Idolizing

The Cycladic Spirit is a handsome, thoroughly self-indulgent book by a serious archaeologist responding in an art-historical sort of way to the products of a culture that has to be judged from the barest of evidence: in the author’s words the book is “an elegy for a lost world.” There is archaeology here too, the “background material,” but the most space and thought are devoted to the Greek marble Cycladic idols of the third millennium BC now so well represented in sale rooms and private collections and, sometimes less visibly, in public museums.

Renfrew’s enthusiasm is unquestionable. On the first page of chapter one the epithets roll out—“surpassing quality,” “remarkable,” “astonishing,” “breathtaking” (twice). Thereafter the text conceals the struggle between the careful prehistorian, who is suspicious of all subjective and most stylistic and unquantifiable judgments, and the enthusiast. It is, thus, a book for both art connoisseur and archaeologist, erring on the side of art: the page numbers, tiny and set at the inside top of each page, betray the dread hand of Design, as though the book was to be looked at, not read and used. But the pictures, mostly in color, are superb.

The most important natural resource of the Isles of Greece in antiquity was white marble. It still need not be quarried; you can just pull it off the hillsides in splinters and chunks. It was not easy to work, but patient application of similar rocks, and the fortuitous, presence in one of the islands (Naxos) of something even harder (emery) and on another (Melos) of obsidian, meant that it was possible to do something with it, to exploit its clean, crystalline surfaces. Some of the earliest inhabitants of the islands fashioned what were probably marble pebbles into plump female figurines not unlike those which seem to have been the aspiration of early artists at other places in early times. But in the third millennium BC far simpler stylizations of the human figure, in small flat idols shaped like a fiddle, gave place to more advanced but quickly stereotyped forms. These must have been closely determined by the material—flakes and splinters of marble—and available techniques—abrasion. It was a time-consuming process but early man seems to have had more time on his hands than we do, and, for all we can tell, the production of these idols for purposes of cult practices was one which the community would support. But it must be said that the purpose for which the idols were used remains obscure. As Renfrew writes:

If the Keros site had been properly excavated when the first finds were uncovered we should have known whether it was a sanctuary or a burial site. We might have known if the life-sized Cycladic figures…were made for use in sanctuaries, possible as the effigies of a divinity, or were manufactured simply for the grave. Yet it is the lamentable reality that not one of the several life-sized sculptures now known comes …

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