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Dancing figures from Ayia Irini

Clay sculptures of the Bronze Age

In a shrine at Ayia Irini, a site on the island of Kea (ancient Keos), excavators have found a large number of clay sculptures that date back to the Late Bronze Age.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Last week, we recorded another episode of our irregular podcast; it’ll be released next week in two parts. The subject was sculptures in the ancient Greek world, and we began with a brief survey of the evidence from the Bronze Age. We talked about the Cycladic figurines, most of which were relatively small statuettes, but some large examples are known, too, with a few of these on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.

Another example of more monumental sculpture is the large relief carved above the Lion Gate at Mycenae, which dates from around 1250 BC. As it is intended as a relieving element above the lintel of the gate, it is triangular in shape. In the centre is a characteristic Bronze Age column, becoming more narrow toward the base. It is flanked by two lions (or perhaps two lionesses). Their heads are missing: these were presumably made of a different material and have not been preserved.

Other evidence for monumental sculpture from the Bronze Age is slim. At Mycenae, a large plaster face was unearthed, painted white and presumably female. It may have been the face of a goddess or, perhaps more likely, a sphinx. A stone wig from Knossos suggests that it must have belonged to a statue of some sort, as do life-size clay feet. In all of these instances, the evidence that has survived to the present day suggest that larger sculpture existed in the Bronze Age, but was presumably made of perishable material, such as wood.

In the Bronze Age, figurines and statuettes were made from both clay and bronze. The former appears to be have been more common, with Mycenaean Psi- and Phi-figures – named after the letters of the Greek alphabet that they resemble – being perhaps the best-known examples. The Archaeological Museum of Iraklion also has a very large collection of different types of clay figurines in particular. Most of these are fairly small.

Statues from Ayia Irini

In the 1960s and 1970s, large clay sculptures were unearthed at Ayia Irini, on the island of Kea (ancient Keos). The site had been an impressive settlement that reached its zenith towards the end of the Middle Bronze Age and beginning of the Late Bronze Age. It even possessed a circuit wall, part of which is still visible.

Most of the statues come from a structure within settlement identified as House A. This may have been the house of the town’s leader, and also served as a shrine or a temple. Most Aegean archaeologists prefer not to describe Bronze-Age religious structures as temples, mostly on account of a lack of monumentality (see our discussion on ancient Greek sanctuaries). In any event, the rooms of House A were littered with fragments of dozens of terracotta statues.

The earliest of these sculptures date from Late Cycladic I, or ca. 1725-1500 BC, or the time of the settlement’s floruit. As always, absolute dates are troublesome, especially for the early Late Bronze Age, so you may also see some authors date the start of LC I a century later; those writers reject the radiocarbon date for the eruption of Santorini. The latest examples date to the IIIC ceramic phase, so from after 1200 BC, which demonstrates that the shrine was in use for a long time.

Two statues from Ayia Irini. The figure left is fairly well preserved. The other figure, shown from three-quarters behind and three-quarters in front (centre and right), is more fragmentary. Note the “Minoan” style dress, the (presumably) exposed breasts, the heavy belt or girdle, the necklace, and the positions of the arms. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

All of the clay figures from Ayia Irini are female. Nine different groups have been identified by Miriam Caskey. Because a lot of the statues were fragmentary, the total number of figurines cannot be determined, but there were more than 32. In order to help make these models, parts of them were often shaped around other objects, such as wooden sticks for the arms. They all tended to be hollow and were fired in a kiln.

The largest of the statues are half to three-quarter life-size. Most measure between 70 to 120 cm in height. Some of the best preserved figures are around one metre in height and dressed in typical “Minoan” fashion, wearing a flounced skirt that left the breasts exposed. They also wear a heavy necklace and a belt around the waist. They have their hands at the waist, and it’s been suggested that the figures were perhaps dancing. Traces of pigment suggests that all statues were originally painted.

It’s not clear if the statues are supposed to represent one or more different female deities, or even if they are supposed to represent divine beings at all. Evi Gorogianni does not doubt that the figures are supposed to be divine, and writes (p. 641):

Whether the statues represented a single deity or many, it is reasonable to assume that they were imbued with a sanctity that protected them from the fates of more mundane objects. In ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Near Eastern ritual, as well as contemporary Hindu practice, anthropomorphic cult images are treated as manifestations of deities: the deity is present in the image. Such rituals include not only prayer, sacrifice, and procession, but also the dressing, bathing, and feeding of the images, a clear indication that such representations are not merely symbols but the actual objects of religious devotion. It is possible that the terracotta statues of Ayia Irini were likewise perceived as the timeless, enduring representatives of the deity or deities residing within the temple for the benefit of the settlement.

The settlement at Ayia Irini shrank in size following the destruction of the Minoan palaces on Crete in Late Minoan IB/Late Helladic II, or ca. 1470/1460 BC (see my introductory article on Minoan Crete). The settlement was abandoned towards the end of Late Helladic IIIB (ca. 1200 BC).

This is not the end of the story, however. Finds suggest that the shrine remained in use during the Dark Ages (Andreas G. Vlachopoulos and Xenia Charalambidou 2020, p. 1014). Furthermore, the excavators discovered that in the eighth century BC, the inhabitants of Ayia Irini had found the head of one of the Bronze Age statues and placed it on a terracotta ring supported by flat stones. As Gorogianni notes (p. 643-644):

During the 9th and 8th centuries, a multitude of Bronze Age sites, ranging in function from sanctuaries to settlements and cemeteries, show continuous use or, in the case of abandoned sites, reuse as centers of ritual activity. […] These prehistoric sites were probably rehabilitated by local populations seeking to acknowledge their ancestors (real or imagined) and to make a claim on the landscape by establishing ritual practice.

Gorogianni suggests that in the eighth century, the head of one of these statues was venerated as part of an ancestor cult. Whatever the case may have been, it is clear that the past was deemed important enough to the eighth-century inhabitants of Ayia Irini for them to enshrine a relic of a bygone era. The past is forever re-used and adapted to suit contemporary needs.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Miriam Caskey, Keos II, Part I. The Temple at Ayia Irini: The Statues (1986).
  • Philip B. Betancourt, Introduction to Aegean Art (2007).
  • Evi Gorogianni, “Goddess, lost ancestors, and dolls: a cultural biography of the Ayia Irini terracotta statues”, Hesperia 80.4(2011), pp. 635-655.
  • Andreas G. Vlachopoulos and Xenia Charalambidou, “Naxos and the Cyclades”, in: Irene S. Lemos and Antonis Kotsonas (eds), A Companion to the Archaeology of Early Greece and the Mediterranean (2020), pp. 1007-1027.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.