Your browser does not support JavaScript!

background image background image background image

Prehistoric Aegean and Arts

One of the greatest things the Aegean civilization created is art, unique for that era, not just in the Aegean Sea but in the entire world.

The simplicity and inventiveness characterizing the artists of the Bronze Age are reflected on the artefacts they created. Since the ancient times, the Aegean Sea bears a spiritual air and this is well reflected on literature, poetry and art.

The limited archaeological research does not allow us to have a full picture of the artistic activities during the fourth millennium BC (Late Neolithic) in the Aegean Sea. However, from the settlement and from the cemetery of the site Kefala in Kea, we have some evidence that allows us to reach the conclusion that the works of Saliagos and Za were cases neither isolated nor left without any continuation. Figurines from the Neolithic settlement of Saliagos near Antiparos, suggest that the human form had become a subject of study almost immediately after the permanent settlement on the islands. Although there are signs of bone and shell processing, white marble stood out right from the beginning as the main material for the sculptors of the early era.

The most characteristic creations of Cycladic Art in the Early Bronze Age are the marble figurines. Most of them represent naked women, few men musicians, warriors or hunters. These forms are highly schematic, with a few but characteristic details to identify the sex. The clay vessels have various shapes and are decorated with simple linear drawings. The marble vessels are particularly impressive as well as the metal ones with simple engraved decoration.

The third Millennium could be described as the most important period of the stone carving art for the Cyclades. The continuous study of the human figure on marble produced artists, who faithful to the rules of the Cycladic sculpture managed to conquer the third dimension and give masterpieces such as the seated harp players, the standing pipers or the complexes of two or three forms.

Professor Colin Renfrew (1972) has written that: “The creation of these spectacular marble sculptures was more than a major artistic achievement. It was a complete expression of a religious concept, a new effective projection, with significant impact on the mainland of the country, Crete and the Cyclades”. The Cycladic figurines have been a source of inspiration for modern art. There are distinct affinities between the Cycladic Art and the works of Henry Moore, Brancusi , Alberto Giacometti, one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century, while the work of Barbara Hepworth, which is deeply influenced by her prolonged visit to Greece, leaves an echo of the prehistoric and yet so modern art of the Cyclades.

The achievements of vase painting during the Early Cycladic period II and Early Cycladic period III and the introduction of multicoloured decoration of vases during the Middle Cycladic Period certainly contributed to the emergence of painting as an important medium of artistic expression. Therefore, while the Early Cycladic period could be described as the century of sculpture for the Cyclades, the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1650 BC) - Middle Cycladic Period - and early Late Cycladic Period could justifiably claim the title of the century of the great painting.

The new conditions formed in emerging port cities resulted in new social groups with different interests and concerns coming in contact with the art. Thus, abandoning marble the art is now focused on the impression exercised by the colourful decoration of the vases. The representation of animals and plants was soon followed by the representation of the human form, initially isolated and later in groups, in an attempt to present narrative character scenes. This kind of art reached its peak towards the end of the period, when at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (around 1650 BC), with the introduction of wall painting, the human form disappeared from the decoration of clay containers; it was upgraded and passed through wall painting. This is at least what the masterpieces of Akrotiri on Thera show[1].

It is true that cultural contacts in the Aegean had been intensified since the Early Bronze Age (3200-2000 BC), when the Cretan and Helladic communities turned more towards the sea. This second phase of the EBA seems to have been a period of population growth and creation of complex early-urban settlements, social differentiation and contacts around the Aegean Sea, the East and the Mediterranean. The civilization of Keros in Syros in the Cyclades, was, as it seems, on the threshold of urbanization and there are rich findings, for example gold and silver, like those from Lefkada and Zygouries , Mochlos and Levina in Crete, from  Syros and Amorgos in the Cyclades. It seems that during the EBA, most of the islands of the Dodecanese complex, as being part of the Aegean world, shared more or less common cultural characteristics with the Anatolia region, the islands of the NE Aegean Sea, the Cyclades and the mainland of Greece. The Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600 BC) was a period with many local features in the region, thus representing a harmonic continuance of the prosperous EBA. On the island of Rhodes, the few imported MM period vessels do not yet indicate a strong influence of Crete, while there is evidence that cultural influences from the Cyclades and the Anatolia region continued to exist. Towards the end of this period, the MM III period, the influence of the island of Crete increased, as testified also by surface findings on other islands of the Dodecanese, including Karpathos, Kassos and Tilos. At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age (LM IA), the character of the Aegean civilization, evolved into the “Minoan-like” lifestyle. The element that is particularly important is that through the artwork there appears to be a “common” cultural identity in the Aegean region, despite local peculiarities and specificities. The commercial relations were close and together with goods, artistic ideas and trends seem to have been also exchanged between the Aegean and the East since the first years of the millennium.

The iconography of the Aegean had captured through sculpture, ceramics and wall painting a full narrative language, rich, self-reliant and full of meanings. The Art of the prehistoric Aegean is a manifestation of the top conquests, innovation, aesthetics and technology. It is certain that there was a dialogue between ancient artisans and workshops which gave an image of the real and the imaginary world in the best possible way.

The prehistoric Aegean art shows us a patterned pictorial code based on daily life and religious - ceremonial events, gradually revealed as we study them.

According to the professor of the University of Athens, Ch. Doumas, the main and timeless feature of the culture that was born and developed in the Aegean is anthropocentrism.

“In the early Cycladic art one finds the seeds of anthropocentrism that characterize the entire Aegean civilization. The idea expressed by the aphorism of the sophists of the 5th century BC that “man is the measure of all things” seems to have deep roots. In no case has the human scale been exceeded. There were no monumental, burial or other constructions created, like those that appeared in the contemporary civilizations of Egypt and of the East. There, these structures were intended to impose the sovereignty of God or a despot upon the individual, to prevent danger of questioning or even upsetting the reigning status quo. Here, the basic cell of society, the individual, has not tolerated such oppression. The Cycladic art was not born to serve supernatural forces or to promote and support the prestige and authority of a despot. It was created by anonymous artists to serve the needs and satisfy the aesthetic preferences of the individual, of common mortals. The wide dissemination of works of art attests the impact the art had on the Cycladic society. It was art that appealed to and touched the inner world of the people. It was folk art

Through the anthropocentrism of Cycladic art one recognizes its themes. The human form is the main subject of study for the sculptor of the third millennium BC, while man's occupations and problems are the source of inspiration for painters later. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to underline that even in the case that some of the works of this art represent deities, their characteristics are utterly human. In the art of the Aegean, the art of the Cyclades, one may say that god has been humanized or that man has been deified[2]”.

The study of the human form literally reached its peak in the Classical (5th -4th century BC) and Hellenistic (3rd to 1st century BC) Period, creating works of eternal and unique beauty. In that period though, the characteristics of the gods have been crystallized and their forms can be easily recognized. Concerning the creations of all previous periods scholars are in a dilemma, namely whether the Neolithic, Cycladic, Mycenaean, Geometrical figurines or archaic kouroi and kores represent divine or human figures. The answer lies, in my opinion, in the dilemma itself: In the Aegean world, since man began to give substance to God, up until today, he never ceased to represent God in a human form. And it is precisely this thousand-year old conception of God in the image and resemblance of man that led the attempt of the iconoclasts of Byzantium to impose aniconic worship to absolute failure.

The inhabitants of the Cyclades continue a long history in traditional arts, with many laboratories and many folk artists who offer their own contribution to the Cycladic popular culture. The islands have a rich and vibrant tradition to show in marble sculpture, first of all Tinos with the famous marble laboratories of Pyrgos, in basketry the islands of Andros, Naxos and Paros, in ship-carpentry Tinos, Syros and Koufonissia, in weaving Mykonos, Naxos, Kea and the small Cyclades, in mosaic art Ios, in ceramics Kythnos, Naxos and Sifnos in woodcarving Amorgos, in the building of stone and in roof tiling Kea.



• Ch. G. Doumas, 2008, The culture in the stormy Aegean. Islands, coastal zone and inland in constant cultural conversation produce wealth, knowledge and modernist ideas. Kathimerini 28-12-08


• Giouli Eptakoili, 2013 Two arts in dialogue in the Aegean of 2000 BC. Angiography and wall painting converse at a conference in Santorini. Copyright:




• Sakellarakis G., Doumas Ch. , Sapouna - Sakellaraki E. Iacovidis S. , 1994, Greek Art: The Dawn of Greek Art, Ekdotiki Athenon, Athens


• Ch. C. Doumas , 2008, The anthropocentric civilization of the Aegean. 30 October 2008 Kathimerini newspaper


• Colin Renfrew, John Cherry 2011, The Emergence of Civilisation: The Cyclades and the Aegean in the Third Millennium BC (Jan 11, 2011)


[1] Ch. G. Doumas, 2008, O anthropokentrikos politismos tou Aigaiou, 30th October 2008, Kathimerini newspaper

[2] Sakellarakis G., Doumas Ch., Sapouna – Sakellaraki E., Iakovidis S.., Elliniki techni: I avgi tis ellinikis technis, Ekdotiki Athenon, Athens 1994, pp 35

Co-financed by Greece and the European Union - European Regional Development Fund