ARCH 0420: Archaeologies of the Greek Past

Early Cycladic Figures

February 3, 2014 · 10 Comments

This week in class we focused on the sculptures found in the Cycladic Islands of the southern Aegean: the collection of art known as Early Cycladic figures. After reading several analyses that hypothesize about the figures’ form, context, and overall meaning, we discussed in our small group sections our observations and our own theories about the works. Why are there a vast number of figures understood to be female, and so few depictions of the male form? Perhaps, as was suggested in my section, women had a significant role in the mourning rituals during the Early Cycladic era, a view supported by the vast majority of the figures found in graveyards. Why, of the five figures depicting red lines on the face, are four significantly larger in size? We discussed in my section that, if the red lines are meant to be a pictorial representation of the historically controversial practice of women scratching their cheeks until they bleed as a symbol of grief, perhaps the larger figures depict more important women. Maybe we are analyzing sculptures of dead queens.

Standing female figure, ca. 2600–2400 B.C.; Early Cycladic II

Standing female figure, ca. 2600–2400 B.C.; Early Cycladic II

Despite the significant guesswork about the figures and the role they would have played in the early Cycladic culture, it is almost impossible to prove any of these theories, considering the lack of writing from the time period. But the very existence of the sculptures does indicate certain possibilities about the Cycladic culture: some kind of social stratification, some kind of necessity or desire to depict the human form, an artistic cohesion across the islands, a society peaceful and economically stable enough to enable the creation of art and sculpture. Even though we may never be completely certain why and for what purpose the figures were made in the Early Cycladic time, their influence on our modern artistic aesthetics is definitive. Nowadays we would classify the figures’ design as minimalist: a stripped down delineation of form, dependent on geometric stability rather than ornamentation. The artistic influence of the figures on modern sculpture is apparent in, for example, the sculpture of Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brâncuşi. Modigliani’s “Woman’s Head” of 1912 is an abstracted, elongated form that recalls the facial features visible on the Cycladic figures. Brâncuşi’s “The Kiss” from 1916 evokes the consistent feature of the sculptures in the position of the arms, although it presents two figures in an embrace rather than an individual. The consistent abstract and minimalist portrayal of individuals is, however, what unifies the aesthetic style of these works, be they from thousands of years before our time or a little over one hundred years ago. Or, one could simply say that, since we began to make art, it has been about the expression of the self. Humans have been depicting the human form since they have been able to use the power of art as a form of expression.

Woman’s Head, 1912 Amedeo Modigliani.

Woman’s Head, 1912
Amedeo Modigliani.

The Kiss, 1916 Constantin Brâncuşi.

The Kiss, 1916
Constantin Brâncuşi.

This class was the first time I encountered the Cycladic figures, despite having already learned about the art they’ve influenced. For a reason I can’t quite completely explain, the figures make me sad in some way, perhaps because they meant so much to an entire culture and we don’t know why they decided to make them. Were they depictions of the dead – objects made out of grief and sorrow? Were they representations of life, carried through time until they found their way into graves? Were they objects of ritual – dark and powerful talismans? I don’t know. Although we discovered these artifacts that once belonged to people who must have had some of the same fears and dreams and loves we did, the people of these figures seem so far away. I advocate for the continued investigation into what the figures meant to the cultures that made them, so we can find out what they mean to us.

One peculiar feature appearing on almost all of the Cycladic figures is the pose of the crossed arms. Some argued that this pose was meant to represent the crossed arms of a corpse. Some say it was an ingenious decision by the designers to keep the arms intact. Others looked at the arms and imagined a mother cradling a child. When I look at the figures and their arms, I imagine them holding their secrets inside of themselves, safe and strong.


Categories: Weekly posts

10 responses so far ↓

  • Müge // February 18, 2014 at 11:58 pm |

    I am glad to read that most of you are not frustrated, but on the contrary fascinated, by the multiple theories that surround the meaning and function of the Cycladic figurines! While it is disheartening to not know sometimes, these figurines are one of the excellent examples about how an archaeologist must remain open to multiple understandings, explanations and theories!

  • Aubree Colleen Moore // February 12, 2014 at 12:03 am |

    Gaby, this is a wonderful post! It is beautifully written and evoked many thoughts and emotions in me as I read it. I must agree with Tom that the sheer mysteries behind these figures is one of the most fascinating parts of their existence. Upon studying these figures, I too was captivated by the fact that we do not actually know for certain what their purpose was. In my opinion, part of what makes archaeology so cool is the mystery behind the objects and cultures we study. With respect to these figures, we do know some information as to where they came from, where they were found, and what they could have been used for. However, the one bit of missing information that prevents us from nailing down their exact purpose is what makes the experience of studying them so interesting.

    I also enjoy hearing the perspectives of others, and I look forward to more opportunities to work together and uncover the mysteries within ancient Greek culture.

  • Alexandra Evelyn DeFrancesco // February 8, 2014 at 4:19 pm |

    Gabby, this was a beautiful post.
    While I agree that the importance of women in Early Cycladic society should not be the only possible explanation provided for the larger amount of female figures, I do see it as a very plausible one. The painting of specific areas, such as the pubic area, and the emphasis of pregnancy suggest a connection to fertility. Perhaps members of Early Cycladic society revered women for their ability to produce life and chose to express their admiration through art forms in the same way we do.
    I find it particularly upsetting that the vast majority of Early Cycladic Figures known to us are actually forgeries, as there is a high demand for such figures in the art market. This makes it even more difficult for us to comprehend their possible functions; how can we know whether the omission of certain aspects of some figurines was intentional, providing evidence for separate classifications, or the product
    of an artist bearing no connection to these figures? There is something unnerving about the relatively small amount of figures that have actually been dug up; where are the rest, if there are any more? If there aren’t, why are there so few? Were they exclusive to high members of society? I only wish there was a way to know.

