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Old 02 January 2007, 02:09 AM
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Icon106 Statues offer clues to Greek isle's past

For my fellow archaeology fans.

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Unlike its larger, postcard-perfect neighbors in the Aegean Sea, Keros is a tiny rocky dump inhabited by a single goatherd. But the barren islet was of major importance to the mysterious Cycladic people, a sophisticated pre-Greek civilization with no written language that flourished 4,500 years ago and produced strikingly modern-looking artwork.

A few miles from the resorts of Mykonos and Santorini, Keros is a repository of art from the seafaring culture whose flat-faced marble statues inspired the work of 20th century masters Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore.

Indeed, more than half of all documented Cycladic figurines in museums and collections worldwide were found on Keros. Now, excavations by a Greek-British archaeology team have unearthed a cache of prehistoric statues all deliberately broken that they hope will help solve the Keros riddle.
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Old 02 January 2007, 02:21 AM
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Interesting!

The article does bring up one of my pet peeves, however. Always, ALWAYS when researching the artifacts left behind by a "primitive" civilization or people, there is speculation as to what religious significance the artifacts played, along with theory as to the god or goddesses worshipped.

What if they dig up the remnants of a culture that just likes making pretty statues?
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Old 02 January 2007, 03:17 AM
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Interesting. I was under the impression that Cycladic figurines were typically found in burials or even used as grave markers. I wonder if this represents a cache of old/damaged statues such as those buried on the Athenian acropolis after the Persian sack of the city.

Hambubba, the article does acknowledge possible other uses of the figurines, but not until almost the last sentence. Your point is one I like to discuss with my art history students. I ask them, for example, why people always label objects such as the Venus of Willendorf "fertility goddesses." It is interesting to see the students realize that a lot of what we know about the ancient world is based on speculation and educated guesses. I think sometimes the media make it out almost like these things are found with labels on them that say "god" or "fertility figure."

By the way, I am so glad to see other archaeology fans here.

Last edited by Ariadne; 02 January 2007 at 03:23 AM. Reason: correct an error
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Old 06 January 2007, 09:33 PM
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Originally Posted by Ariadne View Post
Interesting. I was under the impression that Cycladic figurines were typically found in burials or even used as grave markers. I wonder if this represents a cache of old/damaged statues such as those buried on the Athenian acropolis after the Persian sack of the city.

Hambubba, the article does acknowledge possible other uses of the figurines, but not until almost the last sentence. Your point is one I like to discuss with my art history students. I ask them, for example, why people always label objects such as the Venus of Willendorf "fertility goddesses." It is interesting to see the students realize that a lot of what we know about the ancient world is based on speculation and educated guesses. I think sometimes the media make it out almost like these things are found with labels on them that say "god" or "fertility figure."

By the way, I am so glad to see other archaeology fans here.
I am often peeved by the same sort of thing. But then reality sets in and I have to admit to myself (and possibly others) that a figurine as old as the "Venus of Willendorf" WAS probably a sacred object. Fertility goddess? Well, maybe not, but a representation of "the Mother" perhaps?

As for the other statuary mentioned: I don't think there were many secular humanists around in those days, although I could easily be wrong. Sometimes I am wrong. Maybe they did just like making pretty statues, though. But when you think of the time and trouble such work took, it seems unlikely to me.
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Old 06 January 2007, 10:39 PM
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Silas Sparkhammer Silas Sparkhammer is offline
 
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Semi-highjack: anyone else here read "Odysseus Unbound" by Bittlestone? He makes a very nice case for having discovered the "actual" isle of Ithaca whence sailed The Wanderer. A convincing and readable book, a story of historical and personal exploration, and a true paean to The Information Age.

Silas
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Old 06 January 2007, 10:58 PM
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Fascinating stuff.

