Alternate Introduction 04: The Prehistoric Aegean

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The map above is a satellite image from NASA that I have marked up, roughly, to show you the region we’re talking about. All the land masses to the left of the red line are now part of the modern nation of Greece.
Chapter 4 of ATTA covers this region in the years 3000-1200 BCE. Hundreds of years later, Athens was the leading city of the Delian League of Greek city-states, and today it is the Greek capital. Back in prehistoric Aegean days, however, Athens was neither a major cultural center or a big political power.
From an art historical point of view, the important regions during this time were, in chronological order:
1. The island central-Aegean island group called the Cyclades. (ca. 3000-2000 BCE)2. The late (New Palace) period of the Minoan Civilization, on the island of Crete (ca. 1700-1400 BCE). The end date given in your textbook is 1200 BCE, and the Minoan civilization did continue until around that time, but it went into serious decline ater 1400 (ATTA, p. 90).
3. The Mycenean Culture, centered on the mainland (ca 1700-1200 BCE).
Cycladic Art
What we know about Cycladic life:
• Residents sailed, traded, and exchanged ideas among the various islands, sharing a common culture.
• They a settled life, supporting themselves by farming, fishing, hunting and raising animals.
• They were capable of making metal tools had abundant access to two highly useful minerals, marble and obsidian.
Today, the Cycladic civilization is most famous for its marble statuettes, sometimes known inaccurately as “Cycladic Dolls.” A better term is “Cycladic Figures” or “Cycladic Figurines.” Their purpose is unknown. They may be spirit companions for the dead, or representations or symbols of the deceased used during the mourning process when a women died, or fertility figures, or childbirth goddesses.
About Cycladic Figurines:
• Female figures are by far the most common type.
• Shared features of the classical or “spedos” type include
–Large triangular forms composing the body, with proportions so consistent that they may have been planned with a compass, according to the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art
–Tapering shape from the wide shoulders on down
–Right arm crossed over the abdomen on top of the left arm
–Feet on tiptoes, like Barbie, which means they wouldn’t have been free-standing
–Painted eyes, mouths and sometimes red cheeks as well as red and/or blue necklaces (most appear all-white now because the paint has faded
–Sometimes, slight swelling, perhaps conveying pregnancy
–Small but prominent breasts, incisions to portray the public area
external image cycladicmuseumspedosccpeteranddorota.jpgphoto by flickr user(s) peteranddorota
• Some important words used to describe them are “stylized” or “schematic.” Meaning that they are modeled on the general plan of the body, but only in a very basic, rough, or distorted way. The most schematic Cycladic Figurines look more like violins than people.
external image cycladicviolinsccatChezCasverXuanChe-300x173.jpgphoto by Xuan Che (flickr user Chez Cåsver) cc at
• Male figures are rarer. They usually appear in the form of musicians, like the lyre player from Kyros (figure 4-3). Like the female figures, they were placed in tombs, maybe to entertain the deceased.
• The simple geometry of Cycladic figures had a profound influence on modern artists such as the sculptor Constantine Brancusi (1876-1957).
Image from the atelier (studio) of Brancusi:
external image atelierBrancusiccatncsathaiz_mm-300x225.jpgimage by flickr user thaiz_mm
• Because they’re so highly valued during the 20th century, a lot of supposed Cycladic figurines may actually be fakes. (ATTA, p. 83)
Additional Sources:
Platis, Marina, Cycladic Civilisation. Goulandris Foundation, Cycladic Museum of Art, undated.
Hoffman, Gail L. Painted Ladies: Early Cycladic II Mourning Figures, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 106, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. 525-550
Minoan Art and Architecture
The huge, mazelike palace at Knossos, may have inspired the myths of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur.
This palace….
public domain image
public domain image
had dozens of rooms, with two stories in some areas. Areas included courtyards, royal chambers, offices, quarters for servants, storage spaces, and a theater-like area where people may have assembled. In fact, there were lots of elaborate palaces in ancient Crete, but Knossos is the largest one.
external image labrisccTemplar1307atncnd-300x225.jpgphoto by flickr user Templar1307 cc at-nc-nd
The word Labyrinth comes from the double-headed axe called a labrys, which was a prominent symbol in the Palace at Knossos (ca. 1700-1400 BCE) as well as in other places in the ancient Aegean world.The excavation and partial reconstruction (figure 4-6) of the Palace at Knossos was done by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who has been criticized for being overly enthusiastic and not careful enough in his work. He may have gone overboard wanting to portray Minoan society as refined peaceful, compared with the later Myceneans. Did the palace really look like his reconstruction? It’s hard to know.
Anyway, one detail from ATTA to note is that the original palace had wooden columns, which Evans reconstructed in cement. These columns were thinner at the bottom and thicker at the top, which is different from later Greek columns.
external image Knossos-bull-300x177.jpgpublic domain image
The fresco painting (i.e., a mural on a plaster wall) of the bull leapers (figure 4-8) was reconstructed from a few fragments. It may suggest that the Minoans performed ceremonies involving the bull as a sacred animal.Unlike the Egyptians, who painted on dry walls, the Minoans painted in “wet fresco,” binding the paint with the plaster for a more lasting result.
The murals at Akrotiri c. 1700 BCE, are in much better shape, because were preserved by volcanic ash. The Spring Fresco (figure 4-9) isthe first known works of art that is purely landscape paintings.
external image Springfrescoccatsantanartist.jpegphoto by flickr user santanartist cc at
Actually, the paintings are not located on Crete…they’re on Santorini, formerly known as Thera, one of the Cycladic Islands. But Cycladic art at this point would have been heavily influence by the powerful Minoan culture.*
Minoan pottery was often decorated with seafaring themes: fish, nets, boats, octopuses, etc. ATTA gives you two examples in different styles on page 88:
Figure 4-10, a Kamares-ware jar, with white and brown images on a black ground. (ca. 1800-1700 BCE)
Figure 4-11 a Marine Style octopus jar, which is memorable for the way that the image complements and emphasizes the full round shape of the vessel. It’s painted in more subdued colors than the Kamares ware jar, with the darker image on a lighter background. We’ll talk about the importance of this on Friday when we get to Greek pottery.
The “Snake Goddess” (figure 4-12) from the Palace of Knossos may actually be a priestess rather than a goddess. She’s got some kind of cat, like a leopard, on her head. The cut of her dress is “distinctively Minoan,” according to ATTA. The classicist Mary Beard, however, argues that the statue, found in pieces, is largely a creation of Evans’ team. A 19th century artist created much of the head, the face, and the snakes, and everything below the waste is a reconstruction.
external image snakepriestessccfoonusatncsa-224x300.jpgphoto by flickr user foonus cc at nc sa
Additional Source:
Beard, Mary. Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery, New York Review of Books, August 13, 2009.
Mycenean Art**
The Mycenaeans are best known to us through the epic poems of Homer: The Iliad (Story of the Trojan War) and the Odyssey (a riproaring sea adventure). Characters like Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Odysseus are legendary warrior kings from Greece, and Homer tells the story of their invasion of the city-state of Troy (in modern-day Turkey) and their return home after the war.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, educated Europeans, and particularly English men, were sometimes wildly in love with these stories, and Sir Arthur Evans was no exception.
Evans again got overenthusiastic, and didn’t realize that this mask is from someone hundreds of years earlier than Agamemnon.
Mask of Agamemnon
Mask of Agamemnon
photo by flickr user Feuillu cc at nc
The citadel at Tyrins
A corbeled arch.
The lion gate.
The tholos tomb.