Keros: Sanctuary of the Cycladic figurines

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The enigmatic Cycladic figurines, the abstract figures found in the Cyclades islands, have had enormous influence on modern art. They first came to notice at the same time as modern art was beginning to go abstract, and their stark abbreviated geometric forms persuaded modern artists to do likewise. But when exactly did they flourish and what were the settlements that produced the figurines? When Colin Renfrew, back in the 1960s, was looking for a subject for his doctoral thesis, he chose to study the Cycladic figurines and the Cycladic early bronze age.

Colin Renfrew was one of the brilliant crop of archaeologists nourished at Cambridge in the late 50s and early 60s by Grahame Clark and Glyn Daniel; indeed Colin became not only president of the Union but he gained a ‘first’ – a rather unusual distinction. In order to study the figurines and the cultures which produced them, he had to spend six months in the Cyclades, going round and visiting at first hand the sites from which figurines had been recovered. In fact almost all had been looted: they came from cemetery sites where the figurines were recovered and most of the accompanying objects thrown away. One site in particular stood out, the one he discovered on the island of Keros on the 24th July 1963; he remembers the date in particular, as it was the day before his birthday. This was a large area of extensive looting at Dhaskalio Kavos; lying around on the surface there were fragments of figurines and the characteristic marble bowls, all broken. He felt that it was so important that in his thesis he named the Early Bronze Age 2 culture of the Cyclades, the Keros-Syros culture, after this site and the biggest known cemetery of Chalandriani on the island of Syros. And it is to this site on Keros, 43 years later, that he has returned.

Keros is a large uninhabited island in the eastern Cyclades, a group of islands hidden away behind Naxos. Keros is the largest, apart from Amorgos, but is now uninhabited: it is very mountainous and there is no fertile land for farming (and, it may be said, no good sandy beaches for tourists). Thus although 30 years ago there were still a couple of shepherds who lived there, it has now, like many remote islands, become totally depopulated.

In 1963 work began when Christos Doumas, who has sometimes been called the Mortimer Wheeler of Aegean archaeology and who was then the Epimelete, that is one of those in charge of archaeology in the islands, visited the site. He also decided to investigate the small but very steep island called Dhaskalio which lay just 80 metres off-shore, where there were reports of a medieval chapel. He swam across and spent a day clearing the chapel. He found little material of medieval date, but he did find masses of Early Bronze Age pottery of the Keros-Syros type. Was this a related site? Later the site of Kavos was extensively explored by the Ephor of the islands, Mrs Zapheiropoulou.

Then in 1987 the opportunity arose to conduct a survey project at Kavos, undertaken by Colin and by Christos Doumas in conjunction with Professor Lila Marangou. It soon became clear that it was a very unusual site: though there was a huge amount of material, it was all broken. It appeared that although some of the objects may have been manufactured there, others had been manufactured elsewhere and had been deliberately broken. The main concentration was named the ‘Special Deposit’. Was this the site of some elaborate ritual in which objects were brought there, broken and deliberately ‘sacrificed’? Or was it simply the remains of a very rich Early Cycladic cemetery, which had been systematically looted? The fieldwalking guru, Todd Whitelaw, and his team undertook intensive survey for the project and predicted that a further ‘special deposit’ might be found 400 yards south of the original discovery. And there the matter rested until 2006.

The excavations begin

Colin was tempted to return and excavate both sites. What made this feasible was his winning of the Balzan prize, an equivalent of the Nobel prize, but for the humanities. It is worth 1m Swiss francs (around £400,000) and having spent much of the money on establishing a new scholarship in Cambridge, he felt he should be allowed a little self-indulgence, and for an archaeologist, self-indulgence means excavation: he determined to spend £100,000 on returning to Keros. By this time he had retired from his duties as Disney Professor of Archaeology and Director of the McDonald Institute at Cambridge, and he had finished his stint as Master of Jesus College, Cambridge. Certainly the time was right to return to Keros. He raised funds from other sources, was granted permission to dig by the Greek authorities, and has now done two out of the three seasons.

The main result was that a further ‘special deposit’ has indeed been discovered 400 yards south of the ‘special deposit’ that he had discovered 40 years ago and which had been dug out by the looters. Due to the looting many questions remained. The findings were all fragmentary, including pottery, marble vessels and figurines and they were all different. Had they been brought to the site and then broken and deposited? Even more important was the question: was the deposit essentially a cemetery that had been churned up? Most of the other finds of Cycladic figurines come from cemeteries where they are accompanied by other objects, pottery vases, obsidian flakes and various stone objects. Were these remains of burials which had been ignored by the looters? Fortunately all knowledge of the new site was kept concealed from the looters: here was an opportunity to dig a special deposit archaeologically and to see what it really consisted of.

