Researchers Uncover Ancient Greek Island’s Complex Plumbing System

Excavations show the settlement of Dhaskalio at the pilgrimage site Keros was a sophisticated urban center

The "pyramid" of Keros Cambridge Keros Project

Around 4,500 years ago, ancient engineers and workers terraced the little island in the Cyclades archipelago in the Aegean Sea, creating a sort of step pyramid. They then imported hundreds of tons of gleaming white rock from the nearby island of Naxos, creating a bright outdoor shrine where early Greeks performed rituals. Now, Maev Kennedy at The Guardian has highlighted the recent excavations at Dhaskalio, the settlement adjoining the island shows it was more densely populated than researchers imagined, and two metal-working shops indicate its inhabitants were very sophisticated engineers.

According to a press release, archaeologists have studied Keros for years with serious work beginning in the 1960s. Besides the terraces, the island is also covered in broken marble statues likely buried during rituals by religious pilgrims. Recent excavations at the pyramid have also revealed a sophisticated system of drainage pipes in the lower levels, showing that the builders carefully planned their monument. It also indicates they were dealing with runoff and sewage an estimated 1,000 years before the Minoans, who built Europe’s first drainage system and flush toilets at the Palace of Knossos on Crete. Recent excavations show that Dhaskalio was full of monumental constructions made from the same gleaming white stone from Naxos and that its inhabitants were as advanced as the shrine they constructed.

The Keros has very few resources and farming is not possible in the rocky landscape. Elaina Zachos at National Geographic reports that food and every other resource must have been imported to the community at the base of the monument. As pilgrims came to the site, the village grew into a sophisticated urban center. The two metal workshops in particular point to this. The researchers found a lead ax, a mold for making copper daggers and fragments of a bellows in one shop. In the other a clay oven was found which will be investigated later this year.

Excavation co-director Michael Boyd of the University of Cambridge says the skills of the Dhaskalio metal smiths was probably unique in the region. “At a time when access to raw materials and skills was very limited, metalworking expertise seems to have been very much concentrated at Dhaskalio,” he says in the press release. “What we are seeing here with the metalworking and in other ways is the beginnings of urbanization: centralization, meaning the drawing of far-flung communities into networks centered on the site, intensification in craft or agricultural production, aggrandizement in architecture, and the gradual subsuming of the ritual aspects of the sanctuary within the operation of the site. This gives us a clear insight into social change at Dhaskalio, from the earlier days where activities were centered on ritual practices in the sanctuary to the growing power of Dhaskalio itself in its middle years.”

In other words, Dhaskalio grew from being a little settlement at the base of the shrine to becoming a regional power in its own right.

Food remnants found in the soil also indicate that a far-flung trade network kept Dhaskalio operating. Remants of pulses, grapes, olives, figs, almonds, emmer wheat and barley have all been found, emphasizing how important the site was to the people of the Cyclades Islands.

This year marks the end of a multi-year dig at Keros and Dhaskalio and Boyd tells Zachos the team plans to dig trenches in the site to show how the buildings at Dhaskalio were connected. He hopes the dig will start to tell researchers more about the origins and practices at the site before it developed into a sophisticated trade center.

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