Urban travel tales

Miriam Caskey, Stories from the Archaeological Excavations at the site of Ayia Irini, Kea 1960-1980

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Miriam Caskey, Stories from the Archaeological Excavations at the site of Ayia Irini
1960-1980: the excavation, the island, the people

2018 © Copyright.  All rights reserved

for Greek Miriam Caskey, Μικρές Ιστορίες από τις Αρχαιολογικές Ανασκαφές στην Αγία Ειρήνη 1960-1980

In September 2018 at the Garden-theatre of the Folklore Museum of Kea I had the pleasure to attend the presentation of Mrs. Miriam Caskey on a subject she is an expert through deep knowledge joined by living experience and devotion.
As for me, I was thrilled to add image and speech, impression and memory to the almost fictional persona my imagination had created when I was studying her work for the writing of my blog post/2012:
‘The Daughters of Kea and Ayia 
Irini’  The Daughters of Kea and Ayia Irini/ Οι Κόρες της Κέας και η Αγία Ειρήνη

From John Caskey I retain an image – I recall him at the excavations around 1976 when as a teenager I visited the site.

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Apostolis Zafeiropoulos

The excavations at Ayia Irini started in 1960 bringing new life and job opportunities to the island. The EMAILLÉ FACTORY in Korissia had already closed down in 1957 – today we see the funnel approaching the port. It used to manufacture military helmets, enameled cups and plates. The production has moved to Czechoslovakia, ‘among the ripples of WW 2’, Mrs. Caskey says.

Two other severe losses for the island had preceded: Kokka and the trade of acorn had stopped generating income.

Where the affluent industrial community of Kokka used to be, today there are only ruins to be seen on the peninsula which borders the gulf of Vourkari, one of the safest natural ports of the Mediterranean sea. Consisting of warehouses and housing facilities installed at the end of the 19th century by the British owners, it was supplying with coal the passing steamboats on their way to the busier ports of the time, those of Syros or Chios were abandoned. See my blog post/2012

When the excavation started immigration was the new reality. 

Mrs. Caskey’s interest for archaeology has begun early on, instigated by a friend of her father who introduced her to museum visits. The mountains and the gorges of Greece ‘did not strike me as unfamiliar when I first came to Greece’, she says, with her background ‘…trekking through the snows of valleys and rough terrain in Pennsylvania USA and then walking the mountainous heights from Massachusetts to Canada, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont with my school friends’. 

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Apostolis Zafeiropoulos

With the modesty that characterises her speech, we learn that when she first arrived in Greece in 1955 Mrs. Miriam Caskey started working in the Ancient Agora of Athens before touring around the islands – alone in the sixties! In the excavations of Ayia Irini at Kea/Tzia she found the port that meant to harbour her for a lifetime.

Other speakers follow sharing their own images and memories, underlining the importance of the excavation the years after WW2. It was a way-out, financially, culturally and emotionally, as it opened up new jobs, attracted visitors to the island and work for the shops, the craftsmen and the carriers. 

Mrs Caskey illustrates the way the excavations had benefited from the expertise of the locals, i.e. the farmers offered their insight evaluating the soil and the subsoil.

From the narration of Mrs Caskey two points stand out from the island’s history:

A. The destruction of the island after captain Lambros Katsonis escaped the Turks. “He loved fighting Turks” she says in English – the only phrase in her native language throughout her speech.
It is a reference to the August of 1789, after captain Katsonis, a Rusian officer turned into a pirate to combat the Turks in the Aegean, escaped the Turkish fleet. They had  entrapped him in the bay of Vourkari, but he had the idea to pull his ship, buttered with pig fat over wood planks placed on the rocky soil. 
The repercussions by the enraged Turks were catastrophic for Kea.

The landmark is known as ‘the passage of Katsonis’; the historic associations are stored in the naming and on the marble inscription at the point – walk there and see the blog post ‘To the Lighthouse’.

B. The temporary retention of the leaders of the dictatorship at Korissia in October 1974.

The narration of Mrs. Caskey in flawless Greek, clear and lively, with a sense of humour keeps the audience silent and concentrated, charmed. 

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Apostolis Zafeiropoulos

There is an atmosphere of nostalgia, emotion and pride in the audience. Some have contributed in the excavations, others were kids playing around – now they refresh their memories. The educational system has left the younger ones with many gaps and a discomfort towards history. The speakers, the projections and the photos in the panel make the period 1960 – 1980 accessible. 

