3200 bc – 1050 bc
As no written records were ever discovered, Cycladic culture remains in many ways one of the most mysterious ancient civilizations. Starting in the 1880s with excavations led by the British School at Athens and archaeologist Christos Tsountas, settlements and cemeteries were found throughout the Cyclades along with remarkable discoveries: marble figurines, elegant pottery, razor sharp obsidian blades, jewelry, decorative boxes and strange objects known today as "frying pans". In some cases, human remains were found surrounded with such objects.
Human remains from Early Cycladic grave
with folded-arm figure and other objects
c. 2500 BC
Female figure carved from marble
c. 2500 BC
Cycladic culture thrived on the group of Greek islands known as the Cyclades as early as 3200 BC, reaching its peak at roughly 2500 BC. For a frame of reference, this was roughly the same period in which the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed just to the south in Egypt.
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 Middle Cycladic c. 2500 BC. By the end of the Late Cycladic sequence (c. 2000 BC), there was essential convergence between Cycladic culture and Minoan civilization. The Late Cycladic settlement Akrotiri on the island Thera (Santorini) exemplifies the merging of the Cycladic and Minoan culture. It's also the site of a major volcanic explosion that is believed to have contributed to the collapse of Minoan civilization.
Have a look at this Tiny Epics production to see how Cycladic culture developed:
Directed by: Lance Hewison
Film location: Cyclades, Greece
The Cyclades (Greek: Κυκλάδες) are an island group in the Aegean Sea, southeast of mainland Greece. The name Cyclades means “encircling islands,” and they are so named because they form a rough circle around the sacred island of Delos, which was the legendary birthplace of Artemis and her brother Apollo.
The Cyclades includes about 220 islands, the major ones being Amorgos, Anafi, Andros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kea, Kimolos, Kythnos, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Folegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Syros, Tinos, and Thira or Santoríni. There are also many minor islands.
The islands are peaks of a submerged mountainous terrain, with the exception of two volcanic islands, Milos and Santorini. The climate is generally dry and mild, but with the exception of Naxos the soil is not very fertile; agricultural produce includes wine, fruit, wheat, and olive oil. The Cyclades are bounded to the south by the Sea of Crete.
Satellite image courtesy of NASA
A closer look at the islands
photo by NASA
THE FOLDED-ARM FIGURE
The most known objects they left behind are hundreds of marble sculptures in the form of a woman known to archaeologists as a "folded-arm figure". Apart from a sharply-defined nose, the faces are a smooth blank, although there is evidence that some were originally painted.
Considerable numbers of these are known, though unfortunately most were removed illicitly from their unrecorded archaeological context. The figures are 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 does not properly apply to the largest figures, which are nearly life size. They remain an enigma to us today.
c. 2500 BC
Visible traces of red pigment
Tribal markings perhaps?
Most folded-arm figures were
decorated with pigments
23 cm (12 in)
150 cm (4' 9")
An average-sized figure (left) compared to
largest one discovered
In 2020 I had the pleasure to speak with one of the world's leading experts on Cycladic Culture: archaeologist Colin Renfrew. His publication "The Cycladic Spirit" was my touchstone as I created the short documentary. Colin Renfew is a senior fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.
Professor Renfrew’s achievements include many important excavations and discoveries from the Early Bronze Age and beyond. His work has changed the way we understand prehistory, and he’s raised awareness on the crisis of looting in order to help preserve humanity’s invaluable cultural heritage. He’s currently a Senior Fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.
We talked about his most recent discoveries in the Cyclades on the island of Keros sometimes referred to as "Island of Broken Figurines". I really think you'll enjoy our conversation.
"FRYING PAN" VESSELS
Frying pans is the descriptive name for Early Bronze Age artifacts from the Aegean Islands, flat skillets with a "handle", usually made from earthenware but sometimes stone. They are found especially during the Cycladic Grotta-Pelos and Keros-Syros cultures. Their purpose remains unknown.
Example of Cycladic "frying pan vessel"
c. 2500 BC
Cycladic "frying pan vessel"
c. 2500 BC
Don't be fooled by the name, though. The objects have nothing to do with cooking and received their name based solely on its similarity in shape to a modern frying pan. No "frying pan" found yet shows any physical wear from being used as a cooking utensil. Various theories regarding the usage of these objects include:
religious objects for libations
Digital illustration of "frying pan vessel"
prepared by Lance Hewison
The "Keros Hoard" is a very large deposit of Cycladic figurines that was found on the island of Keros.
In 2006-2008, the Cambridge Keros Project, co-directed by Colin Renfrew with others, conducted excavations at Kavos on the west coast of the island. This general area is believed to be the source of the so-called "Keros Hoard" of fragmentary Cycladic figurines. The material excavated in 2006-2008 includes Cycladic figurines, vessels and other objects made of marble, all broken prior to deposition and most likely broken elsewhere and brought to Kavos for deposition. The lack of joining fragments shows that only a part of the broken material was deposited here, while ongoing studies of the pottery and other material show that material was brought from multiple sources for deposition here.
Location of Keros within Cyclades
Keros island seen from the north
Excavations carried out at Kavos, Keros
In 2007–2008, the same project identified and excavated a substantial Cycladic period settlement on the nearby island of Daskalio. A large area has been excavated, revealing a substantial building 16 metres long and 4 metres wide — the largest from this period in the Cyclades — within which was discovered the ‘Daskalio hoard’ comprising a chisel, an axe-adze and a shaft-hole axe of copper or bronze. In addition to excavation, survey of the islet showed that most of its surface — a total of 7000 square meters — was occupied during the Early Bronze Age, making this the largest site in the Cyclades. Specialist studies for the geomorphology, geology, petrology, ceramic petrology, metallurgy and environmental aspects (botanical and faunal remains, phytoliths) ensued.
Excavations carried out at Dhaskalio, Keros
In 2012, the activities at this site were dated 2750 to 2300 BC, which precedes any identified worship of gods in the Aegean.
In 2018, excavations revealed the remains of massive terraced walls and giant gleaming structures on a tiny islet that was once attached to Keros. The structures were built using 1,000 tons of stone, turning the headland, which measures just 500 feet (150 m) across, into a single, giant 'pyramid'. Beneath the pyramid, researchers found evidence of a complex drainage tunnels and traces of advanced metalworking. The researchers say the remains make the island one of the most impressive archaeological sites of the Aegean Sea during the Early Bronze Age. The excavations show that the headland of Dhaskalio, which was once attached to Keros but is now a tiny islet because of sea level rise, was almost entirely covered by remarkable monuments.
In 2019, archaeologists believe that the islanders embarked on at least 3,500 maritime voyages to transport between 7,000 to 10,000 tonnes of white marble among islands, in order to construct the aforementioned pyramid.