The Cyclades are an island group in the Aegean Sea, southeast of mainland Greece and a former administrative prefecture of Greece. They are one of the island groups which constitute the Aegean archipelago. The name refers to the islands around ("cyclic") the sacred island of Delos. The largest island of the Cyclades is Naxos, however the most populated one, and the capital and administrative center is Ermoupoli on Syros.
The Cyclades comprise about 220 islands, the major ones being Amorgos, Anafi, Andros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kea, Kimolos, Kythnos, Milos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Folegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Syros, Tinos, and Thira or Santoríni. There are also many minor islands including Donousa, Eschati, Gyaros, Irakleia, Koufonissia, Makronisos, Rineia, and Schoinousa. Most of the smaller islands are uninhabited. The islands are peaks of a submerged mountainous terrain, with the exception of two volcanic islands, Milos and Santorini. The climate is generally dry and mild, and, with the exception of Naxos, the soil is not very fertile. Agricultural products include wine, fruit, wheat, olives and olive oil. Lower temperatures are registered in higher elevations and these areas do not usually see winter weather.
The Cyclades are also known by the significant Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Cycladic culture, best known for its schematic, flat sculptures carved out of the islands' pure white marble, centuries before the great Middle Bronze Age Minoan civilization arose in Crete to the south. A distinctive Neolithic culture amalgamating Eastern and mainland Greek elements arose in the western Aegean before 4000 BC, based on emmer wheat and wild-type barley, sheep and goats, pigs, and tuna that were apparently speared from small boats. Each of the small Cycladic islands could support no more than a few thousand people, though Late Cycladic boat models show that fifty oarsmen could be assembled from the scattered communities, and when the highly organized palace-culture of Crete arose, the islands faded into insignificance, with the exception of Delos, which retained its archaic reputation as a sanctuary throughout antiquity.
The first archaeological excavations of the 1880s were followed by systematic work by the British School at Athens and by Greek archaeologist Christos Tsountas, who investigated burial sites on several islands and coined the term "Cycladic civilization". Interest lagged, then picked up in the mid-20th century, as collectors competed for the modern-looking figures. Sites were looted and a brisk trade in forgeries arose. The context for many of these Cycladic figurines has been mostly destroyed and their meaning may never be completely understood. Another intriguing and mysterious object is that of the Cycladic frying pans. More accurate archaeology has revealed the broad outlines of a farming and seafaring culture that had immigrated from Anatolia c. 5000 BC. Early Cycladic culture evolved in three phases, between c. 3300 – 2000 BC, when it was increasingly swamped in the rising influence of Minoan Crete. The culture of mainland Greece contemporary with Cycladic culture is known as the Helladic period.
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