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Naxos town in prehistoric times and after
Neolithic and Early Cycladic Naxos (This period is best appreciated through a visit to the Archaeology Museum.)
Excavations carried out at the western end of Grotta Bay (‘Kokkinovrachos’) showed that the later levels of habitation in the area lay over a Neolithic settlement of the mid 5th millennium bc: the finding of obsidian from Milos and pottery techniques influenced by mainland Greece shows that this was a settlement that enjoyed external contacts. It is with the 3rd millennium bc, however, that there is a ‘revolution’ and that the previously discontinuous pattern of Neolithic habitation is transformed into an interconnected tissue of settlements which are found all over the Aegean islands. This change is perhaps as much the result of advances in sea-transportation as it is of improvements in agricultural technique and management. Populations suddenly increase and settlements acquire social organisation. We know more about this period from burials than from anything else because of the perishable nature of the domestic building. The graves were shallow cists lined and covered with flagstones in which the body was buried with the knees drawn up to the chin. The richer graves typically contain pottery and marble vessels, jewellery and bronze weapons: but of their contents, it is the small marble figurines which have spoken most eloquently of this distant period to the popular imagination. These make a pronounced debut at many different points on Naxos — mainly because of the abundance of excellent marble and of emery with which to smooth it, while the relative proximity of Milos made obsidian for fashioning the marble available. One of the finest examples is the small figurine of a female figure sitting on a high-backed throne dating from c. 2500 bc (Naxos Museum). This was found in the cemetery on the hill of Aplomata, visible at the eastern end of the bay.
Following the upheavals at the close of the Early Bronze Age, of which we have ample evidence from all around the Aegean area, the populations of the many flourishing Cycladic settlements were radically reduced: most of the smaller ones were abandoned and the population seems to have concentrated in a few of the most strategically secure places. Grotta became in this period the most important—if not the only—large settlement on Naxos . And by the 15th century bc its art and culture began to have a pronounced Mycenaean accent.
Mycenaean Naxos (1300–1050 bc)
(This is best appreciated through a visit to the excavations beneath Mitropoleos Square.)
The Mycenaean city of Naxos lay along the bay of Grotta and incorporated the island of Palatia to the west; its cemeteries were on the hill of Aplomata to the east; and it covered the area between the submerged shoreline to the north and the acropolis hill to the south. It appears to have developed in two distinct phases: first, a smaller city of the 14th century bc which was probably destroyed by earthquake around 1250 bc; in the next phase, this was overbuilt by a second city, oriented differently, which developed and grew continuously until about 1050 bc. This second city was enclosed with a fortification wall in the second half of the 13th century bc, in the face of some clearly present threat. The method of construction of the walls was unusual: a broad base or socle of uncut stones, surmounted by ramparts in mud-brick, similar to the ear ly walls at Kolona on Aegina. Once again, from the funerary and other finds that have been made on the cemetery hill of Aplomata and at Kamini, it would appear that Mycenaean Naxos was a prosperous city with extensive trading links with Cyprus, Egypt and with the mainland of Greece. With the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces on the mainland, the trade networks and commerce on which Naxos depended, with its central and strategic position in the Aegean, began to diminish. The low-lying area seems to have been abandoned in the face of threat from the sea, and the rump population retreated to the higher and safer ground of the acropolis citadel.
An unusual continuity into Historic times
The walls and ruins of the Mycenaean city remained visible above ground after the abandonment of the area. Its descendents, who now inhabited the hill of Kastro, venerated these ruins and created, with the passage of time, a cult around their grand ancestors whose world now began to appear ‘heroic’ to them. They buried their own dead in the previously inhabited area as a way of strengthening the links with this glorious past, and raised a tumulus on the area beside the Mycenaean fortification walls where they worshipped their ancestors as heroes. This occurred around the 8th century bc at the same time that Homer’s epics were reinforcing the cult of a heroic past in the psyche of the Greeks. This was also the period in which the foundations of the new Classical city of Naxos were being laid. Its agora was laid out in this area, beside the tumulus and the ruins of the Mycenaean fortifications, which remained as a focus of cult until as late as the 1st century ad, when it appears the area was finally covered by Roman housing. The ‘heroon’ or tumulus stood directly to the north of where the Mitropolis Church now stands: the agora extended to its west and north.
Naxos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.