Ancient civilizations in general have been provoking curiosity in the modern world for hundreds of years. In the 1890’s excavations were made on the islands of the Cyclades on which hundreds of tombs were recovered. From these tombs scholars were able to identify a new era called the “Cycladic” civilization which could be dated alongside the Egyptian chronology (Pedley 20). One ancient Cycladic piece I found to be quite interesting is a marble statue of a harp player that is located in the Getty Villa museum in Malibu, California.
It was found during an excavation on the island of Keros in the 19th century. The purposes and domestic uses, if any, of the Harp player along with similar Cycladic figurines referred to as “idol dolls” remain a mystery. Many theories have been established since their discoveries, however, I believe that, like most Cycladic art and pottery, the Getty Harp Player had both practical and religious purposes during its owner’s life and death.
“Idol dolls” made during the Cyclades come from the Early Bronze age. It was not until after World War II that people discovered and became fascinated with them.
An estimated twelve thousand graves have been opened in the Cycladic islands and a plethora of idols have been found. The Getty Harp Player is one of the most famous dolls because of the rarity of its unique style and theme. The Getty Harp Player’s fascinating detail and intriguing simplicity provokes curiosity as to what purpose the figure possessed. Licia Ragghianti, author of The Magnificent Heritage of Ancient Greece, excellantly describes the hypothetical thought process of the sculptor as he created this masterpiece.
According to Ragghianti, “[He] proceeded by aligning, counterbalancing, paralleling, angling, interpenetrating, and inverting the triangular rhythms viewed both laterally and from above – with the head nose, arms and legs indicating direction – as well as from the horizontal plane of the base. ” Because light filters through the translucent marble, a contemplative meaning is developed through the angles and planes that make up the form (Ragghianti 22). Detail was rarely carved into Cycladic figurines due to the difficulty in manipulating the marble.
This is why the head, arms, and legs of the harp player were created in a very angular and planar fashion and the face was not carved with many features. However, paint “ghosts” have been found on this piece suggesting that its creator had previously used paint to add details to the figure (Lawergren 3). Over time, the paint had diminished entirely, leaving a slightly lighter “shadow” depicting where the paint may have previously been placed. This allows us to conclude that detail was in fact important to the Cyclades in contrast to what may be assumed upon first look.
Though some may believe that the Getty Harp player along with other Cycladic figurines were made solely for aesthetic purposes, it’s difficult to believe that the Cycladic people put so much time and effort to create a detailed piece of art that was purely for decoration. One way to provoke the idea that the Getty Harp player contains a more practical use is to compare it to other Cycladic art and their functions. As in most ancient civilizations, pottery was a form of art that served a purpose in the Cylcladic world.
Plates and pots with beautiful patterns and designs were excavated in the Cycladic region which demonstrates that the Cycladic people spent hours forming objects that not only served to be visually pleasing, but had simple yet necessary household purposes. Historians presume that many of these spectacular pieces of art held purposes that were vital to the individual person and to the community as a whole. For example, a particular object was found that looks like merely an elaborately designed plate. However, it is believed that this plate was important to Cylcadic lifestyle because it was used as a sort of frying pan for cooking.
This leads me to believe that if the Cyclades put such a great effort into designing and sculpting objects that hold everyday purposes, then the Getty Harp Player must also hold a purpose that is greater than just for decoration. In addition to their pottery, Cyclades are most famous for their marble sculptures. While smaller figurines were worked from pebbles and stones, larger figurines were typically worked from rectangular blocks of marble using tools of bone, copper and emery. Historians have been able to group these figurines into three major themes: female figures, male figures, and musician figures.
