Sculptures in marble are the most characteristic products of the Early Cycladic civilization. Most prominent are the figurines depicting women and men. Other objects, such as vessels, tools, weapons and jewellery, made of marble, clay, metals and obsidian complete the group of the artefacts created in the 3rd millennium BC on the Aegean islands.
Early Cycladic figurines were almost exclusively made of marble. Deposits of good quality white marble are available on most Cycladic islands. However, isotopic analysis of marble objects show that the main sources of marble in that period were Naxos, Keros, and, to a smaller extent, Paros and Ios.
Apart from marble, Cycladic or Cycladic-type figurines were occasionally made of other materials, such as green and black stone, limestone, pumice, white tuff, schist, green steatite, seashell, bone, ivory, flint, lead, bronze, and clay; wooden figurines may have also existed, although no examples have survived. The use of other materials may have been dictated by the lack of good quality white marble in certain areas like Thera, where figurines were made of local white tuff or whitish clay; alternatively, it may have been due to the familiarity of local craftsmen with other materials, as in the case of Crete, where figurines of ivory, flint and green steatite have been found. We should stress, however, that seashell and clay figurines have been found on Naxos, where fine quality white marble abounds.
One of the major cultural innovations of the Aegean Early Bronze Age was the introduction of metallurgy – bronze working in particular – from the Orient. In the Cyclades, metallurgy spread and developed during the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC). The Cycladic islands had notable sources of metals for the time: copper on Kythnos and possibly Seriphos, lead and silver on Siphnos. Ores were also supplied by the mines of Lavrion in Attica. The most widespread metal was copper, which was at first mixed with arsenic and later with tin, creating more durable bronze alloys.
These alloys were used to make weapons (spearheads, daggers, etc.), tools (chisels, axes, drills, saws, fishing-hooks, etc.), toilet implements (pins, tweezers, etc.) and jewellery. Artifacts of other metals are rare: silver jewellery and miniature vessels, bronze figurines, lead boat models and clamps for repairs. The only gold object known from this period is a necklace bead.
Marble was worked mainly with stone tools. Although no direct evidence is available for the toolkit of the Cycladic craftsman, modern research in combination with experimental archaeology has shown that most tools were probably made of emery. A piece of this heavy and dense stone – which abounds in Naxos – can be easily turned into a mallet (for shaping the figure) simply by making its edge pointed or sharp. Emery was also probably used as a drill (to carve and pierce specific anatomical details such as the eye, ear, navel, and loin cavities, or repair holes), as an engraving tool (for incised details) or as a surface polisher. Emery powder was very effective as an abrasive for the initial working of the marble.
Obsidian – widely available on Melos – and flint may have also been employed in marble carving. When shaped into blades, those materials can be used as engraving tools or even for erasing the traces of smoothing on the surface of the marble; in the form of small pointy flakes they become particularly effective drills. Finally, Theran pumice soaked in water is an excellent material for the final polishing of the surface, and the same is true for sand mixed with water. Bronze chisels could have been used for greater precision and speed in making the cut-outs on more complex figurines, such as the harpists, although their poor durability (due to the high copper-content) as well as the high value of metals in that period, probably made metal stone-working tools less common.
As we can deduce from the few unfinished figurines that have been discovered so far, the first step in the process was to roughly shape the raw piece of marble into a figure by the impact of a mallet. Emery powder was then used to abrade the surface until it obtained the desired shape and size. Once the desired shape was achieved, the surface was smoothed carefully before the fine work of carving the details started. At the end, the figurine was polished to a high degree that is still amazing. Traces of horizontal, vertical or diagonal smoothing are very often visible on the surface of marble figurines. Sometimes, we can see the marks left by the tool used to level the contours of the leg cleft on “canonical” figurines. Traces of repairs are also discernible in some examples.
