A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A first look at a previously unknown Aegean sanctuary
This head, found in 2010, belongs to a statue of a young male.(Courtesy Yannos Kourayos)
The islands of the Aegean Sea, and particularly the
Cyclades, are known not only for their exceptional
beauty, but also for the richness of their archaeological
heritage. Despite its small size, the island of
Despotiko, which the ancient geographer Strabo
called Prepesinthos, was well known because it
had a protected harbor that was a safe stop for ships trading between
mainland Greece, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. It also had
an important Archaic period (ca. 700–480 B.C.) sanctuary dedicated
to the god Apollo and his sister Artemis.
After the end of the Roman period in the second century A.D., the
island was mostly abandoned, and only a few buildings were added
later—a small medieval castle (built from ancient materials),
a nineteenth-century sheepfold, and a church of the Virgin
Mary built in the seventeenth century. Thus the uninhabited
island looks much as it did more than five centuries ago.
Archaeologist Yannos Kourayos first visited Despotiko
15 years ago and has returned there every year since
to excavate the sanctuary, which consists of 12 buildings
including at least two small temples. "When I first came to Despotiko,
I saw many ancient architectural elements being used as part of
the wall of the sheepfold. That was enough to interest me in digging
there, because I knew there must have been more where those came
from." There had been two other excavations on the island—the first
at the end of the nineteenth century, which uncovered a prehistoric
cemetery (ca. 3500 B.C.), and a second, beginning in 1959, which
exposed several ancient walls. But until Kourayos started digging, the
sanctuary of Apollo was unknown either from the ancient written
sources or from the earlier excavations.
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Yannis Stavrakakis is ARCHAEOLOGY'S Athens correspondent.