Crafts and techniques

In the Early Bronze Age, crafts and techniques already known from the Neolithic Age such as pottery, sculpture, metalworking and shipbuilding developed to a significantly higher level. Individual people in the community started to specialize on one special craft, so that professional craftmanship commenced. Trade became more and more important, especially the trade with raw materials such as obsidian and emery, but also the discovery and exploitation of metal deposits, which sometimes were located far away. The development of trade and craftmanship was accompanied by the emergence of different social strata: From the middle phase of the Cycladic culture on more carefully erected, isolated graves with many grave goods can be distinguished from simpler, more frequently used, poorly placed graves without grave goods.

The most important material, which is present in every single settlement, continues also during the Bronze Age to be obsidian imported from the volcanic island of Milos. Typical for the Early Bronze Age are skillfully produced long, straight blades.

long obsidian blades and the “core” from which they were split off

More rarely occur small artifacts or tools made of bone as the pigment containers sometimes found in graves. Other techniques as spinning, weaving, leather processing and basket weaving left no direct evidence, and only the connected tools as spindles, weaving weights, needles and awls have been found.

Tools and containers made of bone. The  bone vessels decorated with carvings (on the right) contained pigment, which was presumably used during the funeral rituals..

various small metal tools


One of the crafts that developed greatly during the Bronze Age was carpentry. The production of furniture was of lesser importance, although the first chairs appeared. Shipbuilding was far more important for the people. Although no remains of ships have been found, representations of long boats on pottery and on stone slabs with pictographs and small lead ship models are known. The ships show a characteristic shape with a highly raised stern.

pictograph of a boat with two people on it; note the strange shape of the boat with the highly raised stern

The inhabitants of the Cyclades must have owned very seaworthy ships: They not only made long voyages in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, but apparently even reached the Iberian Atlantic coast and possibly the Canary Islands. The Cycladic ships provided space for up to 50 oarsmen; also they had to carry sufficient food supplies for the long journeys. Already during the Neolithic Age the domestic animals (sheep, goats, pigs and even cattle) reached the Cycladic islands by boat, and were transported later in the same way even to the Cycladic colonies in Spain (!). Naxos certainly played a major role in the development of shipbuilding due to the existence of comparatively large woods, as the island of Crete, whose cypresses facilitated a great rise in seafaring and thus contributed to the establishment of the Minoan naval supremacy. On the island of Kythnos, a carpenter’s tool set with ten bronze tools comprizing hatchets, axes and chisels was found in a grave. The newly invented saws were particularly crucial for shipbuilding.

carpenter’s tools from a grave on Naxos: a hatchet and wedges


The first known pottery was produced in the Middle East around 6,500 BC, in Europe around 1000 years later. The development of pottery revolutionized the Stone Age culture, as the large vessels not only made it possible to store water and food supplies, but also to transport them. Throughout the Bronze Age, a large part of household utensils was made of clay. Accordingly, pottery reached a high level. The clay vessels of the Cycladic culture have strikingly beautiful, harmonious shapes and are often carefully and elaborately decorated.

Bronze Age clay vessels in the Museum of Apíranthos

The pottery was formed by hand (only towards the end of the Cycladic culture does the potter’s wheel occasionally appear). They were placed on pieces of fabric or leaves for drying before firing. Simple stone-built firing ovens heated with broom likely of nearly the same kind as in the Bronze Age were still used in the villages of Naxos for the production of pottery till the middle of the last century.

The technique of pottery developed significantly during the Early Bronze Age. In the first phase the clay was rather poorly sifted; the clay vessels were covered with a coating of finer clay on the outside and polished with a wood or bone tool. Later, finer and better-quality clay was used; the surface of the vessels was now often covered with a lacquer-like “primordial varnish”. Many vessels were decorated with incisions made with small stamps or with straight or spiral carvings. More rarely and only from the middle phase on vessels were also painted (again mostly in straight lines, similar to the incised decorations).

clay vessel of the early phase of the Cycladic culture, with traces of varnish and incised herringbone pattern

clay pyxid, the lid of which has holes for fastening, with varnish and herringbone pattern

cycladic clay vase

The spectrum of vessel types increases significantly during the second phase of the Cycladic culture, with some foreign, introduced types also appearing. In addition, the pottery is becoming more specialised in its form: Now rather than general-purpose vases a whole series of vessels appear which are intended for one special purpose and whose form is entirely detemined by their practical use. Typical shapes are bowls and dishes, goblets, cups and vases, often with feet or eyelets for hanging. Particularly characteric of the Cycladic culture are cylindrical pyxids with lids, double or multiple vases consisting of round containers, often sitting next to each other on a single foot, and the so-called cycladic “Frying-pans”, flat, round, carefully decorated plates with a handle, whose function is still unclear. Occasionally unique and extraordinary forms as animal-shaped vessels occur. In the third phase of the Early Bronze Age, vessels of great refinement and elegance were still produced, but the spectrum of forms became poorer and the creativity less pronounced, probably due to the unsafer external situation.

Uncommon vessel types like this multiple vase appear in the Cycladic culture…

… or vessels in animal form like this one, which was probably used for rituals.

Cycladic “Frying-pan”, with incised decorations with a spiral in the centre, surrounded by triangular rays in the shape of a star

Kykladenpfannen, Wikipedia (engl.); the depicted pan shows the representation of a ship


No craft technique is as characteristic of the Cycladic culture as the production of stone vessels. The first stone vessels date back to the Neolithic Age, but in the Bronze Age this technique clearly reached its peak. The decoration of the stone vessels is often very carefully executed, with carved patterns of parallel lines or intertwined spiral patterns. The same types of vessels are used as in pottery.

For the production of the stone vessels hammer and chisel could only have been used for the rough external processing; for the finer design the pieces were abrased with emery, which was presumably also used as a powder. Even astonishingly thin-walled and narrow-necked vessels could be produced in this way. The holes, e.g. in the handles, were probably made by drilling with the use of wooden rods and emery powder. Among the stone vessels of the Cycladic culture are extremely beautiful, harmoniously shaped and very elaborate objects which must have been very precious for their owners, and certainly played an important role in the lives of the people.

marble pallet with holes at the corners and an accompanying small pestle

stone pyxid (cylindrical vessel with an exactly fitting lid)

beautiful double pyxid made of banded marble (about 2.300 – 2.000 BC; the lids are made of serpentine and do not seem to have belonged to it originally; their shape is typical for the early Minoan culture)

Particularly noteworthy are the elaborately hollowed, thin-walled marble vases (kandíla) with foot and eyelets for hanging, which may have served as lamps.

next: Metallurgy

back to Cycladic culture