Stepping stones across the Aegean, the Cycladic islands were early settlement sites for migrants. The islanders developed a significant culture centuries before the emergence of the great Bronze Age civilizations of Crete and the Greek mainland. The distinctive marble figurines produced on various islands represent some of the most beautiful artifacts of the period, even as their original significance remains a mystery.

I. Geography

The Cyclades lie in the southwestern Aegean, east and southeast of Attica, and north of Crete. The name is derived from their apparent arrangement in a circle around the sacred island of Delos. Marble is the dominant feature of the islands; most are part of a submerged, mountainous land mass made of metamorphic rock. A few volcanic islands (e.g., Thera and Melos) represent exceptions. The islands are not rich in natural resources, nor are they very fertile. The development of olive cultivation made them more productive.

The island system ranges from Thera in the south to Andros in the north. Delos and Paros are among the central islands. Naxos, Paros, and Andros are among the largest, but the islands are generally small. Early Cycladic settlements probably included about a few dozen people; no island could support more than a couple of thousand inhabitants. The meager size meant that eventually the Cyclades would be unable to compete with growing cultures on Crete and mainland Greece.

II. Archaeological Research

The first systematic research on the Cyclades was undertaken by James Theodore Bent (1883-84). An explorer, Bent undertook excavations at gravesites on Antiparos. In 1884, German archaeologist U. Kohler published an account of the known prehistoric finds from the Cyclades. Other excavations were led by Christos Tsountas (1898-99), who investigated gravesites on Syros, Paros, Despotiko, Siphnos, and Amorgos. He also researched the fortified settlement at Kastri. Tsountas coined the term "Cycladic Civilization," to highlight its individuality. (Contemporary scholars speak of "Cycladic culture.") In 1896-99, the British School undertook excavations at Phylakopi (on Melos), the only well-stratified site from this period; further studies of the site, directed by Duncan Mackenzie, occurred in the 1960s and 70s. There were few excavations in the Cyclades between 1900 and 1945. In 1949, Kontoleon began important excavations on Naxos. Interest in Cycladic sculpture grew in the 1950s, due in part to similarities to modern art. As a result, however, many gravesites were looted. In the 1960s, Christos Doumas's excavations led to his definitive work on burial customs. The Greek Archeological Service sponsored other excavations, e.g., at Ayia Irini (on Keos) and on Melos. By the 60s, it was generally recognized that the Cyclades had been home to an important early Bronze Age culture.

III. Stone Age Settlements

Stone Age migrants populated the Cyclades from Asia Minor. The oldest site (the small island of Saliagos) was occupied around 5000 BCE. Neolithic settlers were farmers and sailors and adapted to the local conditions of each island. The earliest houses were made of perishable materials, but later stone, a material readily at hand, was used. The settlers served as carriers of goods and developed a major export trade. Marble figures from this period have been found. Some are in the style of the wider Greek and Asian tradition of plump female figures associated with the fertility goddess. Others show similarities to later Cycladic sculpture, with a schematic treatment of the human figure resembling later "violin" figures.

IV. Outline of Cycladic Culture in the Early Bronze Age (Early Cycladic)

3300-2800 Early Cycladic I: roughly: Grotta-Pelos Culture (3300-2700);
found on Paros, Antiparos, Naxos, Melos, Thera, Amorgos
Sculpture Groups:
Pelos Type (schematic)
Plastiras Type (naturalistic)
Louros Type (schematic and

2800-2300 Early Cycladic II: Keros-Syros Culture: height of Cycladic culture; found on Syros, Amorgos, Naxos, Thera, perhaps Melos
Canonical Folded-Arm Figurine Types:
Kapsala Variety
Spedos Variety
Dokathismata Variety
Chalandriani Variety
Koumasa Variety

2300-2000 Early Cycladic III: roughly Phylakopi I culture (2400-2000); found on Melos, Paros

Note: Phylakopi II followed on Melos, Paros, and Thera: Beginning of the Middle Bronze Age and Minoan influence

V. General Features of the Early Bronze Age

The distinctive Cycladic culture emerged most fully in the Early Bronze Age, before the Middle and Late Bronze Age cultures (i.e., Minoan Crete and then the Mycenaean mainland) dominated the islands. In the Early Bronze Age, Cycladic settlements were found in coastal localities that were selected to afford natural protection from the elements. Cemeteries were in close proximity to the settlements. The dead were buried uncremated, in contracted positions. Bodies were accompanied by objects used in daily life, though some were made especially for burial. Objects included vases, marble figures, jewelry, daggers, and blades.

