Mrs C. Juckes of La Sainte Union School
A tiny, uninhabited, Cycladic Island called Despotiko, where an archaic Greek Sanctuary to Apollo and Artemis is being painstakingly revealed by a team of Archaeologists and student volunteers from Brazil to Britain was once as renowned in antiquity as Delos and almost as wealthy.
While Byron may have etched his name in the sea god’s sanctuary at Sounion, modern Hellenophiles are every bit as keen to make their mark on Despotiko, unpicking the secrets of its past and restoring the sanctuary to its Archaic splendour.
Surrounded by the Aegean, the white marble of the reconstructed porch glinting in the sunlight, the shrine is a sight to rival the Temple of Poseidon.
Historians believe the site, part of the ancient polis of Paros, was sacked by an Athenian force under Miltiades in around 480 BC in revenge for Paros’s pro-Persian stance in the wars but perhaps also to cut down to size a polis that was growing too quickly in wealth and power. There are signs of habitation from the Cycladic era, around 3,000 BC, and on and off until it was abandoned in the 17th century because of sustained pirate attacks. The excavation focus is the zenith of the sanctuary’s power in the Archaic period when it is believed to have rivalled Delos in scope and wealth.
Pillars from the Temple porch showing ancient and modern marble
Rebuilt Temple porch, ancient Parian marble supplemented with modern Naxian marble as Parian Marble has been exhausted
Brazilian students scrubbing pottery
Lead Archaeologist Yannos Kourayos, who has devoted more than 20 years to excavating Despotiko, believes the island acted as a staging post, selling water to passing ships as well as a site for votive offerings for a safe journey home. To date 89 pieces of statues have been found, finely carved in the distinctive local Parian marble, and the bases for 35 statues have also been discovered, suggesting the magnitude of the site while pottery fragments attest devotion to Apollo.
Unique features include a semi-circular altar and a complex system of water cisterns which could have contained as much as 220 metric tonnes of water, particularly surprising on an island that has wells but no springs.
Water played a key, but yet to be fully determined role in the religious life of the sanctuary and one of the highlights of my expedition there was clawing clay from a recently discovered marble perirhanterion, a small pillar with a hollowed-out basin at the top, like the holy water stoups inside the doors of Catholic Churches.
The absence of literary or epigraphical references to the Despotiko shrine gives the archaeological evidence an enhanced significance, complementing the mentions of the island itself in Strabo and Pliny under its ancient name of Prepesinthus.
Fortunately, while most excavators count themselves lucky to find anything at all in a day’s digging, Despotiko yields constant discoveries: shards of pottery, whole pots in situ or marble pieces of statues and stoups for lustral water. The day after my group left, the second London group found sack loads of pottery, a black-glazed crater, bones, seashells, a nail, and a bronze fishhook.
Inscription on an altar to Hestia
This was my first experience of Archaeology, something I have waited since age six to try, and I could not have had a more fascinating, exhausting and life-affirming experience. If lockdown has taught us nothing else, it is carpe diem- grab every opportunity that comes your way because, as the Ancient Greeks were at pains to emphasise, we do not control what happens next nor can we foresee it.
Old toothbrushes to clean even older pottery
Without Professor Christy Constantakopoulou as my tutor for my Classics MA, my yen for excavation might never have been satisfied, but as luck would have it—and it is notable how conscious Archaeologists seem to be of the part “luck” has played in their careers – she is a key member of the excavation team and inspires her Birkbeck students with a sense of the “happiness and glory” of the backbreaking, process of delving, quite literally, into the distant past.
Passion is an over-used word, not just in Personal Statements, but the archaeologists here, none of them native English speakers, use it unselfconsciously to describe their own feelings for a subject that enthrals them. Without it, Kourayos cautions, do not go into this field that will not bring wealth or security but only the tantalising possibility of piecing together the past.
Luigi Lafasciano, Diakron Institute
Lead Archaeologist Yannos Kourayos and Professor Christy Constantakopoulou, Birkbeck
Luigi Lafasciano, another scholar who has fallen under the spell of Archaeology in general, and Despotiko in particular, explained how as a child he read and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories, first in Italian then later, and indeed now, in English, revelling in the re-composition of puzzles by the master detective he describes as “part Sociopath, part sweetie”. It is a long way from Victorian Dartmoor and the Hound of the Baskervilles to a sun-baked Greek island but this childhood reading shaped his mind and his creative approach to History where material culture and anthropology blend to unpack the past.
“It’s the process that rewards me. Finding a wall or an archaic pot fragment is exciting. It doesn’t have to be a kouros or a pillar. Archaeology is a point of view: exerting yourself physically, with your mind always awake, prepared to change course and interpretation depending on what you find.”
The archaeologists dream of sharing this site with the world and Lafasciano runs NGO The Diakron Institute to promote experiential learning, bridging the gap between research and education; he was responsible for bringing this year’s Brazilian students to dig in the sun, test their resilience and participate in the debates that surround every find.
Despotiko offers a unique sense of straddling the centuries and that is due in part to the timeless practice of goat-herding by a local farmer, Petros, with whom the site is shared for now. His goats trot and gambol down the hill at 9.15 each morning and, barring the odd escape, are generally separated from the excavations by a fence but when the serious excavation began more than 20 years things were rather different: “it’s easy now, at that time we had the goats inside,” Kourayos says.
The Goats of Despotiko – photo credit Angela Poulter (used with permission)
Petros’s family run a popular restaurant on Antiparos and once he no longer wants to be a goatherd, in 10 years or so, the whole site will be given over to excavation; only its name, Mandra, will be left as a reminder that this sanctuary was once used as an animal pen. Ambitious plans aim to bring boats of visitors from across the Greek Islands, mirroring the steady boat traffic of the past. There will be a visitor centre and ticket office at Aghios Georgios, by the landing stage that takes visitors the 700 metres across to Despotiko and Apollo’s second home in the Cyclades will once again be big business.
To finish reconstructing the Temple, around a million euros will be needed and entrance fees will eventually fund that and pay for security-at the moment this is the only Greek Archaeological site I have visited where there is no charge.
Like the North wind at harvest-time tossing about the fields a ball of thistles… Odyssey 5, (Odysseus’s boat)
But in the meantime, if you are looking for somewhere that you can imagine Odysseus and his crew landing, where you can see Greek Donkey Thistles that highlight the power of that simile in Book 5 where Odysseus’ boat is a plant with, as one of my students described it, an inbuilt defence system, at the mercy of the winds, take yourself off to the Cyclades.Wealth and more tourists lie in Antiparos’s future, to supplement the influx of celebrities that includes Ryan Gosling, Matthew McConaughey, and everyone’s favourite Tom Hanks.
Fly to Athens, sail to Paros and Antiparos or take a short hop flight to Paros and the ferry or fly to Mykonos and make your Odyssey from there.
The journey is long and part of the pleasure, a mental preparation for something entirely new yet as old as time or at any rate 3,000 years BC. Aquamarine waters, blistering sun, cool breezes and the luminous marble of the Temple await and, a word of warning, some very hungry mosquitoes. Go before the goats and Pedro are gone, they are a living part of the island’s past, a connection to how life was once lived.
The Goats of Despotiko – photo credit Angela Poulter (used with permission)
The boat journey back to Despotiko
Despotiko Interview: https://www.greeknewsagenda.gr/interviews/innovative-greece-2/7032-despotiko
Further reading: Despotiko, a Journey in Time, by Yannos Kourayos