News Article


By Gilly Cameron Cooper

A ritual site “of great archaeological interest”,  probably the earliest of its kind in the Aegean, has been discovered intact on Keros, a Cycladic island notorious for having been heavily looted in the past. The undisturbed ‘special deposit’ – of bones, fragmented pottery, marble bowls and figures lying in the place where they were left some 4,500 years ago ­– was excavated by a team under one of the world’s leading authorities on the ancient Cycladic Civilization, Professor Colin Renfrew. It has provided vital clues in unravelling what is known as ‘The Keros Enigma’ – why many of the artefacts, which obviously originated on other islands and the mainland, were broken into pieces.

“The new finds leave several questions unanswered, but we have revealed that there was a ritual centre of major importance here as early as 2,500 BC, and that it is about the first regional ritual centre in the Aegean,” announced Lord Renfrew, at the close of the 6-week dig in June.

 It has long been recognized that Keros was a key cultural centre in Cycladic times, because of the number, variety and high quality of the artefacts found there, including trade items and the hallmark marble Cycladic figures. But until now, archaeologists have been uncertain as to the reason for the so-called ‘special deposits’. Now it is believed that the Dhaskalio-Kavos site, was a ritual centre that might have served the whole of the Cycladic archipelago in the southern Aegean: “it could be a precursor for the sanctuaries of the ancient Greeks in the first millennium BC, such as the [one to Apollo on the] island of Delos,” stated the archaeological team.


Professor Renfrew, who was made a life peer in 1991, was the first professional archaeologist to visit Keros, in 1963, after a tip-off from a Greek archaeologist who had heard rumours of looting on Keros.

“The site of Dhaskalio-Kavos was probably discovered in 1958, recognized as being very rich and then very rapidly exploited,” said Lord Renfrew.  The plundered artefacts became known as ‘The Keros Hoard.’ They were illegally exported, turning up in major art galleries such as the Louvre in Paris and private collections all over the world.The looters had left the site in such a mess that clear interpretation by subsequent official digs was impossible. Some thought that the broken artefacts were the result of the looting, but the recent finds at the intact special deposit established that “all were systematically broken before deposition.”

“We can now finally state that the breaks were old,” Professor Renfrew told Naxos Life. Some pieces had obviously weathered before they were buried. This means, explained the Professor, “that either rituals which involved the breaking up of special objects took place at the site, and the objects were cleared out from time to time and buried, or the breakages occurred on other islands, for religious or other reasons, and then brought here.”

 The May-June expedition was under the aegis of the British School of Archaeology in Athens; Professor Renfrew was working with associate director Olga Philaniotou from the Greek Archaeological Service, former director of the Naxos Archaeological Museum, and a team that included specialists in pottery, anthropology, metallurgy and water sieving and flotation techniques.

Past Glory

Before and since being a buzzing cultural centre in the Early Bronze Age, with one of the largest settlements in the Cyclades and a focal point for trade and communication, Keros has been an abandoned island devoid of people and history. Although it outranks neighbouring islands in its bulk and craggy heights, today it is visited only by the local rabbit hunters, a part-time goatherd and archaeologists.

In its heyday, long, narrow boats would have called in from or set out to neighbouring islands, carrying goods to barter, or perhaps pilgrims and offerings to the prestige ritual sites. It is thought that up to 300 people may have lived on Keros at its peak, making a living from fishing,  and farming wheat, barley and domestic sheep and goats.  There must have been surface water then; today, the island is dry like its neighbours. But unlike Ano Koufonissi (permanent population 350) across the water, Keros has no harbour deep enough for boats carrying water and other supplies, and is in any event a no-go area for the casual visitor.

There never was much arable land:  the island is little more than an impressive surge of rock, a single mountain split by a  steep valley with a Mohican fringe of jagged limestone cliff. Over the millennia, the sea level rose and the bits of low land snatched from mountainside dropping sheer into the water were reduced even further. And some 1,200 years ago, the lump of Dhaskalio separated from the mainland and became an islet.

Small boats, from one-man fishing dinghies to brightly-painted caiques are still the most practical way to explore the Minor Cyclades, and when canoes, paddled or rowed, were the only means of communication and trade, this intimate cluster of islands was bound to thrive.  Once sail power came in, though, they were bypassed for richer and more distant lands, and reduced to a backwater. All but forgotten until the pirates of the Eastern Mediterranean saw the potential of islands that look like a child’s drawing of a treasure map, as hideouts and made them a no-go area for anyone else. And that’s how it is today; out of bounds to anyone without special permit from the Greek Archaeological Service or a hunter’s licence. You can sit at sundown on the edge of a sandy curve of bay at the Finikas Taverna on Ano Koufonissi, from where Keros looks tantalizingly close and enigmatic as its cliffs soften into the purple and rose of evening light.

What To Do If You Find a Fragment of Ancient History

The rough clay pot handle sat on the mantelpiece for a couple of weeks. I’d found it while looking for a walking route on an island in the Minor Cyclades. It was a thick semi-circle of coarse red clay with incised parallel lines decorating its upper surface.  The inner curve of the handle suggested that it had once been attached to a very large pot. ‘Probably broke of off a goatherd’s cheap cooking pot a few decades ago,’ I thought, ‘prematurely aged and roughened by exposure to wind and sand’… and stuffed it in my pocket.

 But what if it was a vital clue to an ancient civilization? I’d be stealing a fragment of ancient Greek history, selfishly hoarding it for my own pleasure. I pictured the scene at the museum with Greek archaeologists thrilled at my find and grateful for my honesty.
That’ll be 5 euros,” said the fulakos  when I turned up, feeling rather self-righteous, at the ticket desk at Naxos Archaeological Museum.
“But, I don’t want to see the museum, I’ve got a precious artefact to show the archaeologist.”
“Five euros.”

Olga Philaniotou, Associate Director of the recent breakthrough dig on Keros, and then Director of Naxos Archaeological Museum, looked at my pot handle.

“The scratched pattern dates it to c. 2,800 bc, the early Bronze Age,” she said, and showed me some large, shallow cooking pots in the museum; “it broke off something like these, only bigger,” she said. “ And it’s important because it is more evidence that there was a community living in the area where you found it.”
“Do you want it?” I asked, thinking about my mantelpiece.
“Yes of course.”

If Kyria Olga didn’t fall over herself with gratitude, it’s probably because I shouldn’t  have removed the pothandle from where I found it. By doing so, I was destroying vital contextual evidence. I was little better than the looters of the ‘The Keros Hoard’ back in the 1960s. In fact I shouldn’t have even been on the island, for which you should have an official permit from the Greek Archaeological Service or a hunter’s licence to visit.
I should have simply taken a photograph, taken it to an archaeol-ogist at the museum, and given details of where I found it.

Ⓒ  Gilly Cameron Cooper

Gilly is a professional writer living for part of the year on Naxos, and cooperates with Cycladic walking holiday operator