Inhabitants engaged in hunting, fishing, animal husbandry (sheep, goats, pigs), and agriculture (grain, grapes, olives). Industry also flourished: crafts, metallurgy, marble sculpting, pottery, and quarrying. Kythnos was a major source of copper ore; tin may have come from Troy. Silver and lead were mined on Siphnos. Both stone and metal tools were evident. Cycladic islanders also developed substantial seafaring skills and engaged in trade with the mainland, Crete, Asia Minor, the Danube basin, the Adriatic, and beyond. Cycladic ships bore a high stern post, a low front prow. They were probably undecked and powered by a double bank of oars. Masts and sails may not have been used. Colonies from the Cyclades were founded on Crete (Ayia Photia) and Attica (Marathon).

There is no evidence that Cycladic cultures used a potter's wheel during this period, though some primitive means of mechanization are evident with some pieces. Pottery generally was not fired very well. Decorative themes were usually dictated by the shape of the vase. Impressed motifs were used early, but these gave way to incised decorations as the characteristic decoration. Rectilinear designs were common early, though curvilinear (concentric circles or spirals) dominated later. Spirals were common in the middle period (EC II), for vases, flasks (aryballoi), and frying pan vessels. (More evolved vases also had rectilinear patterns, but with a richer repertoire.) The shape of certain vases copied specific prototypes, and decorations were used to achieve a more faithful rendering of the prototype. Marble vases were also produced from the white, coarse-grained island marble. Some pieces indicate the use of a lathe. Often there were common shapes for pottery and marble vases. The marble versions were probably later inventions.

VI. Figurines

The most distinctive artifacts from the Early Bronze Age Cycladic culture are the marble figurines. The most important of these are the folded-arm figures of Early Cycladic II--a distinctive form that embodied well-defined schema. The aesthetic merit of these objects was not always recognized. In remarking on a find from Amorgos in the late 19th century, P. Wolters described it as "this repulsively ugly head." (Quoted in Doumas, p. 26.) Later judgments have been more positive: "The statuettes made in the Early Cycladic period of the local coarse-grained marble are without question among the finest products of the Aegean Bronze Age." (Higgins, p. 58.) Renfrew, in explaining this change in aesthetic sentiment, notes, "The directness and simplification that a century ago seemed 'repulsively ugly' are now felt to reflect a coherence of vision and a sensitivity of form that we greatly admire." (P. 187.)
Production of the figures was limited in the early period (EC I), increased and reached its zenith in the middle period (EC II), and was significantly reduced in the later period (EC III). By the Middle Bronze Age and Minoan dominance of the area, production essentially ceased. The islands' white, coarse-grained marble was the common medium, but other materials were also used: seashells, ivory, bone, clay, and later, metal. Emery (from Naxos), obsidian (from Melos), and pumice (from Thera) were used in the production of figurines. Stone tools were sufficient for marble work and were the primary utensils through the Grotta-Pelos culture. Metal tools speeded the process, though it remained, at best, quite slow and tedious.

Many of the figurines originally had painted decorations. Such painting is most prominent on folded-arm figures (e.g., the Kapsala and Spedos varieties) but is also evident on earlier Plastiras type figures. In general, the hair and eyes are painted; sometimes lines appear on the cheeks. Renfrew speculates that the likely effect was not garish but rather delineated form and emphasized line.

Most of these figures are small; they could have been held by hand. A few near life size (approximately 4 foot) figures have been uncovered. These are exceptional objects. We know of only three other places on earth where such sculptures were produced at this time: Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Malta. These other cultures represented more urban civilizations or ones with a tradition of large scale architecture. It is surprising to find such monumental sculptures in the small settlements of the Early Bronze Age Cyclades.

The significance, use, and meaning of the figures are unclear. There is even debate about whether the figures were meant to lie flat or to stand against a wall--there is no definitive evidence either way. Numerous explanations about the significance of the figurines have been proposed: the figurines may have been apotropaic (i.e., to ward off evil) or served as toys or substituted for human sacrifices or depicted revered ancestors, figures from mythology, or divinities. Some commentators believe the figures had funerary associations or may have been used in cult activities, e.g., in a household shrine. The figures may then have been buried with the dedicator. Large figures may have been cult statues; they more often tend to have ears, perhaps for hearing dedications or prayers. It must be admitted, however, that no sanctuary buildings to house such statues have been found from the Early Bronze Age.

