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Aegean islet center of ancient Cycladic culture
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2007-01-04 13:26
Keros is a tiny, chunk of rock sticking out of the Aegean Sea inhabited only by a single goatherd. But the barren islet was of major importance to the mysterious Cycladic people, a sophisticated pre-Greek civilization with no written language that flourished 4,500 years ago and produced strikingly modern-looking artwork.


The Cycladic culture -- a network of small, sometimes fortified farming and fishing settlements that traded with mainland Greece, Crete and Asia Minor -- is best known for elegant figurines. Most of the figurines are naked, elongated figures with arms folded under their chests. The Cycladic culture flourished between 3200-2000 B.C. before it was overshadowed by Crete and Mycenaean Greece.


The figurines were made after a pattern that changed little during 800 years. They have been interpreted as depicting gods or venerated ancestors, serving as replacements for human sacrifice, grave goods -- perhaps children's toys.


Experts agree the figurines were highly prized in the early bronze age Cyclades, but still don't understand why they were made. About 1,400 have survived, although only 40 percent are of known origin, since looters destroyed evidence of the rest.


More than half of all documented Cycladic figurines in museums and collections worldwide were discovered on Keros. Recently excavations by a Greek-British archaeology team have unearthed a cache of prehistoric statues -- all deliberately broken -- they hope will help piece together the Keros puzzle.


British excavation leader Colin Renfrew thinks Keros was an extremely important religious site where the smashed artwork was ceremoniously deposited. Renfrew is an emeritus professor of archaeology at Cambridge University and former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.


"What we do have clearly is what must be recognized as the earliest regional ritual center in the Aegean," he said. "We've got hundreds of marble bowl fragments and many dozens of figurine fragments, which don't seem to fit together. You have a head here, a single foot here, a torso there, some thighs here -- and all very deliberately broken. Pieces have been deliberately broken again into small pieces."


There is no evidence the Cycladic culture worshipped the Greek gods of Mount Olympus, who first appeared in the 2nd millennium B.C., and their beliefs are shrouded in mystery as no sanctuaries dating to before 2000 B.C. have been excavated.


Some experts think the islanders' religion was probably built on a fertility cult linked to the mother-goddess of Neolithic times, whose worship survived in various forms until Christian times in the Greco-Roman world. The Cycladic statues, many depicting pregnant women, may have played a part in such beliefs, and their deliberate destruction would have been a ritual act.


During excavations in the spring and early summer, Renfrew's team found an undisturbed trove of figurines missed by looters who ransacked the islet in the 1950s and 1960s. They all had been deliberately smashed around 2500 B.C.


"You have a head here, a single foot here, a torso there, some thighs here — and all very deliberately broken," Renfrew explained. "Pieces have been deliberately broken again into small pieces. We can say that the breakages are definitely old.


"(The figurines) weren't smashed there because (then) you'd find the bits together," he added. "And there's differential weathering, which suggests that not only were they broken elsewhere and brought there, but some of them became weathered elsewhere."


Renfrew believes the figurines -- some originally up to a yard high -- may have come from sanctuaries throughout the Cyclades. And pottery finds indicate the site could have attracted worshippers from as far away as mainland Greece.


"Maybe at some point in some life cycle, the figurines were ritually smashed and taken to Keros in some ceremony," he said. "It's going to take a while to sort out what's going on."

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