The creation of a Cycladic figurine was based on strict rules and a detailed system of proportions, which required precise measurements and considerable skill in application. Therefore, it was most likely the work of specialized craftsmen, who probably passed on their knowledge to younger artisans only after the latter had spent a long period of time working as apprentices. Some scholars have attempted to identify individual “artists” or workshops by distinguishing groups of figurines with similar characteristics. Those “artists” (or workshops) have been conventionally named after the museum or the city which hosts characteristic works by them, after the excavator who brought them to light, or after the collector who possesses them (e.g. the Berlin Master, the Doumas Master, the Goulandris Master, etc.). Other scholars, however, reject these attributions as anachronistic and believe that the similarities reflect chronological or geographical proximity. One should bear in mind that the available evidence for the techniques employed in Cycladic marble-carving is very fragmentary and our knowledge stems almost exclusively from careful observations of the figurines themselves. So far, no workshop has been discovered in a Cycladic settlement and the organization of the production remains entirely unknown.
Direct evidence for the working of bronze in the Cyclades is limited but instructive. Remains of hearths and crucibles of the Early Cycladic III period have been found at Kastri on Syros, together with slags and stone moulds which show that metal smiths knew how to cast bronze and produced both cast and hammered objects. The spread of metallurgy in the Aegean during the third millennium BC gave impetus to crafts such as building, shipbuilding, carpentry, and the minor arts; at the same time, it promoted trade and contributed to the development of social stratification. Mainly, however, it brought important changes in the techniques of warfare. Bronze weapons become relatively common in the Cyclades in the later stages of the Early Cycladic II period and this seems to be related to the disturbances and upheavals that are observed in the Aegean during the transition to the Early Cycladic III period. According to one theory, this turmoil was due to conflicts between local populations for the control of sources of raw materials, such as copper, or access to networks trafficking metals that were more difficult to obtain, such as tin.
Much of the modern admiration for Cycladic figurines and vessels stems from their abstract simplicity, which is greatly enhanced by the almost transparent quality of the white marble. However, we know that Cycladic artisans used to decorate their creations with bright colours, either for practical or for symbolic reasons. Traces of colour have been preserved on a wide variety of artifacts, namely marble figurines and vessels, clay vases, and bone tools. Their detailed study is possible through traditional methods, chemical analysis, and ultra-violet photography.
Red and blue are the most common colours used in Cycladic art. Green and black are also used, but less frequently. All colours were produced from minerals:
- red from iron oxides (hematite), red ochre or cinnabar (mercury sulfide); the latter material is not native in the Aegean and was probably imported from Asia Minor or the Balkans;
- blue from azurite (copper carbonate);
- green from malachite or hydroxide of azurite;
- black was probably produced by oxidization of another mineral, possibly azurite.
Traces of red and blue colour have been detected on numerous marble vessels and bone tools. In the Cycladic collection of the MCA there are several shallow bowls with the interior entirely covered in red. There are also examples of vessels with linear decoration on the exterior surface. Some deeper bowls preserve thick layers of blue pigment and were most probably used as containers. Blue pigment in tiny amounts is also found in some miniature clay “aryballoi”, in which case we assume that it was used for cosmetic purposes. A number of grinders and grinding stones that bear traces of red and blue colour were most probably used for processing the pigments. Some peculiar bone tubes with blue or red colour in the interior may have been used as containers.
The use of colour on figurines is not always easy to attest. In some cases, there are clearly visible remains on the marble. More often, however, the only trace is a “paint ghost”, i.e. a smoother part of the surface or the outline of a painted feature (e.g. an eye, a diadem) that looks as if it has been rendered in low relief: in fact, the pigment applied in those areas protected the marble surface from the erosion suffered by the rest of the figurine and appears today smooth, lighter in colour and slightly raised in comparison to the uncoloured areas. Black and blue were normally used to define or emphasize anatomical details of the head and body, such as the eyes, eyebrows, hair and pubic triangle. Red was used to emphasize incised details and depict ornaments (necklaces, bracelets), power or status attributes (diadems, bands) and various decorative motifs on the face and body. The ears, mouth and nostrils were usually not painted.