  • Logan Thomas Bonney // February 4, 2014 at 9:57 pm |

    Great post Gabby!

    The first time I took in the image of a Cycladic figure through the readings in class I had the same reaction as some European archaeologists; “wow, these things are ugly.”

    Yet as I learned more about the variation, aesthetics, commonalities, and spirituality associated with the sculptures through hypothesis and observations from anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists I became enthralled with the aura of mystery which surrounds them.

    As attested through Gabby’s post and the following comments, there are so many different ways to interpret these secretive statues. One thing that is for certain is that these artifacts have the ability to draw people’s interest and imagination to a part of classical history that they might not readily feel connected with otherwise.

    I feel a bit guilty, but, a part of me doesn’t ever want the mystery to be solved. I kind of hope that generations of students can continue to ponder these questions together.

  • Ashley Urrutia // February 4, 2014 at 5:50 pm |

    Gaby, this was an amazing post and it included so many of different theories so well. There is no clear evidence as to why these figures were used, and the fact that the exact origin of many of these objects is unknown makes it even more difficult to understand them and its purpose. Although some were discovered in graves, perhaps they were used to represent more cheery occasions throughout a person’s life. Since there is evidence that there are color pigment remains that are not clearly visible with the naked eye. There is also evidence that some parts were repainted, which can further suggest that the figures evolved with the person it represented. Maybe the discovery of more of these figures can lead us to truer meaning behind the mysterious figurines.

    I enjoyed the examples provided to illustrate the influence of these figures in modern day art, after reading about the figurines it was easy to spot the similarities.

  • Guo Wang // February 4, 2014 at 2:44 am |

    This was a beautifully-written post that did a fantastic job evoking emotions. I didn’t expect to end up so emotionally involved in a topic I thought I’d be approaching indifferently.

    Although, I feel like more mundane explanations should also be considered, at least for the sake of thoroughness. In the case of the folded arms, one of the articles talked about the possibility that the particular pose depicted simply happened to be the most convenient to sculpt. Also, maybe the standing folded-arms pose is simply a standard way of depicting a generic human figure. For example, most people today would draw figures in similar poses if they were asked to sketch a quick and crude stick figure. Maybe it’s simply a pose that made intuitive sense to the sculptor when carving a standard human form.

  • Meredith Bess Bilski // February 3, 2014 at 11:48 pm |

    These are all very good points that we all seemed to grapple with in section. Beyond the feelings of sadness that these figurines evoke—both in their physical features and the circumstances surrounding their ambiguity—there seems to be an additional element of fragility surrounding the theories on their uses and characteristics. That is, the hypotheses and questions that we proposed in section and we saw in our readings are based on hard evidence: the figurines that have been discovered to date. Further discoveries could potentially alter our understanding of the figurines and Early Cycladic society at large, because archaeologists have based their hypotheses on the evidence available to them. One example of this is in the differences between male and female figurines. Fewer male figurines have been found; in contrast to the women, whose defining characteristic are their folded arms, these men are depicted engaging in their trades and sitting upright. What do these differences tell us about the nature of men and women in Early Cycladic society, both in life and in death? How will the possibility of discovering additional figurines with divergent characteristics impact existing theories on how these artifacts can serve as a window into life in the Early Cycladic Period? This is another element of mystery—beyond the figurines’ mysterious appearance and function—that our readings touched upon and that further complicates an already complicated narrative.

  • Jonathan Chen // February 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm |

    Gaby, I agree with your reasoning behind why so many of the figurines are female, but I also want to expand on that. Perhaps so many of the figurines are female because females were the ones who sculpted them as they had the required skills to do so while the men had other duties they had to do. Also, I think that the red stripe markings found on the faces were not only a symbol of grief and controversial practices, but they could also be markings applied during special times in a person’s life. For example, there could be one marking applied when you go through a rite of passage or initiation ceremony when you are of age. Another could be applied when you get married. And another could be applied when you die. The reason I said this is because in the reading, it said that the body parts that were accentuated in the figure were painted blue, suggesting that the sculptor had applied these colors in the sculpting process. The red marks seemed to be less organized and neat, so this suggests that they were applied by someone else who wasn’t the sculptor during a special ceremony.

  • Thomas Pettengill // February 3, 2014 at 2:06 pm |

    I must compliment Gaby on her very eloquent description of the mysteries that lie behind these Cycladic figures. To me, that is one of the most fascinating aspects on these figures, the class, and archaeology in general. It’s great to know and understand things about a past culture, but I think it’s just as wondrous to not know. The chance to think about and imagine the reasons or theories behind objects can be exhilarating and testing. It picks at your mind and really forces you to think out of the box.

    I really enjoy speculating and talking with other students to see how their ideas compare to mine. It’s a humbling experience that opens my mind and allows me to appreciate the beauty in mystery.

  • Emile // February 3, 2014 at 2:06 pm |

    Wow, I must say that this post is very eloquent and thought provoking and the conclusion was magnificent. I think the most striking, and heart breaking, thing about all of this analysis is indeed the fact that there really is no definitive answer to what these figurines mean. Sure, there’s evidence here and there supporting different theories, but none of it is quite substantial enough to bring it to the forefront as the most likely explanation. The influence is undeniable, but the meaning is still an enigma and it’s a shame that the mystery may never be solved. I personally subscribe to the line of thought concerning a depiction of life as a whole, including its conclusion, death. In any case, these figurines could have any number of meanings and I sincerely hope one day someone figures it out once and for all.

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