Updated: Mar 6
by Caroline Houghton
Picrolite figurines are enigmatic and beguiling objects which are commonly found in archaeological sites, dating from the Early Chalcolithic and especially the Middle Chalcolithic Period, around 5,500 – 4,700 years ago. During the late Chalcolithic, picrolite figurines disappear, the reason for their disappearance is unknown.
One of the most well-known picrolite figurines, the Yialia figure, has been used as the symbol of the Republic of Cyprus on the back of their euro coins. The Yialia figurine is a fine example of picrolite carving and also illustrates native people wore some types of figurines as pendants.
Stone sculpture in prehistoric Cyprus has a long tradition starting in the Aceramic Neolithic period. There is a progressive development of the figurative stone sculpture from Neolithic into Chalcolithic, when these figurines appear. This art has clear connections with the figurative traditions of neighbouring areas, such as the Levant and Anatolia, but, less so to the figurines form the Greek Cycladic islands to which they are often compared.
During the Chalcolithic figurines were manufactured in many types of material, the most distinctive were made from a stone called picrolite, a form of the serpentine, found in a range of colours. However, unblemished blue-green coloured stones seem to have been preferred by Chalcolithic people. It is a soft stone which is easy to carve and is known to change colour to brown when worn against the skin.
Cypriot Picrolite, which contains lizardite and/or chysotile is found in the Troodos Mountains, picrolite pebbles erode from the stone seams and are washed downstream. The main riverbeds from where picrolite was probably collected, and is still present today, are Kouris in the South of the island, Karyotis in the North and potentially the Dhiarizos River, above the archaeological sites of Souskiou and Erimi. Excavations over the last 20 years at Souskiou, have found large slabs of picrolite, which suggest that in addition to collection of pebbles, quarrying of the stone may also have taken place. Previously it was believed that riverine pebbles were traded throughout the island and carved locally, however at Souskiou evidence of workshops where picrolite figurines were bulk manufactured have been found, indicating finished figurines and other picrolite objects were probably also traded/exchanged across other regions of Cyprus. Archaeologists believe due to its desirability and cultural value, ownership and control of picrolite is associated with high status individuals within the society.
Double cruciform figurine picrolite Cypriot Chalcolithic period 3900-2500 BC H.: 7.5 cm / W.(max.): 3.4 cm From Cyprus, Paphos district
Picrolite figurines come in various shapes, however the most distinctive is the cruciform shape. Ranging in size from large free standing figures up to 15cm in height to smaller shapes and including large pendant sized forms, such as the Yialia pendant shown above, which are 5-6cm in size, and even tiny bead-like shapes. The Kythrea type, named after the location where the first figure was found have an absence of carved detail, either in relief or incised and can be seen in the group of figures below, from the Metropolitan Museum.
Mertens, Joan R. 1975. "Three Chalcolithic Figures from Cyprus." Metropolitan Museum Journal,10, illustrating the Kythrea type of figurine
The Salmiou variety is characterised by the intersection of two figurines. The outstretched arms are replaced by a second figure positioned horizontally usually identical to the first with head and feet in place of the hands. An example of this type is shown below.
Cruciform figurine-pendant from Cyprus
Unknown"3900-2500 BC" - "", from Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece
Meaning of Figurines
The meaning of the figurines has been widely debated. The romantic view of Cyprus as the Island of Aphrodite known from Classical times and the “goddess narrative” has come under sharp criticism in recent years, both in Cyprus and elsewhere, and has generally been discredited.
The second traditional interpretation assumes, that most examples are female and their primary meaning is functional or fetishistic, magical items, serving to promote social ideals of fertility, birth, and motherhood. Many of the figurines appear to be seated with bent legs and this together with the out stretched arms are generally accepted as a birthing position. Other figurines are carved to clearly represent various stages of late pregnancy.
Recently, archaeologists have questioned this interpretation suggesting that gender and fertility may not be important since some cruciforms can be interpreted as male and in others the gender is unclear. The length of the neck and shape of the head often have clear phallic similarities, suggesting male fertility and the long neck sometimes displays a prominent Adam’s apple.
Meskell and Knapp argued that the whole concept of a cruciform figure with an elongated neck might represent an attempt at harmonizing, or at least incorporating, the sexual characteristics of males and females. Hence, the sex of a particular carving may not have been relevant in Chalcolithic times and instead we may be witnessing constructions of individual characteristics rather than either male of female members of a society.
Crucial to archaeological interpretation, is an understanding of the context where artefacts were found. As many sites in Cyprus were excavated in the early 20th Century, when archaeological techniques were less developed; many of the excavations were not written up and published, and illicit excavation to find desirable objects took place, much important information about the location of many picrolite cruciform figurines is unknown or lost.
