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"Another thing" is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.

Today is International Women's Day, so what would be more appropriate than an object representing an especially enigmatic group of artefacts, directly linked to prehistoric concepts of femininity: Cycladic figurines.

Cycladic figurine from Amorgos, Athens Museum

A Cycladic figurine from Amorgos in the National Archaeological Museum at Athens. Ca. 2500 BC.
(Image: Wikimedia, User Zde)

Cycladic figurines (sometimes called "Cycladic idols") are among the most enigmatic and most evocative objects from Greek prehistory. They were produced in the Cycladic islands (whence the name) in the southern Aegean for a few centuries around the middle of the third millennium BC. Usually of relatively small dimensions, they are highly stylised depictions of the human form, made of local Cycladic marble, which was carved and then polished. Although the appearance of that beautiful material is now one of their most striking features, it is likely that all or most of them bore additional details, such as facial features, in paint, which rarely survives.

Only about 1,500 complete Cycladic figurines are known so far. Less than half of them were discovered in systematic archaeological excavations; many others made their way directly from illicit digs into the international art market. That lack of context makes them difficult to interpret. While some figurines were found in settlements, most appear to have been deposited in graves. The most prominent findspot is the small island of Keros, near Naxos, where recent Greek/British excavations have revealed fragments of several hundred figurines, all of them apparently broken before being brought there. Most archaeologists interpret the site as a sanctuary serving the surrounding islands.

Although there are a number of different figurine types, probably representing different periods and locations of production, our example is a typical one, of the type known as "canonical". Like the vast majority of Cycladic figurines, it clearly shows a female. Although they hardly appear voluptuous or especially sexualised to the modern eye, most of the figurines are identifiable as women, indicated typically by the presence of breasts and a pubic triangle. Some also have an accentuated belly, most likely portraying pregnancy. Male figurines do occur as well, but are very rare.

Two key questions arise from these fascinating objects: Whom do they depict, and what purpose did they serve? Both remain controversial. The figurines do not stand by themselves, so they may have been meant to be displayed lying down, or to be held. The evidence from Keros and their presence in graves suggests some broadly symbolic use, presumably in a ritual or religious context. While the pregnant examples support a connection with concepts of motherhood and fertility, there is no consensus on whether Cycladic figurines depict individuals, one or several deities, or are a more general representation of femininity.

One way or another, Cycladic figurines are truly startling objects - mysterious, beautiful and seemingly timeless.

The example shown here was found on the island of Amorgos and is on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. You can see it, along with several others, on our Exploring Athens tour, on which you also have opportunity to visit the vast collection at the Museum of Cycladic Art. Elsewhere, we come across Cycladic figurines in the museums of Naxos and Santorini onCruising to the Cyclades, the museum at Heraklion on our Exploring Crete tour and the museum of Kalymnos on Cruising the Dodecanese.

5 responses to “Another thing: A Female Mystery - Cycladic Figurines”

  1. Markas Dvaras says:

    This mystery is solved!
    As I see it, the riddle of the Cycladic Idols revolves around four questions, as follows:
    1. What was their original purpose?
    2. Why are they so numerous?
    3. Why are they all seemingly based on the same design?
    4. Why are they grave objects?
    Questions #2 and #3 indicate to me that we are dealing with an early artistic cliché, and a cliché is really nothing more than a popular idea. Question #4 suggests to me that they were objects associated with the vocation or occupation of the deceased. Based on these two assumptions, it is easy to deduce the answer to question #1.
    Trace evidence of polychrome has been found on many of the idols, indicating that they were painted. The popular theory is that the females were using them as a way to mark important life events, such as puberty, marriage, the birth of a child, etc. I doubt that was their original purpose, as it is unlikely that anyone would take the trouble to quarry and carve marble objects just as a way to commemorate life events. More likely, the practice was a repurposing of the sculptures.
    Obviously, no one is born with the knowledge and skill needed to carve marble, so that knowledge must have been handed down in some manner. I think that their makers were probably women, and when a girl reached a certain age, she was taught to carve marble.
    It is easy for me to imagine this being done in a classroom setting, with the teachers saying to their students something like, “Today you are going to learn how to make your own version of one of these little dolls, just like your mother and your grandmother have.” Then, the students were introduced to the art of sculpting with marble, and I think they were told that although there is plenty of room for variation, there are a few rules that are inviolable- such as the placement of the pubic triangle and how the arms are to be arranged.
    Once they were made, they became a sort of diploma for their makers. Tradition dictated that they would use them to mark various life events. The sculptures became so intimately connected with their makers that it was seen as natural that they would take them to their graves.
    So now we can answer the four questions posed earlier-
    1. Their original purpose was as a “tutorial object.”
    2. They are so numerous because most, if not all of the women on the islands were taught how to sculpt marble.
    3. They are all seemingly based on the same design because that was the traditional way to make them.
    4. They are grave objects of sculptors buried with their first sculptures.
    May we safely say this case is closed?

