Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The white island

Keros and Dhaskalio
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Zde

I've just been reading an interesting article in the Independent about a kind of artificial mountain in the Aegean, built 'within 100 years or so of the creation of Stonehenge, the first Egyptian pyramids, the great cities of the Indus Valley and the first known Mesopotamian kingdoms.'  From around 2550-2400 BCE, an islet off the coast of Keros was gradually transformed using marble brought to it by boat. Excavations have revealed buildings and Cycladic artefacts, but from a landscape art perspective I am most interested in the idea of constructing an artificial landform:
'The architects “terra-formed” the pyramid-shaped island “mini-mountain”, known in recent centuries as Dhaskalio (possibly just meaning “islet”), to create around 1,000m of artificial terracing, arranged in six “steps” on its steep slopes. ... The 7,000-10,000 tonnes of white marble, needed for the project, were quarried in the southeastern part of Naxos.
From the south, the island would have been visible from many miles away as a gleaming white pyramid-shaped mini-mountain rising out of the sea.  It is not known for sure whether the pyramidic shape was in any way significant. But the place had certainly been specifically selected as a religious site in preference to other much higher, more impressive and potentially more accessible mountains that did not have that shape.'
The article goes on to talk about the Egyptian pyramids, which were made to gleam in the sun (like the white marble of Dhaskalio) by having their summits painted with gold leaf.  In both places the builders may have wanted to symbolise the idea of earth arising out of primordial chaos. '“It is potentially a fundamental place of origin for the phenomenon of sacred mountains within the Greek world,” said the world’s leading expert on Greek mountain-top sanctuaries, Dr Alan Peatfield.'

The findings at Dhaskalio are not all news - an piece from last year noted that 'visits to the island were presumably seen as a special activity, and the way that the terraces on Dhaskalio were constructed to create rising walls in receding planes must have made the site look very impressive to those approaching by sea from the north.'  Dhaskalio is not accessible to ordinary visitors, but last year the writer Ben Okri went there to meet the archaeologists and wrote about his impressions in the FT.  He doesn't sound like he had a particularly interesting time. 'I shift soil and rock in a task that seems to yield nothing but that adds to the slow revelation of what was there.'

The Independent's article was picked up by the Evening Standard today with a hyperbolic headline: 'Archaeologists unearth probable origins of ancient Greece in groundbreaking discovery '.  An hour or so ago another article appeared on the Daily Mail site: 'Pyramid-shaped island in the Aegean Sea where sailors hauled marble to build complex structures and forged DAGGERS from copper 4,600 years ago reveals new clues on early Greek society'. I love the way the word daggers is in capitals!  You can read more on their website but be warned that the 'sidebar of shame' next to the article has some 'Love Island Spoilers'.  Looking at this made me very aware of the gulf of time separating those pilgrims to the sacred island of Dhaskalio and the 'hot young singles' of Love Island... 

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