Those cultures whose sculptures have survived in quantities include the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, India and China, as well as many in South America and Africa.
The Western tradition of sculpture began in ancient Greece, and Greece is widely seen as producing great masterpieces in the classical period.
During the Middle Ages, Gothic sculpture represented the agonies and passions of the Christian faith.
The revival of classical models in the Renaissance produced famous sculptures such as Michelangelo's David.
Modernist sculpture moved away from traditional processes and the emphasis on the depiction of the human body, with the making of constructed sculpture, and the presentation of found objects as finished art works.
Another basic distinction is between subtractive carving techniques, which remove material from an existing block or lump, for example of stone or wood, and modelling techniques which shape or build up the work from the material.
Techniques such as casting, stamping and moulding use an intermediate matrix containing the design to produce the work; many of these allow the production of several copies.
The term "sculpture" is often used mainly to describe large works, which are sometimes called monumental sculpture, meaning either or both of sculpture that is large, or that is attached to a building.
But the term properly covers many types of small works in three dimensions using the same techniques, including coins and medals, hardstone carvings, a term for small carvings in stone that can take detailed work.
The very large or "colossal" statue has had an enduring appeal since antiquity; the largest on record at 128 m (420 ft) is the 2017 Chinese Spring Temple Buddha.
Another grand form of portrait sculpture is the equestrian statue of a rider on horse, which has become rare in recent decades.
The smallest forms of life-size portrait sculpture are the "head", showing just that, or the bust, a representation of a person from the chest up.
Small forms of sculpture include the figurine, normally a statue that is no more than 18 inches (46 cm) tall, and for reliefs the plaquette, medal or coin.
Modern and contemporary art have added a number of non-traditional forms of sculpture, including sound sculpture, light sculpture, environmental art, environmental sculpture, street art sculpture, kinetic sculpture (involving aspects of physical motion), land art, and site-specific art. A collection of sculpture in a garden setting can be called a sculpture garden.
One of the most common purposes of sculpture is in some form of association with religion.
Cult images are common in many cultures, though they are often not the colossal statues of deities which characterized ancient Greek art, like the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.
The actual cult images in the innermost sanctuaries of Egyptian temples, of which none have survived, were evidently rather small, even in the largest temples.
The same is often true in Hinduism, where the very simple and ancient form of the lingam is the most common.
Buddhism brought the sculpture of religious figures to East Asia, where there seems to have been no earlier equivalent tradition, though again simple shapes like the bi and cong probably had religious significance.
Small sculptures as personal possessions go back to the earliest prehistoric art, and the use of very large sculpture as public art, especially to impress the viewer with the power of a ruler, goes back at least to the Great Sphinx of some 4,500 years ago.
A basic distinction is between sculpture in the round, free-standing sculpture, such as statues, not attached (except possibly at the base) to any other surface, and the various types of relief, which are at least partly attached to a background surface.
Relief is often classified by the degree of projection from the wall into low or bas-relief, high relief, and sometimes an intermediate mid-relief.
Sunk-relief is a technique restricted to ancient Egypt.
Relief is the usual sculptural medium for large figure groups and narrative subjects, which are difficult to accomplish in the round, and is the typical technique used both for architectural sculpture, which is attached to buildings, and for small-scale sculpture decorating other objects, as in much pottery, metalwork and jewellery.
Relief sculpture may also decorate steles, upright slabs, usually of stone, often also containing inscriptions.
In archaeology and art history the appearance, and sometimes disappearance, of large or monumental sculpture in a culture is regarded as of great significance, though tracing the emergence is often complicated by the presumed existence of sculpture in wood and other perishable materials of which no record remains; the totem pole is an example of a tradition of monumental sculpture in wood that would leave no traces for archaeology.
The ability to summon the resources to create monumental sculpture, by transporting usually very heavy materials and arranging for the payment of what are usually regarded as full-time sculptors, is considered a mark of a relatively advanced culture in terms of social organization.
Recent unexpected discoveries of ancient Chinese bronze age figures at Sanxingdui, some more than twice human size, have disturbed many ideas held about early Chinese civilization, since only much smaller bronzes were previously known.
Some undoubtedly advanced cultures, such as the Indus Valley civilization, appear to have had no monumental sculpture at all, though producing very sophisticated figurines and seals.
The Mississippian culture seems to have been progressing towards its use, with small stone figures, when it collapsed.
Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving (the removal of material) and modelling (the addition of material, as clay), in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process.
A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded, or cast.
Sculpture in stone survives far better than works of art in perishable materials, and often represents the majority of the surviving works (other than pottery) from ancient cultures, though conversely traditions of sculpture in wood may have vanished almost entirely.