VII. Account of Specific Periods and Cultures

Though there were significant similarities common to the islands, it is misleading to speak of a single Cycladic culture. Not only do distinct periods emerge, but cultures and styles varied.

A. Early Cycladic I (3300-2800; roughly: Grotta-Pelos culture, 3300-2700)

Named after a settlement on Naxos and a cemetery on Melos, the Grotta-Pelos culture was found on Paros, Antiparos, and Naxos, as well as Melos, Thera, and Amorgos. The period is defined largely through its pottery, which is generally black or reddish and often imperfect. Common shapes include cylindrical jars, spherical pyxides, and collared jars.

The period represented a contrast to the sparse population of the Neolithic era. The Early Bronze Age saw significant populations on many islands. This was a peaceful period in the islands; though small, settlements were unfortified. The period was one of relative isolation, with few foreign contacts. Huts were made of stone with mortar. Grape and olive cultivation probably emerged at this time, as did skill in metallurgy. But though there is evidence of copper use, this was not a true metal-using culture. Stone tools were still common. Obsidian, a volcanic glass available only on Melos, was the most commonly traded good during this period. It was especially useful for blades.

Graves were for single bodies and were arranged in clusters. Cist graves were lined with stone slabs or orthostats and were trapezoidal in plan. Both the quantity and the quality of grave goods increased during this period.

In addition to figurines (described below), marble vases were also produced. Common varieties included kandila (a vessel with a sea urchin shaped body, conical foot and neck), tall beakers, and hemispherical bowls. The vessels may have been hollowed out with metal tools, but the process would still be time-consuming; thick walls were left.

During Early Cycladic I, we can see the development of figurines from the early schematic types (Pelos group), to more naturalistic types (Plastiras group), to the transitional period in which (1) the Louros type incorporates schematic and naturalistic features and (2) primitive folded-arm figures also emerge.

B. Early Cycladic II (Keros-Syros Culture; 2800-2300)

The Keros-Syros culture is named after two islands with important cemetery finds. Outside contacts increased. During this period, there emerged an awareness of danger; though seaside settlements remained, some were located at the tops of steep hills. Defensive ramparts and towers were sometimes built. Fortified walls were used. (Kastri, for example, was a fortified hillside village with a solid wall and 6 bastions on its accessible side; inside were densely packed 1 and 2 room stone houses.) Houses were generally close together and of a rectilinear plan. Floors were covered with earth or stone; roofs were made of beaten earth and branches on wood beams. The structures may have been flimsy. Some settlements eventually expanded beyond the walls. Settlements were larger than in earlier periods, though still the size of modern villages.

Metallurgy was more generally practiced. Metal tools, from flat axes and chisels to tweezers and needles, were common. Still metal tools still did not completely replace stone. Weapons (e.g., spears and daggers) were made of copper; silver vessels have been found, as have lead figurines and boat models. So far, Kastri is the only site with evidence of casting of bronze tools and weapons.

Graves either were cists, as in EC I, with an entrance added or were built of small, flattish stones laid on top of each other. Entrances allowed successive burials in the same grave; burials extended to 2 or 3 stories deep.

Pottery is found in more varied shapes; painted decoration appears: dark lines on a pale surface. Plain shallow bowls and conical cups were common. 'Sauceboats' and 'frying pans' were also evident, as were unusual pieces, such as animals sitting with bowls. The distinctive "frying pan" pots have been found in settlements and in graves, implying symbolic as well as everyday roles. These are often decorated with stamped circles and spirals, and some commentators have associated them with the sun. Late in the period, new shapes appear, e.g., globular spouted jugs, one-handed tankards (Kastri group) and footed jars (kraters, in the Amorgos group.)

Vessels were also made of stone. The most common marble vessels were simple open bowls. Many of these were small, roughly 6" in diameter, though some were up to 20". Marble versions of cylindrical and spherical pyxides are also evident. Some decorative vases, e.g., pyxides, were made from chlorite schist, a soft green stone.

The Keros-Syros culture saw the development of folded-arm figures; the variety of these figures exhibited a range of freedom within a well-defined form. Most of the folded-arm figures from this group portray females, with common anatomical traits. In general, the head was almond-shaped, oval or flat with the brow tipped slightly backward. Arms are usually folded with the left on top of the right. Breasts appear as small protuberances on the chest; the abdomen is often swollen. The appearance of separation of the legs is achieved by a deep cleft on the front and back. The feet point downwards. Yet local workshops were not completely bound by these general features. Different styles emerged, and five varieties can be distinguished.

