Cyclades Statuary

MSNBC has an interesting article on Colin Renfrew’s excavations on Keros. The article concerns the finding of a large number of figurines that the Cycladic civilization is known for.


Now, excavations by a Greek-British archaeology team have unearthed a cache of prehistoric statues — all deliberately broken — that they hope will help solve the Keros riddle.
When they were unearthed, the white marble shards were jumbled close together like a pile of bleached bones, an elbow here, a leg there, occasionally a head.
British excavation leader Colin Renfrew now believes Keros was a hugely important religious site where the smashed artwork was ceremoniously deposited.

Original excavations by Tsountas in the late 1890’s focused on burials, where a lot of the statues or figurines were found. Unfortunately, a large number of sites have been looted making it hard for archaeologists (see below). Renfrew’s team found a previously undisturbed cache:

During excavations in the spring and early summer, Renfrew’s team found an undisturbed trove of figurines missed by looters who ransacked the islet in the 1950s and 1960s. They all had been deliberately smashed around 2500 B.C.
“We’ve got hundreds of marble bowl fragments and many dozens of figurine fragments, which don’t seem to fit together,” said Renfrew, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Cambridge University and former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
“You have a head here, a single foot here, a torso there, some thighs here — and all very deliberately broken. Pieces have been deliberately broken again into small pieces.”


Renfrew believes the figurines — some originally up to a yard high — may have come from sanctuaries throughout the Cyclades. And pottery finds indicate the site could have attracted worshippers from as far away as mainland Greece.
“Maybe at some point in some life cycle, the figurines were ritually smashed and taken to Keros in some ceremony,” he said. “It’s going to take a while to sort out what’s going on.”


While Renfrew believes they should not be associated with the cemeteries many were found in, he concedes there is little evidence of how they were used in everyday life.

A frequent find at temples devoted to Asclepius are figurines representing the body part that was healed and Renfrew maybe suggesting something similar was going on here (technically, Cyclades refers to the islands around Delos, home of Apollo who also had some healing functions). The problem is that with all the looting it has been hard to determine whether the Cycladic figurines are predominately associated with burials, temples, or households. In other words are they grave goods (in which case we can examine status), temple offerings (in which case we can look at healing rituals) or are they household dieties. Context is an important determiner of the questions we can ask the archaeological record. Which is, one of many reasons, why looting is considered so heinous by archaeologists. It goes without saying that a majority of the Cycladic artwork in museums and private collection came from looting during the 1950’s and 1960’s….
Added Later: I wrote about this story last year:
Excavations in the Cyclades


2 Responses

  1. The fragmentation of Neolithic figurines (mainly in the Balkans) has been a trendy subject for the past decade. See John Chapman’s 2000 book Fragmentation in Archaeology.

  2. I apologize for being so wordy, but this one will be short. For anyone interested in ancient Greek archeology, I highly recommend the latest version of Herodotus, “The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories,” edited by Robert Strassler, a new translation by Andrea Purvis, published by Pantheon Books 2007. It’s full of maps, annotations, definitions, has appendices, and, best of all, an encyclopedic index in the back. Haven’t you always wondered what the heck the old man saw that he described as the pelt of a gold-digging ant? Now you can find out!

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