As an island people the inhabitants of the Cyclades always had close contacts to their neighbours. The islands were probably settled by a people from the East, from the Levant and Asia Minor. Since the Stone Age close ties also existed to the northern Aegean and Bulgaria; these areas being probably settled by the same tribes advancing further north. During the Bronze Age, trade with neighbouring peoples was intensified.
One can summarize the relations of the Cycladic culture to its neighbours as follows: In the first phase of the Early Bronze Age, the Cycladic culture developed rather independently, although there is a clear relationship to the cultures of Asia Minor and the Levant region in particular, where a similar cultural level was reached centuries to millennia earlier. In the middle and late phase of the Cycladic culture, trade and maritime shipping played an increasingly important role and there was a strong exchange between cultures that had developed largely independently of each other over a longer period of time. There is a striking difference between the relations to the East and North (Asia Minor Coast, Troy, Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, but also Egypt), from where the Cyclades mainly received impulses, and the contacts to the West and South (Crete, Greek mainland and western Mediterranean area), where the Cycladic people founded small settlements and thus passed on their knowledge and customs. Starting from about 2.200 BC trade contacts to Central Europe have already been established.
Contacts with the Levant and the Middle East
From the earliest time on an obvious similarity exists between the cultures of the Cyclades and the Levant, in particular with Syria and Palestine. In these areas a corresponding culture level had already been reached some centuries earlier. It is very likely that the first Stone Age settlers migrated to the Aegean from the Levant, probably with a stopover in Asia Minor. In the following centuries, close contacts between the two regions were maintained through active trade. Even in later eras, evidence of the close ties between the Aegean and Levant can still be found. Some researchers believe that the knowledge of metal production from the Levant reached the Aegean through traders who were searching for metal deposits.
Similarities between the two regions are mainly found in architecture, settlement types, pottery and metal artifacts. The typical and important Cycladic idol form (especially the early “Plastiras” type) can probably also be traced back to Syrian models. The Cycladic culture apparently received continuously important impulses from the East.
Contacts with the Northeast Aegean
The Cycladic culture also shows similarities with the Northwest Aegean (Troy etc.) as well as with Asia Minor. Antique historians reported that the Carians settling in the Cyclades were relatives of the North Aegean Thracians. The first trade contacts are already documented for the Stone Age (Thracian gold plate in the Cave on Mount Zeus and cycladic stone vessels in Bulgaria). The contacts become much more intensive during the Bronze Age and especially during its middle and late phases. Metal smelting, i.e. the extraction of copper from ores, had already been developed in the Balkans much earlier, around the middle of the 5th millennium BC. In the course of the Bronze Age, this knowledge was passed on to the south into the Aegean region. Accordingly, the Cycladic metal goods of the Bronze Age show clear similarities with those of the northeastern Aegean.
Also on the southern coast of Asia Minor, settlements have been excavated which are thought to be Cycladic colonies, possibly trading settlements, due to the particularly high similarity and the occurrence of Cycladic objects.
In the third phase of the Cycladic culture, relations with the Northern Aegean are intensified; a number of types of clay vessels originating from the region of Troy appear now in the Cyclades. Perhaps these changes indicate the immigration of people from the northeastern Aegean, but they might also be explained by increasingly close trade relations.
Contacts to Egypt
For Egypt the beginning of the Bronze Age is scheduled somewhat later than for the Cyclades, that is around 3,000 BC, when the Old Kingdom was founded. During this time, writing and calendars developed, and a little later also sculpture and the art of stone masonry. From this early time on there seems to have been contacts to the Aegean Sea, as some Egyptian objects found on the Cyclades show. In the Cycladic culture one can probably recognize Egyptian influences in some crafts. Similarities exist e.g. in the furniture (chairs), the musical instruments etc.. The proportions of the famous cycladic idols, especially the angles used, are in many cases obviously based on Egyptian models.
The contacts to Egypt probably came about through trade. It is possible that the Egyptians used naxiotic emery for their stone processing, especially for drilling holes in the hard granite. Unfortunately there are only few and contradictory reports about emery finds in Egypt. In the Archaic period (7th and 6th century BC) the similarities of the Naxiotic marble statues to Egyptian statues are so great that there can be no doubt that there were close contacts, and the emery of Naxos could have been the reason for this.
Metals could have been traded to Egypt by the Cycladic people as well, since Egypt is very poor in metal resources and thus completely depended on imports. In Egypt, copper and bronze objects became more common from about the same time on as in the Cyclades. Also the arsenic bronze typical for the Cyclades was used in Egypt as well. However only few Egyptian artifacts were found on the Cyclades and hardly any Cycladic in Egypt, so even though techniques, raw materials and knowledge seem to have been given from one culture to the other there seems to have been hardly any trade in artefacts.
