Some of the earliest known examples were found in the treasuries of Delphi, dating to about the 6th century BC, but their use as supports in the form of women can be traced back even earlier, to ritual basins, ivory mirror handles from Phoenicia, and draped figures from archaic Greece. The best-known and most-copied examples are those of the six figures of the Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis at Athens (illustrations, right).
One of those original six figures, removed by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, is now in the British Museum in London. The other five figures, although they are damaged by erosion and replaced onsite by replicas, are in the Acropolis Museum.
The Romans also copied the Erechtheion caryatids, installing copies in the Forum of Augustus and the Pantheon in Rome, and at Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli. Another Roman example, found on the Via Appia, is the Townley Caryatid.
In modern times, the practice of integrating caryatids into building facades was revived in the 16th century and, from the examples engraved for Sebastiano Serlio's treatise on architecture, became a fixture in the decorative vocabulary of Northern Mannerism expressed by the Fontainebleau School and the engravers of designs in Antwerp. In the early 17th century interior examples appear in Europe, such as the overmantle in the great hall of Muchalls Castle in Scotland. Caryatids remained part of the German Baroque vocabulary (illustration, right) and were refashioned in more restrained and "Grecian" forms by neoclassical architects and designers, such as the four terracotta caryatids on the porch of St Pancras New Church, London (1822). Many caryatids lined up on the facade of the 1893 Palace of the Arts housing the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. In the arts of design, the draped figure supporting an acanthus-grown basket capital taking the form of a candlestick or a table-support is a familiar cliché of neoclassical decorative arts. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota has caryatids as a motif on its eastern facade.
However, Vitruvius' explanation is doubtful; well before the Persian Wars, female figures were used as decorative supports in Greece and the ancient Near East.
A caryatid supporting a basket on her head is called a canephora ("basket-bearer"), representing one of the maidens who carried sacred objects used at feasts of the goddesses Athena and Artemis. The Erectheion caryatids, in a shrine dedicated to an archaic king of Athens, may therefore represent priestesses of Artemis in Karyai, a place named for the "nut-tree sisterhood" – apparently in Mycenaean times, like other plural feminine toponyms, such as Hyrai or Athens itself.
The later male counterpart of the caryatid is referred to as a telamon (plural telamones) or atlas (plural atlantes) – the name refers to the legend of Atlas, who bore the sphere of the heavens on his shoulders. Such figures were used on a monumental scale, notably in the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily.