The Technology of Early Cycladic Marble

Research project, 2016-2017

This is a multi-disciplinary project, organized by the National Archaeological Museum (NAM) and the Museum of Cycladic Art (MCA), in collaboration with other research institutes (see Participants), aiming to provide for the first time full scientific documentation to the manufacturing techniques and colour decoration of Early Cycladic marble figurines and vessels.

These aspects of Early Cycladic technology have been explored in the past through macroscopic observations, special photographic methods, and experimental reconstructions (see Resources > Selected Bibliography). However, a systematic, study of manufacturing techniques and colour decoration with analytical methods is still lacking.

The NAM and the MCA have decided to fill this gap, by providing for examination with non-destructive methods of scientific analysis (see Methodology) more than 120 marble figurines and vessels, which retain traces of tools and/or paint on their surfaces. Another 25 objects have been recently added by the Benaki Museum, which has kindly joined the project. The selected objects represent all known types of figurines and vessels, dating to all periods of the Cycladic Early Bronze Age, thus allowing for both synchronic and diachronic observations.

The goals of the project are:
1. to identify distinct stages in the manufacturing process of figurines and vessels, and to extract information about the morphology and materials of the tools used by Early Cycladic craftsmen;

2. to record in detail direct and indirect traces of colour decoration on figurines and vessels, establish a reliable typology of decorative techniques, and identify the composition of pigments and organic adhesives (‘glues’) used by Early Cycladic artisans.

The research team aspires to establish a reliable methodology (“best practices”) for the technological approach of 3rd millennium BC marble objects, which can then be used by other scholars. It is also expected that the examination of items of known archaeological context (NAM) and of unspecified provenance (MCA and the Benaki Museum) with the same methods, will define uncontestable criteria of authenticity for Early Cycladic marble objects. Finally, the project will contribute to the wider discussion about ancient techniques of marble-working and the application of pigments on marble surfaces (see Resources > Related projects).

Funded by

The Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP)
National Archaeological Museum

Museum of Cycladic Art


Main researchers

Dr Katia Manteli (Curator of the Collection of Prehistoric Antiquities, National Archaeological Museum)
Project co-ordinator

Dr Nikolas Papadimitriou (Curator of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art Collections, Museum of Cycladic Art)
Project co-ordinator

Kiki Birtacha (Member of the Scientific Team of the Akrotiri Excavations at Thera)
Archaeological co-ordinator of technological study and colour analysis

Dr Sophia Sotiropoulou (Senior researcher at the Ormylia Foundation Art Diagnosis Centre)
Analysis of marble figurines and vessels for colour remains and binding agents

Dr Elise Morero (Research Fellow, Khalili Research Centre, Wolfson College, Oxford University)
Analysis of tool traces and manufacturing techniques

Dr Αthina Boleti (Associate Researcher, Laboratory of Aegean Prehistory, CNRS, France)
Experimental tests and analysis of tool traces 

Other participants

Dr Eirini Papageorgiou (Curator of Prehistoric, Classical and Roman Antiquities, Benaki Museum)

Giannis Panagakos (Conservator, Laboratory of stone objects conservation, National Archaeological Museum)

Epaminondas Venieris (Craftsman of marble objects)

Akis Goumas (Artist and researcher of ancient technologies)

Interns assisting the project

Daphne Martin (Yale University)
Claire Gaposchkin (Bryn Mawr College)


The study of marble artefacts is based on the following methods:

Macroscopic examination and digital imaging
1. Visual examination of artefacts for the identification of traces of tools and/or paint.2. Technical imaging in reflectance and luminescence in the UV-Vis area of the spectrum, in diffuse and in raking light, in order to identify merely perceptible traces of paint.

Microscopic examination
1. Examination of figurines and vessels through microscope and stereoscope, in diffuse and raking light, to identify faintly perceptible traces of tools and colour decoration.

2. Detailed recording and measurement of tools-marks, other traces of surface treatment, and remains of painted decoration.

Analytical techniques
1. Measurement of possible traces of colour on figurines and vessels with an XRF device, to identify the elemental composition of the pigments.

2. MicroRaman and FTIR spectroscopic measurement of selected objects for the identification of pigments and possible organic residues or their degradation products.

3. Recording of areas retaining tool-traces (e.g. incised lines, traces of abrasion, etc.) with a light, non-invasive material, and microscopic examination of the impressions with a confocal microscope to identify minute details of the manufacturing processes and the morphology of the tools used.

Experimental techniques
1. Experimental tests on marble pieces of different qualities, with tools of different shapes and materials, in order to produce reference samples for the various manufacturing processes (abrading, drilling, polishing etc.)

2. Microscopic analysis of the traces produced by experimental texts and comparison with the original traces on Early Cycladic objects

3. Full experimental reconstruction of selected figurines and vessels on the basis of the analytical data produced by the study.

Final documentation
1. The results of the study will be published in a monograph.

2. All figurines and vessels with traces of paint will be drawn in detail, to establish a reliable typology of colour decoration.

3. Comprehensive illustrations of the various stages of production (chaîne opératoire) on different categories of figurines and vessels will be produced by an artist.

Preliminary Results

So far, approximately 150 marble figurines and vessels from the National Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Cycladic Art, and the Benaki Museum have been examined by our research team, allowing for some preliminary remarks.

Macroscopic examination - Technical imaging

  • Approximately 20 objects with possible remains of painted decoration have been examined with different types of technical imaging by Kiki Birtacha and Yiannis Panagakos. This has helped to identify possible traces of paint, which are not visible with naked eye.

Microscopic examination

  • Approximately 1100 microscopic images have been taken. The images help enormously:

    a) to record and measure faintly visible traces of paint; according to Kiki BIrtacha, who has studied the traces, the width of painted lines varies between 1 and 3 mm;

  • b) to study the nature of the so-called “paint-ghosts” (i.e. parts of the marble, which have been preserved in relief or as smoother and brighter surfaces due to the protective agency of the pigment, which has now been lost); analysis of the data will allow us to explore in detail the chemical processes involved here;

  • c) to identify different types of tool traces corresponding to various processes (percussion, abrasion, drilling, polishing, etc.), measure their dimensions and record their morphology.

  • d) to identify differences in the use of tools, e.g. for the production of deep incisions (as in the following images from two different figurines, which show, on the left irregular striations perhaps associated with the use of a pointed stone tool, and on the right straight parallel striations perhaps associated with the use of a stone blade).

Analytical techniques - XRF Testing

  • Approximately 40 objects with remains of paint have been examined with a portable XRF device by Sophia Sotiropoulou. Preliminary analysis of the data suggests the use of well-known minerals, such as copper oxides (azurite), iron oxides (red ochre), cinnabar etc.

  • Preliminary analysis of XRF data suggests that a wider variety of pigments were used on vessels, in comparison to figurines, but further investigation is necessary before definite conclusions are drawn.

Experimental techniques

  • Experimental tests have produced a detailed typology of traces left by tools of different shape and material on a variety of marble surfaces. The comparison of original tool traces with those produced during experimental tests allows for the identification of similarities and differences. In some cases, similarities are striking, as for example in the deep incisions between the legs of an original Cycladic figurine (left) and a modern replica made with emery tools (right).

  • In other cases, however, there are notable differences, as for example between the fine traces of percussion on a Cycladic figurine (left) and the rougher ones produced by modern emery tools (right).

Cycladic Art in Marble

Marble is a crystalline rock of medium hardness, created by the geological transformation (crystallization) of limestone and dolomites. It has a dense structure consisting of fine grains, which makes it relatively non-porous (and thus resistant to wear) and easy to work.

Large deposits of good quality white and greyish marble are available in many Cycladic islands (Naxos, Paros, Ios, Syros, Keros, Tinos etc.). Marble was used by the islanders already in the Neolithic period, but the art of marble-working really flourished in the 3rd millennium BC. It was by that time that Cycladic craftsmen created the exquisite figurines and vessels that have inspired so many modern artists around the world.

Early Cycladic artisans, however, did not work with metal tools. Iron was still unknown, and copper was too soft to carve the marble. Therefore, most of the fine marblework of the 3rd millennium BC must have been made with stone abrasion tools. Although we have a rough idea of the manufacturing processes (see Resources > Selected Bibliography, Oustinoff 1984; 1987; Papadatos & Venieris in press), the details of the technique are still eluding us. This project aims to explore these fascinating aspects of Early Cycladic technology.

During the 3rd millennium BC in the Cyclades, the human figure was rendered with stereotypical, repeated characteristics. The human figure was invariably carved as a relatively abstract outline in white marble. The marble, however, was rarely left undecorated. In order to become a meaningful object, the white surface of the figurine had to be animated by colour, enlivened by painted eyes, hair, jewellery, decorative patterns and body marks (see Resources > Selected Bibliography, Hendrix 2000; 2003a; Birtacha 2003 in press).

The white skin of the marble functioned as a ground for the application of the paint. In that way, the austere form acquired special characteristics, vitality and energy; it became ‘human’. Cycladic figurines, therefore, are at once works of sculpture and of painting.

Colours were used for many other purposes in the Cyclades. Remains of red, blue and other pigments are often preserved on the surface of marble vessels, in the interior of clay vases, or as lumps in graves. Exploring the use of colour and reconstructing the techniques of painted decoration are main objectives of this project.


