Society 5000 years ago

Explore the Cycladic Society 5000 ago


The Cyclades, a closely packed insular complex in the central and south Aegean Sea, comprises 35 large islands and numerous smaller ones. Ancient Greek writers, who imagined that the islands formed a circle around Delos, Apollo’s sacred island, called them the “Cyclades.”

The Cycladic landscape is rocky, with steep cliffs, small coves, and arid soil. The mild climate is characterized by long periods of sunshine, limited rainfall, and very strong winds. Most importantly, the Cyclades are blessed with a rich geology with a great variety of rocks and metals, including marble, pumice, obsidian, emery, and copper. 

Their location between mainland Greece and Asia Minor and their mineral wealth led to the islands’ settlement as early as the Late Neolithic period (5300-3200 BC). Evidence for settlement in the Neolithic period was identified at the Saliagos islet, Mykonos, Kea, Andros, and Naxos.


In the Early Bronze Age, the Cyclades were the cradle of the important “Early Cycladic” culture, which spans from approximately 3200 to 2000 BC and is divided into three sub-periods: Early Cycladic I (ca. 3200-2700 BC), Early Cycladic II (ca. 2700-2300 BC), and Early Cycladic III (ca. 2300-2000 BC). These three sub-periods alternate with two transitional periods: the Early Cycladic I to Early Cycladic II transition, or “Kampos phase”, and the Early Cycladic II to Early Cycladic III transition, or “Kastri phase”. Our knowledge concerning this culture comes from settlements and, especially, cemeteries.

Our knowledge of Early Cycladic I settlements is very limited, either because the houses were made of perishable materials or because the number of excavated sites is very small. At least one settlement, at Markiani, Amorgos, appears to have been fortified on its accessible side. During Early Cycladic culture’s acme in the Early Cycladic II period, settlements of various sizes multiplied on small promontories or low hills. Some were fortified, like the acropolis at Kastri in Syros and Panormos in Naxos. Urban planning adapted to the terrain, and structures were stone-built, usually with one, two, or three rooms and outdoor spaces. This period’s largest settlement is at Skarkos on Ios, with an area of 11,000 km2 and an urban plan comprising streets, single and two-storied houses with stone-built staircases, and drainage pipes. Towards the end of the Early Cycladic II period, disputes over the control of metal sources and related commercial networks in the Aegean may account for unrest and upheaval, with evidence for population movements. As a result, many settlements were abandoned temporarily, and others were conquered by enemy forces. At the same time, new settlements protected by strong fortifications were established in remote areas.

The limited evidence for settlements in the Early Cycladic III period comes mainly from the town of Phylakopi I on Melos, which suggests that these were probably considerably larger than before, with urban planning and small, well-built houses.

Cemeteries were usually located on coastal slopes near their associated settlements. The earliest cemeteries consisted of small cist graves containing a single inhumation in a foetal position. In Early Cycladic II, cemeteries increased in size indicating an increase in population. Cist graves were used for consecutive inhumations of members of the same family. A characteristic example is the cemetery at Chalandriani in Syros, which comprised more than 600 tombs, most of which contained more than one inhumations. Early Cycladic III tombs are primarily underground, rock-hewn chambers intended for consecutive multiple burials.



The Director of the Museum of Cycladic Art, Professor N. Chr. Stampolidis narrates the rise of the Early Cycladic society (3200 to 2000 B.C.) and its civilization through the prism of the cycladic figurune, the symbol that defined globally the history of Art from the Prehistoric Age up until the 21st century because of its clean form and iconic simplicity. 

Τhe video is an adaptation of the original film "C" which was produced by the Museum of Cycladic Art and HAOS film, directed by Georgis Grigorakis

Scenario, Narration: Nikos Chr. Stampolidis
Based of the film C by Georgis Grigorakis
Music – Marilena Orfanou

In 2016 the Museum of Cycladic Art celebrates 30 years of creative presence with an exhibition entitled “Cycladic Society 5,000 Years Ago”. Since no written documents of the Early Cycladic period survive, this exhibition attempted to “read” in a simple and straightforward manner the social structure, activities, living environment, and, where possible, convictions and beliefs of the Cycladic islanders in the Early Bronze Age (3,200-2,000 BC) through their creations.

Background image: Photo Petros Koublis
Exhibition Images: Photo: Paris Tavitian © Museum of Cycladic Art
Texts, Videos © Museum of Cycladic Art

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