The ancient Cycladic culture flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea from c. 3300 to 1100 BCE. Along with the Minoan civilization and Mycenaean Greece, the Cycladic people are counted among the three major Aegean cultures. Cycladic art therefore comprises one of the three main branches of Aegean art.
Almost all information on Neolithic art of the Cyclades comes from the excavation site of Saliagos off Antiparos. Pottery of this period is similar to that of Crete and the Greek mainland. Sinclair Hood writes: “A distinctive shape is a bowl on a high foot comparable to a type which occurs in the Late Neolithic mainland.”
The best-known art of this period is 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 upon by experts, and the latter does not 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. Perhaps the most famous of these figures are musicians: one to harp-player the other a pipe-player. Dating to approximately 2500 BCE, these musicians are sometimes considered “the earliest extant musicians from the Aegean.
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. 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 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. Although some archeologists would agree, this interpretation is not generally agreed upon 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.
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 suggest is that these images were used in funerary practice: they have all been found in serious. 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. Moreover, larger figures were sometimes broken up so that only part of them was buried, a phenomenon for which there is no explanation. The figures were similarly buried with both men and women. Such figures were not found in every serious. While the idols are most frequently found laid on their backs in serious, larger examples may have been set up in shrines or dwelling places.