Monday, June 20, 2011


In June 1963 Colin Renfrew stepped onto the scrub-covered Aegean Island of Keros on the basis of a tip-off. In search of material for his studies, the young Cambridge graduate had been intrigued by rumors of recent looting on the almost uninhabited island - told to him by a Greek archaeologist.

Evidence of looting abounded and he reported back to the Greek Archaeological Service that smashed marble statues and bowls as well as broken pottery lay scattered over the hillside. Despite the destruction, it was clear that the fragments were Early Cycladic, an interesting find in itself, but as he was to realize later, he had actually stumbled upon the first evidence of an astonishing Bronze Age ritual.

A year later, the Greek Archaeological Service carried out a major recovery project, finding fragments of a type of sculpture found previously mainly in Cycladic Bronze Age graves. The simplicity of these beautiful serene figurines, with their folded arms, sloping feet and featureless faces, are said to have inspired modern artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore.

On Keros, apart from a single intact figurine, all of the recovered items were broken. There were 'body parts' in their hundreds - an elongated foot, a single breast, a folded arm, a pair of thighs, a face - all jumbled together.

However, when the 'Keros Hoard', which was widely believed to be part of looted material from the island, appeared on the antiquities market in the 1970s - and these were also broken fragments - so the mystery deepened. The question was raised whether Keros was actually an ancient burial ground that had been destroyed by looters, breaking every single figurine in their haste, or the site of something else entirely?

A new opportunity to investigate came in 1987, when Renfrew, by then a Professor in the Department of Archaeology, and two Greek archaeologists were permitted to excavate and survey the looted area - which they called Special Deposit North. "We recovered great quantities of broken material and yet as we excavated more we found no indications of tombs," said Professor Renfrew.

The fragments were not grave goods and the first of several astonishing features came to light, as Professor Renfrew explained: "As I studied the marble materials for publication, I realized that nearly all of the breakages seemed to be ancient and not the result of the looting. They had been deliberately broken before burial."

It was another two decades before Professor Renfrew was able to return, this time for three seasons of excavation - ending in 2008 - and with an international team of almost 30 experts. The post-excavation analysis of the finds is now nearing conclusion.

In the first year, the Cambridge-Keros project team excavated at the southern site and confirmed the presence of another Special Deposit, but this time completely undisturbed by looters. Most of the material was bundled together in small pits up to two meters in diameter. The breakages were old and deliberate and with an absence of marble chips - expected in the case of breakages at the location of the deposition - it was proof that the fragments had been broken elsewhere. Later radiocarbon dating confirmed they had been deposited over a 500-year period from between 2800 BC to 2300 BC.

"But the strangest finding of all was that hardly any of the fragments of the 500-odd figurines and 2,500 marble vessels joined together," said Professor Renfrew. "This was a very interesting discovery. The only conclusion we could come to was that these special materials were broken on other islands and single pieces of each figurine, bowl or pot were brought by generations of Cycladic islanders to Keros."

Meanwhile, across the short stretch of water to Dhaskalio, a very different picture was emerging. From the outset, the islet showed evidence of having been a major Bronze Age stronghold with structures built on carefully prepared terraces circling a summit, on which a large hall was erected. The settlement dates from around the time of the Special Deposits, before being abandoned around 2200 BC.

Examination of its geology showed that the beautifully regular walling of the settlement was imported marble rather than the flaky local limestone found on Keros. Remarkably, in the same era as the pyramids were being built and Stonehenge erected, Cycladic islanders were shipping large quantities of building materials, probably by raft, over considerable distances to build Dhaskalio.

Here, too, there were puzzling finds: a stash of about 500 egg-shaped pebbles at the summit and stone discs found everywhere across the settlement. And, although there was evidence that the olive and vine were well-known to the inhabitants of Dhaskalio, the terrain there and on Keros could never have supported the large population the scale of the site implies, suggesting that food also was imported.

One answer is to hypothesize a largely transient population. Several strands make this plausible, as Dr Michael Boyd, who is collating the results of the post-excavation analysis, explained: "Archaeobotanical evidence implies that the site was not intensively occupied year-round, and the imported pottery and materials suggests the possibility of groups coming seasonally from elsewhere."

As the team members conclude their analysis of the finds, all indications point towards Keros having been a major ritual center of the Cycladic civilization. "We believe that the breaking of the statues and other goods was a ritual ..a chosen sanctuary to preserve the effects," said Professor Renfrew.

This wouldn't be the first time a sanctuary has been identified on the Greek islands - Delphi, Olympia and Delos for instance - but it would be the earliest by about 2,000 years and certainly the most mysterious.


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