The Oldest Maritime Sanctuary? Dating the Sanctuary at Keros and the Cycladic Early Bronze Age

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The world's earliest sanctuaries are getting older. The remarkable symbolic centre at Gosbekli Tepe in eastern Turkey (Schmidt 2007) dates from the Early Holocene period (some 11 000 years ago); sites in coastal Peru such as Caral (Shady et al. 2001; Shady & Kleihege 2008) date to the very inception of food production there some 6000 years ago. And now the site of Kavos on Keros in the Aegean Sea, here proposed as a sanctuary or place of pilgrimage, can be dated with precision by radiocarbon determinations to the years 2750 to 2300 cal BC. This is not so early as Gobekli or Caral, but it has the special quality of being a maritime centre, the earliest regional maritime symbolic centre yet known anywhere, preceding the great island centre of Delos (also in the Cycladic Islands of Greece) by some 2000 years.

These findings have relevance for the early emergence of 'cult' or 'religion'--if those terms are reserved specifically for places and rituals where deities, conceived as real and powerful supernatural beings, may be adduced (Renfrew 1985: ch. 1, 1994). Religion or cult in that sense is well documented in early state societies, whether in Egypt, Mesopotamia, in the Mycenaean world or in Mesoamerica, where shrines or temples can be identified (e.g. Marcus & Flannery 1996) through their explicit iconography. Here we are speaking rather of 'sanctuaries'--places of assembly or the structured deposition of symbolic artefacts--where the explicit iconography of the divine, with identifiable gods or goddesses, has not yet developed. At Gobekli Tepe or Caral or Kavos on Keros it is not easy for us to define what belief system or 'faith' brought the pilgrims together. That is why, at another more recent pilgrimage centre, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, it has seemed appropriate to choose a vaguer term: locations of 'High Devotional Expression' (Renfrew 2001).

The Early Bronze Age of the Aegean in the third millennium BC was a crucial period for the emergence of Aegean civilisation and for the development of the strong maritime interactions that helped to bring it about (Renfrew 1972; Broodbank 2000). The recent excavations on the Cycladic island of Keros, both at the sanctuary at Kavos and at the settlement on the islet of Dhaskalio, lying 90m offshore, give new evidence for the scale of such interactions (Renfrew et al. 2007b, 2009; Research Horizons 2011). In particular the new radiocarbon determinations for the settlement at Dhaskalio allow a greater chronological precision for the later part of the Aegean Early Bronze Age and indeed for the Early Cycladic period (Manning 1995).

Dhaskalio Kavos on Keros

The site at Kavos, which lies on the western tip of Keros (Figure 1), first came to light in 1963 as a result of looting. The 'special deposit' (North) was investigated in the same year by Christos Doumas (Doumas 1964) and by Photeini Zapheiropoulou in 1967 (Zapheiropoulou 1968a, 1968b), and was the subject of a detailed investigation in 1987 (Renfrew et al. 2007a). The Cambridge Keros Project of 2006 to 2008 led to the discovery of a new and previously undisturbed special deposit, now termed the Special Deposit South (Figure 2).

As a result of the latter excavation. It is now clear that the vast quantities of broken pottery, broken marble bowls and vessels and fragmented Early Cycladic sculptures ('figurines') recovered from Kavos were deliberately broken in the course of rituals of breakage, and deliberately deposited at the Special Deposit South on Keros (as well as at the later-looted Special Deposit North). Moreover, from a detailed study of the find circumstances, including patterns of breakage, it can be inferred that these products of ritual deposition were not broken locally at Kavos. They were broken elsewhere, presumably on other Cycladic islands, following a use-life of many years, and a residue of the broken fragments was then systematically brought to Keros for ritual disposal. …