Marble figurines are the most impressive creations of Cycladic art. They usually represent nude female figures with the arms folded above the abdomen (normally the left arm resting upon the right one), slightly flexed knees and a barely uplifted backward-slanting head. This type has been dubbed “canonical” by specialist scholars, because it accounts for the overwhelming majority of figurines sculpted in the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC), when Cycladic art was at its zenith. The “canonical” type includes several varieties, which have been named conventionally after the find-spot where they were first identified (Kapsala, Spedos, Dokathismata, Chalandriani, Koumasa- see map below); those varieties differ from each other only in stylistic details. “Canonical” figurines vary in size from miniature examples to almost life-size sculptures, but most of them are about 40 cm. high.
Some figurines of the transitional Early Cycladic I-II period, on which the above traits are not fully elaborated, are called “pre-canonical”. Earlier examples include two Early Cycladic I types which are named after the cemeteries where they were first found (Plastiras and Louros); in the Plastiras types, the human form is still rendered in a way reminiscent of Late Neolithic examples, while in the Louros type the artists prefer much more abstract forms. A series of later figurines, which clearly deviate from the strict stylistic rules of the Early Cycladic II period (mainly in the positioning of the legs and arms but also in the overall appearance of the human form) are referred to as “post-canonical”.
In addition to these rather “naturalistic” figurines, there are also several examples in which the female figure is represented in a highly schematic manner. The best-known among them are “violin-shaped” figurines of the Early Cycladic I period, so named for obvious reasons. These figurines are usually small, rarely exceeding 15-20 cm. Schematic examples are also known from the Early Cycladic I period but are very different in form.
The male figure is rarely represented in Cycladic art. Most frequently it appears in the form of a seated figurine, a musician (in the earlier part of the Early Cycladic II period) or a hunter/warrior (at the end of the same period). Male figurines in the “canonical” standing position are extremely rare. We do know, however, of a few standing males in the Plastiras type of the Early Cycladic I period.
Last, there is a small number of unusual examples representing various groups of figures (e.g. “double” figurines with one female standing on top of larger one). Those figurines date to the most productive period of Cycladic sculpture (Early Cycladic II).
The interpretation of the abstract motifs which were painted on the face and body of several figurines is a contested issue. Some scholars believe that they represent instances of body piercing or painted decoration for particular social or ritual occasions. Others believe that they were status symbols. According to another theory, they were meant to express different attributes of the represented figure. It has even been theorized that they functioned as characteristic symbols of a common cultural or social identity. This discrepancy of approaches should not come as a surprise, since the study of painted motifs on Cycladic figurines is still at an early stage.
We should stress that most painted figurines belong to the so-called “canonical” type of the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC), although we have instances of coloured decoration in earlier types, too, mainly the violin-shaped figurines and a few examples from the Plastiras and Louros types. The practice seems to die out at the final stages of EC II, when the colour gives way to relief decoration.
The meaning and function of Cycladic figurines is kind of an enigma. In the absence of written records, any interpretation has to be based exclusively upon archaeological finds and reasonable assumptions. Unfortunately, archaeological data is also insufficient due to the extensive looting of the Cycladic islands in the 1950s and 1960s, itself the result of the excessive value marble figurines acquired in the international art markets in that period. It has been estimated that out of approximately 1400 known figurines, only 40% has been recovered through systematic excavation.
Even with such fragmentary data, however, it is clear that – leaving aside the unique case of Keros – the majority of Cycladic figurines come from graves. This has led many scholars to associate them with funerary rituals, although the theories proposed vary considerably.
The numerous standing female figurines have been variously interpreted as representations of the deceased, substitute concubines, servants, ancestors or even substitutes for human sacrifices. Other scholars focus on the transcendental character of the statuettes and the overwhelming bias of Cycladic art towards female representations and attempt to explain them as symbols of a mother-goddess, associated with fertility and rebirth, conductors of souls, apotropaic images, divine nurses or even worshipers; some of those sharing this view suggest that the primary use of the figurines may have been in shrines rather than graves (although evidence for specialized cult areas in the Early Bronze Age Cyclades is extremely limited). Approaches that negate the religious character of the figurines are also available, focusing on social dimensions (e.g. representations of females in the age of marriage) or trying to offer practical, though rather unlikely, explanations (figurines as toys).
