Classical and Archaic Naxos: visiting archaeology in Greece

Sunrise over Chora from the dig site (Stelida)
Sunrise over Chora from the dig site (Stelida)

Greece is iconic when it comes to archaeology. When I tell people the countries I’m visiting for my year of digs for some they ask: “Do they have archaeology there?”, but that question is never asked when I mention Greece!  I’ve been lucky enough to be digging something entirely different to the temples that most people think of as Greek archaeology. The debris of Palaeolithic stone tool making may not make as high an impact visually but conceptually it certainly does. Even so, I have always loved the clean lines and pale stone of Classical Greek architecture and I made sure to visit a few sites while on Naxos.

The Temple of Demeter
The Temple of Demeter

My first destination was the 6th century BC temple of Demeter. It is easy to reach the temple by car but my accommodation was only an hour’s walk away and we had a good hiking map to follow. We decided to try approaching the temple by dirt road – a very good choice! Not only were we safely away from cars but the journey through the Naxian countryside was breathtaking. The site is surrounded by hills and you can spot it in the distance as you walk down the winding road. Demeter is the goddess of agriculture and the harvest, a very important role for an island known for its rich land and bountiful crops.

The Temple of Apollo at Chora (Portara)
The Temple of Apollo at Chora (Portara)

Possibly the most well known archaeological site on Naxos is the temple of Apollo that stands on the edge of Chora, the island’s capital. The Ionian style temple was built in the 6th century BC and was never completely finished.  It’s positioned on the islet of Palatia on the edge of town and is fantastic to visit both by day and at sunset when many tourists – including this one! – get their photos taken at its monumental gate (known as the Portara). It’s easy to walk out to the temple from Chora’s harbour and the view back towards the town is spectacular.

The medieval kastro of Chora
The medieval kastro of Chora

Also in Chora is the Archaeological Museum open since 1973 and located in the heart of the town’s medieval kastro (castle). In the 17th century AD the structure was built into the kastro’s fortification walls and incorporates two of its towers (13th-16th century AD). I spent most of my Saturday mornings on Naxos here, washing the lithics we were uncovering at Stélida, and I loved walking down to the lab area through the rows of Classical and Cycladic artefacts. The museum houses objects that date from the Late Neolithic period through to the Early Christian period (5300 BC – 400 AD) and it is here that you can see the real versions of the lovely Cycladic figurines for sale at every tourist shop. Not only is the museum itself well worth a visit but it is a treat to wander through the narrow medieval streets of Chora to reach it.

Kouros in situ
Kouros in situ

One of my favourite sites on Naxos was the sanctuary complex outside of the village of Melanes in an area of the island known for its marble (Flerio). Here you can visit a sanctuary/temple complex that celebrated agricultural fertility and the patrons/heroes of stone-cutters. Also on the site are two fantastic monumental Kouros statues that date to the Greek Archaic period (8th – 5th century BC). These large representations of nude youths standing in a walking posture were ‘roughed out’ in quarries and then carried to workshops where they were fully finished. The Kouros you can today visit at Flerio are about five meters long and broke during their transportation from the nearby quarry sites. They still lie where they fell thousands of years ago and it is actually quite eerie to see them. It’s as if their journey had just been paused and they could stand up and continue it themselves.

Looking out from one of many medieval castles
Looking out from one of many medieval castles

There are many more sites to visit on Naxos and (as always) this has just scratched the surface. There are also medieval castles, chapels and monasteries capping many of the hills across the island that showcase stunning Venetian and/or Byzantine architecture. Not to be downplayed is the landscape that all of these sites are situated in. At every turn there is an amazing seaside and/or mountainside vista with white villages shining in the distance. These are views I don’t think I could ever get tired of! If you want to learn more about the amazing archaeology of Naxos have a glance at these links:

Wikipedia: Kouros

Ancient History Encyclopedia: Naxos

Greek Travel Pages: Archaeological Museum of Naxos

Naxos & Small Cyclades: Temple of Apollo

Wikipedia: Kouroi of Flerio

Sunset over Chora harbour
Sunset over Chora harbour