Silas, I have added that to my reading list. [The more I visit snopes, the longer the list gets!]
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Old 06 January 2007, 11:06 PM
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Originally Posted by vison View Post
As for the other statuary mentioned: I don't think there were many secular humanists around in those days, although I could easily be wrong. Sometimes I am wrong. Maybe they did just like making pretty statues, though. But when you think of the time and trouble such work took, it seems unlikely to me.
As far as the time and trouble to make them goes, most hunter-gatherer societies have a lot of free time on their hands*. Especially in the winter, you sit in a cave or a hut and do nothing. I don't think whittling or craving idly to kill time is beyond reason.

*I do not want to imply that I mean one of my least favorite claims: that a hunter gatherer really has it easier than Civilized People (TM).
(If you haven't heard it, the reasoning goes: a hunter gatherer spends less time working than a business man, so our advancements don't earn us a lot of free time. This is clearly ridiculous; if Gyou work out just the amount of time you would need to work at Gyour present salary to provide only a roof over Gyour head and food on the table I am fairly sure that Gyou spend less time working than a subsistence hunter. You spend the rest of the time working for stuff, which a hunter gatherer could not hope to have.)

Last edited by geminilee; 06 January 2007 at 11:13 PM. Reason: for clarification
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Old 06 January 2007, 11:37 PM
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You probably got a free figurine with every stuffed olive meal you had from McZeus's.
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Old 07 January 2007, 12:15 AM
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geminilee says: "As far as the time and trouble to make them goes, most hunter-gatherer societies have a lot of free time on their hands*. Especially in the winter, you sit in a cave or a hut and do nothing. I don't think whittling or craving idly to kill time is beyond reason."

If that is true, why doesn't every archaeological site that yields hundreds of arrow heads and spearpoints yield many figurines? These items are, AFAIK, quite rare.

(Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing from expertise, I am only an interested reader on the subject.) Hunter-gatherers lead a pretty hard life except in idyllic and ideal circumstances. The calorie salary from their exertions is quite low compared to farming. As for the winter leisure, I don't think that's true: there might not be much gathering going on but hunting would continue and would be more demanding of energy than in a warmer season. (I assume you are talking about Northern Europe.)

I am a noob here and don't wish to step on any toes in my first appearance on this forum. If I have done so, it is inadvertent and no offense is intended! The life of my remote ancestors is of enduring interest to me, and I am very much looking forward to discussion of the matter with Snopesians.
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Old 07 January 2007, 12:50 AM
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Originally Posted by lazerus the duck View Post
You probably got a free figurine with every stuffed olive meal you had from McZeus's.
That would explain why so many of them are broken.
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Old 07 January 2007, 12:52 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by vison View Post
I am a noob here and don't wish to step on any toes in my first appearance on this forum. If I have done so, it is inadvertent and no offense is intended! The life of my remote ancestors is of enduring interest to me, and I am very much looking forward to discussion of the matter with Snopesians.
No worries here; honest and sincere disagreement and even criticism is very much welcomed! How else are we going to learn?

As I understand it, life in a state of nature (or close to it) involves a tremendous range, from feast to famine, from boredom to panic. At times, life would be frantically busy...but at other times, it would be terribly boring, and people could be persuaded into "arts projects."

The thing that we moderns have the most trouble understanding is the huge role of the "spirits" in the everyday life of such people. Every event becomes hugely mystical, ritualized, and vastly complicated. The stress level upon each individual was probably *not* less than our modern stress level. If you miss with your bow and arrow when trying for game, not only do you go hungry...but others go hungry too, and you go home knowing that the whole clan hates you, and so do the spirits.

Silas
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  #12  
Old 07 January 2007, 03:15 AM
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Your post was excellent, Silas Sparkhammer, and makes several salient points.

Have you read "Guns, Germs and Steel"? It does not directly address the religion issue, but has plenty to say about the "advantages" of a settled life over the life of the hunter-gatherer. I thought the book was fascinating, and explained a great deal that was unsatisfactorily dealt with in "The Wealth of Nations". That was another good book, but having read Guns, etc., I find it more in tune with my intuitive take on things. ( )

(In her otherwise ghastly tales, Jean Auel covers a lot of this ground quite well.)

