Pilgrimage to Keros

In 1963 a graduate student landed on the remote island of Keros and discovered a surface spread of broken Cycladic marble figurines. It was an extraordinary find. But other excavations and projects came along and he left Greek archaeologists to explore his Keros field of figurines. Within a decade Colin Renfrew had established himself as one of the most creative and original forces in world archaeology. Many excavations (all published) followed as well as ground-breaking books translated into countless languages. Keros, though, remained such an intriguing memory that in 2006 Colin returned and over three seasons excavated the two large spreads of shattered statuettes along the abandoned island’s north shore. Extraordinary though this story is of a third millennium maritime place where the figurines were ritually disposed, the discoveries he has now made on the adjacent islet of Dhaskalio are even more remarkable.

Excavation view

These discoveries and a chance to spend two days with Colin are for me an archaeological pilgrimage. It is a chance to see the very best archaeology in action, and to enjoy one of the finest minds in the history of our discipline.

With his co-director Michael Boyd, Colin has spent four seasons forensically excavating the conical islet of Dhaskalio that in Bronze Age times was attached by an isthmus to the mainland. The operation is peerless in its invention and organisation. Fifty or so archaeologists – a mix of graduate students, professional archaeologists and volunteers from numerous countries – embark on a caique before the sun is up and sail out across the dark channel to the islet. Colin is the first off, the fishing boat rocking in the swell, and up the steep cliff path he goes, a picture of determination, ever intellectually curious. Then one by one we disembark and the team scatter to different excavations, each clinging to the steep sides of the islet.

Colin & Michael Boyd

The wind is constant, funnelling through the archipelago. Fierce even. Many diggers are wearing goggles. This is a paperless excavation, deploying drones, theodolites and iPads all connected to an iDig data-basing system. My attention is captured by the intensity of the excavators, the sheer thrill of discovering something that is changing the canonical narrative of Bronze Age society. Very simply this village was founded around 2700 BC as the figurine deposits were created. By its mid third millennium second phase (if not before) it possessed monumental buildings. It had a planned urban topography with narrow stepped streets cleverly incorporating rainwater drains. These streets led to the summit and a likely open area or court where by the third Bronze Age phase there was a curious oval building in which pebbles from neighbouring Koufanissi were piled. Traces of early metallurgy, ceramic and stone objects from most of the neighbouring Cycladic islands, collapsed rooms full of storage vessels and an extraordinary absence of figurines all add colour to this gripping story that ended about 2200 BC. Dhaskalio’s only afterlife until Colin’s arrival was a tiny early Byzantine chapel.

Do the discoveries at Dhaskalio provide a window on the elusive origins of Mediterranean urbanism? We mull this over as in a mountainous swell we return by caique, the captain manoeuvring through the white-tipped rollers. A big story is emerging thanks to putting all the pieces of this excavation together, as never before.

Surveying in the industrial area

A hotel on Koufanissi accommodates the other half of the project. Lodged here, a small army are processing the sampled soil for botanical remains and small finds. Over a hundred thousand ceramic sherds have been processed. Defined by their petrology, these sherds help trace the origins of the Bronze Age mariners who visited Dhaskalio. Banks of computers process the digital site information, creating a concordance of all the evidence. The line of well-thumbed massive monographs written by Colin and his team remind me that the collective focus is simple but colossally challenging: to promptly publish these results.

It all sounds rather military in the service of prehistory. Nothing could be further from the truth. Colin is the ‘professor’, venerable yes, but ever genial and cheerily open to discussion and debate. A leader, yes, but incurably fascinated by the new scientific wizardry that now makes it possible to build a complex, granular narrative that not so long ago was inconceivable. The sheer ambition of it all is only exceeded by the collective passion for the tasks at hand.

In common with the Bronze Age Cycladic argonauts who ritually broke their elegant figurines, I enjoyed a pilgrimage - an archaeological one. Words for once fail me as I try to evaluate the glorious privilege to spend forty-eight hours in this long lost sanctuary town in the company of Colin Renfrew.

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