THE prehistoric marble sculptures of the Cyclades are noted for their spare, elegant lines: they are also notorious for being in large part looted, with few having a known archaeological provenance, and for attracting the attentions of fakers. Recent discoveries on the island of Keros have shown that these enigmatic figurines, and the stone bowls made from the same marble, arguably by the same artists, were deposited in rituals equally puzzling.
Cycladic art dates to the third millennium BC, a product of the society which arose in the Aegean islands not long before Minoan Crete and then Mycenaean Greece emerged as Europe’s first literate civilisations. Originally thought rather crude, its figurines — ranging from hand-sized to more than a metre in height — gained stature in the eyes of collectors as the taste for simplicity in modern sculpture developed in the last century.
Their role in Ancient Cycladic society remained a mystery; research this summer on the island of Keros by a team led by Professor Colin Renfrew, of Cambridge University, has provided a wealth of quite literally hard evidence, although its significance is as yet unclear.
In 1963 Professor Renfrew, then a student, visited the island and “was staggered to pick up on the surface numerous fragments of marble bowls and figurines”. Looters moved in on Keros, and in the 1970s the “Keros Hoard” was cited as the origin of many unprovenanced pieces sold on the art market.
The “Keros Enigma” was that, while many scholars felt that the looted pieces had come from an ancient cemetery, none had ever been discovered: one grave was known, together with settlement remains on the neighbouring islet of Daskalio. A massive deposit, thought to have contained thousands of figurine and bowl fragments, was also known to have been looted in the 1960s.
Some ascribed the fragmentary condition of most pieces to looters, but Professor Renfrew, noting the lack of joinable fragments and the apparently ancient and weathered nature of the fracture surfaces, believed that they had been deposited already broken. Excavations this year at the site of Daskalio Kavos confirmed his thesis.
The team reported to the Greek authorities that “the discovery of a further, undisturbed, special deposit followed by its careful excavation shows that all the material found was already broken in fragments before it became buried in Ancient times.”
“The rarity of joining pieces, as well as the different degrees of weathering, make clear that they were broken elsewhere and brought, already in fragmentary form, to the exceptionally rich deposit.”
The cemetery interpretation is excluded by the lack of human remains. Pottery, such as the spouted “sauce boats”, was brought in from islands including Naxos, Syros and Amorgos, and possibly from the Greek mainland. Professor Renfrew believes that the figurines and bowls had equally diverse origins. The overall quantity of fine pottery and marble objects found at Daskalio Kavos “rivals the total from all the known Cycladic cemeteries.”
The site can therefore be recognised as “the first major ritual centre of Aegean prehistory”, antedating the Mycenaean shrine on the island of Milos excavated by Professor Renfrew some years ago.