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Lisa Samloglou

Mrs Caskey refers to the team work in the excavations, the community spirit and the responsibility taken by each and every one, i.e. the carrier filled up the holes in the street alone. She adds a few anecdotes and jokes she remembers from the time of the excavations.   

Her speech comes an end with her proposal-wish: “in order to sustain history it should become part of everyday life”.

She accepts the honourable plaque from the maire of Kea Mr. Yannis Evagellou “as representative of the team we worked together.”

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Apostolis Zafeiropoulos

The speech of Mrs. Stella Bouzaki is very emotional – she thanks Mrs. Caskey; her work at the excavations has changed her life. She wishes Mrs. Caskey ‘to continue actively pursuing what she loves the most’. I cannot omit Mrs. Bouzaki’ s proposal that reducing the additions on the clay sculptures and a new way of presenting them will benefit their appearance.  

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Apostolis Zafeiropoulos

When the program comes to an end  many people approach Mrs. Caskey to shake her hand and exchange a few words with her. Discussions about the need for more culture and civilisation on the island spring all around.

A traditional treat from our hosts and hostesses in the Garden-theatre of the Folklore Museum of Kea is the epilogue of an evening to be remembered.

I keep repeating what inspires these blog posts in English and Greek. It is particularly time-consuming and does not carry any quantitative rewards, monetary or prestige. What keeps me going is my desire to see the promotion of the Cultural Heritage of the island and the investment in the Ecological upgrade of the island’s basic substructures.

‘To preserve history it should become part of everyday life’ Mrs Caskey suggests. It can be done if the islanders, the inhabitants, the vacationers, the visitors of every age learn and embrace many aspects of this place, the local history, oral and written.

Let’s hear Mrs. Miriam Caskey speaking in her eloquent way. What has preceded is just a prologue. I would like to thank her for entrusting her speech to me in both Greek and English to upload it here. I would also like to thank her grandson
Mr. Aris Efthymiadis and his associate, the graphic designer Mr. Apostolis Zafeiropoulos for the photographs and the poster.

Mrs. Miriam Caskey’s speech 


To begin with, I thank the Municipality of Kea, the Mayor Mr. Ioannis Evangelou, Mrs. Velissaropoulou and the Mouzakis and Chionatos families for the honor of being able to share with you some of my recollections in an island I have loved for a long time and which has become even more important to me over the years. I thank you from my heart.

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Lisa Samloglou

Since there are both children and adults in the audience, I will try to reach as many ages as possible in what I have to say.

The photographs have been scanned and mounted by Aris Efthymiadis and his daughter Athena Efthymiadis. I would also like to thank our good friend graphic designer Apostolis Zafeiropoulos for producing the beautiful photographic panels and poster of the event.

As a child my school vacations, winter and summer, were spent trekking through the snows of valleys and rough terrain in Pennsylvania USA and then walking the mountainous heights from Massachusetts to Canada, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont with my school friends.

Miriam Caskey, Kea 2018

photo Lisa Samloglou

This is simply to explain that the terrain of rough mountains cut through by gorges that is so characteristic of Greece, did not strike me as unfamiliar when I first came to Greece. In fact, I felt that it was very familiar, simply in another part of the planet. My feet had already been planted firmly on rock and in mud in another part of the world.


When I was a child, I read a lot, all kinds of books: novels, history, funnies. I read in school because I had to. And I read at home because I wanted to.

My father had a friend who was a famous British Archaeologist. He introduced me to archaeology when I was still a child. He took me to museums. So, quite early I decided that I wanted to be an archaeologist. When I finished school I went to a university that had a strong archaeology department.

All this was interrupted by World War 2.

Well, WW 2 brought a number of things into my life and took me to most parts of the USA .

I was fortunate in having a father who encouraged whatever I wanted to learn. And a mother who always said “Learn as many different things as possible, dear, because you never know what life will bring.”

So much for that.

After WW 2, I returned to college and after I finished I was given a grant in 1955 to go to Greece, as a student of the American School of Classical Studies.
Just as today, the students there were taken all over Greece to study the antiquities. These trips were especially valuable. We walked throughout Greece, rain or sun, led by a professor who used to stride straight uphill rather than zig-zagging. I followed him.

Each student was required to give a report on one of the sites, a site he/she had never seen before. Imagine! When my turn came, I think it was at Nemea in the Peloponnese, a sudden thunderstorm came up and the rain washed all my notes away. I was left with a soggy mass of paper and whatever I could remember.

