Male Harp Player from Keros

Modern artists fell in the love with these abstract 5000 year old sculptures—but what was their real meaning?

Male Harp Player from Keros, c. 2600-2300 B.C.E., Early Cycladic period, marble, 22.5 cm high (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”keros,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. We’re looking at a small sculpture of a man seated on a chair, playing a harp. What makes this a remarkable object is that it’s probably about 5,000 years old.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:19] There are only about 10 of these that have been discovered in the Cycladic Islands in the South Aegean.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] Mostly what we found are tall, thin, highly abstracted female figures. These have mostly been found in graves.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] They were produced over hundreds and hundreds of years, of various sizes.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] We don’t know a lot about these sculptures. The reason for that is that perhaps only 10 percent of these figures have been recovered by modern archaeologists in controlled conditions. The vast majority of these sculptures, male and female, have come to light on the art market. That is, somebody has gone in and unearthed them in order to sell them.

[0:58] The result is that we have no scientific archaeological records of where they were found, at what level they were found. The chronology, etc. is almost impossible.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We don’t know what they were found with. We don’t know anything about the context of the find. In fact, we’ll never know because that knowledge is just permanently lost.

[1:18] Not only do we have a problem with the archaeological record [laughs] but we also have a problem because these are so popular in the early 20th century. They were discovered by modern artists. Therefore, we think many of them may have been created as forgeries.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] The art market, we think, is awash with authentic objects that have been unearthed illegally as well as forgeries. That is, objects that have been produced in the modern world in order to look as if they were ancient.

[1:44] When we look at these objects, we can see why the modern artists fell in love with these. There’s a kind of simplicity. We know that Brancusi responded to these. We know that Modigliani responded to these. We know that Picasso loved these objects.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] They’re highly abstract, and they look that way to us in a way that is not really true to what they originally looked like. We know that areas of the sculptures were painted with very bright colors. And so this pristine white marble abstract form that we so appreciate in the modern era is not what the people of Crete were producing.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] Look at the differences between the male and female figures. The male figures are rounded. The furniture is rounded. It’s tubular. The figure’s head is back as if perhaps he’s singing, but of course, we don’t know.

[2:24] There is a little projection from that harp, which we think may be the head of a bird, perhaps a swan. Again, we really don’t know. Whereas the female figures are more frontal, more planar, and they are incised in a way that accentuates the geometry of their bodies.

Dr. Harris: [2:39] Not only are the female figures abstract but they’re also very compact. The limbs are folded in. There’s no space between the arms and the torso. There’s no space between the legs. The knees are just slightly bent. There’s no real sense of movement.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] It is a closed composition that emphasizes the overall contour of the figures. Look at the shield-like shape of the face and the way that the nose projects. They’re beautiful without eyes, but there were painted eyes. There was a painted mouth.

[3:07] We initially see these as flat but when we spend a moment looking at them, we see that the head is at one angle, the neck at another. Then we have the more complicated surface of the torso. Then, it seems as if the thighs project outward and the shins inward again. Then, of course, we have the reverse with the feet. There is this almost slight accordion-like folding of the body.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] With later Greek sculptures we might think about kouroi figures from the 7th century [B.C.E.], much later and on the Greek mainland. Here we see male figures nude and female figures clothed.

[3:41] Here, these female figures are all nude. That has led some art historians and archaeologists to speculate that maybe these are somehow related to Neolithic fertility goddesses.

Dr. Zucker: [3:53] The key word here is speculate, because we have no written records. All we have is the object itself. They have been stripped of all of their original cultural meaning and in some ways that is also a very modernist idea. That we can appreciate the aesthetics, the object itself, unencumbered by what their real meaning was.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Male Harp Player from Keros," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed May 19, 2024,