Were it not for the fame of the unexpectedly rich finds that were made at the underwater site of a shipwreck which occurred in the 1st century bc off the northeast coast of Antikythera and gave the world the life-size bronze figure known as the Antikythera Ephebe, as well as a remarkable clock-like machine thought to be the earliest surviving astronomical computer in history, this island would be even more unknown and unvisited than it presently is. With around 40 permanent inhabitants, (currently) no hotel, no taxi, no bus, no taverna, nor even a dedicated kafeneion, the island is not an obvious holiday destination. But it makes an unforgettable—and not difficult— visit for anyone interested in peace and quiet, undisturbed archaeological remains, or ornithology.
Antikythera, like so many of the very small islands of the Aegean, is a step ping stone. The settlers here who founded Ancient Aegila on the island took advantage of that fact, living off the trade and passage between Crete and the Peloponnesian mainland. Countless generations of birds, too, have seen a similar advantage in the island’s strategic position as a resting place on their migrations between the continental mainlands of Africa and Europe. A visit to the extensive site of Ancient Aegila and a walk through the interior of the island to see its villages and bird-life, are—beyond the sheer joy of its tranquillity—the principal reasons for visiting Antikythera. The island also has excellent wine and spring water, as well as good honey.
Antikythera is a little over 8km in length and just under 3km in width; in the centre of its west coast, Mount Plagara rises to a peak of 378m. Fresh water is not plentiful, and the fertility of the land is limited. The island is linked by name, and by a shared administration, to Kythera; but, whereas Kythera has always tended to look north to the Peloponnese for its commerce and cultural contacts, Antikythera looks firmly in the other direction to Crete. Its inhabitants, who call the island ‘Li―i’ (Lioi—a corruption of ‘Aigilioi’) are of Cretan origin, with Cretan manners and Cretan names. The mountains of Crete are indeed a beautiful sight across the water from Antikythera. Antikythera has a deep, relatively protected natural harbour in the north of the island, but the space in it for manoeuvre is limited, and most of the ferries (except the F/B Andreas from Neapolis) will turn round fully in the sea outside the entrance and enter the long, narrow channel of the port astern—an interesting operation to witness in a high sea. The island’s principal village, Potamos, is clustered in the valley and on the hillside behind the port; its name (meaning ‘river’) derives from its seasonal torrent and the presence of the only constant source of flowing water on the island. Just to the right of the landing stage is the former water-mill: the cistern above and water-chute are still intact, with the mill-machinery building at the foot of the drop, at sea-level. The spring which provides the water rises at a fountain in a small amphitheatre of rocks about 300m inland (to south), and sustains a number of productive gardens in the area: the year-round water is unexpectedly soft and light, and has good flavour. The small church to the west of here is Aghios Charalambos: plain and whitewashed inside, like all the chapels on the island, it has a simple but pleasing iconostasis. Further uphill is the church of the Panaghia.
The island’s main settlement in Antiquity, -Ancient Aegila, lies on a peninsula to the north and east of Potamos, its ruins just visible (to the eastern side) from the boat as it enters the port. A footpath leads up from Potamos along the side of the headland to the white church of Aghios Nikolaos, one of the oldest on the island. As you go down the slope to the east of the church, the presence of scattered potsherds all around suggest that this hill side was also part of the area of ancient habitation. Below is the ravine of Xeropotamos (named ‘dry river’ for obvious reasons), which ends at the pebble beach which forms a small harbour within the main bay. The shore line in Antiquity would have been further inland since the level of the water was then substantially higher (see below). On the hillside opposite, you see a clear, diagonal path leading up to the ancient town. At the base of the hill which you have just descended (west side of the beach)— there is evidence of dried springs which may once have provided water for the ancient town. Just inland, on the floor of the valley and in the final sweep of the riverbed, can be seen the partially uncovered foundations of a sanctuary, probably of the temple of Apollo Aegileos: the presence of a well-cut square marble platform, a finely dressed stone well-mouth, and sundry blocks of marble suggests there was a public building or temple here, although the orientation of the building is not on the cardinal points. In this area a headless statue of Apollo (now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) with a dedicatory inscription to the god from two citizens, one Athenian and the other Thessalian, was discovered in 1880. Climbing up the diagonal path above the east side of the bay, there are several carved niches in the rock face to the right; a quantity of potsherds can be found all around. At the top there are steps, cut into the rock, which lead into an area which was once a protected gate of entry. A plateau now opens out in front: the walls around the acropolis are visible crowning the hill to the right, the re mains of the lower town are in front, and the bay, below to the left. In the main area in front and to the right, there are many points at which the natural bed-rock