Cycladic figurines are among the most iconic images in Greek archaeology. But exactly who, or what, do they represent? Found on Amorgos, the easternmost island in the Cyclades, this figurine may have been broken at the time of burial.
Nobody really knows what these [figurines] were used for. We frequently find them in cemeteries, which inherently suggests some sort of ritual connotation used in a funerary ceremony.
Goddess or Priestess?
Around 3200 BC, a remarkable culture emerged in the Cyclades, a circle of islands located at the heart of the Aegean Sea. This central location made it ideal for the exchange of goods and ideas; boats connected the Cyclades to Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), mainland Greece, and Crete.
Control of these maritime trade routes, coupled with the quality of merchandise produced by local artisans, led to the rise of chiefs and a social hierarchy in the Cyclades. The female figurines excavated from wealthier burials represent high-status objects of this society. They were made of marble quarried from different islands in the Cyclades. Because the figurines share a number of features, there must have been cultural exchanges throughout the region.
The early Cycladic peoples did not use writing, so scholars look to the archaeological record for clues about this Bronze Age culture. (Early scripts appear in Crete and mainland Greece during later time periods.) The majority of figurines found in Cycladic graves are female and nude, strongly suggesting associations with fertility. But scholars disagree on exactly what the sculptures represent: mother-goddesses? priestesses or worshippers? Their exact function and meaning remain a mystery.