Euboea Island, Greece.
Between Lake Dystos and Styra, is a spring (54km: 4km south of the main Koskina junction), whose water is locally much-prized, beside the road beneath the church of the Panaghia. At 50km the road passes Zarakes, 1km to the south of which are two ruined windmills which mark the site of some foundations, possibly of Zaret(h)ra, a place captured by the Athenian commander (and pupil of Pla to), Phokion, in 350 bc. To the south of here, the wind swept narrow ridges with views to the sea on both sides of the island have been dedicated to wind-farms which dominate the sky-line for a considerable distance.
(Palaia) Styra (29km), a not unattractive village grouped around a plateia with trees, can make a good base for exploring the fascinating hinterland, whose vegetation is rapidly regenerating after the ravages of the catastrophic fires of 2007. On the west coast, 3.5km below, is the port of Nea Styra with a service by ferry approximately every two to three hours to Aghia Marina on the east coast of Attica. The site of Ancient Styra, still largely unexplored and unexcavated, lies inland of the shore; the ancient city’s remarkable and remote acropolis, however, can be seen from many points on the road up to Palaio Styra— its megalithic portal silhouetted against the light, on the summit of the ridge over 600m above to the southeast. It is here that the most fascinating remains survive.
Styra is mentioned in the Iliad (Bk. II, 540) as participating in the Euboean expedition to Troy under the leadership of Elephenor. Although Herodotus sees its inhabitants as of Dryopian origin, Strabo relates that the city was settled by colonists from the Marathonian Tetrapolis (Geog. X, 6). In 490 bc it was taken by the Persian commander, Datis, and the offshore is land of Aigilia was used for the safe-keeping of their hostages. Styra contributed two ships to the Greek force at Salamis in 480 bc and soldiers to the Battle of Plataea; as a consequence its name was engraved with those of other participating Greek cities on the serpentine bronze trophy, now in the Hip podrome in Istanbul. After 477 bc Styra was part of the Athe nian Confederacy, and in 415 bc fought with Athens in the Sicilian campaign. In Roman times the acropolis area may have been used as a settlement for the quarry-workers employed in the exploitation of the local stone. The Venetians erected their fortress of Larmena or ‘Armena’, remains of which are visible today, on the site of the ancient fortifications.
The archaeological area (unsigned) of the quarries, the acropolis and the remarkable ‘drakospita’ or ‘dragon’s houses’ (see pp. 117–118), are reached by taking the main road north from the square of (Palaia) Styra. After 800m, on a bend, take the asphalt road to the right; after a further 800m turn left onto a track, and then after 100m turn right. This track climbs for 1.5km, at which point it is necessary to turn right at what is the first opportunity. After 500m, fork left. After a further 500m the track splits: from this point, left takes you, after 400m, to the foot of the hill where the drakospita (A) (10 mins) can be visited; right leads on up to the principal quarries (B) (20 mins) and the acropolis (C) (1 hr).
This group of buildings is found after a short climb up from where the left-hand track ends, in a dip in the hill side facing west with a partial view down to the coast at Nea Styra and with relatively good visibility of the surrounding quarry area. As you approach you encounter:
– two parallel, rectangular buildings with impressive, pitched and corbelled roofs constructed from large schists, which at first sight have the appearance either of communal dwellings or large animal pens. A shallow-cut, stone basin sits by the corner of the nearest building;
– above and behind is a square building with a concentric, corbelled roof with an open ‘oculus’ in the centre, which would perhaps have been covered, if necessary, with ephemeral material. There is a stone corner-shelf inside;
– as you climb higher, you pass two rectangular basins cut in the rock: the one to the left has a small circular depression carved on its front;
_further up again is an elliptical stone construction built up against the wall of natural rock behind, with two small ‘loculi’ to north and south, and a wall and doorway in front;
– substantially higher up, after crossing a scree of stones, is a vertical rock face (clearly cut by hand as evidenced by the chisel striations all over its surface) fenced by a wall and doorway in front. This would appear to be one of many quarry faces in the area. The rock face has a fissure (bot tom right) facetted by human hand. On the right-hand wall, in front and inside of the entrance of the fissure, at a height of about 2m are a series of diagonal cuts in the rock—perhaps indicating approximate measurements for the quarrying.
