Modern long before the term was coined, these striking sculptures have fascinated not only archaeologists but also artists, such as Picasso. Spare, slender, usually in a stiff upright position with arms folded across the torso, they are known as Cycladic, a reference to the Cycladic islands, where most of them were found and where a prehistoric civilisation flourished from the 28th to the 20th century BCE.
What were they? Why were they made and what was their use? Since no written evidence survives from the time they were made, no one can say for sure. The situation is perplexed by the fact that many were found out of context, ie. ripped out of the ground and sold due to their high value by looters who never bothered to record their context (ie. where they were found and what was next to them). The vast majority of them are female, leading some to suggest that they might have been representations of a mother goddess. Were they idols? Perhaps, but this doesn’t sit very well with the fact that none of them has been found in a place remotely like a shrine or temple. In fact, most of them have been found in graves. Some are just a few centimetres from end to end, while others stand well over a metre tall, something that makes very hard to believe the theory that they might have been dolls.
What we do know about them is that numerous such statues have been found far and wide, most in the Cycladic islands but several in mainland Greece and Crete, in short, in every place Cycladic islanders maintained contacts with. Traces of colour indicate that details that were hard to carve on marble, such as facial features, hair and even tattoos, were painted. Several broken and repaired statues, suggest that these objects were loved and maintained for a long time before being interred.
This particular figurine is one of the largest, at 1.40 cm. It is in the Museum of Cycladic Art, in the centre of Athens, a beautiful museum which, besides cycladic art, also has interesting displays about life in Ancient Greece and more. An added advantage of the MCA is that it is open on Monday mornings, when most of the other museums are closed – just perfect for museum lovers who find themselves in the city on a Monday.