The result so far had been pretty unequivocal: it appears indeed to be a ritual site, where the objects were deposited in pits in the ground. The contents of the pits were all carefully sieved with wet sieving to check for traces of human bones and none were found. Quite clearly this was not a cemetery. Equally the objects had not been broken on the spot, since the pieces did not fit together. They had been broken elsewhere, brought to Keros as fragments and then buried. Analysis of the pottery fragments showed that they came from different islands. More than a hundred fragments of figurines were discovered, many of the famous Cycladic folded arm form. A large but fragmentary sculpture of the pelvic area of a folded arm figurine was 17cm in width, suggesting that the original figure before breakage would have stood more than 1 metre high. This is the first time that so large a figure has been documented from a secure archaeological context. But they found not just figurines. There were also hundreds of fragments of marble bowls and other marble vessels and pot sherds from a range of fine wares, including painted vessels and fragments of ‘sauceboats’ (probably drinking cups), a characteristic form of the Keros-Syros culture.

On excavation a series of inter-cutting pits were revealed. Some of them went down to the underlying irregular bed-rock more than a metre deep, but it was not possible to say how many of them were open at any one time. Was there perhaps one pit dug per year into which everyone put that year’s offerings? Or did each grouping, each island perhaps, have their own special pit into which offerings were made year by year? Were offerings made more or less continuously, or was there a grand annual ceremony, at mid summer perhaps, or perhaps even every four years as at the later Olympics?

Excavations on Dhaskalio

At the same time, excavations were also being carried out on the small island of Dhaskalio, 80m to the west. Indeed in order that the two halves of the expedition could communicate with each other, a rubber dinghy was purchased to ferry between the two islands. Access to Dhaskalio is not easy. There are no beaches anywhere, so a make-shift landing platform had to be constructed or rather two landing platforms, the second to be used when Boreas, the dreaded North wind, was blowing a gale as it so often does in the Greek summer, making the main landing place unusable. (The question was of course raised as to whether in the Bronze Age the two islands were linked, but there is no direct evidence yet to suggest this.)

On the bleak top of the island was a settlement where abundant building remains of the Keros Syros culture (2800 – 2300 BC) have been unearthed. This appears to have been domestic – pottery and a variety of stone tools and grinders. Among the notable finds was a lead weight of cylindrical form supporting the view that a system of mensuration had developed in the Aegean before 2300 BC. On the very top of the island were the foundations of the medieval chapel unearthed by Christos Doumas when he swam across, shovel in hand in the 1970s. But although the apsidal east end was clear enough, there were no finds of this period. Indeed the date of the chapel remains uncertain. It could be 13th century, or it could have remained in use until the 18th century: the Bronze Age in the 3rd millennium BC left behind lots of relics: the medieval chapel left behind none.

There were also traces a little bit further down from the top. In particular there were a number of dry stone walls which fronted other walls built in much larger un-worked rocks and it will remain for the next season’s work whether these represent a two-phased construction. Colin Renfrew would like to see the lower range of walls as being defensive though it would have been a hardy enemy to land on such an inhospitable island, climb the steep rock and then storm the settlement on top. However Olga Philaniotou, the Associate Director, and the Former Epimelete of the islands felt that they were domestic. But questions remain for the final season’s work. Was this a permanent settlement of the priests of the sanctuary opposite? Or was it essentially a hotel occupied seasonally by the pilgrims coming to make their offerings on the sacred island? Colin Renfrew is more cautious and does not yet claim this as a ‘sanctuary’ with ‘priests’ but this may yet prove the best explanation.

One of the more interesting observations is that the building stones were all foreign. They were imported probably from Naxos which is visible on the horizon, half a dozen miles away. Why did they go to such an effort to import building stone? The main reason was probably a practical one, that the stone on the island itself was very schist-y. It is very poor quality for a building stone, whereas the marble on Naxos is one of the finest marbles in the world, that splits easily to form excellent building material. Importing the stone would have been a substantial logistic operation – evidence perhaps of the extent of seafaring between the islands in the Cycladic age.

The excavations seem to demonstrate that Keros must have been a major ritual centre of the Cycladic civilisation and throw new light on this civilisation. Hitherto it has had two major claims to fame. First, it took part in the ‘international spirit’ of the Aegean Early Bronze Age, with the widespread use of copper and then of bronze. And, secondly, this was the time of the first extensive cemeteries, in Crete and the Cyclades (beginning a little earlier in the Cycladic Late Neolithic). Settlements were known earlier, but now elaborate burials began to appear accompanied by rich objects – which, in the Cyclades, included the marble figurines. Keros extends our knowledge of the Cycladic civilisation by revealing a cycle of pilgrimage, or a ritual where objects are formally broken up and the parts deposited in different areas and indeed in different islands .

But was Keros a ‘special’ island? In the Classical period, there was a ‘special’ island in the Aegean, – Delos. Delos is a small island a dozen miles offshore from the larger island of Mykonos. Today it is uninhabited except by archaeologists, but in the classical era it was thought to be the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and was one of the great cult centres, alongside Delphi and Olympia. Was Keros the ‘Delos’ of the Cycladic age? The shape of the island may be significant. It is a mountainous presence rising out of the sea, today uninhabited partly because it is barren but also because it is so spectacularly mountainous. Did it perhaps play a role similar to that of Delos in the classical period? Was Keros a somewhat forbidding and therefore mysterious island, the seat of the gods to whom tribute had to be paid? Colin Renfrew may have been wiser than he knew when he named the Cycladic phenomenon the Keros-Syros culture.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 26. Click here to subscribe

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