The likely purpose
There have been wild surmises as to the date and epoch of these constructions—some commentators even extravagantly claiming them to be prehistoric places of cult. It should, however, be recalled that this whole area was dedicated in Antiquity to quarrying stone; that stone-working was the main economic activity of Karystos and Styra; and that a community of people therefore lived on site in these quarries, to avoid the laborious trek to and from the town each day. The mountains furthermore are subject to sudden storms and descending clouds for much of the early part of the year, and solid refuges would have been a real boon to the working community during the nights, and sometimes even during the day. The limestone quarried here naturally splits into large slabs or schists, and if you were going to build a structure in this area, the method of superimposing large slabs and corbelling them for the roof, constitutes in fact the easiest solution. The regular forms of the constructions and the roughly isodomic method (seen in much greater perfection in the drakospito at the summit of Mount Ochi), suggest that they emerge from a Hellenistic architectural background. They may well have been used in more recent times for penning animals for whom the water-basins would certainly have been useful. None of the above completely precludes that there was a cultic aspect to the buildings, beyond their purpose for refuge and storage; we know little about the people—who may have been immigrants from Caria—who worked in the quarries. Hercules (thearchetypal ‘labourer’) was a popular divinity with stone workers; but no archaeological evidence suggesting a cult of Hercules or any other divinity has been found yet at this particular site. It would in short be contentious to suggest any date prior to the 4th or 3rd centuries bc for these structures.
The track and path up to the acropolis of Styra passes through the centre of the main, ancient limestone quarry—a series of small, quite deep, assays. As you climb (15 minutes) there are channels in the stone and terraces cleared in the rock. A number of shaped architectural pieces are still in situ: a finely tapered column (note the ring of circular indentations around the ‘collar’ for transportation); an abacus; several blocks of architrave with precise indentations. The rough-hewn ‘dromos’, the long horizontal cuts and cart-ruts are evidence of the laborious task of transportation. Other ancient surface-quarries and screes of stone-refuse can be seen on the hillsides opposite.
The acropolis (reached after a 50-minute climb) is entered through the magnificent * portal, which is visible even from Nea Styra far below and commands views of the whole of the gulf of Euboea. It is composed of large monoliths of veined limestone, and its lintel is still in place. To the left, as you face the gate from outside, are vestiges of the ancient enceinte, dating probably from the 5th century bc or earlier. This site is an example of a natural rock acropolis which has been minimally modified and articulated to serve human ends. It is composed of a ridge of limestone ‘tors’, running northeast/southwest: the southwest tor has steps carved in its lower north side, which provided access to the look-out post on its summit. As you skirt the east side of the ridge towards the northeast tor, there are deep-cut post-holes in the rock and other cuts for gate posts at the northern extremity of the ancient, inner acropolis. Further north, you come to the tiny chapel of St Nicholas (with a rock-cut cistern in front of its west end), and the remains of the 15th century Venetian stronghold, the Kastro Armeno, now much dilapidated, which had two discrete entities: a main, impregnable ‘keep’ on the summit of the middle tor and fortifications with bastions on the northeastern summit. The * view takes in the sea to east and west, the three peaks of Attica in front, the Sounion peninsula, the is lands of Makronisos, Kea and Skyros, the Boeotian coast, the Euripus, and Mounts Ochi, Dirfys and Kandili—in short, everything.
There are few other examples in the Greek world of an acropolis set so distantly from the city it served to protect: communications between the two that were not signalled must have taken a couple of hours. It is maybe more appropriate to see this as an almost independent, fortified look-out post and refuge settlement.
Euboea Island, Greece