KAPSALA VARIETY: The first folded arm figures, these featured round modelling of all parts of the body, naturalistic proportions, and slim appearance. The profile was not unduly thin or flat. The head was convex and plump in profile; the body was narrow across the shoulders and arms; the breasts were clearly shaped and close to the arms. The knees were flexed, and the legs were often separated at the knees. The feet were lightly arched and often flat on the ground. These figures were generally of medium size, about 8".
SPEDOS VARIETY: This was the most common form. These figures have stocky proportions with more incision; they are of modest size. The figure was generally rounded (and in this sense resembles the Kapsala variety). The head was fairly thick in profile and from the front, sometimes lyre shaped, broadening at the crown. The waist was narrower than the thighs. The upper leg was modelled separately from the calf. Most figures are of females; males appear as musicians and in groups. Some figures were made of vitric tuff (compacted volcanic ash), lead, and clay.
DOKATHISMATA VARIETY: These figures displayed a long, thin, angular, elegant form. The surface was flat, with details shown by incision. The head was often triangular. Legs were indicated by a single, sweeping line. Proportions are exaggerated: wide shoulders taper to narrow feet. Some figures are male. Some large figures of this style were produced.
CHALANDRIANI VARIETY: These figures were also angular, but not with a sweeping, elegant line. The head was an inclined triangle, and the neck was cylindrical. The chest was almost square, and the arms were strictly horizontal at the waist. The legs were short, again providing a square effect. The profile is flat. Anomalous features emerge in these figures: the left arm was sometimes below the right; one arm was sometimes diagonal.
KOUMASA VARIETY: Found exclusively on Crete, these figures were generally small, broad in the shoulders, with short legs. They had a very thin, flat profile.

The Keros-Syros culture produced other types of figures as well, as evidence of the artistic freedom and mastery possible during the period. Examples include musicians, seated figures (e.g., the toaster, which is closest to the Spedos variety), and double figures (which are more angular in form). Many of these figures express a sense of motion--much different from the serene presence of the folded-arm figures.

The end of the Keros-Syros period is obscure. Decline and depopulation are evident. Pottery shows continuity to Phylakopi I, but marble work essentially ends with the Keros-Syros culture.

C. Early Cycladic III (2300-2000; roughly, Phylakopi I, 2400-2000)

The Phylakopi culture is named after a settlement in Melos with important finds; artifacts were also found on Paros and Thera, but the group seems to have a rather restricted scope. The period saw increasing contacts with Crete. Settlements appear beside the sea, in flat, unfortified tracts. Some larger settlements emerged. Multiple internments are evident; some graves were excavated from soft rock to form chamber tombs.

Cylindrical covered containers (pyxides) are succeeded by a conical type. Incised decorations on pottery almost stops; some remains on conical pyxides. Painted decorations predominate; some fantastical shapes appear (e.g., kernoi: cluster vases). Marble vessels become rare.

The production of figurines declined significantly during this period. Some finds at Melos from Phylakopi I include schematic figurines made after the Keros-Syros culture. But this period presages the loss of Cycladic supremacy. Phylakopi II followed on Thera, Melos, and Paros and marked the transition to the Middle Bronze Age and eventual Minoan influence.

VIII. Epilogue

Though the Middle Bronze Age saw Minoan influence spreading through the Aegean, the result was often a blending of Cretan and Cycladic cultures. The Bronze Age city of Akrotiri (on Santorini) exhibits aspects of both worlds: though the structures exhibit the irregular shapes associated with Minoan architecture, many pithoi and jars are decorated in the spiral motif common in Cycladic designs.


Primary Sources

Doumas, Christos (ed.), Cycladic Art (London: British Museum Publications, Ltd., 1983).

Fitton, J. Lesley, Cycladic Art (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990).

Renfrew, Colin, The Cycladic Spirit (New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991).

Other Sources

Cole, Dan, Course Notes for Ancient Greece, spring 1989.

Finley, M. I., Early Greece: The Bronze and Archaic Ages (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970).

Higgins, Reynold, Minoan and Mycenaean Art (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981).

Renfrew, Colin, The Emergence of Civilization (London: Methuen and Co., 1972).

Vermeule, Emily, Greece in the Bronze Age (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1972).