After that, I was privileged to work on the filing of finds in the Ancient Agora of Athens, where the American School was conducting excavations. This involved describing, measuring and photographing objects that were found together in the same context. Useful if you want to be an archaeologist.

One thing soon led to another and when the Agora Excavations temporarily closed down, I decided to see some islands on my own. So before coming to Kea I spent some time in other Cycladic and Ionian islands.

I plunged into the past history of a part of the world that has more history and prehistory than most, and certainly a longer history than my homeland.

Among my interests were what could be made of clay and what was made of clay. Through the generosity of the Archaeological Service and the then-ephor of the Cyclades, Nikos Zafeiropoulos, I wrote the “definitive” publication of the famous Pithos of Mykonos. Some of you may recognize it. It illustrates in exquisite detail the ILIU PERSIS, the Fall of Troy, with the Wooden Horse that was masterminded by the crafty Odysseus, inspired by the Goddess Athena. It is in the Mykonos Museum where it was found.

You may also have seen in the Archaeological Museum of Chora (Kea) some fragments from an equally large, maybe larger, pithos, likewise decorated in relief, illustrating the myth of the goddess Athena’s birth from the head of Zeus. This was made by a Kean potter, and the clay is local.

This brings me to the site of AYIA IRINI and the work we did there. During the course of the excavations, the Greek Archaeological Service was represented by a number of different Ephors, among them Nikolaos Zafeiropoulos. His assistant at that time was Eleni Lazaridou who was with us for a number of years recording the most significant finds for the Ephor.

After the publication of the Mykonos Pithos, the next important find to come my way were the large TERRACOTTA STATUES that were found here in a prehistoric cult centre at Ayia Irini. My study would not have been possible without the keen eyes and skillful drawings of Stella Bouzaki who made the analytical drawings, and Anastasia Voutsina.

Almost 60 years later, they are still unique (first pieces found in 1960). Nothing quite like this has been found anywhere else. And they were made in Kea, perhaps I suggest by potters who made large pithoi for storing water and food.

One of the largest of the statues was affectionately called by us “Dionysia” because while the head was found in the context of a later shrine of Dionysus, when we dug deeper and found the body to which the head belonged,, what else could we name her?

Pithoi were found in many parts of the site. Some very large pithoi were found in a basement room of the largest building found in the excavation (known as House A, right behind the Church). Here we discovered that these large jars may have had other uses too. In the corner of this basement room, stuffed down behind a large pithos, we came across some very long shin bones of a bull. Did somebody or somebodies have a hefty meal that had to be concealed, perhaps in a hurry? Ordinary thievery? No doubt the morals of antiquity were no better than at any other time !

The importance of the statues and the site in general was recognised almost immediately. In fact there is an article about it in the National Geographic.

Here I will not go into historical details about the site of Ayia Irini except to note that it shared in the history of the Aegean islands as time passed. For example, during the 6th century B.C., when Athens, dominated by the Peisistratid clan “ruled the waves”: Kea was obliged to supply her iron ore product “miltos” to Athens alone. It was used for medicines, , coloring pottery etc.

Much later, KEA was obliged to follow the events of the time of Alexander the Great, when history was focused more on Persia (today’s Iran) and Egypt.

I suppose the next great event that affected the entire island of Kea was the torching of the island, following the escape of Katsonis, a tale you all know. Katsonis was an adherent of Catherine the Great of Russia and he loved fighting Turks, so it seems. (See publication by Maria Chionatou, and monument near the “Gap”).


One such change was surely the closing of the EMAILLÉ FACTORY in Koressia in the 1950s. It had made military helmets as well as enameled cups and plates. Its closure was a disaster for many. Commercial lines were now making it cheaper to produce enameled ware elsewhere, namely Czechoslovakia, as it was still called. This was part of the aftermath of WW 2, and this was the world into which I arrived in 1955.

Perhaps some of you may remember, that when the Junta fell, in October 1974, the main leaders of the fallen “Junta” were temporarily jailed in Kea. The harbor of Ayios Nikolaos and Otzias bay as well were closed by ships of the Greek navy The prisoners were held in the only hotel that was large enough to accommodate them with all their guards, at the inner end of Koressia. Initially there were no curtains over the large dining-room window and complaints were heard from the prisoners because people were naturally interested to see what was going on. They peered through the window. Soon a large black curtain was installed, putting an end to this source of information.

