Cyclades: Homage to Dhaskalio

Sailing to a remote maritime sanctuary brings Richard Hodges to Europe’s earliest central place.

As the ferry slipped through the still-sleeping grey sea heading northwards, I raced to the aft windows to get a last look at Dhaskalio, albeit in silhouette. Dark now, this conical rock reminds me of Tintagel, detached in this case from the mountainous heart of deserted Keros. Cycladic rather than Cornish, after visiting it with Colin Renfrew it is easy to envisage that it once belonged to mythic worlds that long outlived their actual history. Just as King Arthur’s Tintagel was lent the status of a place by excavations led by Ralegh Radford (an alumnus of the British Schools at Athens and Rome) in the 1930s, so Colin and his colleagues have created Dhaskalio. I felt as though I had slipped through the looking-glass: yesterday, I had visited the extraordinary excavations in their lambent blue setting, and was, more to the point, there with the placemaker. Such is the precious feeling of privilege I feel as the boat leaves the Cyclades and plies towards Piraeus.

Colin Renfrew (left) and Michael Boyd, on the summit of Dhaskalio. Their excavations on this rocky islet have revealed an extraordinary Bronze Age settlement, which appears to have grown out of a maritime sanctuary on Keros. In the Bronze Age, Dhaskalio was a promontory physically attached to Keros.

Rewriting Stonehenge

I was sharing a tent on a dig at Knidos, Turkey with a young university don who, before rolling over to sleep, muttered that my professor was leaving and his likely successor would be the dynamic prehistorian, Colin Renfrew. It was the first time I had heard the name. My companion, I sensed, was sceptical. There was something a tad radical about this scholar, energetic though he was known to be. Curiosity a few months later led me to venture to the Corn Exchange in Devizes to hear him lecture for the Wiltshire Archaeological Society.

Colin Renfrew (left)and Richard Hodges on the boat to Dhaskalio. They met when Colin was advocating a Stonehenge freed from Mycenaen influence. Now, he and Michael Boyd are shedding new light on how early European urbanism took root on a remote Cycladic islet.

On this dark November night, I arrived late and took a place standing at the back next to a tall, thin man who crisply bade me good evening in a whisper. I recall the bemusement at my belated entrance in his sparkling eyes to this day, as I recall his virtuoso performance that evening. Colin had come to archaeological mecca to unpick the forced relationship between Mycenae and Stonehenge. Essentially, he was critically inverting a canonical thesis advanced by a Devizes favourite, Professor Richard Atkinson. Colin’s pitch was based upon a new calibration of radiocarbon chronology, which demonstrated that Stonehenge long pre-dated Mycenae. At its heart, though, was a rewriting of European prehistory that since the 1920s, thanks to Vere Gordon Childe, was shaped around diffusion from the civilised Orient by way of the Greeks to the barbarian West. Colin, put simply, upended the apple cart, and, with dignified respect for Childe’s august legacy, constructed a new vision for prehistoric Wessex.

Dynamic did not do justice to his glorious heresy. It was breathtakingly creative. More to the point, on listening carefully, it was underpinned by a knowledge of anthropological theory as well as a judicious grasp of the dated stratigraphy across the length and breadth of prehistoric Europe. The polite applause, of course, was for his brio rather than his argument. When I next met him, following another stint in Turkey, I mentioned the lecture. He beamed politely and promptly quizzed me about myself, his eyes and mind haring along in the headlights of his accelerating fame. For in those intervening months his great book, The Emergence of Civilisation (1972), had appeared. We students christened it ‘the bible’. It set out a paradigmatic revolution and of course it reaped admiration and damnation depending upon the age and mind-set of the reader. I was and remain an avid fan, believing it to be a cornerstone in the creative hegemony of British archaeology over the past 50 years. Grand words, yes, but the scholarship in it is nothing less than extraordinary.

Destination Dhaskalio: the archaeological team set out from Koufanissi at dawn. The discovery of pebbles from Koufanissi in a building on the summit of Dhaskalio suggests that they are following Bronze Age travellers bound for the sanctuary town.

