Knowing prehistoric art: the case of Early Cycladic marble figurines. Apprehensions and implications
The starting point of my inquiry is the question posed by the conference theme: what does it mean to “know” a piece of art or to gain knowledge from a piece of art? Especially when contemporary knowledge is attributed to art produced by a past, thus rather inaccessible, culture (at least in terms of direct access). I propose to explore what happens when the alleged knowledge that is transferred through the art of a certain people, securely located in space and time, is misleading and inaccurate. Or is it accuracy that we are after? To illustrate this argument I employ the case of Early Cycladic sculpture. The Cyclades are a group of islands in the Aegean, part of the eastern Mediterranean world. During the third millennium B.C., especially the first half, a very intriguing culture flourished on these islands, coined Cycladic by pioneering archaeologists working in the area. A peculiar characteristic of this culture were marble figurines, ranging from life-size to miniatures, rendered in an abstract form and noted for their almost complete lack of facial features, which bestowed upon them an allure of mystery.This class of artifacts has been particularly influential to the modernist movement in art, with the most prominent proponents of modernism adapting their forms to the aesthetic rules set by Early Cycladic figurines. The underlying assumption, which to a certain extent still holds true for the art cognoscenti, thus the alleged knowledge conveyed by the figurines, was the idea of simplicity of form and a return to some sort of “lost innocence”, which does not at all correspond to the initial intention of the prehistoric “artist”. Subsequently, elements intrinsic to the ancient figurines and their respective culture were - and sometimes still are - deliberately overlooked since they were of no interest for contemporary takes on art, form, and function. In the end, does it really matter what the original meaning of the figurines was? Or is knowledge re-negotiated in a new context regardless of the original one in a valid and meaningful way?
Athena Hadji was born in Thermon, Aetolia, in November 1975. She studied Archaeology and History of Art at the History and Archaeology Department of the University of Athens (1993-1997). She completed her M.A. studies at the University of California at Berkeley (1998-1999), on Archaeometallurgy and Anthropology of Technology, followed by a Ph.D. at the same University (2000-2004), on Anthropology of Space and Time in the prehistoric Aegean, with special focus on Early Cycladic art. In 2008 she was a Post-Doc researcher at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens on a National Scholarship Foundation fellowship. Starting 2007, she teaches Anthropology of Space and Anthropology of Art at the Architecture Department of the University of Patras, and Archaeology at the Hellenic Open University; since 2008 she teaches History of Art at the Open University of Cyprus. Her research interests include, among others, anthropology of space, time, technology and art, and archaeology of the Bronze Age Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. She has published articles and has participated in international conferences on the aforementioned topics. She has translated history, mythology, art and sociology works. She has been awarded fellowships from Fulbright and Onassis Foundations. Since 2007 she is listed in Who is Who Greece. Besides her academic career, she writes fiction. She has published two novels and several short stories in Greek.