Secrets of the tiny, unspoilt Lesser Cyclades islands unveiled

In the barren landscapes and turquoise coves of Greece’s Lesser Cyclades, a group of tiny, unspoilt islands – some of which remain uninhabited – hide the relics of an ancient past.

It was here, on the crossroad between East and West, that the Cycladic culture flourished during the Early Bronze Age. Some of these islands were later inhabited, while others served as hideaways for exiled individuals and pirates.

Today, a tour of the islands, which are located between Naxos and Amorgos, reveals a surprising past, be it the mysterious rock paintings of Irakleia or the ruins of an early Christian church in Schoinoussa. Perhaps future excavations and research will unveil more about the past of the Lesser Cyclades and their people, who chose to settle in isolated coves and atop cliffs, despite the fact that their only connection to the mainland was by sea.

A recent decision by the Central Archaeological Council to declare areas where ancient relics have been found as archaeological sites, aims to provide protection to these islands and their historic pasts. These protected sites include underwater areas off Vathi Limenari on the island of Donoussa, where the remains of a fortified settlement and cemetery dating back to the 9th and 8th centuries BC have been found. The islet of Daskalio, which archaeologists believe was once connected to the cape of Keros by a narrow strip of land, has also been declared an archaeological site. Experts believe that the strip of land, now underwater, may contain vital remains from the Early Cycladic period.

The now-abandoned isle of Keros first made headlines in 1963, when it was discovered that extensive illegal excavations were taking place on its western coast. In 2006, Keros hit the headlines again, when the Museum of Cycladic Art bought a portion of the Treasure of Keros, which consists of hundreds of fragmented figurines and other small items. According to British archaeologist and excavator Colin Renfrew, the thousands of fragmented figures, now scattered in museums throughout Greece and abroad, testify that for at least three centuries, Keros was an important place of worship. It is believed that the idols were placed in the sanctuary at Kavos during religious rituals, and that today’s Daskalio settlement was once the island’s cemetery.

However, with the exception of brief references to a taxation policy dating back to Classical Athens, there is virtually no information regarding the island’s subsequent periods of occupation. Excavations on the neighboring isle of Schoinoussa have uncovered finds from the medieval period, including an Early Byzantine settlement in Tholaros and a Christian basilica decorated with frescoes in Livadi Bay.

What continues to remain a mystery to this day are the dozens of examples of rock graffiti on the island of Irakleia, which were etched across the island about 5,000 years ago using metal tools. According to the island’s oral tradition, the etchings were maps to buried treasures, created by pirates. Today, however, the local community is striving to record and preserve this prehistoric graffiti, even though its significance has yet to be understood.