The cover of Emergence depicts a seated marble figurine from Keros, a large but deserted island south of Naxos in the heart of the Cyclades. It is a rare complete statue from an island that Colin first visited as a graduate student in 1963. Years later he returned, convinced that it might hold a key to the cognitive world of the Cyclades in the Early Bronze Age. Only in 2006, after years excavating (and publishing) sites throughout the region, did he embark on a field project with a team. Twelve years of full-throttle scientific research have followed (along with a shelf of weighty published reports). Intellect and energy have been harnessed to making sense of not just the puzzling spreads of broken figurines, but also the Dhaskalio island pilgrimage-town that emerged as an Aegean hub of immense importance in the Bronze Age, only to vanish around 2200 BC (see CWA 91).

A forgotten centre

My trip, then, was a pilgrimage of sorts, to visit Colin Renfrew and his newly-found sanctuary. The excavations on Dhaskalio were in their final week when I arrived at Koufanissi on the inter-island ferry, the Express Skopelitis, from Naxos. Koufanissi, the nearest inhabited island to Keros, I later learn, is fast becoming the summer retreat for Greece’s fast set. On this October day, with the afternoon sun being lower, and the winds stronger, only a handful of locals joined me in disembarking. Koufanissi’s only autumnal visitors were Colin and his team, 80-strong, here since early September. Through the ferry’s loading door I picked out Colin, erect as ever, today with a slightly tilted baseball cap.

Dhaskalio, as seen from Keros in 2006. Two special deposits dating back to c.2700 BC were discovered on Keros. Terraces were constructed on Dhaskalio and a settlement was founded in about 2500 BC.

The same beaming smile and the same rush of enthusiasm for archaeology. But first, before an early evening ouzo, we had to amble up Koufanissi’s main street, where, under a great magenta spray of bougainvillea glowing in the pale evening shadow, Colin waylaid the village newsagent. He explained that he needs to see today’s Kathimerini. You sense the newsagent already knew his question. Her eyes betrayed her pride. The English archaeologist, after all, has chosen this island for his headquarters and laboratories. Two copies of Greece’s principal daily were produced to Colin’s palpable delight. On the front page, quite unmistakable, was Dhaskalio; the newsagent like a courtier proudly handed over the prize, as if to say: ‘whenever has our home been the headline news?’

Relaxing before dinner, Colin reminded me of the history of the Keros expedition, and without saying it, how he and his Greek colleagues missed the importance of Dhaskalio. These words were ringing in my ear after less sleep than I would have wished as I settled beside Colin and his co-director, Michael Boyd, on the caique next morning. The sky was still peppered with stars. Everyone was silent, expectant. They had doubtless been out after a taverna dinner in Koufanissi’s bars till the small hours. Now, as the first intimation of dawn was approaching, the serene expectations of the day were evident in this multinational team, all kitted up for an islet in a Cycladic wind tunnel. At 7am precisely, the captain started the engines, eased the boat out from the quay, and slipped its engines into gear. The cold air of the channel now washed over us. Out we plied, towards a triangular point across the straits that gained in texture as the stars were eviscerated with the breaking dawn. The sea-silk carpet was as clear as glass; beyond in every direction were mute blue distances as far as ash-blue mountains.

Excavation underway on the eastern side of Dhaskalio, as the sun rises over Keros. When Dhaskalio was still connected to Keros, it would have formed the westernmost part of the island.

Twenty-five minutes later, the delicate pink sky turned primrose then powder blue as the boat slowed in the lee of Dhaskalio. Towering above, the edge-side trenches on the cliff-tops came into view as neat gashes. Colin pointed each trench out by its letter and with evident excitement. Then, close to Keros, we stopped beside a makeshift plank dock. The original dock had been swept away, so planks from the trenches were commandeered to replace it. Up from here runs a goat-wide path, zig-zagging across the face of the outcrop above the rocks and the ultramarine sea below. As the sun’s rays introduced us to a vast dome of light, Colin disembarked first. Michael, knowing I am fascinated by his co-director, muttered with unalloyed admiration that it is a picture of determination and passion. All eyes watched him as he cautiously ascended, and then in single file, not a soul speaking, we all followed. This being a paperless excavation, most shouldered brightly coloured boxes of equipment.

