Making Cycladic figurines – Materials and techniques

Early Cycladic figurines were almost exclusively made of marble. Deposits of good quality white marble are available on most Cycladic islands. However, isotopic analysis of marble objects show that the main sources of marble in that period were Naxos, Keros, and, to a smaller extent, Paros and Ios.  
Apart from marble, Cycladic or Cycladic-type figurines were occasionally made of other materials, such as green and black stone, limestone, pumice, white tuff, schist, green steatite, seashell, bone, ivory, flint, lead, bronze, and clay; wooden figurines may have also existed, although no examples have survived. The use of other materials may have been dictated by the lack of good quality white marble in certain areas like Thera, where figurines were made of local white tuff or whitish clay; alternatively, it may have been due to the familiarity of local craftsmen with other materials, as in the case of Crete, where figurines of ivory, flint and green steatite have been found. We should stress, however, that seashell and clay figurines have been found on Naxos, where fine quality white marble abounds.

Marble was worked mainly with stone tools. Although no direct evidence is available for the toolkit of the Cycladic craftsman, modern research in combination with experimental archaeology has shown that most tools were probably made of emery. A piece of this heavy and dense stone – which abounds in Naxos – can be easily turned into a mallet (for shaping the figure) simply by making its edge pointed or sharp. Emery was also probably used as a drill (to carve and pierce specific anatomical details such as the eye, ear, navel, and loin cavities, or repair holes), as an engraving tool (for incised details) or as a surface polisher. Emery powder was very effective as an abrasive for the initial working of the marble.

Obsidian – widely available on Melos – and flint may have also been employed in marble carving. When shaped into blades, those materials can be used as engraving tools or even for erasing the traces of smoothing on the surface of the marble; in the form of small pointy flakes they become particularly effective drills. Finally, Theran pumice soaked in water is an excellent material for the final polishing of the surface, and the same is true for sand mixed with water. Bronze chisels could have been used for greater precision and speed in making the cut-outs on more complex figurines, such as the harpists, although their poor durability (due to the high copper-content) as well as the high value of metals in that period, probably made metal stone-working tools less common. 

As we can deduce from the few unfinished figurines that have been discovered so far, the first step in the process was to roughly shape the raw piece of marble into a figure by the impact of a mallet. Emery powder was then used to abrade the surface until it obtained the desired shape and size. Once the desired shape was achieved, the surface was smoothed carefully before the fine work of carving the details started. At the end, the figurine was polished to a high degree that is still amazing.
Traces of horizontal, vertical or diagonal smoothing are very often visible on the surface of marble figurines. Sometimes, we can see the marks left by the tool used to level the contours of the leg cleft on “canonical” figurines. Traces of repairs are also discernible in some examples.
The creation of a Cycladic figurine was based on strict rules and a detailed system of proportions, which required precise measurements and considerable skill in application. Therefore, it was most likely the work of specialized craftsmen, who probably passed on their knowledge to younger artisans only after the latter had spend a long period of time working as apprentices. Some scholars have attempted to identify individual “artists” or workshops by distinguishing groups of figurines with similar characteristics. Those “artists” (or workshops) have been conventionally named after the museum or the city which hosts characteristic works by them, after the excavator who brought them to light, or after the collector who possesses them (e.g. the Berlin Master, the Doumas Master, the Goulandris Master, etc.). Other scholars, however, reject these attributions as anachronistic and believe that the similarities reflect chronological or geographical proximity.
One should bear in mind that the available evidence for the techniques employed in Cycladic marble-carving is very fragmentary and our knowledge stems almost exclusively from careful observations of the figurines themselves. So far, no workshop has been discovered in a Cycladic settlement and the organization of the production remains entirely unknown.