Inked in Antiquity?

Cycladic figurines were frequently decorated. Emily Poelina-Hunter considers whether the decorative motifs represent tattoos.

The identity and education of an archaeologist influences what they believe is worthy of research, and what will be a valuable contribution to their discipline. As an Aboriginal Australian with mixed ancestry, a dual Australian/Aotearoa New Zealand citizen, a woman, and a tattooed person, I bring a unique perspective to my interpretations of the abstract painted motifs on Cycladic sculptures, the subject of my PhD: Cycladic Sculptures decorated with abstract painted motifs: representations of tattooing in the prehistoric Aegean.

Cycladic Figurine of the Spedos type, dated c.2800-2300 BCE (Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum, The University of Sydney NM65.64)

Cycladic sculptures are human figures created by the inhabitants of the Cyclades, a group of islands in the Aegean Sea, Greece. Produced in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 3200-2000 BCE), they are made from the high quality white marble found predominantly on the bigger islands (Naxos and Paros). There are several types of Cycladic sculptures ranging from schematic to naturalistic in appearance, and they can measure from 3 – 150 cm in length. Naturalistic features, such as hair and anatomical eyes on the face, were painted on the surface of many of these sculptures. Abstract motifs were also painted, such as zig-zags on the arms, rows of dots on the cheeks, and non-anatomical eyes feature on the neck, chest, abdomen and thighs of some examples. The painted details have faded over the millennia and in most cases UV reflectance photography and/or computer imaging enhancement is required to reveal the full extent of the original painted motifs on the sculptures.

Digital sketch of accession number 4691 in the Naxos Archaeological Museum (After Figure 1 in Hendrix, E. 2003. ‘Painted Early Cycladic Figures: An Exploration of Context and Meaning’. Hesperia 72:405–446.)
Illustration by Alastair Pharo.

In the course of my thesis research, it became clear that scholarship has tended either to downplay the possibility of the abstract painted motifs on Cycladic sculptures as representations of tattoos, or otherwise to ignore it all together. This is due to the history of how Cycladic sculptures have been studied since they were first encountered by modern Europeans in the 19th century, combined with the often very negative attitudes towards tattooing as a cultural practice held by Aegean archaeologists.

If there is a strong possibility of Cycladic tattooing, then ignoring this possibility means ignoring a potentially integral aspect of Cycladic culture. As a tattoo enthusiast, I come to the debate on Cycladic tattooing with my own perspectives and motivations. I personally think that tattoos are beautiful, meaningful, symbolic, and one of the oldest art forms and types of body modification in the world. To me, it would be significant to discover that Cycladic islanders practised tattooing because if they did, I want to be able to appreciate that aspect of who they were.

I have no doubt that other tattoo enthusiasts like myself will similarly find the question of Cycladic tattooing to be an intriguing one. If the abstract painted motifs are representations of tattoos, they are also a coded language telling us about the relationship between female bodies and Cycladic art: tattooing is a practice that transmits information via visual permanent body modification. Interpreting the motifs then becomes a form of translating and reading the information painted on the sculptures, and this in turn enhances our understanding of the Cycladic sculptures themselves.

My eighth tattoo, a blue evil eye, done on my left hip while in Athens in 2014. Approximately 4cm wide by 3 cm high.

By producing a researched body of work within the field of Cycladic sculpture studies that shows that abstract painted motifs on Cycladic sculptures may have depicted tattoos, I hope to provide evidence that will see Cycladic tattooing included as a real possibility in future discussions of global prehistoric tattooing and of Bronze Age Aegean culture.

I don’t think it is an accident that I have specialised in prehistoric Cycladic archaeology. Several factors have brought me here. I have never studied at an institution that offered subjects in Indigenous archaeology, but I went as ancient as I could, as soon as I could, when I studied classics and art history at high school in Hastings, New Zealand. While studying at Victoria University, Wellington, Latin and Greek were my worst subjects, and I quickly warmed to Bronze Age archaeology subjects in the Classical Studies program where translation was rare! I much preferred coming to understand ancient Greek cultures through the lens of art and architecture, rather the versions of history and drama written by men. I was keenly aware that I was what these classical writers would have considered a primitive barbarian, and never imagined I’d end up reading their work and thoughts about Indigenous people.

My “otherness” means I have a wider cultural field for comparison and interpretive space that is not common yet in Classics and Archaeology programs. I believe my work interpreting the abstract painted motifs on Cycladic sculptures as tattoo motifs was only possible because I inhabit a minority space in the discipline and see things differently. Increasing diversity in academia will push the boundaries on what future archaeologists consider worthy of research, and what will be a valuable contribution to their discipline.

Emily Poelina-Hunter received her PhD in Archaeology from the University of Melbourne in 2019. Her association with the AAIA began when she first stayed in their hostel in Athens while undertaking PhD research funded by the 2010 Classical Association of Victoria’s Postgraduate Scholarship in Classics and Ancient History.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
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