British Museum blog

Newly-acquired Cycladic figurine goes on display

Lesley Fitton, British Museum

Marble Cycladic figurine of the ‘hunter-warrior’ type Made in the Cyclades, Greece, about 2300–2200 BC

The Cycladic gallery (Room 11) at the British Museum now has a new addition – an extremely rare marble figurine of the ‘hunter-warrior’ type.

He is the first male figurine to be added to the collection, and so is vastly outnumbered by the female figurines surrounding him, but he looks lovely and very much at home in his new surroundings. You can even see the ‘ghosts’ of his painted eyes, so the lighting is, luckily, just right.

The ‘hunter-warriors’ are so called because they show an active male role. They are defined by the presence of a shoulder-strap (baldric) and a belt, and some are also shown with a dagger. This one has no dagger, but we have decided to display him next to an actual dagger of the same period. He is also near to a female figurine of the late, Chalandriani variety, so it’s possible to see how he fits towards the end of the sequence of production. He was made in the Cyclades (the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea) around 2300-2200BC.

Male Cycladic figurines are rare, but ‘hunter-warriors’ are more rare still – in fact, only three other relatively well-preserved examples are known worldwide. We had scarcely expected to be able to make such a significant acquisition, but this piece comes with a good history that adds to its fascination. It belonged to the abstract-expressionist artist Wolfgang Paalen, who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

Marble Cycladic figurine of the ‘hunter-warrior’ type Made in the Cyclades, Greece, about 2300–2200 BC

Interest in early creations such as Cycladic figurines, along with excitement about the arts of Africa, pre-Columbian South America and Polynesia, were characteristic of artistic circles in Paris at this time. In the mid-1930s Paalen produced what he called his ‘Cycladic paintings’. The influence of objects such as this figurine is very apparent in these works and we have included a small image of one of them in the display.

We would hope in the future to borrow a Paalen ‘Cycladic’ painting to show alongside the wonderful new figurine, which contributes so significantly to both an ancient Cycladic and a modern Parisian story.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

This acquisition was made possible by the Art Fund and generous private donations

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21 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Placing this object in its both its archaeological and historical matrix is an excellent introduction. What might help would be links to the other related objects mentioned in this summary, i.e. the female figurine of the late, Chalandriani variety, the period dagger and examples of Wolfgang Paalen’s Cycladic paintings. To the average reader, these are all likely to prove equally as obscure and in need of introduction – if only visually – as this addition to the BM’s collection.

  2. Philippe says:

    provenance? any info on due dilligence carried out

    • @Philippe

      Thanks for your comment – the original provenance of the figurine is not known, but the Museum did indeed apply its usual strict acquisition procedures, which can be seen in detail in the Museum’s Policy on Acquisitions on our website here:

      In essence these restrict us from acquiring anything that was not known to be outside its country of origin before at least 1970, and preferably earlier. We have documented proof of the figurine being sent by Paalen to a friend in New York in 1952, and we know from the evidence of his own life and activities that he formed a very small collection of Cycladic pieces in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

      Lesley Fitton, British Museum

  3. James Clifton-Harrison says:

    It looks more like he’s broken his arm and it’s the earliest known form of a sling. Still, a great find.

  4. Do you think the eyes were carved, or do they stand out a little from the rest of the face because the paint has protected them from wear? Or is it a bit of both?

    • @ David Rowswell

      All the indications are that paint has protected the surface of the marble – the eyes were typically painted on Cycladic figurines rather than carved. We hope to investigate whether any traces of paint have survived later in the year by using a number of scientific techniques.

      In the case next to the hunter-warrior there is a large female figurine with some painted detail surviving, including the eyes:

      Andrew Shapland, curator, British Museum

      • David Rowswell says:

        Thank you for your response. You say that the eyes were typically painted and not carved; Does your use of the word ‘typically’ mean that examples of Cycladic figures with carved eyes do exist?

      • Yes, Cycladic figurines are diverse and some of the early and late examples do have carved eyes, but the head is also less stylised. This figurine is typical in having only the nose carved in relief, and other features painted on. You might like to compare a similar hunter-warrior in the Goulandris Museum, which does have carved eyes and another with ghost of painted eyes.

        Andrew Shapland, curator, British Museum

      • Emily Poelina-Hunter says:

        Do these scientific tests for paint traces include ultraviolet reflective photography, microscopic photography, computer enhancement of images, and/or energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometry? And have the tests been carried out yet?

        Also will the entire surface of the figurine be analysed or just the face?

      • @ Emily
        Initial tests have been carried out, which are similar to those you mention: Raman spectroscopy, x-ray radiography and visible-induced luminescence. The results will be used to inform future work (involving other techniques as appropriate), which we hope will take place next year. Certainly we would like to look at the whole surface of the figurine in detail. Although the ‘ghosts’ of the eyes are the most obvious indication of painting it is possible that the analysis will be able to find the chemical signature of the pigments, whether on the face or elsewhere. The Museum has started to add scientific reports to the object records on Collections Online and we expect to do the same for the figurine in due course.

  5. Irvine Wire says:

    A lovely piece and I look forward to seeing it in the museum. However I’m interested in this statement:
    “The ‘hunter-warriors’ are so called because they show an active male role.”
    To my eye this piece does not look any more active than other pieces in the collection and I’d be interested to know how this conclusion was drawn. Could you enlighten me?

    • @ Irvine Wire

      You are right that the pose is fairly static, but this is standard for nearly all Cycladic figurines. The shoulder-strap, associated with carrying weapons, suggests that it is his status as a hunter or warrior which is being highlighted. This is what makes him stand out against the other figurines in the case and so distinguishes his male role: we hope that the display brings out the significance of what now seem like very subtle differences.

      Andrew Shapland, curator, British Museum

  6. Thanks for the information – an interesting piece indeed!

  7. Mefree says:

    I think it looks like an alien figurine. Striking long neck and big head..

    • Joseph says:

      I agree.

      My first impression was an Alien.

      The head and neck are not in proportion with the body.


  8. A fabulous work of art. The time and effort taken to emphasise the baldric shows the importance of the item in pre-2nd millennia BCE. Interesting pre-Cameo codpiece too!

  9. Joseph says:

    Is there a side view?

  10. Tyler says:

    How was this figurine acquired by the British Museum?

  11. Tyler says:

    Why have more female Cycladic figurines been found than male Cycladic figurines?


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