Although each of those interpretations has been based on serious argumentation and may carry seeds of truth, there is a general consensus that that the nudity of the figurines and the emphatic rendering of the breast and the pubic triangle refer directly to the idea of fertility. This impression is reinforced by some examples with swollen abdomen, apparently indicating pregnancy, as well as figurines with creases on the belly, believed to symbolize post-partum wrinkles.
Fertility was a central theme in the religions of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern people, invariably associated with female divinities, and there is no reason to doubt that this would be the case for Cycladic islanders too. Whether Cycladic female figurines were meant as representations of such a divinity cannot be ascertained. However, the extreme conservatism observed in their typology (produced in the same standardized form for more than five centuries) supports the hypothesis of a ritual function. The characteristic posture with the folded arms recalls comparable groups of statuettes of religious nature from other eastern Mediterranean cultures (Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, etc.) and may have been a widely accepted symbolic type of divine representation. The idea of a worshipper in a gesture of veneration is a possible interpretative alternative but fails to account for the nearly total absence of male statuettes in this characteristic position. Therefore, the view of a female deity of fertility remains the most plausible explanation.
This, however, does not suffice to explain the full meaning and the function of Cycladic figurines. Several questions remain open: What was the precise relation of fertility to funerary rituals? Why do we find figurines only in a small number of graves, usually (but not always) the wealthier ones? How do we explain the discovery of figurines in settlements and other non-funerary contexts (e.g. in Keros)? What was the meaning of the few male figurines and groups of figures? What was the function of the rare life-size female statues, which were too large for an Early Cycladic grave? What was the role of painted decoration on the face and body of several figurines?
It is only further research that may provide satisfactory answers to these questions. The available data allows only for some general remarks. On one hand, the marked standardization and conservatism of Cycladic figurines (especially the type of nude standing female) makes it likely that they functioned as major religious symbols. On the other hand, the diversity we observe in such features as size, decoration and context of use as well as the very existence other figurine types reflects a considerable degree of differentiation in their production, availability and utilization. This differentiation may relate both to ritual issues (e.g. the need for figurines of particular type, size or decoration for each ritual) and social factors (the availability of marble figurines, their size and decoration as reflecting social properties such as the age, lineage and the status of the owner).
The more we study Cycladic figurines, the more we understand that their function was much more sophisticated than previously thought. Despite the stylistic uniformity, they are found in a variety of contexts in association with different types of objects, while their distribution in cemeteries and settlements is very uneven. Careful examination of material from systematic excavations may reveal important information about their use and help us understand better their meaning. Moreover, it will probably demonstrate that they form part of a complex phenomenon of ritual action and social behaviour that cannot afford a single or simplistic model of interpretation.
The so-called “Keros Hoard” is an enigmatic group of Early Cycladic artifacts said to come from the site of Kavos on the now uninhabited islet of Keros, which lies between Naxos and Amorgos. The “Hoard” is said to have included at least 350 fragments of figurines of the “canonical” type (torsos, heads, members), a small number of marble and clay vases, obsidian blades and other minor objects of the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC). These objects were smuggled out of Greece in the 1950s and 1960s and were dispersed among various museums and private collections. The fate of many of them is unknown. A considerable number – 81 fragments – has been repatriated and is now exhibited in the MCA. Most of these pieces were acquired in 1990 and 1992, at auctions held in London, some of them with the sponsorship of the Commercial Bank of Greece.
Proper archaeological excavations undertaken in 1963, 1966 and 1967 in the looted area of Kavos revealed an exceptionally rich deposit of Early Cycladic artifacts, the overwhelming majority fragmented, but no architectural remains that could be associated with them. The way in which the objects are broken and the erosion on their fracture surfaces indicate that they were smashed deliberately in Antiquity. On the basis of this evidence it has been proposed that the site was a repository for objects of great symbolic significance and that they were broken on purpose in the context of specific rituals.
The “Keros Hoard” has been exhaustively studied and published by the MCA curator Dr P. Sotirakopoulou in the monograph "The Keros Hoard" Myth or Reality? Searching for the lost Pieces of a Puzzle (Athens 2005).
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