In the middle of the Aegean Sea, roughly in the center of a cluster of islands known as the Cyclades, lies the small island of Delos. In ancient times Delos became home to a large polytheistic sanctuary, drawing visitors from all over the Aegean. The sacred island was famous as the birthplace of the god Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. The story goes that the twins’ mother, Leto, could not find a steady place to give birth. Zeus took pity on her, anchoring the floating island of Delos and providing Leto with stable ground. This is how the island, according to ancient authors, came to be ‘delos’, which translates as visible. By Late Antiquity the island allegedly fell into insignificance, leading to Tertullian’s remark in the 3rd A.D. that Delos was now ‘adelos’, or invisible. My research provided a strikingly different picture. Delos, once the sacred island of Apollo, was not invisible in Late Antiquity. Rather, it housed a relatively large and early Christian community that erected at least five churches from the 4th to the 7th centuries A.D.
This summer I was given the chance to investigate the Christianization of the Late Antique Cyclades. More specifically, my project examined the polytheistic sanctuaries and temples that were transformed into centers of Christian worship. In order to carry out this work, I travelled to the Cyclades along with Alice Devlin, whose project was about newly founded churches. At the islands we recorded very early Christian churches and their topography. At times this proved challenging, as we had to figure how to visit a good number of sites on any given island within a limited time. At Delos – which is only reachable via a local tourist boat that stays anchored for short time – we only had two hours to get to six different churches. Naturally, we had to prioritize and visit the most important Christian sites. To be honest, this involved a lot of running around and quick snaps with the camera, but we got it done. Undertaking this fieldwork definitely taught me a lot about careful planning, time and budget management, as well as how to properly record sites using a GPS system.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I will take from this summer as a developing archaeologist is the importance of experiencing the landscape within which sites are located. This proved incredibly useful for my understanding of why certain pre-Christian sites were chosen for conversion. For instance at Delos, all the churches were erected at likely frequented areas. The earliest churches were situated on routes, such as the 4th A.D. church built out of the remains of a late Hellenistic/Roman house in the area of Fourni that was situated next to a road into the island’s agricultural hinterland. The early churches of Delos were not located near the previous sanctuary area. Perhaps this was because it was too early, in the 4th century A.D., to build Christian churches next to the once sacred sanctuary of Apollo, which was still functioning at least two hundred years before.
In the following centuries, in the 5th and 6th A.D., churches, like that of Aghios Kyrikos, were built next to the sanctuary. As the visit to the island made clear, these churches stood near the entrances to the prior cultic area. On the one hand, this was probably the result of strategic church placement. Locating churches at such traditionally visited locations, like the entrances to the infamous sanctuary, provided the potential to draw on crowds, or at least peoples’ memory of visiting these areas. In turn, this re-use of pre-Christian locations maintained a past habitual practice of visiting the sanctuary entranceways. While the move to Christianity was definitely a big one, it also partly drew on the past landscape.
Undertaking this project was an incredible experience. I learned so much, and I had the chance to contribute to the study of an area – the Late Antique Cyclades – that was often seen as insignificant. I also loved learning about everyone’s diverse projects this summer, and being a part of a group of people that is so dedicated and excited about their work within their respective fields. Thank you for a great summer!