Sailing to a remote maritime sanctuary brings Richard Hodges to Europe’s earliest central place

Colin Renfrew (left) and Michael Boyd (right), on the summit of Dhaskalio. Their excavations on this rocky islet have revealed an extraordinary Bronze Age settlement, which appears to have grown out of a maritime sanctuary on Keros. In the Bronze Age, Dhaskalio was a promontory physically attached to Keros.

As the ferry slipped through the still-sleeping grey sea heading northwards, I raced to the aft windows to get a last look at Dhaskalio, albeit in silhouette. Dark now, this conical rock reminds me of Tintagel, detached in this case from the mountainous heart of deserted Keros. Cycladic rather than Cornish, after visiting it with Colin Renfrew it is easy to envisage that it once belonged to mythic worlds that long outlived their actual history. Just as King Arthur’s Tintagel was lent the status of a place by excavations led by Ralegh Radford (an alumnus of the British Schools at Athens and Rome) in the 1930s, so Colin and his colleagues have created Dhaskalio. I felt as though I had slipped through the looking-glass: yesterday, I had visited the extraordinary excavations in their lambent blue setting, and was, more to the point, there with the placemaker. Such is the precious feeling of privilege I feel as the boat leaves the Cyclades and plies towards Piraeus.

Rewriting Stonehenge

I was sharing a tent on a dig at Knidos, Turkey with a young university don who, before rolling over to sleep, muttered that my professor was leaving and his likely successor would be the dynamic prehistorian, Colin Renfrew. It was the first time I had heard the name. My companion, I sensed, was sceptical. There was something a tad radical about this scholar, energetic though he was known to be. Curiosity a few months later led me to venture to the Corn Exchange in Devizes to hear him lecture for the Wiltshire Archaeological Society.

Colin Renfrew (left) and Richard Hodges (right) on the boat to Dhaskalio. They met when Colin was advocating a Stonehenge freed from Mycenaen influence. Now, he and Michael Boyd are shedding new light on how early European urbanism took root on a remote Cycladic islet.

On this dark November night, I arrived late and took a place standing at the back next to a tall, thin man who crisply bade me good evening in a whisper. I recall the bemusement at my belated entrance in his sparkling eyes to this day, as I recall his virtuoso performance that evening. Colin had come to archaeological mecca to unpick the forced relationship between Mycenae and Stonehenge. Essentially, he was critically inverting a canonical thesis advanced by a Devizes favourite, Professor Richard Atkinson. Colin’s pitch was based upon a new calibration of radiocarbon chronology, which demonstrated that Stonehenge long pre-dated Mycenae. At its heart, though, was a rewriting of European prehistory that since the 1920s, thanks to Vere Gordon Childe, was shaped around diffusion from the civilised Orient by way of the Greeks to the barbarian West. Colin, put simply, upended the apple cart, and, with dignified respect for Childe’s august legacy, constructed a new vision for prehistoric Wessex.

Dhaskalio, as seen from Keros in 2006. Two special deposits dating back to c.2700 BC were discovered on Keros. Terraces were constructed on Dhaskalio and a settlement was founded in about 2500 BC.

Dynamic did not do justice to his glorious heresy. It was breathtakingly creative. More to the point, on listening carefully, it was underpinned by a knowledge of anthropological theory as well as a judicious grasp of the dated stratigraphy across the length and breadth of prehistoric Europe. The polite applause, of course, was for his brio rather than his argument. When I next met him, following another stint in Turkey, I mentioned the lecture. He beamed politely and promptly quizzed me about myself, his eyes and mind haring along in the headlights of his accelerating fame. For in those intervening months his great book, The Emergence of Civilisation (1972), had appeared. We students christened it ‘the bible’. It set out a paradigmatic revolution and of course it reaped admiration and damnation depending upon the age and mind-set of the reader. I was and remain an avid fan, believing it to be a cornerstone in the creative hegemony of British archaeology over the past 50 years. Grand words, yes, but the scholarship in it is nothing less than extraordinary.

The early Bronze Age steps leading up into the settlement at Dhaskalio. From there, a winding street led visitors to the summit.

The cover of Emergence depicts a seated marble figurine from Keros, a large but deserted island south of Naxos in the heart of the Cyclades. It is a rare complete statue from an island that Colin first visited as a graduate student in 1963. Years later he returned, convinced that it might hold a key to the cognitive world of the Cyclades in the Early Bronze Age. Only in 2006, after years excavating (and publishing) sites throughout the region, did he embark on a field project with a team. Twelve years of full-throttle scientific research have followed (along with a shelf of weighty published reports). Intellect and energy have been harnessed to making sense of not just the puzzling spreads of broken figurines, but also the Dhaskalio island pilgrimage-town that emerged as an Aegean hub of immense importance in the Bronze Age, only to vanish around 2200 BC (see CWA 91).

