Pre-dating the Minoans: The Cycladic Civilization and Their Unusual ‘Modern’ Art

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Pre-dating the Minoans: The Cycladic Civilization and Their Unusual ‘Modern’ Art

The Cycladic culture (known also as the Cycladic civilization) is an early Bronze Age culture located in the Cyclades. This culture thrived from aroun

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The Cycladic culture (known also as the Cycladic civilization) is an early Bronze Age culture located in the Cyclades. This culture thrived from around 3200 to 1100 BC, and predated two other major Bronze Age cultures in the Aegean, namely the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. The Cycladic culture is best-known for its art, in particular its unusual marble figurines, which are arguably the most exquisite artifacts from the period.

The Cyclades is a group of islands located in the Aegean Sea, southeast of mainland Greece and to the north of the island of Crete. The Cyclades was already occupied by humans during the Neolithic period, several millennia prior to the emergence of the Cycladic culture. Excavations revealed that the oldest Neolithic site, which is located on the island of Saliagos, dates to around 5000 BC. It is likely that the earliest Neolithic inhabitants of the Cyclades cultivated barley and wheat and supplemented their diet with fish from the Aegean.

Map of the Aegean Sea and Cyclades islands (Gaba, E / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Neolithic period was succeeded by the Bronze Age which began around 3200 BC. During this period, a cohesive culture emerged in the Cyclades thanks to seagoing commerce and trade that was carried out by the islanders. The Cycladic culture lasted until around 1100 BC, and is divided into three phases – the Early, Middle, and Late Cycladic periods.

The Early Cycladic period lasted from around 3200 to 2000 BC and is further divided into three distinct phases: The first phase (3200–2800 BC) is known as Early Cycladic I, or the Grotta-Pelos phase, named after the sites where the culture was first discovered; the second phase (2800–2300 BC) is known as Early Cycladic II, or the Keros-Syros phase, whilst the third (2300–2000 BC) is called Early Cycladic III, or the Phylacopi I phase.

A Defensive People on the Move

Archaeological research shows that at the beginning of the Early Cycladic period, the inhabitants of the islands settled on low hills closed to the sea. Gradually, however, they moved inland and their settlements took on a more defensive form. Archaeologists have interpreted this movement as a sign that the island’s inhabitants had lost control of the sea and that they were facing an external threat, possibly by the Minoans from Crete. In the final phase of this period, settlements once more re-emerged close to the sea. These settlements, however, were heavily influenced by the Minoan culture and would have served as Cretan centers of trade.

The Middle Cycladic period lasted from around 2000 to 1500 BC. During this period, the Minoan influence persisted, attested to by evidence from the discovered artifacts, which have been compared to those from the Minoan palaces of Crete. It is assumed that the Minoans colonized the islands from Crete and were using them to trade with mainland Greece.

Throne room of the Minoan Palace of Knossos (CC BY 4.0)

Throne room of the Minoan Palace of Knossos ( CC BY 4.0 )

The Minoan influence was supplanted during the Late Cycladic period which lasted from around 1500 to 1100 BC. The eruption of the volcano, Thera, is considered by some to have caused the destruction of the Minoan civilization. The Minoans were replaced by the Mycenaeans as the dominant power in the Aegean, and the Cyclades also came under their sphere of influence.

The Preservation of Irreplaceable Art

The Cycladic culture was re-discovered by archaeologists during the late 19 th century. It was one of these archaeologists, Christos Tsountas, who coined the term ‘Cycladic Civilization’, so as to highlight the individuality of this newly-discovered culture. During the 1950s there was a growing interest in Cycladic sculpture as they were regarded by the artists of the time as an excellent example of modernism and minimalism. As a consequence, the demand for such artifacts soared and many Cycladic graves were looted during the 1950s and 60s, in the process causing irreparable damage to the archaeological records.

Cycladic figurine, sample of the Cycladic civilization in Greece (kanvag / Adobe Stock)

Cycladic figurine, sample of the Cycladic civilization in Greece ( kanvag / Adobe Stock )

One of the reactions against this looting was the establishment of the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens in 1986 by Dolly and Nikos Goulandris. The museum houses ‘one of the most complete private collections of Cycladic art worldwide’. Apart from the famed marble sculptures, the museum’s collection also includes other artifacts, including tools, weapons, and pottery from every period of the Cycladic Culture.

Top image: The three Figurines – Cycladic Art           Source: CC BY 2.5

By Wu Mingren

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