The artworks that have come from Greece has fascinated and inspired scholars and non-academics for centuries. Ancient Greek art was seen as the height of civilization and of taste. Here, I wish to present and discuss the early Cycladic marble figures that originate from the Early Bronze age.
A mass of white marble sculpted figures, manufactured in the Cycladic Islands during the Early Bronze Age (c. Late 4th – 3rd millennium BCE) have been discovered throughout Greece. They are usually nude females with arms folded across their bellies, but there are male figures in the shape of hunter-warriors, seated harpists and flute players. The sizes of these figures range from under 4 inches tall to life-size sculptures. Originally these would have been painted (traces of paint survive on a few) but the white, simple elegance of these figures now appeal to modern tastes.
There is a debate on what the purposes of these figures were. Despite the vast amount of these early Cycladic marble figures, scholars are at a loss as to what and who they were commissioned for. Were they intended for religious or domestic purposes? Were they intended for men or women? Did they play a role in a funerary context? Were they representations of particular deities? Were they a representation of the “mother goddess”? Who were the artists? The answer is, simply, we do not know.
At the time of their creation, the societies that created them were small-scale farming communities. However, experimental archaeologists have shown that the tools available to these people were sufficient to produce them. “Some scholars have even proposed that the artists employed complex schemes of proportion, involving precise geometric rations, angles, or modules, although this has not yet been rigorously demonstrated” (Alcock & Cherry, p.478).
The Cyclades are renowned for their pure white marble and it makes sense that these communities used the available resources at hand to produce some of the most beautiful, stark forms of art. They were undoubtedly used in nautical trade, since maritime exchange plays an important part in the Early Bronze Age cultures throughout the Aegean.
The discovery and study of these Early Cycladic marble figures raises dozens of important questions relating to life in Early Bronze Age Greece. However, they seem to fascinate modern artistic sensibilities, which show the continued appeal of these ancient artefacts. Perhaps this is what the figures were meant for.
Alcock, Susan E. & Cherry, John F. (2005) The Human Past – The Mediterranean World, Thames & Hudson, London.