Cycladic civilization

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Cycladic civilization (also known as Cycladic culture or The Cycladic period) is an Early Bronze Age culture of the Cyclades, Greece, in the Aegean Sea, spanning the period from approximately 3200 BC-2000 BC.[1]


Map of the Cycladic islands, Greece

The significant Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Cycladic culture is best known for its schematic flat female idols carved out of the islands' pure white marble centuries before the great Middle Bronze Age ("Minoan") culture arose in Crete, to the south. These figures have been stolen from burials to satisfy the Cycladic antiquities market since the early 20th century. Only about 40% of the 1,400 figurines found are of known origin, since looters destroyed evidence of the rest.

Cycladic idol, parian marble; 1,5 m high (largest known example of cycladic sculpture. 2800-2300 BC

A distinctive Neolithic culture amalgamating Anatolian and mainland Greek elements arose in the western Aegean before 4000 BC, based on emmer wheat and wild-type barley, sheep and goats, pigs, and tuna that were apparently speared from small boats (Rutter). Excavated sites include Saliagos and Kephala (on Keos), which showed signs of copper-working. Each of the small Cycladic islands could support no more than a few thousand people, though Late Cycladic boat models show that fifty oarsmen could be assembled from the scattered communities (Rutter). When the highly organized palace-culture of Crete arose, the islands faded into insignificance, with the exception of Delos, which retained its archaic reputation as a sanctuary through the period of Classical Greek civilization (see Delian League).

The chronology of Cycladic civilization is divided into three major sequences: Early, Middle and Late Cycladic. The early period, beginning c. 3000 BC segued into the archaeologically murkier Middle Cycladic c. 2500 BC. By the end of the Late Cycladic sequence (c. 2000 BC) there was essential convergence between Cycladic and Minoan civilization.

There is some tension between the dating systems used for Cycladic civilization, one "cultural" and one "chronological". Attempts to link them lead to varying combinations; the most common are outlined below:

Cycladic chronology [2]
Phase Date Culture Contemporary
Early Cycladic I (ECI) Grotta-Pelos
Early Cycladic II (ECII) Keros-Syros culture
Early Cycladic III (ECIII) Kastri
Middle Cycladic I (MCI) Phylakopi
Middle Cycladic II (MCII)
Middle Cycladic III (MCIII)
Late Cycladic I
Late Cycladic II
Late Cycladic II


frying-pan with incised decoration of a ship. Early Cycladic II, Chalandriani, Syros 2800-2300 BC)

The first archaeological excavations of the 1880s were followed by systematic work by the British School at Athens and by Christos Tsountas, who investigated burial sites on several islands in 1898-99 and coined the term "Cycladic civilization". Interest then lagged, but picked up in the mid-20th century, as collectors competed for the modern-looking figures that seemed so similar to sculpture by Jean Arp or Constantin Brâncuși. Sites were looted and a brisk trade in forgeries arose. The context for many of these Cycladic Figurines has thus been mostly destroyed; their meaning may never be completely understood. Another intriguing and mysterious object is that of the Cycladic frying pans.

Early Cycladic culture evolved in three phases, between ca. 3300 - 2000 BC, when it was increasingly submerged in the rising influence of Minoan Crete. Excavations at Knossos on Crete reveal an influence of Cycladic civilization upon Knossos in the period 3400 BC to 2000 BC as evidenced from pottery finds at Knossos.[3]

Cycladic art[edit]

Gold figure of an ibex, late Cycladic.

Cycladic art comprises one of the three main branches of Aegean art. Early Cycladic art is divided into three periods (EC I (2800-2500 BCE), EC II (2500-2200 BCE), and EC III (2200-2000 BCE)), the art is by no means strictly confined to one of these periods, and in some cases, even representative of more than one of the Cycladic islands. The art of EC I is best represented on the islands of Paros, Antiparos, and Amorgos, while EC II is primarily seen on Syros, and EC III on Melos.[4]

Cycladic Head of a man (lifesize, 45 cm), marble, 2800–2300 BC

The best-known art of this period are the marble figures usually called "idols" or "figurines", though neither name is exactly accurate: the former term suggests a religious function which is by no means agreed on by experts, and the latter doesn't properly apply to the largest figures, which are nearly life size. These marble figures are seen scattered around the Aegean, suggesting that these figures were popular amongst the people of Crete and mainland Greece.[5] Perhaps the most famous of these figures are musicians: one a harp-player the other a pipe-player.[6] Dating to approximately 2500 BCE, these musicians are sometimes considered “the earliest extant musicians from the Aegean.”[7]

