Cycladic Society 5000 years ago

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.

Map of Cyclades (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

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.

Installation Shot (4), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

Social Focus

Early Cycladic culture has its roots in the Cycladic islands’ Neolithic past. Early Cycladic art developed within this tradition, hence its markedly anthropocentric character. In the Early Bronze Age Cyclades, the individual emerges as the society’s basic and dominant focus. Man and woman, whose union produces the family, were the cornerstone of Early Cycladic society, as reflected in this period’s anthropomorphic creations. 

Installation Shot (19), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

Neolithic representations of the human figure, particularly female, put an emphasis on its reproductive capacity. Standing and seated steatopygic female figurines, with their excessively large buttocks, are characteristic creations of the Neolithic period. These developed into the violin-shaped figurine, the most common Early Cycladic I type, a schematic rendering of the voluptuous Neolithic female figure, often with naturalistic details such as the breasts and pubic triangle, both characteristic of the female sex.

Installation Shot (5), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

It is also interesting that most naturalistic figurines represent naked women, although some male figurines also occur. Interestingly some figurines represent pregnant women or women who have just given birth. The biological attribute of women to generate life was represented in a simple and clear way, giving a clear reference to fertility, reproduction, and motherhood.  Double figurines further suggest that reproduction and regeneration were prevalent concepts in Early Cycladic society.Finally, a unique fragmentary group comprising a large figurine holding a smaller one, identified as a “mother and child”, may indicate the role of the family as the nucleus of Early Cycladic society.

Installation Shot (11), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art


Marble figurines are undoubtedly Early Cycladic culture’s most characteristic and unusual creation. Only one marble carving workshop, at Skarkos in Ios, which yielded figurines and tools, has been identified so far. However, studies of how the figurines were made have led to the identification of individual craftsmen. These studies show that figurines were produced according to specific proportions and that, despite their standardization, some closely resemble others in the rendering of specific details, which characterize a number of artists or “masters”.

Installation Shot (12), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

These “masters” are named conventionally for the museum (e.g. “Naxos Museum Master”) or collection (e.g. “Goulandris Master”) that houses their most characteristic work or the archaeologist who discovered it (e.g. “Doumas Master”). Figurines by the “Goulandris Master”, the most prolific sculptor of the Early Cycladic II period, have solid shapes, a lyre-shaped head with painted decoration, and a short neck. The “Naxos Museum Master”, on the other hand, made figurines with a long face, narrow torso, curved shoulders, and breasts set high on the torso.Some scholars, however, question the existence of certain “masters” and attribute the similarity between figurines either to the prevalent canon of proportions or to local workshops.

Installation Shot (13), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition, MCA, 2016, From the collection of: Museum of Cycladic Art
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CURATOR'S TALK | CYCLADIC SOCIETY 5000 years ago, MCA, 2017, From the collection of: Museum of Cycladic Art
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Installation Shot (21), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art


Marble figurines are undoubtedly the Early Cycladic culture’s most characteristic and unusual creations. The first figurines to become known in the late eighteenth century were considered “ugly”, “primitive”, “barbaric”, and “of poor taste”. However, under the influence of modern early twentieth-century art, Cycladic figurines became popular among art lovers, who recognized their artistic value. Figurines are grouped into types and varieties based on their formal characteristics and conventionally named either for their shape or for the site where they were first found.

Installation Shot (7), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

Experiments showed that the making of figurines comprised four stages: tracing the figurine’s shape on the marble block, “roughing it out”, finishing the figurine, and, finally, engraving the details, polishing, and, occasionally, adding painted decoration. Although most Cycladic figurines are made of marble, figurines also exist in limestone, black stone and metal.Cycladic figurines are divided into two main groups: schematic and naturalistic. Most represent women, but male figurines also exist. Βoth categories coexist throughout this period as two different manners of expression.

Installation Shot (9), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

Starting from the abstract rendering of the human outline followed by a period of intense experimentation, Cycladic sculptors created the most characteristic figurines of Cycladic civilization at its peak, the so-called “Canonical Folded Arms Figurines”. These primarily naked female figurines have standardized features: the head is tilted back, the arms are folded under the chest in the “canonical” order (left over right), and the feet are pointed downward. Basic facial features and anatomical details of the sex organs are denoted. Certain features, such as the eyes, eyebrows, and hair, are occasionally painted. This standardization lasts for approximately five centuries and ends at the end of the period, when these “canons” are no longer observed and the figurines’ features are rendered in a careless manner. At the end of the Early Cycladic period, sculptors display a preference for schematic figurines characterized by solid volumes for the body and a complete lack of anatomical features.

Installation Shot (6), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

We know that Cycladic sculpture used colour extensively, and that Cycladic figurines were originally painted. Deep blue or black pigment was used for the hair, eyebrows, eyes, and pubic triangle, whereas red was used for the jewellery and decorative motifs on the face and body.The absence of written sources, combined with the fact that most Cycladic figurines were not found during systematic excavations, hinders their interpretation. A number of hypotheses concerning their function have been put forward. Some scholars interpret Cycladic figurines as representations of deities associated with fertility, or the Mother Goddess, who rules over the cycle of life and death, or even chthonic deities, psychopomps, or apotropaic mythological beings. Others liken the figurines to images of humans, possibly concubines in the service of the deceased, children’s dolls, images of ancestors, or symbols of prestige. Their discovery in settlements and tombs alike suggests that they served both as ritual objects in daily life and as grave gifts.

Cycladic Society | A Video Poem, MCA, 2016, From the collection of: Museum of Cycladic Art
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Installation Shot (21), "Cycladic Society 5000 years ago" exhibition (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

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

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