  2. Heinrich Hall says:

    Dear Markas Dvaras.

    Thank you for your comment. Cycladic figurines are mysterious objects that, like so many prehistoric items, remain open for interpretation. Thus, as a prehistoric archaeologist, I welcome your ideas. They do not convince me, and I’ll say why.

    Is the case closed? No, of course it is not. Your idea is attractive and fairly coherent, but it cannot be proved and it ignores part of the archaeological evidence. Regarding the impossibility of proving your case, we do not have convincing evidence, for example, that the figurines were made by females, nor that they served the purpose you suggest. That is conjecture, not conclusion. Amongst other problems, you ignore the recent finds from Keros, where numerous figurines (actually more than from any other known site) were found broken, and apparently broken elsewhere, in a context that does not apparently seem to be a cemetery, nor a settlement.

    Regarding your four points. First of all, let’s take a step back and look at the questions themselves as you put them.

    1. What was their original purpose?
    – Are we sure they had one single purpose? Classical sculpture, for example, does not. It includes at the very least, votive, commemorative and cultic, but arguably several more.

    2. Why are they so numerous?
    – They are not numerous. We know of less than 2,000 Cycladic figurines at the moment. Considering they span a dozen or more islands and at least half a millennium (20 plus generations), that is not so much. If you compare the number to, for example, Classical terracottas, these numbers are low. I can see that your implication “if not all the women”, plus the vagaries of archaeology, may weaken this counter-argument.

    3. Why are they all seemingly based on the same design?
    – The key word is “seemingly”. There are 4 or 5 prevalent figurine-types, all slightly different, but there are also many outliers. So it is simplistic to say they are all based on the same design. What do you do with the males, the harpers, the multiple figurines or the wine-drinker?

    4. Why are they grave objects?
    – Since the recent Keros excavations, it is not at all clear that the figurines are exclusively grave objects.

    Also, regarding point 1, by the way , what is a “tutorial object”? That is not a known term and it makes little sense to me without explanation.

    Regarding point 4, your argument has a baffling flaw. If a Cycladic figurine were a grave object placed with the body of the (female) individual whose first sculpture it was, what happened to all those sculptors’ second, third, fourth (and so on) works? Also, why are the figurines so accomplished technically?

    We cannot, in any case, safely say anything about the meaning or function of these objects, or any other objects from prehistory, because the body of information available is fragmentary and even the most convincing interpretation cannot be said to be safe. That is the underlying difficulty of prehistoric archaeology.

    I thank you for your contribution. For an in-depth discussion, you should offer your suggestion at an archaeological conference or in the various archaeological discussion groups online. Ours is a travel blog, and thus not the ideal forum to prove or disprove your ideas.

  3. Dear Mr. Hall,

    Like so many others, I am enamored by these figurines.

    I enjoyed your blog post.

    Yours is the only source I can find that cites a particular number of intact pieces: 1500.

    Would you be so kind as to tell me where you found that data?

    Thank you so much.


  4. Heinrich Hall says:

    Dear Ms Nelson,

    Thank you! I am afraid I do not remember off the top of my head what the source of that number is (I wrote the text in 2014). In all likelihood, it was mentioned by Professor Renfrew during one of his talks in Athens, or he may have referred to it in conversation. If I come across a written source for it, I’ll place another comment here.

  5. Muir Palmer says:

    I just returned from Greece. I spent a week on Koufanisi with a beautiful view of Keros. I learned so much about the Cycladic figurines and what history is known. We took a small fishing boat around Keros and swam in her coves and quiet beaches. At this time, only one shepherd is allowed on the island to tend to his goats. No one else. Archaeological excavations shut down pre-pandemic and they are currently looking for funds to start again. When I returned to Athens before flying home, I made a visit to the Museum of Cycladic Art. A worthwhile visit. I am doing some research right now on how to weave the story of the Cycladic women into my guided meditations but it’s not easy. But something will come to me. Thank you!

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