Gradually the incumbents were taken for walks as far as Vourkari. Everyone now had a chance to watch and there were evident rifts between the prisoners. This was a source of amusement to be sure. But the matter as a whole was serious and the Naval Blockade remained in place for some time.


There was a real feeling of collaboration among those working at Ayia Irini. It was a team and I might add that while work in those post-WW 2 years was sorely needed and this was a good reason for participating in the excavation, it was done with great good grace. Your fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers brought with them a very valuable knowledge of the soil, which they tended on their own land. In effect, they had much to teach young American archaeologists who came straight from their text-books.

Working at the excavations was a heavy physical burden for those who came, for example, from as far away as Ayia Marina. A very long trek in those days with donkeys and mules (compared with a short run in a modern car), after tending their fields before leaving, in order to arrive at Ayia Irini by 6 in the morning. Another long trek in the late afternoon, to attend to their fields and livestock in the evening.

Despite all, there was a feeling of enthusiasm because we were unearthing surprises. And despite constant difficulties such as when the pump broke down.

There was humor in the air and on a lighter note, I remember some amusing remarks :
1) the CARPENTER of the excavation , on a particularly windy day when no boats could leave, was heard to say : “The Americans can go to the moon but we can’t even get to Lavrion !” (or words to that effect).

2) One evening we found the owner of the SOLE TAXI on his knees filling in holes on the old bridge across the “ravine” between Vourkari and Otzias. His explanation was : Are we to wait for Nixon or Agnew to fill it in ?

LIFE WAS INDEED VERY DIFFERENT IN THOSE DAYS, the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. For one thing, there was ONE TELEPHONE, which was in Vourkari, To send a message somewhere else in the island, you sent it with someone. Nikos Mavromatis was more efficient. He had such a strong voice he was known as the “TELEGRAPHEION”. If he shouted, for example, from the hilltop above Otzias he could be heard clearly on the beach below.

EXTERNAL COMMUNICATION could be equally difficult.
The early motor launches could not make the crossing from Lavrion in bad weather. Moreover, when they did, they could not always pull in to the dock. At times they were serviced by rowboats while they stood off from shore and waited. In any case, a bright gasoline lantern was used to SIGNAL where the boat should come in to pick up passengers,, be it Vourkari or Koressia, depending on the wind. The signaler held the lantern out at arm’s length and moved it up and down.

The old caïques, some still run in those days by the Vrontamitis family, were sometimes more reliable in bad weather than motor-launches.

So much for my PRE-KEA and KEA MEMORIES.


I should like to end with a few more serious remarks that are applicable not only to Kea.


I keep being struck by the changes, by what IS and what IS NOT real progress. Change, after all, simply means change. It may or may not be change for the better. What seems like a simple change to us today, moreover, can make such a big difference, both positive and negative, anywhere in the world.

The speed of change is another problem. It varies, mostly in this age of the internet, dizzily accelerating on the internet.

These changes frequently isolate people. For this reason places such as this wonderful garden-theatre bring people together with a feeling of community. Events and activities such as those held here and in some other places also bring us closer to our own history.

In conclusion, I would like to congratulate the efforts made to revive the ancient theatre at Karthaia because I am in full agreement with those who believe that to protect our history and the sacred sites, they must be brought into the daily life of the community.

Thank you very much !

Miriam Caskey, Mylopotamos, Kea 15 September 2018

2018 © Copyright.  All rights reserved – copyright covers all photos and texts for this blog.
It is a matter of honesty and respect to share texts and photos always referring to the source.

To better appreciate the treasures findings of the excavations you may visit: 
The Daughters of Kea and Ayia Irini/ Οι Κόρες της Κέας και η Αγία Ειρήνη

To better grasp the importance of the excavations do not miss to visit
the Archaeological Museum of Kea at Ioulida or Chora, Ministry of Culture,

A’ Ephorate of Prehistoric & Classical Antiquities.
Please check opening hours in advance to avoid disappointment!  

To find out more about the island of Kea/Tzia you may visit my blog posts: 
Walking the trail to the ancient Karthea
Take a walk in the unseen side of the island of Kea, from the Byzantine times,
Rewarding Stops at Chora or Ioulida,
To the Lighthouse of Saint Nicolas

about Archaeology in Mediterranean: 

Athens hosts ‘Princesses’ of Mediterranean at the Museum of Cycladic Art

by the island of Kea:

A bench with a view,
Walking by the sea after a long winter…
Mad love goes to the beach,
A tree is blooming at the island of Kea

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