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Already in the parking area below the town, a large fragment of fluted column announces the antiquity of the site. Higher up, as you enter the habitation, on the right hand side beside the Ethniki Trapeza is a doorway whose marble frame is composed of three re-used ancient marble architectural elements: the lintel-block was re-carved with Byzantine motifs and an inscription in the early 19th century. The town today officially keeps the name of its pagan predecessor, Ioulis (or ‘Ioulida’ in the more demotic form), but is generally referred to as ‘Chora’.
The entry into the town is through a passage under buildings; such ‘stegadi’, as they are called, are a common feature of the urban architecture of Chora. The street to the left out of the tiny square beyond leads up to what was the acropolis of the ancient city, where the temple of Apollo once stood. As you climb the steps beyond the church of Aghios Charalambos, you are confronted to the left by a stretch of Archaic fortification or retaining wall in large rectangular blocks, on top of which rises the smaller, irregular masonry of the Venetian kastro built by Pietro Giustiniani or Domenico Michieli around 1210, most of which was taken down in 1865. All that now re mains is the long arched gate-house, with its series of placements for gates. The interior of the kastro is occupied by municipal school buildings and other modern structures, but it offers a good view of the superb amphitheatre of whitewashed houses densely packed on the slope opposite. The individual units are simple—similar to the architecture of Dryopis on Kythnos—but, seen as a whole, the expanse is impressive. Little by little pitched roofs have come to substitute the original flat roofs over the last 150 years: this explains why, when Theodore and Mabel Bent lodged here in 1883, they observed that the inhabitants circulated in the town from roof to roof, tending to avoid descending into the streets which Bent complains were dirty and full of pigs.
A short distance up the main street to the right of the entrance into Chora, in a custom-built structure is the * Archaeological Museum, a fascinating and beautifully displayed collection of great quality—alone worth the visit to Kea (open daily, except Mon, 8.30–3). There are two floors: the first floor exhibits the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic collection; the second floor displays the remarkable prehistoric material principally from Aghia Irini. For chronological coherence, we begin with the latter.
The earliest items are in the first three cases of Room 1— Neolithic objects from Kefala; followed by Early Bronze Age items from Aghia Irini down the right-hand side of the room. Worthy of particular note are: the Late Neolithic bowl (no. 6), which bears the impression of a fine toothed spatula used for finishing the inside of the bowl, as if it were a marble object; and the delight in a subtle variety of different materials among the Early Cycladic stone mortars and pestles (nos 35–46), and of different forms in the marble figurines (nos 69–75). There is an elegant simplicity of design which carries through from the Late Neolithic marble conical cup (no. 12), to the Early Cycladic objects, such as the elegant ‘depas cups’ (no. 82), similar to those found at Poliochni on Lemnos, and the ‘pedestal jar’ (no. 83) from Poieessa.
Room 2 contains the Middle Bronze Age finds from Aghia Irini including (centre display) the unique * statues of female figures with broad skirts, narrow waists, bare breasts and arms slightly raised—as if participating in some ritual dance, to celebrate or induce an epiphany. They astonish by both their size and their powerful form. What exact function they had, or what they represented, still eludes us however. It should be recalled that they were brightly coloured—the flesh painted white, and the skirts and the garlands around the neck tinted in fresh iron oxide colours; they must also have been seen in relative darkness in the interior of the building where they were found. They were probably moulded on a wooden armature, in a clay which appears dense and gritty, even allowing for the rougher surface caused by erosion. Some appear to have a moulded band of plaited hair down the back. Few of the heads have survived intact, but those that have possess a very interesting design—mid-way between the schematic design of the head of the Cycladic figurine and the more developed physiognomies of the Daedalic statues of the early historic period (which in turn approach the Archaic faces that lie behind all later Greek sculpture).
Along the wall at the opposite end of the room from the window are cases contain Late Cycladic pottery of the 17th to 15th centuries bc, whose magnificent * slip painted designs are vigorous, confident and fresh—whether of marine creatures (no. 206), lilies (no. 213), double-headed axes (nos 191, 193) or abstract designs (no. 200). Both the forms of the vases and their decorations possess remarkable energy.
The principal interest on this floor is in the far room, where the exhibits convey a sense of the beauty and importance of the early 5th century bc temple of Athena at Karthaia, through its programme of decorative sculpture. The many drill-holes and perforations in the marble indicate where the figures were embellished with affixed additions in gilded bronze—for example the Gorgon’s head ‘aegis’ that would have been fixed on Athena’s breast (no. 65), or the helmeted head of Theseus (no. 20). The carving jof the drapery and foot in the fragment (no. 86) of the north pedimental acroterion is of exemplary gracefulness. All these pieces come from tableaux of sculpture (originally painted), which adorned the roof and gables of the temple, telling the story of the struggle between Greeks and Amazons, which culminated in Theseus’s abduction of Hippolyta (also called Antiope), Queen of the Amazons and daughter of Ares. The other items on display are also of high quality: the coins of Karthaia, with the head of Aristaeus on the obverse, and Sirius shining on the reverse, which compare interestingly in quality of image with the Athenian silver drachmae also exhibited; the selection of architectural elements, some with vestiges of colour and pattern still visible (no. 207); and a rare example of an inscribed plinth for a votive statue, with the fine bronze foot of the statue still attached and its lead dowelling visible in the interior.
Beyond the museum the main street climbs into the up per part of Chora. Below the buildings to the left (north) of the street are stretches of the enceinte of 6th century bc defensive walls of the town: these are best seen from the lower terrace of the cafe, En Levko (‘ΕΝ ΛΕΥΚΩ’), just before the town hall. The town hall itself is a piece of very fine architecture dating from 1902—neoclassical in design, with much of its decoration in good condition, including the two figures of Apollo and Ares standing on the attic balustrade. The * façade is particularly pleasing, with the unusual addition of a circular window-light for the central stairwell, just below the frieze. In the south wall of the building, fragments of classical sculpture and of a low relief of figures at a sacred event have been immured in a small niche: in the interior of the building just inside the front-door, are a 1st century bc stele (left), and a mediaeval lion, emblem of Venice (right), to either side of the stairs.
Beyond the square of the town hall, houses rise up the steep concave slope of the hill like seats in a theatre. The network of streets between them often passes under a ‘stegadi’—one of the covered passage-ways that are a common feature of the island’s architecture—created by two connecting parts of the same dwelling which extend over the street.
Kea Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.