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small metal sculpture of an acrobat balanced on the horns of a bull

Bull dancing sculpture from Minoan Crete, now in the British Museum

Bronze Age sculpture on Crete

In the Bronze Age there was not a lot of sculpture in Greece. In Crete, between about 1700 and 1450 BC, the Minoans produced a lot of medium-sized figurines, mainly made of bronze and ivory. Minoans were working in Egypt (they did paintings there), so they knew that in Egypt sculptors were carving life-size stone sculptures, but the Minoans didn’t do that. In the Stone Age, Greek people had carved big marble statues of people, which they painted to look real, but Bronze Age Greeks didn’t do that, either.

Stone Age art in Greece
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Instead, they made these small figures out of metal and ivory imported from sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to being smaller, these Minoan figurines are different from Greek ones in being much more flexible and conveying more of a sense of motion.

What is ivory?
What is bronze?
Egyptian Bronze Age sculpture
Who were the Minoans?
Bronze Age timeline

What did Minoan sculptors make?

Some of these show women holding snakes: this may be the goddess herself, or a priestess. (These snake goddesses have been reconstructed from broken bits and may not be authentic.) Other figurines show the Minoan interest in nature and graceful movement, like a young man jumping on a bull’s back. A number of figures are of cows or bulls, which also may have a religious meaning.

Bronze Age art in northern Europe

Bronze Age sculpture in mainland Greece

On the mainland, the Myceneans also knew about life-size stone sculpture in other places, but they made only tiny clay figurines, three or four inches high. These were probably gifts for the gods. You went to a religious shrine like Delphi and bought them there, from a stand like today’s souvenir stands. But instead of bringing them home, you left them there at the shrine, to worship the god in your place after you went home. We find hundreds of them at these shrines.

Who were the Mycenaeans?
The oracle at Delphi
What is clay?
More about Greek religion

Psi and Phi figurines

Psi and Phi figurines

Can you see that there are two kinds – one with the arms up (called a PHI figurine because it looks like the Greek letter PHI) and another kind with the arms folded (called a PSI figurine because it looks like the Greek letter PSI)?


Learn by doing: make your own phi and chi figurines from clay
More about Dark Age Greek sculpture

Bibliography and further reading about Bronze Age Greek sculpture:

Minoan and Mycenaean Art, by Reynold Higgins (2nd revised edition 1997) The standard book for college students

The Archaeology of Greece: An Introduction, by William R. Biers (1996). Biers writes very clearly and has a lot of good pictures.

Greek Art and Archaeology (3rd Edition), by John G. Pedley (2002) This has a lot of good information and is pretty readable. Plus, the author is really an expert in this field.

More about Dark Age Greek sculpture
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