Dhaskalio is smaller in area than Tintagel but has a viewshed of some 270°, far greater than its Cornish peer. Far to the west are the shadowy mountains of Ios. Beyond lies Santorini. The thin length of Koufanissi is settled before us; beyond lies the solid mountainous mass of Naxos. Silhouettes of other Cycladic islands fade away to the east, but that view is restricted by Keros at our back. Here, on the shelf of land in front of Keros, Colin excavated two special deposits, fields of wantonly broken statuettes. Twelve years ago I visited him here. The story, real as it was, begged so many questions and palpably both puzzled and thrilled him. Now, after three years on Dhaskalio, he and Michael have made sense of it. And more…

Sanctuary town

The numerous excavations have unearthed deep stratigraphy, rich with material from about 2750 to 2250 BC. Over the course of three periods of construction works, Dhaskalio evolved into a sanctuary town with mule-wide stepped streets, monumental buildings, and on the very summit an open court. Beside this court, next to a bijou Byzantine chapel, was an anonymous building in which a pile of Koufanissi pebbles were discovered. Figurines, mystifyingly, are absent. To explain this, Colin speculates that the sanctuary town post-dates the special deposits. Here, though, Naxian marble is ubiquitous, but as building stone (as opposed to statuettes). The thought of organising rafts to cross the straits before the sea develops its quotidian swell beggars belief, but that is the real magic of a discovery like this. Human agency is invariably irrational. As for the Koufanissi pebbles, they remind me of those brought to the Japanese 7th-century Shinto sanctuary at Ise by donors as tokens of their support for its upkeep.

A dig with a view. Despite the remote location of Dhaskalio, it presents a glorious panorama over the Cyclades, with a viewshed of some 270˚. Here, the island of Kato Koufanissi is visible.

As in all great excavations, it is the unimagined detail that magnifies the essence of the grand narrative. Michael, for example, is rhapsodic about the steps in the street winding up the sharp incline. Here are early hints of the great urban complex at Thera on volcanic Santorini. The wind was up by now, and I noticed the excavators, attired for the Outer Hebrides, emitted faint smiles as Michael traced the magic of the discovery. No less fascinating to Colin is a room with crushed storage jars, flattened as if an earthquake wrought a cataclysmic end to Dhaskalio’s improbable urban story. The finds by Bronze Age standards are prodigious in number. Colin caressed fragments of stone vessels in his fingers as though these were gems. Their story in his hands is compelling: each has a provenance that speaks to a Cycladic trade network and Dhaskalio’s pivotal place at its heart.

The early Bronze Age steps leading up into the settlement at Dhaskalio. From there, a winding street led visitors to the summit.

Up went a drone to photograph us from above. It sounded like a hornet trapped in a large demijohn, battling the fierce wind in the cloudless sky. Round us it circled, inspecting then after a moment racing out above the sea that dashed up against the rocks far below us. Its flight-path forced me to look out, to focus, to appreciate that for 600 (3rd-millennium) years this was a great named place for the mariners of the archipelago. And then Dhaskalio disappeared to be rediscovered almost by accident by Colin who was intrigued by the field of figurines. Such is the serendipity of discovery. The place, we must presume, created the ceremonies of the special deposits, a cult of relics of some kind. For some centuries, these islands in the 3rd millennium shared a civilisation that today in this vast, empty seascape is almost unbelievable. The point was all the more clearer to me as the little fishing boat worked its way back from Koufanissi to collect Colin, Michael and me. Three hours after our arrival, the sea was boiling and the captain was struggling to weave through troughs between the waves, tipping perilously from side to side.

Trench H, perched just above the Aegean, is the site of a possible workshop.

We each picked our way down the cliff path and settled onto the fishing-boat. Colin was infectiously excited; I was no less so. So I shot off a series of questions. Was this the earliest known planned settlement in the Aegean? Were there relationships to Crete or mainland Greece? As I asked, so the captain cast off from the plank dock and almost at once we were bowled sideways by the swell. Colin grinned; unconcerned, he began to explain how this Cycladic network anchored on Dhaskalio may well be the earliest such urban community. Finds provide evidence of connections to the mainland but not much indicates any reach to Crete.

Pot washing in full swing. For a Bronze Age site, Dhaskalio has produced a wealth of finds.

