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The Cyclades

Cycladic female figurine of the 'folded-arm' type, ca. 2700 - 2300 BCE. 32530. Gift of Christos Bastis. Benaki Museum.

These white marble pieces, captivating with their simplistic and geometric qualities, would not appear out of place in a collection of modern art. Yet, these objects were made over four thousand years ago by people living on a group of islands known as the Cyclades. Although little is known about the people that inhabited these central Aegean islands, archaeology can help piece together a picture of what life may have been like. What is revealed is a glimpse of a people who produced a stylistically iconic material culture during a time of transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.

The people who made these objects inhabited stone floored, clay brick houses in settlements positioned around sheltered, coastal bays. Small settlements surrounded larger, central trading settlements, fortified by gated walls. The small size of the islands not only limited the size of the population, each island only being able to support a few thousand people, but also limited the agricultural prospects of the islands. Despite this, the inhabitants managed to farm grain, grapes and olives as well as goats, sheep. There is also evidence they hunted deer and, of course, fished the surrounding Aegean.

What the Cyclades lacked in agricultural prospects they made up for in metallic, obsidian and marble resources. The inhabitants took advantage of these resources. The abundant supply of marble was carved with bone, stone or obsidian to create the prepossessing marble objects such as those seen here at the Museum. This was a period in which metallurgy technology was developing quickly in the region. The inhabitants of the Cyclades were well positioned to take advantage of their rich iron and copper resources within the growing industry and trade. Developing trading networks enabled the people of the Cyclades to participate in the trade of these raw and manufactured resources throughout the Aegean.

Travelling in canoe-like boats, powered by up to fifty oarsmen, the Cycladic people traded these goods throughout the Aegean to Crete, mainland Greece and as far as Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and possibly as far as Corsica. These networks also allowed for the influence of foreign ideas on Cycladic culture, much of their pottery exhibits influence from the designs of their contemporary Anatolians.

Despite each island only being able to support a few thousand people and each village only a few hundred, these settlements represent one of only four known places on Earth to produce small figurine statues at this time, the other places being Egypt, Mesopotamia and Malta. Unlike these civilisations, the Cyclades were neither heavily urbanised or displayed large-scale architecture, making the production of these objects in this region surprising.

In the third millennium BC, the end of the Early Bronze Age, the complex trading system of the Cycladic peoples collapsed possibly due to the rise of palatial civilisations on Crete and the development of long-range sailing ships that replaced the earlier oar-powered canoe model. By the early second millennium BC the culture of the Cyclades had changed dramatically and the material culture became increasingly influenced by Minoan Crete.

Although the painted features of these objects, often in red or blue, has faded over time their minimal sophistication and geometric elements continues to impact the modern viewer. These qualities also had an influence on the Modern Art movement: a sculpture by Modigliani or a painting by Picasso may come to mind. However, it is this association that has opaqued our understanding of their makers. Illegal excavations and plundering of tombs on the islands, particularly in the middle of the twentieth century, supplied an increasing demand for Cycladic objects on the international antiquities market, their context and provenance lost. The aesthetic appeal of these objects, still admired after four thousand years, that has not only obscured their meaning but has added to their mystery.


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