I recently heard on CBC radio an interview with someone (sorry, can't recall who it was) who said that the average person in the US or Canada has to make more decisions in one day than our remote ancestors had to make in a year. I think that is so, and that since many of our non-life-threatening stressful situations elicit the same response Grandpa Glog had when he saw the Rhinocerous charging at him, I think our stress level tends to be higher. That they endured daily stress of a physical nature is undeniable, but I like to think they ran off the bad hormones.

On another forum we are having a discussion on a thread entitled: "If alien life was discovered, what would you do?" The responses ranged from "why would anyone care?" to "the most awesome thing in the history of the human race!" to the inevitable yammering about what Christianity has or doesn't have to say to it. Now, since I intend to visit Snopes on a regular if infrequent basis, I will say up front that I am not a religious person, never was and more than likely never will be. I regard myself as Agnostic, not liking the often tiresome certainty of the Atheist, no offense to Atheists. (The devil made me do it. ) I doubt that any beings we can comprehend as beings will have escaped a religious phase in their cultural evolution, however, and that doesn't depress or delight me, I think it's just the way things shake out. We might find tribal beings making figurines, or we might find a planet covered with the art output of a vanished people and how are we going to know the difference? Could we?

All of this is my normal and perhaps regrettably verbose way of winding myself back to the point of the purpose of the statues mentioned in the first post: I think they had religious/spiritual significance, and were not just the product of idle hands.
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Old 07 January 2007, 03:20 AM
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Originally Posted by hambubba View Post
The article does bring up one of my pet peeves, however. Always, ALWAYS when researching the artifacts left behind by a "primitive" civilization or people, there is speculation as to what religious significance the artifacts played, along with theory as to the god or goddesses worshipped.

What if they dig up the remnants of a culture that just likes making pretty statues?
There are lots of reasons, many of them quite sound. The people who speculate about fertility goddesses or other relationships to culture and religion do so because of other relationships shown later in art history that are more well-documented, whereas the concept of art as simply a beautiful thing to look at has not been well-documented until more recently in history. So it's all well and good to speculate that perhaps these objects had only aesthetic value but in archeology and art history (as in any subject) you have to come up with some support. The history of art's religious siginificance has extensive support. The history of purely aesthetic art has little support before modern times.
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Adriane wrote:
It is interesting to see the students realize that a lot of what we know about the ancient world is based on speculation and educated guesses.
The key word here is educated. It's not as if people just pick up an object and say, "It was a primitive society so it must be a fertility goddess!" No, they consider similar objects from other societies, similar objects from the same societies or those that followed, etc. So it's not enough to simply say, "maybe the accepted interpretations are wrong" without giving it at least as much thought as previous investigators. (This goes without saying in all academic endeavors.)
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Old 07 January 2007, 03:42 AM
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Originally Posted by ganzfeld View Post
There are lots of reasons, many of them quite sound. The people who speculate about fertility goddesses or other relationships to culture and religion do so because of other relationships shown later in art history that are more well-documented, whereas the concept of art as simply a beautiful thing to look at has not been well-documented until more recently in history. So it's all well and good to speculate that perhaps these objects had only aesthetic value but in archeology and art history (as in any subject) you have to come up with some support. The history of art's religious siginificance has extensive support. The history of purely aesthetic art has little support before modern times. The key word here is educated. It's not as if people just pick up an object and say, "It was a primitive society so it must be a fertility goddess!" No, they consider similar objects from other societies, similar objects from the same societies or those that followed, etc. So it's not enough to simply say, "maybe the accepted interpretations are wrong" without giving it at least as much thought as previous investigators. (This goes without saying in all academic endeavors.)
I certainly did not mean to imply that I believe the work of scholars to be based on pure guesswork. Going back to my previous example of the Venus of Willendorf, it seems pretty clear that a figurine with exaggerated breasts, a very fleshy abdomen, and clearly marked labia likely has something to do with female fertility.

