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12 June 2011
Ancient ritual clue to mysterious broken figurines

On the six-square-mile island of Keros, a rocky Greek island part of the Cycladic chain of the Aegean Sea, thousands of broken sculptures and pottery dating to about 2,500 BCE have been discovered since archaeologist Colin Renfrew started excavating there in 1963. It is like an ancient jigsaw puzzle with no solution, but now evidence of a Bronze Age ritual in which those beautiful figurines were crafted then deliberately broken has been unearthed by researchers.
     Back in 2008, the Cambridge-Keros project team led by Colin Renfrew, professor at the University of Cambridge, found a cache undisturbed by looters. Many of the materials were bundled together in small pits up to two metres in diameter. The breakages were old and deliberate. Moreover, the absence of marble chips, expected in the case of breakages on the spot, showed the fragments had been broken elsewhere. As later radiocarbon dating confirmed, they had been deposited over a 500-year period from 2800 BCE to 2300 BCE. "But the strangest finding of all was that hardly any of the fragments of the 500-odd figurines and 2,500 marble vessels joined together," said Professor Renfrew. "This was a very interesting discovery. The only conclusion we could come to was that these special materials were broken on other islands and single pieces of each figurine, bowl or pot were brought by generations of Cycladic islanders to Keros."
     All indications point towards Keros having been a major ritual centre of the Cycladic civilisation. "We believe that the breaking of the statues and other goods was a ritual and that Keros was chosen as a sanctuary to preserve the effects," said Professor Renfrew. He speculates that the objects were used repeatedly in rituals in the home islands, perhaps carried in processions in much the same way that icons are paraded today in Greek villages. "They had a use-life, probably being painted and repainted from year to year. Perhaps the convention was that when a figure had reached the end of its use-life, it could not simply be thrown away or used conventionally, it needed to be desanctified in an elaborate process."
     Excavation of a major settlement on Dhaskalio, an islet a few yards across the water from Keros, has also led to the discovery of a remarkable feat of construction. The islet showed evidence of having been a major Bronze Age stronghold with structures built on carefully prepared terraces circling a summit, on which a large hall was erected. The settlement dates from around the time of the broken sculptures, and then continued to operate before being abandoned around 2200 BCE. Examination of its geology showed that the walling of the settlement was imported marble rather than the flaky local limestone found on Keros. Remarkably, ancient Cycladic islanders were shipping large quantities of building materials, probably by raft, over considerable distances to build Dhaskalio.
     Here, too, there were puzzling finds: a stash of about 500 egg-shaped pebbles at the summit and stone discs found everywhere across the settlement. And the terrain there and on Keros could never have supported the large population the scale of the site implies, suggesting that food also was imported. One answer is to hypothesise a largely transient population. Dr Michael Boyd, who is collating the results of the post-excavation analyses, explained: "Archaeobotanical evidence implies that the site was not intensively occupied year-round, and the imported pottery and materials suggests the possibility of groups coming seasonally from elsewhere."      
     "Strangely," Professor Renfrew added, "there seems to have been some obligation to bring a piece of the broken figure and deposit it on what must have been the sacred island of Keros, possibly staying a few days on Dhaskalio while the ceremony was completed." The missing pieces of the statues, bowls and pottery have never been located on other islands and Professor Renfrew wonders if they were thrown into the sea during transit and have long since disintegrated. He  concluded saying that there are still many more puzzles at Keros and Dhaskalio to be answered, and the latest research will be published as a basis for further investigations.

Edited from University of Cambridge PR, Daily Mail, The Guardian (10 June 2011), The Times of Malta (11 June 2011)

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