Harp player, Cycladic civilization - National Archeological Museum - Athens

The majority of these figures, however, are highly stylized representations of the female human form, typically having a flat, geometric quality which gives them a striking resemblance to today's modern art. However, this may be a modern misconception as there is evidence that the idols were originally brightly painted.[8] A majority of the figurines are female, depicted nude, and with arms folded across the stomach. Most writers who have considered these artifacts from an anthropological or psychological viewpoint have assumed that they are representative of a Great Goddess of nature, in a tradition continuous with that of Neolithic female figures such as the Venus of Willendorf.[9] Although some archeologists would agree,[10] this interpretation is not generally agreed on by archeologists, among whom there is no consensus on their significance. They have been variously interpreted as idols of the gods, images of death, children's dolls, and other things. One authority feels they were "more than dolls and probably less than sacrosanct idols." [11] Suggestions that these images were idols in the strict sense—cult objects which were the focus of ritual worship—are unsupported by any archeological evidence.[12] What the archeological evidence does suggest is that these images were regularly used in funerary practice: they have all been found in graves. Yet at least some of them show clear signs of having been repaired, implying that they were objects valued by the deceased during life and were not made specifically for burial. Furthermore, larger figures were sometimes broken up so that only part of them was buried, a phenomenon for which there is no explanation. The figures apparently were buried equally with both men and women.[13] Such figures were not found in every grave.[11]

Fortified settlements[edit]

Ruins of the ancient fortified town of Skarkos 3000-2300 BC.
Early Cycladic Skarkos 3000-2300 BC.

The Cycladic civilization had several settlements which were protected by stone walls with rounded bastions. Most famed is the early bronze age site of Kastri (Syros) (2800-2300 BC), and its associated cemetery of Chalandriani on the island of Syros. Inside the fortification the houses shared party walls and were packed close together. It is estimates that the fortified town were home to up to 300 people[14][15][16][17][18] Among other fortified towns were Thermi, Skarkos with two two storey buildings, four-metre high fortifications walls from 2500 BC.[19] Ayia Irini,[20] Markiani (Amorgos) and Poliochne (Poliochni). The Poliochni settlement was built in the Final Neolithic period (4th millenium BC) on a low hill of the eastern coast of Lemnos, The location of the settlement brought about the development of the agrarian economy and the ensuring of surplus which could cover the nutritional needs of the inhabitants. The location of Poliochni in one of the most safe anchorages of sea trade routes from and to the Black Sea and opposite Troy quickly resulted in its excessive economic development and its evolution into one of the earliest and most significant early urban centres of the Early Bronze Age (3rd millenium BC) in the Aegean.

Cycladic marble figurine of the Keros Culture type, 2700-2300 BC

The settlement of the Early Bronze Age was gradually extended on an area of 13.500-15.000 square metres. It consisted entirely of stone-built buildings with rectangular or irregular rooms and yards, organized in building insulae of various sizes. The basic building unit was the long and narrow rectangular tripartite building (megaroid), on the long sides of which one or two rows of narrow supplementary rooms were attached, these being mainly storerooms or workshops. A central road, parallel to the shoreline, runs the settlement from south to north and is crossed vertically by smaller roads, thus ensuring communication with the most isolated insulae. This is the earliest known example of the "linear" building system in the Aegean and the Balkans. Poliochni is fortified from the Blue period 3000-2300 BC with a monumental fortification wall, built of rectangular or polygonal building blocks which is preserved 4,5 high. The stone wall is constantly extended until the Yellow period toward the side of the land and it includes gates reinforced with rectangular or trapezoid towers.

The exemplary town planning of the settlement which offered shelter to at least 1,500 inhabitants during the last phase, the existence of a fortification wall, the functional roads, the two squares with public wells, the extensive sewage system under the carefully paved streets, the squares and courts, all give the picture of a well organized town, already from the beginning of the 3rd millenium BC.[21][22]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Chronology and Terminology of The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean accessed May 23, 2006
  3. ^ C.Michael Hogan, Knossos Fieldnotes, The Modern Antiquarian, (2007)
  4. ^ Higgins 53
  5. ^ Doumas, p. 81
  6. ^ Higgins, p. 61
  7. ^ Higgins, p. 60
  8. ^ Getty Museum, past exhibition "Prehistoric Arts of the Eastern Mediterranean"
  9. ^ Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, HarperCollins 1991 p. 203; Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype tr. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press, 2nd ed. 1963, p 113.)
  10. ^ J. Thimme, Die Religioese Bedeutung der Kykladenidole, Antike Kunst 8 (9165), pp 72-86
  11. ^ a b Emily Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age, University of Chicago Press 1974, p. 52.
  12. ^ L. Marangou, Cycladic Culture: Naxos in the 3rd Millennium BC Athens 1990 p. 101, 141 [sic]
  13. ^ Marangou p. 101
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^,30.html
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^

See also[edit]