submitted by George Vardas on 02.06.2008
It was a typically hot August day on Kythera. In the picturesque fishing village of Avlemonas below, locals must have been intrigued at the sight of a tourist walking up the gravel and rocky slopes leading to Agios Georgios sto vouno, the white washed chapel located on the hilltop above and, at 350 metres above sea level, the highest point on the island.
But in August 1991, something exciting was about to happen to the newspaper editor and amateur archaeologist, Adonis Kyrou. As he approached the top he stumbled on a cooper statuette and then came across other pottery fragments. Before long, and at the instigation of Kyrou, the noted Cretan archaeologist, Professor Yannis Sakellarakis, and his wife and colleague, Dr. Efi Sapouna-Sakellaraki, visited Kythera. As soon as Sakellarakis saw the hilltop above Avlemonas he was confident that this was the site of a Minoan peak sanctuary associated with the already excavated Minoan settlement at Kastri (present-day Paliopolis). A chance discovery was the beginning of what Sakellarakis would later describe as a “last, almost dream-like journey to Kythera”.
Throughout history the island of Kythera has occupied the cross-roads of the Mediterranean, a witness to various civilisations and empires. During the 1960s a British-led expedition to Kastri confirmed that Kythera had once been an outpost of the mighty Minoan civilization during the Bronze Age in the Aegean (about 1,500-3,000 BC) but left open the question of whether the Minoans had built a sanctuary as a ritual cult centre on the island. The excavations by Sakellarakis and his team were carried out between 1992 and 1994 and yielded rare Minoan artefacts that were unearthed in an intact Minoan summit-sanctuary.
Professor Sakellakaris has published a book “Digging For the Past” in which his philosophy on archaeology is accompanied by some stunning photographs of the Agios Georgios excavation. According to Sakellarakis, digging for Greece’s past becomes a “descent into a rich and varied history out of which western civilization was born”. For a commentary on the excavations (in English) the reader must go to an article published in the Annual Journal of the British School at Athens in 1997 entitled “Minoan Religious Influence in the Aegean: The Case of Kythera”. The extraordinary adventure which Professor Sakellakaris and his colleagues experienced on the hilltop above Avlemonas unfolds in both text and photos.
Typically, a Minoan peak sanctuary was defined by its location on a mountain top, high above its surrounding region and commanding great views. The peak sanctuary of Agios Georgios was no different. Close to the peak, it was situated less than 4 kilometres from the Minoan settlement of Kastri with a moderately easy path leading up to the sanctuary. It is now regarded as a unique example of a Minoan settlement colony, displaying all the characteristics of a peak sanctuary: accessibility, proximity, general prominence and visibility.
The fruits of the excavation, more than eighty Minoan artefacts, including miniature votive figurines and pithos fragments, are currently on display at the Archaeological Museum in Piraeus. They are compelling viewing.
The Sakellarakis team unearthed a large number of bronze votive figurines (mainly men but also women) as well as many other offerings, including representations of human limbs, small knife blades and a bronze double axe with a carved decoration, the prime symbol of Minoan Crete. For example, the Minoan bronze male votive figurine, with broad shoulders and narrow waist, is depicted with his clenched right hand raised to his forehead in a gesture of devotion and adoration, his left hand at his side, his feet together. There were other interesting finds. Among them a statuette of a woman with distinctive coiffure and dress folds, touching her forehead with her right hand in a venerating pose. Another is a copper cut-out of a woman wearing a long black dress which has distinct Cretan parallels.
The most significant discovery, however, was a black stone ladle or small pot with an inscription in Linear A, the first Minoan inscription ever found on Kythera and dating back to around 1500 B.C during the transition from the Middle Minoan period to the Late Minoan period. The inscription read “da-ma-te”, most likely a reference to the goddess Demeter, and providing evidence of Minoan religious worship and is regarded as the earliest known attestation of the divine name Demeter.
These represent the findings of a typical Minoan sanctuary summit. The significance of the finds at Agios Georgios was that the votive offerings were made of bronze. This was unprecedented for a peak sanctuary. Sakellarakis has suggested that the worshippers who came to the peak sanctuary were not simple shepherds but members of a wealthier class, possibly traders or sailors. Moreover, the unique quality of the bronze figurines found on Kythera also points to Kythera playing a key role in the Minoan thalassocracy.
Importantly, the finds confirm the establishment of a Minoan colony, by far the earliest Minoan settlement outside of Crete itself, some 4,000 years ago. As a peak sanctuary it was the best landmark for worshippers to go and worship the Minoan deities who controlled the heavens. The ritual cult worshipping of the Minoan civilization gradually gave way to the observance of Christianity and it is significant that there are today two Byzantine chapels on the top of the hill. The major church is dedicated to Agios Georgios and next to it stands the chapel of Panagia Myrtidiotissa. Divinity worship has indeed survived though the ages on Agios Georgios.
Sakellakaris in his book writes that excavation is an irreversible intervention which permanently affects nature and time; its aims to recall the memory of a previous historical configuration. The excavations at the Minoan peak sanctuary at Agios Georgios sto vouno and the stunning artefacts discovered by Professor Sakellarakis in the early 1990s emphasise the symbolic Minoanisation of Kythera during the Bronze Age.
E. Banou, “Kythera between Minoan Crete and Mycenean Laconia: The Small Finds from the Minoan Peak Sanctuary of Agios Georgios” in Kythera: Myth and Reality: Proceedings of the First International Symposium of Kytherian Studies (September 2003) 69-75 (in Greek)
C. Broadbank and E. Kiriatzi, “The First ‘Minoans’ of Kythera Revisited: Technology, Demography, and Landscape in the Prepalatial Aegean” American Journal of Archaeology (2007 Vol. 111) 241-274
Y. Sakellarakis, “Minoan Religious Influence in the Aegean: The Case of Kythera” BSA (1996 Vol 91) 81-99
Y. Sakellarakis, Digging For The Past (Ammos Publications, Athens, 1996)
Y. Sakellarakis, “An Elusive Minoan Peak Sanctuary” Kathimerini Epta Imeres (26 January 1997) p15 (in Greek)
Note: This article was originally published in the 2008 Kytherian Ball Program in Sydney, Australia.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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