These figures are so fascinating to the modern world that time was spent categorizing the “idol dolls” based on their aesthetic qualities and unique characteristics. Figures known as the Plastiras type possess an ovular shaped head with a straight nose and mouth and ears that stick out. The Spedos type usually have folded arms, a backward leaning head, long sloping shoulders, and everything but the nose painted on after it was sculpted. Lastly, the Khalandriani typle contain folded arms and a very angular shape. There is so much artistic freedom displayed by the Cycadic people that many ub types have been identified and even individual artists have been isolated. Prehistoric artists such as the Cyclades display a great understanding of the human figure because they used standard proportions over a thousand years before the sculptors of the classical period. Of the many categories found within Cycladic culture, the most striking pieces known for their artistic freedom and virtuosity are the musicians: the seated harpists (Pedley 34). Although the seated harpists are some of the most fascinating Cycladic figurines, they are very similar to the rest of the “idol dolls” that have been found.
Other “idol dolls” resemble the harp player greatly especially in the face and simple carvings that are the details of the body (Hafner 14). This leads us to believe that the majority of the figurines were connected and shared and maintained similar purposes throughout the ancient Cycladic period. As one of the ten Cycladic harp players that have been found to date, the Getty Harp Player’s detailed craftsmanship and characteristics are comparable to other pieces and to other Cycladic art based on the unique style and material of which they are made.
Ragghianti states, “Works such as this reveal characteristics that were to remain constants of the poetic and artistic outlook of Greek Civilization: the primary emotion and its sublimation are expressed not in contingent and perishable forms but in absolute, immutable conceptions” (Ragghianti 18). In other words, these island dolls were constructed so carefully and intentionally that they not only hold a physical image but also a deeper conceptual meaning.
It is clear that the harp players and other “idol dolls” including the Getty Harp Player are very similar which leads us to believe that they held a similar purpose. Since they could not be stood upright, they were laid in tombs next to the deseased (Hafner 48). According to Craig Childs, writer of archaeology and explorations, “The slender carvings are notoriously hard to date, as is the exact manner of their use, because they almost all come from private sources rather than from archaeologists. They have almost no documented context” (Childs 112).
The figures were found mostly in graves accompanying the dead so it can be assumed that their purpose is mostly religious. However, some appeared in the remains of what seemed to be homes. This domestic context suggests that the figurines functioned on a day to day basis, rather than made for the sole purpose of accompanying the dead. Though the purpose of these dolls is not entirely clear, the religious function has several possibilities. Since they joined the deceased in their grave, the dolls could have represented servants of the dead, respected ancestors, or even divinities.
In an everyday situation they could have been used as toys for children to play with or even substitutes for sacrifice (Pedley 36). Continuing the idea that people played with these dolls as children, they could have continued to keep the doll throughout their life and eventually buried with the same doll. This theory suggests that the doll may have actually represented its owner or perhaps an ancestor of the person, designed to watch over them in life and in death. Female figures in particular had a very flattened shape, were mostly sculpted nude and had their arms crossed.
Though their real significance is not known, they have been interpreted as nymphs, heroized dead, and goddesses (Hafner 81). According to John Pedley, author of Greek Art and Archaeology, they were idols, meant to lay with their owners, in life and death (Pedley 37). In conclusion, the Getty Harp player and other “idol dolls” possess mysterious functions that go beyond decorative purposes. These dolls must have been useful in other ways because other Cycladic art, such as pottery, contained the same elaborate detail, yet additionally maintained a functional use.
Since these dolls were found next to graves, it is evident that the ancient Cycladic civilization also used them to protect the deceased. Though no one knows their actual uses for sure, I believe that these ancient works of art had both religious and practical purposes that stuck with their owners throughout their life and in death. These simple figurines found in the ancient tombs on the Cycladic islands provoke many fascinations and larger ideas about ancient civilization during their time period and as a whole. Works Cited
Childs, Craig. Finders Keepers. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2010. Print. Hafner, German. Art of Crete, Mycenae, and Greece. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1969. Print. Lawergren, Bo. A “Cycladic” Harpist in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Diss. Hunter College, 2000. New York: City University of New York, 2000. Web. 5 Mar. 2012. . Pedley, John G. Greek Art and Archaeology. [S. l. ]: Prentice Hall, 2003. Print. Ragghianti, Licia Collobi. The Magnificent Heritage of Ancient Greece: 3000 Years of Hellenic Art. New York: Newsweek, 1979. Print.
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