We turned to look at the excavators high above us and, as we did so, the boat tumbled into a trough, threw us sideways and up shot a geyser of water. Soaked and now fully focussed on our voyage back, Colin reassured me the captain would work his way through the ranks of rollers, tacking towards the far shore then back to Koufanissi harbour. Dripping wet, nonetheless, he returned to my questions. At Knossos there is a late Neolithic and early Bronze Age phase. Quite conceivably, it too, long before the palace, had been a sanctuary town – a peer of Dhaskalio. As we dipped and rose in the water, holding on for all we were worth, Colin then allowed himself a subsidiary thought. John Evans excavated at Knossos and found these early levels, he said. Such a nice man, and in an elegiac moment he continued by saying how kind John had been to him. He had made possible the excavations of the Neolithic islet at Saliagos in 1963 when Colin was only a graduate student. Unsaid, but doubtless in his mind, John had had a paternal patience for the irrepressible student.

Tacking and struggling onwards gave me time to pursue my questions. Which was his favourite excavation? This was pretty much the most remarkable but then at Saliagos it had been his first immersion in the prehistoric Cyclades. Which led me to ask how he came to be in the Cyclades in the first place. In an instant he recalled excavating as a schoolboy with the austere Sheppard Frere at Canterbury and St Albans. Then came Cambridge and the summer dig led by Robert Roden at Nea Nikomedia, a Neolithic mound in northern Greece. Thinking of graduate study, he had visited Athens’ National Museum and there had an epiphany. The spell of the Cycladic figurines captivated him. So began his great adventure with the argonauts of this archipelago. By now, the swell had eased and I for one released my grip on the caique. At the same moment I felt a profound sense of loss, of leaving the magic of Dhaskalio and its unearthed secrets.

The project’s digital lab. Harnessing iDIG – a digital app that can be used to record, collate, and share information – has allowed the Dhaskalio dig to be a paperless excavation.

From Devizes to Dhaskalio

As we chugged regally towards the safe harbour, Colin then offered me some small personal revelations. I had always assumed that his progress had been untroubled, onwards. But this was not the case. Cambridge University Press did not want to publish his doctoral thesis and so he turned to another trade publisher. The Emergence of Civilisation had had a complicated gestation. Then, too, his essay ‘Wessex without Mycenae’, the topic I heard him speak to in Devizes decades ago, was rejected by the journal of record of our discipline, Antiquity. Its reviewers were too closely associated with a Stonehenge that was based on typologies of pottery found at the monument and rejected the implications of the revolutionary radiocarbon dates. Once more he beamed as he recalled how Ronald Crossland helped him, then a colleague at the University of Sheffield, where Colin was a junior lecturer. Crossland was the honorary editor of the Annual of the British School at Athens. The old professor of Greek belonged to another age, and I wondered aloud if Crossland knew what he was publishing. Perhaps not, Colin responded with glee. In days before things went viral, the creative breadth of this essay caused a sensation.

Back on land, Dhaskalio and the voyage to visit it seems like an escape to hyper-reality. Koufannisi was sleepy apart from the line in the bakery. The island was settling in for the winter. One hotel alone remained fully functioning, and there a team was processing the pottery, operating the froth flotation machine to collect flots of botanical bits, and inputting the digital data into banks of computers. Twenty or more specialists were invisibly chained to their tasks, each cognisant that their information was being fed into the iDig database to construct a complex new narrative for Dhaskalio and its Cycladic network. In one corner, on a discrete shelf was a line of thumbed monographs, almost all produced by Colin with his teams. In some senses, but for the scholarship and creativity, the word industrial comes to mind.

Colin Renfrew presents a lecture to locals in the village hall. The room was packed.

As it happens, across the road is the new village hall, and there Colin and Michael gave a preview to the citizens of Koufanissi of this great Mediterranean story. I watched from the back. The room was packed. Fishermen were joined by labourers repairing hotels as well as shopkeepers and a few hedonist escapees from modern civilisation. In the lamplight of the projector I followed Colin’s cadence even though I do not understand Greek. The decades have passed since I first encountered this magisterial figure at Devizes, so here I feel privileged to have had his friendship. In an unforgettable if long day I have visited one of Greece’s oldest sanctuaries with surely one its greatest seers. More, in Colin’s company there was an immersion in the history of Mediterranean archaeology. And still this great archaeologist is not only in the forefront of that history but restlessly reshaping and rethinking it. Leading it.

Keros, as seen from the old harbour on Koufanissi.
Further reading
John Barrett & Michael Boyd, From Stonehenge to Mycenae (with a foreword by Colin Renfrew) published by Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, in Richard Hodges’ Debates in Archaeology series.