A forgotten centre

My trip, then, was a pilgrimage of sorts, to visit Colin Renfrew and his newly-found sanctuary. The excavations on Dhaskalio were in their final week when I arrived at Koufanissi on the interisland ferry, the Express Skopelitis, from Naxos. Koufanissi, the nearest inhabited island to Keros, I later learn, is fast becoming the summer retreat for Greece’s fast set. On this October day, with the afternoon sun being lower, and the winds stronger, only a handful of locals joined me in disembarking. Koufanissi’s only autumnal visitors were Colin and his team, 80-strong, here since early September. Through the ferry’s loading door I picked out Colin, erect as ever, today with a slightly tilted baseball cap.

Trench H, perched just above the Aegean, is the site of a possible workshop.

The same beaming smile and the same rush of enthusiasm for archaeology. But first, before an early evening ouzo, we had to amble up Koufanissi’s main street, where, under a great magenta spray of bougainvillea glowing in the pale evening shadow, Colin waylaid the village newsagent. He explained that he needs to see today’s Kathimerini. You sense the newsagent already knew his question. Her eyes betrayed her pride. The English archaeologist, after all, has chosen this island for his headquarters and laboratories. Two copies of Greece’s principal daily were produced to Colin’s palpable delight. On the front page, quite unmistakable, was Dhaskalio; the newsagent like a courtier proudly handed over the prize, as if to say: ‘whenever has our home been the headline news?’

The project’s digital lab. Harnessing iDIG – a digital app that can be used to record, collate, and share information – has allowed the Dhaskalio dig to be a paperless excavation.

Relaxing before dinner, Colin reminded me of the history of the Keros expedition, and without saying it, how he and his Greek colleagues missed the importance of Dhaskalio. These words were ringing in my ear after less sleep than I would have wished as I settled beside Colin and his co-director, Michael Boyd, on the caique next morning. The sky was still peppered with stars. Everyone was silent, expectant. They had doubtless been out after a taverna dinner in Koufanissi’s bars till the small hours. Now, as the first intimation of dawn was approaching, the serene expectations of the day were evident in this multinational team, all kitted up for an islet in a Cycladic wind tunnel. At 7am precisely, the captain started the engines, eased the boat out from the quay, and slipped its engines into gear. The cold air of the channel now washed over us. Out we plied, towards a triangular point across the straits that gained in texture as the stars were eviscerated with the breaking dawn. The sea-silk carpet was as clear as glass; beyond in every direction were mute blue distances as far as ash-blue mountains.

Colin Renfrew presents a lecture to locals in the village hall. The room was packed.

Twenty-five minutes later, the delicate pink sky turned primrose then powder blue as the boat slowed in the lee of Dhaskalio. Towering above, the edge-side trenches on the clifftops came into view as neat gashes. Colin pointed each trench out by its letter and with evident excitement. Then, close to Keros, we stopped beside a makeshift plank dock. The original dock had been swept away, so planks from the trenches were commandeered to replace it. Up from here runs a goat-wide path, zig-zagging across the face of the outcrop above the rocks and the ultramarine sea below. As the sun’s rays introduced us to a vast dome of light, Colin disembarked first. Michael, knowing I am fascinated by his co-director, muttered with unalloyed admiration that it is a picture of determination and passion. All eyes watched him as he cautiously ascended, and then in single file, not a soul speaking, we all followed. This being a paperless excavation, most shouldered brightly coloured boxes of equipment.

Keros, as seen from the old harbour on Koufanissi.

Dhaskalio is smaller in area than Tintagel but has a viewshed of some 270°, far greater than its Cornish peer. Far to the west are the shadowy mountains of Ios. Beyond lies Santorini. The thin length of Koufanissi is settled before us; beyond lies the solid mountainous mass of Naxos. Silhouettes of other Cycladic islands fade away to the east, but that view is restricted by Keros at our back. Here, on the shelf of land in front of Keros, Colin excavated two special deposits, fields of wantonly broken statuettes. Twelve years ago I visited him here. The story, real as it was, begged so many questions and palpably both puzzled and thrilled him. Now, after three years on Dhaskalio, he and Michael have made sense of it.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 97 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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