Despotiko: a goat island and its Sanctuary of Apollo

In late spring 2017 I took the advantage of an invitation (and a lull in marking) to participate in an excavation at Mandra, located on the uninhabited Cycladic island of Despotiko (identified with the ancient Prepesinthos mentioned by Strabo and Pliny). The excavation is directed by Dr Yannos Kourayos (Ephor of Antiquities of Paros) and his assistant Ilia Daifa. Despotiko is accessed normally only via a small boat which sails on a sheltered route from a harbour on the south west of the populated island of Antiparos, which is itself 1.9 km from more substantial Paros.

Fig. 1: The Cyclades; Despotiko


Fig. 2: Despotiko: General view

The sanctuary of Apollo on Despotiko was discovered in 1997 by Dr Kourayos. The ongoing excavations, which started in 2001, have revealed an important sanctuary of the archaic period – one which, remarkably, does not appear to have been mentioned by any ancient literary source. The finds – on display at the Paros Museum – include cult statues, the head of a kouros figure, inscribed shards which attest to the worship of Apollo and Artemis, and an altar inscribed ‘Of Hestia Ithsmia’ (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Finds from Despotiko on display at the Archaeological Museum of Paros: the head of a kouros-figure, inscribed shards, and an altar inscribed ‘Of Hestia Isthmia’.

At the archaeological site there has been excavated a fascinating room containing a drainage system and a bathtub (Fig. 4), which suggest that it was a wash-room for ritual purification before entering the sacred area.

Fig. 4: Room containing drainage system and bathtub.

It is likely that the sanctuary was developed by inhabitants of the vicinity over the course of the archaic period – an era during which certain Parians became wealthy by the export of high-quality white marble, which had a reputation across Greece. Our sanctuary at Despotiko appears to have suffered a sudden and possibly violent destruction towards the end of the archaic period, and it is tempting to believe – as is suggested by Dr Kourayos– that it was razed by the Athenian general Miltiades when he launched his expedition against Paros in 490/89 BC; this may be an indication that the ambitious Athenians were keen to undermine on any communities which were displaying through their activities wealth and piety in a way they saw as challenging to that of the Athenians. The destruction of the sanctuary at this point goes some way to explaining the absence of any account of it from any of our literary sources, including Herodotus.

The sanctuary suffered further destruction and pillaging during Late Antiquity and from piratical raids in the seventeenth century. Efforts are now underway to restore the extant fragments of the sanctuary’s buildings to their original location, and the current excavation programme forms part of this project.

We were involved in the first week of the six-week excavation, so our contribution in the first days involved the clearance of undergrowth, top-soil and donkey dung (Fig. 5). (The offending donkey appears to have done damage to the remains of the sanctuary by toppling over one of the remaining columns of the sanctuary (Fig. 5) when using it as a scratching-post). But there were some exciting finds including an amphora, a six-inch bronze nail dating to the archaic period, and an inscribed shard bearing some legible letters.

Fig. 5: Donkey dung and a general view of the Sanctuary

Spending time on Despotiko gave us also the opportunity also to witness first hand the operation of labour on a goat-island: each day Petros the goatherd would arrive by boat from Antiparos and walk up to his goat-keeping complex (a mandra, from which the name of the site is taken) to release his herd from their pen. The goats would rush down to a field of barley (Fig.6) at had been planted especially for their consumption. It was is an interesting illustration of the use of agricultural resources in the Greek world: the milk, meat, and cheese (Fig. 6) produced through this process are far more highly-valued than is unprocessed barley.


Fig. 6: The goats move down to their barley field; the finished product!

On the way home we took advantage of the opportunity to visit — at the Paros Museum — one of the pieces of the famous Parian Marble, an inscription which lists a chronology of mythical and historical events from the time of the legendary king Kekrops until the third century BC. The other extant substantial fragment is on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The other substantial fragment – brought to England in the seventeenth century – was lost at an English country home: proof that antiquities are sometimes safer on a Greek island than in the hands of the British aristocracy!

Peter Liddel


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