Idols and Cult Objects from the Mediterranean 2004

December 9 2004 - January 27 2005

New York

“Idols” and Cult Objects of the Mediterranean

from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age


An exceptional selection of marble idols from the Mediterranean Basin as well as some other remarkable objects of art from the Classical world, on display now in New York



From the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, many Mediterranean cultures produced figurines of human, usually of small size, sculpted from different materials (terracotta, stone and more rarely, shell or metal); they have been discovered in the Levant, in Anatolia, in the Balkans (1), in Northern Greece (2) and in the Aegean (3), in Sardinia and even as far as Spain.


Modern scholarship calls these figurines “idols”, but this term is used only as a convention.  These statuettes are the expression of primitive societies, whose contacts with other communities were very rare and who had not yet developed a system of writing.  In spite of recent archaeological studies, it is nearly impossible for us to know the significance and the relationships that might have existed between the figurines of different regions.  Even if the specific regional traits were very important, one recognizes today that these “idols” were destined for the religious or funerary sphere.  Their typology is extremely varied: from simple pebbles of small size to schematic forms, from the generously rounded contours of females (3) to sculptures that are elegant and more realistic (1), etc.


KILIA (4,5)

The Kilia type is named after a figurine originating from a site near Gallipoli in the Chersonese on the European banks of the strait of the Dardanelles.  The shape of these objects is very homogeneous and they do not display marked differences in size: the head is elliptical and large, slightly angled towards the back; the ears, the nose and sometimes the eyes are plastically indicated (4).  The body resembles a lozenge with a thin neck; the sharp arms were obtained by carving a long, deep notch that separates them from the hips.  The pubic area is indicated by a triangular incision (5).

The lasting popularity of these “idols” is surprising: first appearing at the beginning of the 4th millennium, the Kilia statuettes were not completely abandoned until the middle of the following millennium; they spread to Western Anatolia, the Troades and possibly also to Thrace.



Among the stone statuettes from the Neolithic or the Bronze Age, the marble figurines from the Cycladic Islands are probably the most famous and the most well-studied.  They are classified into two principal groups: schematic figurines (often just simple beach pebbles, sometimes of slightly more elaborate shapes that resemble violins) and more naturalistic figurines (6), with simple plastic forms that never cease to intrigue modern artists and observers.  Their precise function remains unknown, but it is certain that they played an important role in the religious and funerary spheres of this society.  The culture that produced them spread during the 3rd millennium to traverse the Aegean, not only to the central islands but also to the shores of the Greek continent, south-western Anatolia and even to Crete.



Contrary to the Cycladic Islands were stone figurines in the shape of violins disappeared around the beginning of the 3rd millennium, in Western Anatolia, the tradition of schematic statuettes was also attested during the Bronze Age.


As usual, the different types were named after the places where they were made: the Beycesultan type (first half of the 3rd millennium) and the Kusura type (probably a little later) are among the most widely known groups.


The first group is comprised of figurines characterized by their extremely flat silhouette and by the rounded outline of the bodies; two small pointed stumps indicate the arms, while a long stalk represents the neck, which is sometimes surmounted by a disc-shaped head – the point on the side of the head was perhaps a lock of hair (7).


The Kusura variant possesses a tripartite structure: a disk shaped head, a trapezoidal neck and a shield-like bust that often shares the same rough outline as the arms.  With the exception of very rare cases, no other incisions indicate the sex of the statuette or any other anatomical details.



In Iberia, the “idols” from the beginning of the Bronze Age adopted very simple forms: rectangular stone plaques of varying sizes, bovine or equine bones or stone cylinders.  Their anthropomorphic character was expressed through incisions indicating the hair, the eyes – which resemble sunbursts, and some undulating marks that the archaeologists interpret as tattoos (8); there also exist ceramic vessels ornamented in the same fashion: with a face.


These objects appeared either in the Neolithic era or just as the Hispanic Bronze Age was beginning (3rd millennium): the most well known culture from this period was that called the Los Millares, which takes its name from a necropolis in the south of Spain, which spread up to the borders of Portugal.  Although it appeared to be a culture based on an agricultural and pastoral economy, the use of metal (tin, copper) was already known and it is possible that some commercial contacts existed with the cultures of the central and eastern Mediterranean.


1.Two female figurines in marble, Balkans or Western Anatolia, ht. 13.5 and 14.7 cm, 5th millennium.

  1. A marble figurine, Northern Greece(?), ht. 15.3 cm, 5th – 4th millennium.
  2. A marble figurine, Cyclades or Northern Greece, ht. 13 cm, 5th – 4th millennium.
  3. Head of a figurine of the Kilia type, ht. 5.4 cm, 4th millennium.
  4. A figurine of the Kilia type, ht. 13.6 cm, 4th millennium.
  5. Head of a Cycladic figurine close to the so-called Plastiras type, ht. 5 cm, end of the 4th millennium.
  6. A figurine of the Beycesultan type, ht. 23.5 cm, first half of the 3rd millennium.
  7. An Iberian “idol”, ht. 31 cm, 3rd millennium.