As I understand it, part of the reason Cycladic figures (I always want to call them figurines even though many are quite large) are assumed to have a religious, rather than decorative, function is that they cannot stand on their own. Therefore, they were probably meant either to be held (the smaller pieces) or placed on their backs. This leads to the impression that the figures were used as grave markers, burial goods, or small votive objects. I am not sure whether all of the figures have slanted feet that make them unable to stand, but I recall learning that at least some do.

As Ganzfeld pointed out, scholars do not (typically) indescriminately assign meanings to objects based on what they, or the public, want those meanings to be. Archaeologists and art historians base their theories on extensive prior knowledge of the cultures they study. However, I believe it is important for students to realize that the meanings of objects may not be as simple as they are often made out to be by the media and introductory art history texts.

Again, as Ganzfeld noted, the idea of "art for art's sake" is probably a relatively new concept. Yes, it is likely that some prehistoric artifacts were made simply for pleasure, but in cases like the Cycladic figures, where large numbers of a certain type of object have been found, and the objects range widely in date, I find it unlikely that such items were intended for non-religious/spritual purposes.

I also believe that since the Cycladic objects in question appear so modern to our eyes we are more likely to attribute a decorative purpose to them.

Ariadne, queen of the run-on sentence
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Old 07 January 2007, 03:46 AM
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By the way, welcome, vison.
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Old 07 January 2007, 03:58 AM
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I certainly did not mean to imply that I believe the work of scholars to be based on pure guesswork.
Right. That's why I expounded on the word "educated" in your sentence.
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Old 07 January 2007, 04:03 AM
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Sorry Ganzfeld, I wasn't sure if I made myself clear in my first post. I didn't mean to appear to be arguing with you. It is frustrating to convey one's meaning in writing, isn't it?
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Old 07 January 2007, 04:28 AM
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Good point, Ganzfeld. Of course the identifications are made with the background of other research, and "educated guesses". If ALL primitive statuary were worship items, that in itself should be worthy of study.

How about another peeve I have? Namely, that "primitive drawings", such as cave paintings, are an indication of an entire society's intellect and social patterns. How well can you draw? Do you know highly intelligent people who CAN'T draw? Sure you do.

It is well known that there have been highly intelligent people in recorded history - intelligences easily rivaling or surpassing modern ones. However, rather than engaged in invention, they were often forced by their circumstances to express that in other ways, such as military and legislative.

The big question is, we don't really know when high intelligence was first on the scene... I wonder how many cultures were in themselves primitive, but yet yielded intelligent individuals who if not separated by time could be our equals.
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Old 07 January 2007, 04:54 AM
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Originally Posted by hambubba View Post
How about another peeve I have? Namely, that "primitive drawings", such as cave paintings, are an indication of an entire society's intellect and social patterns. How well can you draw? Do you know highly intelligent people who CAN'T draw? Sure you do.

It is well known that there have been highly intelligent people in recorded history - intelligences easily rivaling or surpassing modern ones.
Here I think you're on much more solid ground. Drawing representationally is a kind of technology so we should be no more surprised that they hadn't yet invented a corkscrew.

However, I'm not so sure that scholars have been very guilty of this kind of mistake. I wonder where you got the idea that cave paintings are considered to be done by lesser intellects.

About the social patterns, again, we can only say that medieval paintings, for example, certainly are an indication of social patterns, as well as art in nearly every other era so I son't see why it wouldn't be so with ancient art.

Finally, if you've really looked at cave paintings -- I mean really looked -- I don't think you'd be so quick to suggest that they couldn't draw extremely well. Some cave paintings are real masterpieces in their own right. As far as I know, they have long been considered to be so. Picasso and other modern artists knew quite well that they were and I'm quite certain that most art historians would agree with them.

Last edited by ganzfeld; 07 January 2007 at 05:14 AM.
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Old 07 January 2007, 08:44 PM
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Fellow archaeology enthusiasts here might find this site [http://www.stonepages.com/news/] interesting. I subscribe to their free newsletter which thay mail out weekly. It usually has about a dozen articles which they have gathered from all over the world.
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