Picrolite figurines have been found in domestic contexts within settlements, close to hearths areas, typically associated with women’s work, leading to the interpretation they were charms associated with childbirth. The deity or goddess hypothesis is not supported by contextual data as figurines have not been found in sanctuary type locations or as part of ritual. The majority of picrolite pendants, where the find location is correctly recorded, have been discovered in burials, often, those of children and women within settlements, either close to or under houses.
In Cyprus, as in many other countries, much of the focus of early prehistoric excavation has been on burial sites and tombs, settlements have been less extensively investigated. Additionally tombs, particularly intact tombs (no looting or disturbance) contain a near complete set of artefacts, as by their nature they have been closed and sealed at the time of burial. Settlement contexts on the other hand contain only items which were left, mislaid or thrown away, so provide only a very partial indication of the types of item in use when the settlement was active. Hence, it is not possible to say whether the large number of figurines in tombs means their main purpose was associated with death or burial rituals or whether they were used actively in life and then deposited with the individual upon death, as a personal possession. Some picrolite figurines found in tombs show evidence of wear, supporting the hypothesis they were used in life as well as in death.
Systems of representation of facial features from systematic to abstract on picrolite figures and pendants. A – Fig 3, B – Pendant from Souskiou before 1974 (Hadjiprodromo collection, Famagusta), C – squatting figure from Souskiou before 1974 (Hadjiprodromo collection, Famagusta), D – cruciform pendant from Souskiou before 1974 (Hadjiprodromo collection, Famagusta), E – cruciform figure from Souskiou before 1974 (Hadjiprodromo collection, Famagusta) slightly enlarged
Excavations at the settlement of Lemba-Lakkous revealed a building, Building 1, which was larger and located some distance away from the surrounding houses, although similar in style, it was more robustly constructed and had pebble lined grooves which possibly supported a reed partition. Several graves were located immediately to the North of the building, suggesting that the building had ceremonial importance linked to funerals. Within this building was found a large stone sculpture, the so-called ‘Lemba Lady’ which was probably originally placed against a wall. several smaller picrolite figurines were found close to the sculpture, which Peltenburg considered implied that the picrolite figurines were smaller personal items which imitated the larger stone sculpture. The sculpture, shown below, clearly is stylistically similar to picrolite figurines. Also the purpose and meaning remains unclear, there are indications that childbirth, women and children had an elevated status within Chalcolithic society.
Chalcolithic Burial Practises and Picrolite Figurines
In the early Chalcolithic period, most individuals were buried with limited or no grave goods, however, in the Middle Chalcolithic period, individuals are increasingly buried with grave goods. Peltenburg’s excavations at Souskiou, a group of sites including a settlement which for the first time in Cypriot Prehistory displays clear evidence of differential sizes of houses, greater housing density and part of the community is separated from the rest of the houses by a wall and a ditch. The houses in this area are larger and suggesting these properties belonged to the village elite. Close to the village are the Cemeteries, the Laona cemetery, where 137 tombs have been excavated, on the west ridge these are three additional cemeteries, the Vathykrakas cemeteries. These have revealed illuminating data about burials and cruciform figurines.
The cemeteries comprise a wide range of different grave types, including pit burials, bells shaped shaft burials, straight shafts and a few pit and shaft burials. The graves vary by size and complexity. Tomb 73, the most notable tomb is seven times than the next larges grave, with plaster walls and floors, clearly indicative of a tomb of an elite. Unlike the majority of tombs where several individuals were buried at different time periods, this tomb contained only 2 male burials. Whereas in many Chalcolithic burials, particularly those within settlements, there are more female and child burials, at Souskiou there is a large proportion of male burials, and number of burials is substantially higher than expected based on the size of the settlement. Peltenburg has suggested people from other areas were brought here for burial and the site was used for ritual purposes. The cemetery artefacts include zoomorphic and anthropomorphic vessels, specialised pottery and the most numerous and greatest variety of picrolite figurine types compared to any other Chalcolithic site, so far excavated. Peltenbury argues that these items were utilised as part of competitive mortuary rituals to reinforce the status of elites.
2017, The Archaeology of Figurines and the Human Body in Prehistory, Lynn Meskell
2008, The prehistoric centre of Souskiou in Cyprus, Edgar Peltenburg
2008, Ariane JACOBS & Peter COSYNS (eds.) CYPRIOT MATERIAL CULTURE STUDIES FROM PICROLITE CARVING TO PROSKYNITARIA ANALYSIS
2004, Cyprus Before History, From the Earliest Settlers to the end of the Bronze Age, Louise Steel
2013, The Archaeology of Cyprus, From Earliest Prehistory through the Bronze Age, A Bernard Knapp
1991 Stone Sculpture in Chalcolithic Cypru, Lucia Vagnetti