Contacts to the Western Aegean and to the Greek mainland
In the western Aegean and on the Greek mainland, the Early Bronze Age culture is called Early Helladic Culture. This, especially in the middle and later phases, had close relations to the Cycladic Culture, although both were distinct and independent cultures. Probably the Cycladic Culture preceded the Helladic Culture a little. One can see a fertilization of the Helladic by the Cycladic Culture, just as the cultures in Asia Minor fertilized the Cycladic Culture. On the Attic coast and on Euboea, partly also on the Peloponnese, small settlements interpreted as Cycladic colonies have been discovered, where the graves and grave goods are obviously Cycladic, while household pottery shows less similarities. The influence of the Cycladic Culture can also often be seen in the local Attic production, e.g. of clay or stone vessels, but also in the metal objects. Occasionally, Helladic vessels have also been found in the Cyclades.
Contacts to Crete
Crete appears to have obtained permanent inhabitants earlier than most Cycladic Islands. In the first phase of the Early Bronze Age the contacts between Crete and the Cyclades were rather weak (almost only proven by the obsidian found on Crete); in the middle and late phase there were closer contacts. On Crete as in other areas of the Aegean some excavations are interpreted as Cycladic (trade) settlements, especially on the north coast of the island. Numerous imported Cycladic objects bear witness to the trade contacts. The influence of the Cycladic craftmanship on Crete is easily detected: Cretan artefacts, especially from the middle phase, are often made in the Cycladic style.
In the late phase of the Early Bronze Age, the Minoan influence on the Cyclades becomes more pronounced: Now some typical Minoan vessel types appear in the Cyclades, as well as some objects that were manufactured on Crete. In the following half millennium, during the Middle Bronze Age, the dominance of the Cyclades in the trade throughout the Aegean was replaced by the Minoan Cretans. The Minoans now developed into capable seafarers, gaining supremacy over the Aegean Sea and founding colonies e.g. on Thera, Kea and Milos; the Cycladic Culture was extinguished and the Minoan era began in the Cyclades.
Relationships with the Western Mediterranean
Just as the Cycladic culture received impulses from the East via trade relations, it also passed on impulses to the West. The first travelling of Cycladic inhabitants towards the west took place already during the Neolithic Age. The Aegean people advanced as far as the Iberian Peninsula and founded small settlements there, which clearly belong to the eastern Mediterranean culture. They brought their cultivated plants and domestic animals with them; pottery, bone and stone tools also clearly reveal their Aegean origins. Over the following millennia a loose contact was presumably maintained by a moderate trade between the two areas.
The settlers on the Iberian Peninsula soon discovered the rich metal deposits of this region (gold, silver, copper). From the beginning of the Bronze Age, when the use of metal became more common in the Aegean, a lively trade developed between the Iberian Peninsula and the Aegean; the Minoans also came to Spain and Portugal and founded colonies here. Malta most probably served as a stopover on the way to the western Mediterranean; in Italy, too, there are some indications of contacts with the Aegean. Even on the Moroccan Atlantic coast and on the Canary Islands pottery of Cycladic style appears; this suggests that Cycladic merchants may have reached these places.
The Cycladic settlements of the Iberian Peninsula were all located in the vicinity of copper deposits. They can be clearly recognized as Cycladic in their layout and construction (e.g. small fortresses reinforced by irregular bastions, round houses, clay bricks), but also in their tombs and utensils: Many metal objects and pottery were made of local material, but in Cycladic style. However, only very few pieces were found that came directly from the Aegean. In the later centuries the Minoan influence becomes stronger. Now the burial type of Crete prevails (tholos tombs).
The presence of the Cycladic Culture during the 3rd millennium had a clear effect on the contemporary local culture of Spain. The local population on the Iberian Peninsula during this period was still in the Stone Age stage (Bell Beaker culture). For a time, the Cycladic colonies and the local culture apparently existed side by side without major problems. Only in the later phase the Cycladic settlements started to be fortified; finally they were overwhelmed by the locals.
The local culture took the step into the Bronze Age under the influence of the Cycladic colonists and adopted the Cycladic knowledge in metallurgy. Clear Cycladic influences can be found in the architecture and pottery, occasionally also in jewellery, the burial culture and the religion. Of great importance was the adoption of the art of shipbuilding and navigation skills, which also led to the emergence of trade and close contacts between different peoples in the western Mediterranean region from around 2,000 BC onwards. The tribes of the Bell Beaker culture also migrated north and east to the British Isles which were rich in resources, where they founded the culture that erected the remarkable monument of Stonehenge.
next: Seafaring and Trade
further reading: Minoic Colonies in Spain (Los Millares)