Painted Ladies: Early Cycladic II Mourning Figures?

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  • Topic: Cyclades, Cycladic civilization, Cycladic art
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  • Published : May 13, 2013
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Volume 106 • No. 4

October 2002

Painted Ladies: Early Cycladic II Mourning Figures?
The function and meaning of Early Cycladic figures has long been debated. With many sculptures lacking clear archaeological contexts and the ever-present concern about forgeries, any significant advance in our understanding of these works has seemed unlikely. By focusing on paint traces, a rarely-studied detail of the sculptures, this article suggests that a small group of foldedarm figures (FAFs), preserved with red vertical stripes painted on their cheeks, represent mourning figures used in funerary ritual. Combining close observation of the FAFs and their one assured context (in graves), ancient Greek evidence about figure use and funerals, as well as ethnographic study of figure uses, it is argued that Cycladic figures had a use-life before burial and that figures would be painted multiple times and with different motifs to reflect their changing roles in such events as initiations, marriages, and funerals. Finally, the Cycladic figures may reflect the development of ancestor ritual in Early Cycladic society in part as a response to scarce natural resources.*

The importance of proper mourning for the dead is evident in fifth-century Greek art and literature, where women’s roles in funerals were especially critical. Much earlier, ca. 2500 B.C., women’s roles as mourners were probably equally central to society. At that time, I will argue, important individuals were mourned through the display during a funeral ceremony of painted marble sculptures which were then left as offerings in the deceased’s grave. The details of public funerals and their functions within society change through time; however, close examination * I would like to acknowledge the many people who have helped and encouraged me with this article, especially Pat GetzGentle, Elizabeth Hendrix, Arthur W. Hoffman, and Joyce L. Hoffman; Gregory Nagy and the Center for Hellenic Studies, especially their librarians who worked tirelessly to acquire research materials for me; J.J. Pollitt, Lauren Talalay, and Gordon Williams. I would like to thank the two anonymous AJA readers whose comments and suggestions were very constructive and helpful. And I would also like to thank audiences of Yale alumni and at lectures at Boston College, George Washington University, Miami of Ohio, Rice, Wesleyan, William and Mary, and Yale. 1 On the distinction between use or function and meaning, see Talalay 1993, 38. 2 Nearly all who discuss the figures lament the loss of archaeological contexts. On this catastrophe, see esp. Gill and Chippindale 1993. There are also some who argue scholarly work on the figures should be limited because of the lack of provenance and because it serves to encourage the market for these

of the actual expressions and gestures of grief as well as women’s central role in mourning show that these elements of the funeral remain remarkably consistent over the millennia separating fifth-century Athens from the Early Bronze Age Cyclades. Since their discovery in the early 19th century, Cycladic marble figures have provoked speculation about their possible uses and meanings.1 A full understanding of the functions of Cycladic figures in Early Cycladic society is limited by a lack of clear archaeological contexts,2 while an understanding of their meanings is hampered by the absence of textual evidence and the roughly 4,500 years separating us from the culture that made them. Although from such a distance we can only hypothesize about the rituals and ideology of Early Cycladic islanders, a frequently overlooked feature of the figures—traces of painted decoration—may offer a way to refine our interpretations of their functions. Perhaps because paint is easily visible on relatively few figures (and is poorly preserved) little indepth consideration exists...
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