has been substantially cut and dressed; this, together with the use of natural fissures in the limestone, was for the storage of water and of goods. The most interesting and legible part of these ruins is straight ahead at the edge of the sea, where a clear, broad ramp descends steeply to the water’s edge: this is an ancient boat-loading bay. In examining this, it is important to remember that the whole island appears to have been pushed up by tectonic movement above what would have been the water-level in Antiquity. The entire coastline of Antikythera has a dark band just above sea-level which is approximately 2.5–3m in height, with furrows formed by successive sea-levels. It is hard to know exactly how much of this rise has taken place since the 4th century bc, but in order to make sense of this loading bay, allowance has to be made for a substantial rise in the land or drop in sea-level since that time. There are clear signs (chisel striations) of the cutting of the stone on the floor of the ramp, the walls to either side, and the area immediately above and to the left (west). At the bottom of the ramp is a deeper cut to the right-hand side, which would have allowed one (shallow draft) boat to enter and be secured while loading and unloading onto the mole at the left-hand side. Just above this point is a deep transverse cut in the rock, running from side to side of the gulley, and possibly used for securing winching equipment attached to the boat. The berth and the whole surrounding area is remarkably well-preserved. Directly uphill from here, to the east, is a hole affording entry into a small underground chamber, neatly cut with two loculi or tiny chambers, to south and east. A round well-hole in the centre, underneath an opening above with dressed stone—possibly in the floor of a structure that stood above—suggests an underground nymphaeum. In fact, the whole of this area shows signs of terracing in the bare rock for the creation of cisterns. The acropolis of Aegilia was on the ridge and the sad dle to the north. Today this apron-shaped plateau is entirely surrounded with the visible remains of an enceinte of Hellenistic fortifications. The walls vary between 1.50 and 3m in thickness, and the ring of bastions or watch towers is well-preserved—five are clearly visible, all are square, except the northernmost one which watched over the entrance to the harbour and was circular with a diameter of approximately 4m. In the middle of the area which the walls surround is a long narrow fissure in the rock: this was most likely a cistern for collecting water, given that it lies at the lowest point within the enceinte. Towards the summit to the south extends a stretch of wall, typical of the style of construction of the 4th century bc: above this, the remains of three rings of walls are visible, which protected the highest point: the bastion on the peak (fortified mostly on the north side) is in rougher stone. The peak itself is interesting, and suggestive of a place of earlier cult: steps cut in the living rock lead up to a small flat surface which marks the highest point (90m a.s.l.) and which is oriented exactly on an east/west axis. Below it more steps lead up from an empty cleft in the natural rock. From here there is a good view of the Thy monies Reefs—the rocks just off the coast below and to the east where the shipwrecked ancient boat with its precious cargo was found in 1900.
THE ANTIKYTHERA SHIPWRECK The large boat with a cargo of luxury goods, including jewellery, furniture and pottery, as well as a quantity of marble and bronze sculpture, which was possibly headed for delivery in Rome, ran aground and sank off the Thymonies rocks on the north coast of Antikythera some time between 80 and 50 bc. The wreck was discovered at a depth of almost 60m by a sponge diver, Elias Stadiatos, in 1900. It was one of the first significant underwater finds of lost cargos which have since become such a new and rich source of untouched material in the archaeology of the last 100 years. The finds are all now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Most famous is the complete bronze statue of a fully life-size nude youth, in remarkably good state of conservation and with his glass-paste eyes still in place—the so-called Ephebe of Antikythera. The slacker musculature of the body and the bland, slightly oval face, indicate that it is a piece of the mid 4th century bc. The figure has his right hand raised aloft; in it he obviously once held something—a silver apple, if we wish to reconstruct him as the shepherd-prince Paris of Troy; or perhaps the head of Medusa, if we wish to see him as Perseus, the Gorgon-slayer—in which case his lowered left-hand would (uncharacteristically) have held his sword. A fine, furrowed and unkempt head of a ‘philosopher’ in bronze, of the late 3rd century bc, was also amongst the finds. Most unusual of all, however, were the remnants of a curious and complex mechanical object, in which almost 30 bronze gear-wheels can be detected. This incomplete but elaborate computing device appears to have possessed a mechanism based on the epicyclic movements described by Hipparchus of Nicaea and Apollonius of Perge, which enabled it to show and predict the movements and positions of the celestial bodies, locating them on a circular dial with the constellations of the zodiac around its perimeter. It could well have been used for navigational purposes on the ship. If the machine did truly function well, then it managed to achieve all this with the added impediment of positing a geocentric cosmos as point of departure for the calculations. It is exhibited in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens.
