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HOME : Classical Antiquities : Classical Masterpieces : Cycladic Alabaster Figure
Cycladic Alabaster Figure - PH.0172
Origin: Mediterranean
Circa: 3000 BC to 2000 BC
Dimensions: 10.25" (26.0cm) high
Collection: Bronze Age
Style: Early Cycladic Culture
Medium: Alabaster

Location: Great Britain
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The Cyclades is a group of islands in the southwestern Aegean Sea which comprises roughly thirty small islands and numerous islets. The ancient Greeks named them Kyklades, imagining that these islands were forming a circle (kyklos) around the sacred island of Delos, birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis and site of the holiest sanctuary dedicated to Apollo. The ancient Cycladic culture flourished in these islands of the Aegean Sea from c. 3300 to 1100 BCE. Along with the Minoan civilization and Mycenaean Greece, the Cycladic culture is considered among the three major Aegean cultures and Cycladic art therefore comprises one of the three main branches of Aegean art. Many of the Cycladic Islands are particularly rich in mineral resources—iron ores, copper, lead ores, gold, silver, emery, obsidian and marble, with the marble of Paros and Naxos being among the finest and most renowned in the world. Archaeological evidence points to sporadic Neolithic settlements on Antiparos, Melos, Mykonos, Naxos, and other Cycladic Islands at least as early as the 6th millennium B.C. These earliest settlers probably cultivated barley and wheat, and most likely fished the Aegean for tunny and other fish. They were also accomplished sculptors in stone, as attested by a significant number of marble figurines recovered on Saliagos, an 110 to 70 meters in size islet situated between the islands of Paros and Antiparos. In the 3rd millennium B.C., a distinctive civilization emerged, commonly known as the Early Cycladic culture (ca. 3200–2300 B.C.), with important settlement sites on Keros, a now uninhabited island about 10 km (6 mi) southeast of Naxos, and at Halandriani on the island of Syros. At this time in the Early Bronze Age, metallurgy developed at a fast pace in the Mediterranean. It was especially fortuitous for the Early Cycladic culture that the Cycladic islands were rich in iron ores and copper, and that they offered a favorable route across the Aegean sea. Inhabitants turned to fishing, shipbuilding and exporting of their mineral resources, as trade flourished between the Cyclades, Minoan Crete, Helladic Greece and the coasts of Asia Minor. Early Cycladic culture can be divided into two main phases, the Grotta-Pelos (Early Cycladic I) culture (ca. 3200?–2700 B.C.), and the Keros- Syros (Early Cycladic II) culture (ca. 2700– 2400/2300 B.C.), with the chosen conventional names corresponding to significant burial sites. Unfortunately, few settlements from the Early Cycladic period have been discovered, and much of the evidence comes from burial sites and assemblages of objects, mostly marble vessels and figurines, that the islanders buried with their dead. Varying qualities and quantities of grave goods point to disparities in wealth, suggesting that some form of social ranking was emerging in the Cycladic area during this period. The majority of Cycladic marble vessels and sculptures were produced during the Grotta-Pelos and Keros-Syros periods. Early Cycladic sculpture comprises predominantly female figures that range from simple modification of the stone to developed representations of the human form, some with natural proportions and some more idealized. Many of these figures, especially those of the Spedos type, display a remarkable consistency in form and proportion that suggests they were planned with a compass. Scientific analysis has shown that the surface of the marble was painted with mineral-based pigment, azurite being used for blue and cinnabar for red. The vessels from this period display bold, simple forms that reinforce the Early Cycladic predilection for a harmony of parts and a conscious preservation of proportions. 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 scientists, and the latter could not properly apply to the largest of figures, with a number of them being almost life size. The majority of these figures are highly stylized representations of the female human form, typically having a flat, geometric quality which gives them a striking resemblance to contemporary art, as we nowadays know it. However the schematic and ascetic simplicity of these figures is a modern aesthetic misconception, as there is evidence that the idols were originally brightly painted. A majority of the figurines are female, depicted nude, and with arms folded across the stomach, typically with the right arm held below the left. Most scholars who have considered these artifacts from an anthropological point of view have assumed that they represent the Great Goddess of nature. This interpretation is not generally agreed though upon by a significant number of archeologists, with the marble figures having been variously interpreted as idols of the gods, images of death and children's dolls. 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. What the archeological evidence does though suggest is that these images were regularly used in funerary practice, as they have all been unearthed in burials. On some of them show clear signs of having been repaired, implying that they were objects valued by the deceased during life and that they were not made specifically for funerary purposes. Furthermore, larger figures were sometimes broken up so that only a part of them ended up being buried within a tomb, a phenomenon for which there is to this day no explanation. The figures apparently were buried equally with both men and women but they were not found in every grave. While the idols are most frequently found laying on their backs in graves, a number of the larger examples may have been used as cultual statuary in sanctuaries. - (PH.0172)


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