Selected bibliography

  • BEEVAN A. 2007: Stone Vessels and Values in the Bronze Age Mediterranean (Cambridge).
  • BIRTACHA K. 2003: «Χρώματα και χρωματισμός κατά την Πρώιμη Εποχή του Χαλκού στις Κυκλάδες», in A. Vlachopoulos & K. Birtacha (eds.), Αργοναύτης. Τιμητικός τόμος για τον Καθηγητή Χρ. Γ. Ντούμα από τους μαθητές του (Αθήνα), 263-276.
  • ΒIRTACHA K. in press: “Examining the paint on Cycladic figurines”, in M. Marthari, C. Renfrew & M. Boyd (eds.), Early Cycladic Sculpture in Context (Cambridge).
  • BIRTACHA K. forthcoming: «Ενδείξεις για γραπτή απόδοση χαρακτηριστικών στα κυκλαδικά και κυκλαδικού τύπου ειδώλια από την Κρήτη», in N. Stampolidis & P. Sotirakopoulou (eds.), Cycladica in Crete: Cycladic and Cycladicizing Figurines within their Archaeological Context, Museum of Cycladic Art, 1-2 October 2015 (Athens).
  • GETZ-GENTLE P. 1996. Stone Vessels of the Cyclades in the Early Bronze Age (University Park, PA).
  • GETZ-GENTLE P. 2001. Personal Styles in Early Cycladic Sculpture (Madison, Wisconsin).
  • GETZ-PREZIOSI P. 1987. Sculptors of the Cyclades. Individuals and Tradition in the Thirdrd Millennium BC (Ann Arbor)
  • HENDRIX E. 2000. The Paint Motifs on Early Cycladic Figures (PhD thesis, New York University).
  • HENDRIX E. 2003a. “Painted Early Cycladic figures: an exploration of context and meaning”, Hesperia 72, 405-446.
  • HENDRIX E. 2003b. “Some methods for revealing paint on Early Cycladic figures”, in K.P. Foster & R. Laffineur (eds.), METRON. Measuring the Aegean Bronze Age (Aegaeum 24, Liège), 139-145.
  • MARTHARI M. in press: “Cycladic figurines in settlements: the case of the major EC II settlement at Skarkos on Ios and the schematic figurines”, in M. Marthari, C. Renfrew & M. Boyd (eds.), Early Cycladic Sculpture in Context (Cambridge).
  • OUSTINOFF E. 1984: “The manufacture of Early Cycladic figurines: a practical approach”, in Fitton L. (ed.), Cycladica. Studies in Memory of N.P. Goulandris (London), 38-47.
  • OUSTINOFF E. 1987: “The Early Cycladic sculptor: materials and methods”, in Getz-Preziosi P., Early Cycladic Art in North American Collections (Richmond), 90-102.
  • PAPADATOS Y. & VENIERIS T. in press. “An experimental approach to the manufacture of Cycladic figurines: preliminary observations”, in M. Marthari, C. Renfrew & M. Boyd (eds.), Early Cycladic Sculpture in Context. Papers Presented at a Symposium held at the Archaeological Society at Athens, 27-29 May 2014 (Cambridge)
  • TAMBAKOPOULOS D. & MANIATIS Y. in press. “The marble of the Cyclades and its use in the Early Bronze Age”, in M. Marthari, C. Renfrew & M. Boyd (eds.), Early Cycladic Sculpture in Context (Cambridge).

Related projects

Technology of Early Cycladic Marble Artefacts: An Experimental Approach
Faculty of History and Archaeology, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Project directors: Dr Yiannis Papadatos & Epaminondas Venieris

Tracking Colour. Polychromy on the Ancient World
NY Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark
Project director: Dr Cecile Brøns

Other resources

Museum of Cycladic Art Theme Pages

Video: Study at the National Archaeological Museum [blog]

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Στις Κυκλάδες, κατά την 3η χιλιετία, η ανθρώπινη μορφή, από την πλέον συνοπτική και σχηματική έως τη πιο φυσιοκρατική απόδοσή της λαξεύτηκε στο μάρμαρο και στη συνέχεια συμπληρώθηκε και ολοκληρώθηκε με ζωγράφιση. Μάτια, μαλλιά, κοσμήματα και άλλα θέματα, χρωματισμένα με κόκκινο, γαλάζιο ή μαύρο χρώμα, έδιναν ενέργεια και ιδιαίτερα χαρακτηριστικά στις μορφές, που με αυτόν τον τρόπο εμψυχώνονταν και αποκτούσαν ανθρώπινη ζωντάνια. Η ζωγραφική, επομένως, αποτελούσε βασικό στοιχείο για την απεικόνιση της ανθρώπινης μορφής. (Κείμενο: Κική Μπίρταχα)
During the third millennium BC in the Cyclades, the human figure was rendered with stereotypical, repeated characteristics. In every case, from the most concise and schematic to the most naturalistic representation, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional, the human figure was carved as an outline in white marble and then complemented and completed by painting, as a basic component of the representation. The marble figurine had to be painted, its white surface had to be animated by colour, enlivened by painted eyes, hair, jewellery, decorative patterns and body marks. The white skin of the marble functioned as a ground for the application of the paint, and the austere form thus acquired special characteristics, vitality and energy; it became ‘human’. Cycladic figurines, therefore, are at once works of sculpture and of painting. (Text by: Kiki Birtacha)

Video: Experimental reconstruction of a Cycladic figurine