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(Herakleia, Schinousa, Koufonisia , Keros, donousa)
The waters of these islands are among the most protected in the Aegean, shielded from the North winds by the great bulk of Naxos . In the early morning especially, they can have the appearance of a lake in the middle of a ring of mountains and hills, with lacustrine mists sometimes enveloping the islands momentarily and hiding them from view. It was the proximity, intimacy and relative ease of communication that the islands offered which encouraged early man to settle here, and to flourish in a loose network of trading communities in the 3rd millennium bc. It is a unified and unthreatening seascape, offering the simultaneous boons of independence and community— remarkably similar to that of the Lesser Sporades to the north and east of Alonnisos, another area, uninhabited today, but which was in the vanguard of the earliest human settlement and commerce in the Aegean. One of the principal differences between these and the Sporades islands however, is the astonishing productivity of worked marble objects found in this area: bowls, goblets, and above all countless figurines, mostly of naked female forms. Almost one third of the Early Cycladic figurines known today comes from the uninhabited is land of Keros at the eastern edge of this group. Not all of them were created in these islands by any means, but they ended up here. Something of the enigmas raised by these archaeological discoveries is discussed below. Donousa, though close by, stands apart from the other islands because its geography is different. It lies in the full swell of the high sea, by contrast—often inaccessible because of the winds. Its importance was its strategic position on one of the critical sea-crossings of Antiquity, between the western and eastern seaboards of the Aegean, between the Cyclades and the western point of Ikaria which was often used as the point of departure from Asia Minor for the central Aegean. For this reason its significant habitation is largely later than the Lesser Cycladic islands, and dates from a time when the technology of sailing was more advanced. It is an island with good sources of water and sheltered harbours, which makes it harder to explain why its importance suddenly faded, and that it should have had a flourishing settlement at Vathi Limenari in the 9th and 8th centuries, but then apparently little of importance thereafter until modern times. Some of the islands in this group—Donousa and Her akleia—are havens of tranquillity; others—Schinousa and Pano Koufonisi—are developing fast into centres for visitors, attracted by their limpid waters and sandy beaches which are ideal for snorkelling and for messing about in boats. All of them offer a simplicity and intimacy which contrasts markedly with the larger, surrounding islands.
Across the water from Koufonisi is the island of Keros (visits only with permit from the Greek Archaeological Service) whose mountainous profile closes this ‘inland sea’ to the east. Keros is uninhabited and used mostly for goat-pasturing and bee-keeping. The island’s fame rests on its integral role in the world of Early Cycladic culture and on the extraordinary quantity of finds of marble figurines and objects made, above all at Kavos, and at the island’s western extremity at Daskalio, which though an islet now, was a rocky promontory of the main island in the Early Bronze Age.
Between a quarter and a third of the existing body of known Cycladic marble figurines in the world today comes from one source on the island of Keros. This was first discovered in secret around 1958, and by the time that archaeology’s most prominent student of Cycladic culture, Colin Renfrew, came to Keros in 1963 much of the material had already been looted and illegally exported, and the archaeological context of the finds irreparably disturbed. The looted pieces, which found their way into collections, private and public, around the world in the 1960s and 70s, have come to be known as the ‘Keros hoard’. When in July 1990 a number of them, collected by Hans Erlenmayer of the University of Basel, were put on sale at Sotheby’s in London, they became the object of a court injunction inspired by the Greek Government and of a public appeal by Professor Renfrew to Lord Gowrie, then chairman of the auction house, for the sale not to go ahead. It did in the end and over half of the pieces were purchased by the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art and are now on view in Athens.
The nature of the find presented many anomalies, however: previously such pieces had been found in graves by and large, but on Keros no cemetery with human remains had yet been found: only evidence of a Bronze Age settlement on the islet of Daskalio, opposite where the hoard had been located. The pieces were nearly all broken, and their fragmentary condition was generally ascribed to the looters. Colin Renfrew doubted this, however, and observing the lack of joinable fragments, as well as the weathered character of the fractured surfaces, hypothesised that they must have been deposited already in a broken condition. The variety of marble and pottery pieces furthermore suggested that they had been brought from sources on different islands to this one deposit on Keros. In 2006, excavations at the site of Daskalio Kavos by Renfrew and Olga Philaniotou, unearthed a new, undisturbed deposit of pottery, rich in marble figurines and bowls coming from diverse origins. Once again the systematic breakages confirmed what Renfrew had suggested, namely that the material appeared to have been broken before being buried—a curious state of affairs with no parallel occurrences in the ancient world before or after. It seems there fore, that as early as 2,500 bc, an important ritual centre which may have functioned as a focus for the whole region was established on Keros—almost as if it were a ‘sacred island’ in the manner that Delos was to become in later history; and at this ‘sanctuary’ fragments of figurines and other objects, which had been broken either elsewhere or in a ritual at the site, were buried in large caches.
The beauty of the figurines, which date from the Early Bronze Age (c. 2800–2000 bc) and develop in style within that period, derives as much from the exquisite quality of their white, Naxiot marble, as from their workmanship. Vestiges of colour, suggest that a number of them were painted with facial features: normally almond-shaped eyes and eyebrows, but also hair, dotted patterns on the cheeks, and in some cases even a kind of diadem. Most, but not all, are female; most, but not all, have their arms folded in front of them—left arm above right. In most, but not all, the neck is slightly elongated, the face lyre shaped, and the pose recumbent: even though we see them exhibited ‘standing’, the angle of the feet means that they could not stand, but instead lay, with the knees very slightly raised. This, together with the folded arms, might suggest a funerary purpose; but by no means all the figurines have been found in graves. Then there is the ‘Keros enigma’, of the ritual fracturing and dumping. In short, the meaning and purpose of these figurines are as elusive as their simplicity and homogeneity are appealing.
Two of the most striking finds from Keros are the ‘musicians’—a standing flute-player and a seated harp-player (now in the National Museum, Athens), both found in a single grave. These alone are sufficient to show that we are looking at the very ori gins of a long tradition of Western sculpture in these anonymous artists of 4,500 years ago. Cycladic figurines mark the emergence of the basic techniques of cutting, drilling and polishing, which were to under pin the greatest tradition of marble sculpture in the history of Western Art—the tradition which was to re-emerge in the grand figures of the Archaic kouroi, whose pose does not differ that greatly. As with the Archaic pieces, the Cycladic figurines were designed according to a simple canon of proportions, and a strong binding tradition, passed from generation to generation of sculptor, governed the harmony of their angles and forms. Henry Moore commented that it was as if the sculptors ‘couldn’t go wrong, but arrived at a result that was inevitable from the very beginning’.
Keros Island is part of the Lesser Cyclades Island Group, Greece.