For the next few months —and thanks to the generosity of my funding body— I’m on a Greek Odyssey. As part of my PhD fieldwork, I’m visiting the archaeological sites and museum collections from some of the Cyclades, Dodecanese, and Northern Aegean islands. These groups of islands comprise some of 6000 islands in the middle of the Aegean Sea (only just over 200 of them are inhabited, though!). They spread right across the sea from Greece to Turkey, but each have their own distinctive cultures, customs, and histories. In this blog series, I’m going to chart my voyages, and I will write up some of the archaeological highlights as I come across them…
The island of Mykonos is infamous for its nightlife, and as the island where the family from My Big Fat Greek Wedding come from. But there’s also a fair amount of archaeology on show here too; and there’s no other way of getting out to Delos without staying overnight here (see below).
Mykonos’ archaeological museum houses one of the most famous seventh century B.C. relics, in the form of a curious relief pithos vase. This pot was found in the 1960s on Mykonos, and it contained the bones of a human child. On the front of the vase are a remarkable set of images which seem to tell the story of the Trojan War — the mythical expedition by the Greeks to north-western Turkey, in order to reclaim Helen, the wife of Greek king Menelaus. Drawn onto the neck of the vase is a scene from near the end of the Trojan War, when the Greeks snuck into the city walls of Troy by hiding in a giant wooden horse and ‘gifting’ said horse to their enemies. Did the artists on Mykonos believe in this story…?
Further out of town (and in the grounds of the Hotel Tharroe — ask politely at reception, use your most suave Greek) is the ‘Angelika tholos tomb’, a burial site from the 15th century B.C. With a diameter of 5.5m and a monumental entrance-way (dromos) at 1.8m, this is the largest tomb of its type that has ever been found on any of the Cycladic islands. But even this beasty isn’t the oldest site you can visit on the island. Down at Ftelia beach, it’s possible to see remains of some 5th millennium B.C. Late Neolithic (stone age) houses. The site is littered with cruddy pieces of ceramic, but make sure you also look up from your feet to the breathtaking views across Panormos Bay. It’s not difficult to work out why ancient people chose here to pitch a home: a real room with a view.
My final recommendation would be Palaiokastro hill. Atop this peak sit the remains of a Venetian fortress, a 16th century monastery, and the village of Ano Mera — a beautiful quiet haven which has escaped the major touristification of the rest of the island. If you’re crazy like me and like to hike in the Greek sun, it’s about five miles as the crow flies from Mykonos town centre, and just over an hour at a pace. Otherwise, there are not infrequent bus connections throughout the island, particularly in the summer months.
Delos was the beating heart of the Cyclades in antiquity, and was —according to the myth— the birthplace of the Greek god Apollo and his sister Artemis. At less than 3.5km2, this tiny island is a real treasure-trove of discovery, and it was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1990. There is no accommodation on the island, so vistiors have to take one of the return daily boat services across from Mykonos.
The scheduling of the boat to and from Mykonos affords you around two hours to explore the island — and even then, that’s not enough. From the Archaic temples and the Classical political centre, to the Hellenistic-Roman houses whose remains rival those preserved at Pompeii, there is so much history to enjoy on this tiny island. And that’s before you even get started on the museum collection, which holds some of the most remarkable and surprising sculpture from its period across the whole of Greece. I zoomed around at my speediest goat-pace, and even then I only just made it around everything in the guidebook (I definitely had to sprint back to the boat…). Delos is definitely one you’ll want to make multiple trips for.
As an unashamed enthusiast of everything seventh and sixth century, the Archaic remains were real highlights for me. I particularly enjoyed seeing the ‘fragments’ of the colossal statue of Apollo, made from Naxian marble and originally about four times larger than life. My other favourites were the Naxian lions. Casts of these statues line the terrace on the western part of the site, while the originals can be seen up-close and personal inside the museum. And the views —the views! It’s well worth climbing up to the top of the island to get a sense of the scale and topography of the whole site, and of the neighbouring islands. But, really, everything on the island is worth seeing. I took almost 500 photos over two hours, and I could easily spend another few days on Delos.
The archaeological museum of Tinos has more of those curious relief pithoi (like the above ‘Mykonos vase’). In addition, they house finds from the fourth century B.C. sanctuary of Poseidon and Amphitrite, and the sixth century B.C. settlement at Xobourgo hill. Sadly, because of the seafarers’ strike and the suspension of all sea vessels across the Greek islands, I was unable to visit Tinos for myself. A series of handy YouTube clips, though, document the island and its archaeology well, and it’s almost as if one could be there for real…
All being well, I’m off early tomorrow morning on a sunrise boat trip to the next island. Once the boats are back in action, it’ll be full speed ahead to the next set of adventures.
Coming soon: Andros, Naxos, and Paros…