Ancient Greek 'pyramid' reveals its secrets

Excavation work on the uninhabited Greek island of Keros has unveiled a stunning look at the start of the Cycladic Bronze Age, showing off technological sophistication, impressive masonry work and precision detail well before its time.

Researchers uncovered a series of structures near the settlement of Dhaskalio, including one of the most impressive sites of the Aegean during the Early Bronze Age, or the 3rd millennium B.C., according to a press release detailing the findings. Dhaskalio is adjacent to the prehistoric sanctuary on Keros, which is part of the Cyclades group of islands in the the Aegean Sea. 

Until recently, Keros was best known for ritualistic activities that occurred approximately 4,500 years ago, some of which included broken marble figurines. But due to the recent exacavations, researchers have found that builders carved out the entire surface of the promontory of Dhaskalio, importing 1,000 tons of white stone to make it look like a pyramid rising from the Aegean Sea.

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University of Cambridge Professor Colin Renfrew, who is the co-director of the excavation, suggested that the promontory, with its narrow causeway to the main island, “may have become a focus because it formed the best natural harbour on Keros, and had an excellent view of the north, south and west Aegean."

Because of its natural appearance, the promontory was already shaped like a pyramid, but with the introduction of the builders,  a number of terrace walls were created to give it a stepped pyramid appearance. Stone was imported from Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades, to build "impressive, gleaming structures."

The research team, which included archaeologists from the University of Cambridge, the Ephorate of the Cyclades and the Cyprus Institute, noted that almost the entire island was built on, to give it the appearance of one large structure. It was the largest known structure in the Cyclades at the time.

Renfrow added that “investigations at multiple points throughout the site have given unique insight into how the architecture was organised and how people moved about the built environment”.

Beneath the surface of the terraces, the archaeolgists also found extraordinary technological advancements, such as drainage tunnels, in addition to complex metalworking. The tunnels are particularly noteworthy because they were built well before the Bronze Age palace of Knossos, part of the Minoan civilization and the famous palaces of the Mycenaean civilization.

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Because of its location in the Aegean Sea, it could not have been self-sufficient, meaning nearly everything from food to stone to metal had to be imported. 

Of the metal work that has been unearthed, new finds include a lead axe, numerous ceramic fragments and a mold used for copper daggers. Dr. Michael Boyd of the University of Cambridge, who was also a co-director of the excavation, highlighted the importance of the findings. 

“At a time when access to raw materials and skills was very limited, metalworking expertise seems to have been very much concentrated at Dhaskalio," Dr. Boyd said in the release. "What we are seeing here with the metalworking and in other ways is the beginnings of urbanisation: centralisation, meaning the drawing of far-flung communities into networks centred on the site, intensification in craft or agricultural production, aggrandisement in architecture, and the gradual subsuming of the ritual aspects of the sanctuary within the operation of the site."

He added that it gives researchers "a clear insight into social change at Dhaskalio," all the way from the earliest part, where rituals took place in the santcuary, "to the growing power of Dhaskalio itself in its middle years.”

Archaeologists also found food traces embedded in the soil, including pulses, grapes, olives, figs, almonds and cereals, which include both emmer wheat and barley.

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“Keros was probably not self-sustaining, meaning that much of this food was imported: in the light of this evidence we need to reconsider what we know about existing networks to include food exchange," said Dr. Evi Margaritis of the Cyprus Institute, who is studying the the use of new agricultural practices at Dhaskalio.

The excavations are being recorded digitally, with data being put on an iPad app known as iDig. The iDig app allows excavators and everyone involved to see the data in real-time, as well as providing 3D models using a technique known as photogrammetry.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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