The acropolis walls subsequently descend from the summit to the south towards an area of recent (now deserted) habitation; some of these houses have been constructed using elements taken from the walls and are often raised directly on ancient foundations. At the southern extremity of the enceinte a deep cleft in the limestone, below the eastern side of a small outcrop of rock, functioned in Antiquity as a large communal cistern. The remains in this area are harder to read because ancient pieces have been moved and re-arranged by recent inhabitants seeking to make threshing circles and animal pens, but several cis terns with spouts into rock-cut basins still preserve their ancient appearance. At the southwestern corner of the site the walls re-emerge clearly, and a gate is visible with a path running down to the ravine below to a point just upstream of the sanctuary in the valley. From the beach and bay of Xeropotamos below, a track leads back up the valley into the interior. Following this track for about 700m and then striking up right towards the top of (the first shoulder of) the hill to the south west of the site, you come, at the summit, to the scant remains of a Venetian fortification, probably of the 16th century—the base of a stone tower (about 5 x 10m) in rough masonry, bound in an improvised cement. In front (towards the northeast) are the foundations of some outer walls, constructed on the plan of a half-octagon. All over these hills grows a species of dwarf wild cedar. These small plants have long lives, during the course of which their trunks and branches are sculpted and twisted by the winds into beautiful and improbable shapes. The wood is very hard and resistant, and is used for short rafters to support the stone roofs of the older houses on the island. The interior of the island is easy to see on foot, and there are good views at all points. About 1.5km south of Potamos, just before the community of Aleviziani , are three ruined windmills on the ridge just beside the road: a little beyond this, above the road to the right, is the Antikythera Bird Observatory of the Hellenic Ornithological Society (www.ornithologiki.gr), housed in what used to be the primary school building of Aleviziani . This recently established study-centre is dedicated to the documentation and observation of the massive bird migrations which pass across the island in spring and autumn: the society organises the ringing of migratory birds, who use the island as a stop-over on their route north or south. Even outside of the migration seasons, the whole island seems particularly full of bird-life—flycatchers, songbirds of all kinds, raptors, and, most interesting of all, the Eleonora’s falcon.
ELEONORA’S FALCON Falco eleonorae, or the Black Peregrine Falcon, breeds predominantly in the Greek Islands and winters mainly in Madagascar. Around three quarters (approaching 3,000 pairs) of the total population of the species nest in Greece and its islands, and the single largest colony in the world is on Antikythera. Eleonora’s falcon is unusual for a rap tor in as much as it breeds, not solitarily, but in colonies. The restriction of its breeding area to very few marine geographical localities has probably evolved to take advantage of a concentrated and predictable seasonal food-resource—namely the quantities of migrating songbirds. The falcon breeds unusually late, with the young hatching to wards the end of August, thus permitting the newly flying juveniles to take advantage of the prey presented by the autumn migrations. At other times of year, and in its wintering in Madagascar, it customarily lives off large moths and insects, chang its diet only for the migratory season. The fact that such a particular evolutionary pattern should have occurred gives some idea of how long these islands must have been important staging-posts for smaller birds in migration. The concentration of collective breeding populations in such a small area brings with it problems however: it makes the raptors more vulnerable to disturbance and eventual predation by humans, as well as by the animals that humans often inadvertently introduce—especially rats. For this reason, the special protection afforded on Antikythera and on other Aegean islands, is of the greatest importance in maintaining stable populations of the falcon. Seen against the sky its silhouette can easily be confused with that of the Peregrine falcon, although its profile is slimmer and its wings and tail longer than the Peregrine. Both the tail and the chestnut underside are conspicuously and elegantly barred. It is superb and playful in flight, recognisable by its re peated staccato call and conspicuous by its unusually gregarious behaviour.
The road ends at Galaniani , where the church of the is land’s patron saint, Aghios Myron, is situated in the fold of a valley, with a simple graveyard under the shade of dense almond trees, and with a wide, rather neglected courtyard in front. The 19th century iconostasis inside the church has an unusual depiction of Christ as the True Vine with the Apostles attached like clusters of grapes. Across the valley on the hillside opposite are deserted communities, their buildings now in ruins; further back down the road from Galaniani are some substantial houses in better condition and in a simple local architectural style. Some have finely constructed and sizeable wells, with stone su mounts and overflows. At the junction below Galaniani , a road signposted to Katsaneviani first drops into the valley and then climbs up to a saddle below the craggy ridge of Mount Prophi tis Elias; to the left of the road on the hillside is another deserted settlement with windmill above. Over the saddle, the road now descends into a landscape that is quite different—a wide, sloping, open plateau looking towards the looming and magnificent mountains of western Crete. The earliest Minoan colonists who came to Antiky thera must surely have wanted to settle here in sight of the mother island: but they may have encountered a two-fold problem—a lack of water and an absence of safe anchor age along the eastern shore. There are two ‘communities’ on the plateau, each consisting today of one (year-round) unit of habitation: Tsikaliariani to the east, and Katsaneviani to the south. In a field between the two is the church of Aghios Giorgios. This is a small simple rural chapel: perhaps because of its palpable remoteness it is all the more surprising and rewarding to find in its interior a beautiful 17th century icon of St George, which stands out clearly from all the others. Beyond Katsaneviani , a path leads a further 2.5km to the southern extremity of the island and to the Apolitara lighthouse, constructed in un-dressed, local stone in 1926. The walk gives ample opportunity to appreciate the island’s human solitude, yet teeming bird life.
Antikythera Island, Greece