The use and meaning of Cycladic figurines

The standard female figures
  The meaning and function of Cycladic figurines is kind of an enigma. In the absence of written records, any interpretation has to be based exclusively upon archaeological finds and reasonable assumptions. Unfortunately, archaeological data is also insufficient due to the extensive looting of the Cycladic islands in the 1950s and 1960s, itself the result of the excessive value marble figurines acquired in the international art markets in that period. It has been estimated that out of approximately 1400 known figurines, only 40% has been recovered through systematic excavation.  
Even with such fragmentary data, however, it is clear that – leaving aside the unique case of Keros – the majority of Cycladic figurines come from graves. This has led many scholars to associate them with funerary rituals, although the theories proposed vary considerably.

The numerous standing female figurines have been variously interpreted as representations of the deceased, substitute concubines, servants, ancestors or even substitutes for human sacrifices. Other scholars focus on the transcendental character of the statuettes and the overwhelming bias of Cycladic art towards female representations and attempt to explain them as symbols of a mother-goddess, associated with fertility and rebirth, conductors of souls, apotropaic images, divine nurses or even worshipers; some of those sharing this view suggest that the primary use of the figurines may have been in shrines rather than graves (although evidence for specialized cult areas in the Early Bronze Age Cyclades is extremely limited). Approaches that negate the religious character of the figurines are also available, focusing on social dimensions (e.g. representations of females in the age of marriage) or trying to offer practical, though rather unlikely, explanations (figurines as toys).
Although each of those interpretations has been based on serious argumentation and may carry seeds of truth, there is a general consensus that that the nudity of the figurines and the emphatic rendering of the breast and the pubic triangle refer directly to the idea of fertility. This impression is reinforced by some examples with swollen abdomen, apparently indicating pregnancy, as well as figurines with creases on the belly, believed to symbolize post-partum wrinkles.

Fertility was a central theme in the religions of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern people, invariably associated with female divinities, and there is no reason to doubt that this would be the case for Cycladic islanders too. Whether Cycladic female figurines were meant as representations of such a divinity cannot be ascertained. However, the extreme conservatism observed in their typology (produced in the same standardized form for more than five centuries) supports the hypothesis of a ritual function. The characteristic posture with the folded arms recalls comparable groups of statuettes of religious nature from other eastern Mediterranean cultures (Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, etc.) and may have been a widely accepted symbolic type of divine representation. The idea of a worshipper in a gesture of veneration is a possible interpretative alternative but fails to account for the nearly total absence of male statuettes in this characteristic position. Therefore, the view of a female deity of fertility remains the most plausible explanation.
Unusual types and features
  This, however, does not suffice to explain the full meaning and the function of Cycladic figurines. Several questions remain open: What was the precise relation of fertility to funerary rituals? Why do we find figurines only in a small number of graves, usually (but not always) the wealthier ones? How do we explain the discovery of figurines in settlements and other non-funerary contexts (e.g. in Keros )? What was the meaning of the few male figurines and groups of figures? What was the function of the rare life-size female statues, that were too large for an Early Cycladic grave? What was the role of painted decoration on the face and body of several figurines?

It is only further research that may provide satisfactory answers to these questions. The available data allows only for some general remarks. On one hand, the marked standardization and conservatism of Cycladic figurines (especially the type of nude standing female) makes it likely that they functioned as major religious symbols. On the other hand, the diversity we observe in such features as size, decoration and context of use as well as the very existence other figurine types reflects a considerable degree of differentiation in their production, availability and utilization. This differentiation may relate both to ritual issues (e.g. the need for figurines of particular type, size or decoration for each ritual) and social factors (the availability of marble figurines, their size and decoration as reflecting social properties such as the age, lineage and the status of the owner).

The more we study Cycladic figurines, the more we understand that their function was much more sophisticated than previously thought. Despite the stylistic uniformity, they are found in a variety of contexts in association with different types of objects, while their distribution in cemeteries and settlements is very uneven. Careful examination of material from systematic excavations may reveal important information about their use and help us understand better their meaning. Moreover, it will probably demonstrate that they form part of a complex phenomenon of ritual action and social behaviour that cannot afford a single or simplistic model of interpretation.