After Kea, Kythnos is the closest of the Cycladic islands to Athens, yet surprisingly it is one of the least developed. What is possibly the earliest known Mesolithic settlement in the Cyclades, dated by laboratory analyses to the 9th or 8th millennium BC, has been identified on the coast at Maroulas (500m north of Loutrá). The presence of metal ores on the island have also meant that Kythnos played an important role in the development of early metallurgy during the 3rd millennium BC: a number of copper-smelting furnaces have been identified by archaeologists at Skouries near the eastern extremity of the island. The naturally fortified summit at Kastro tis Orias—later the Byzantine capital of the island— may also have seen Mycenaean settlement.
Herodotus says that Kythnos was originally settled by Dryopes—colonisers, perhaps from Styra on Euboea, whither they had come when they left the mainland of Greece; later on, Ionian settlers arrived on the island. The ancient city of Kythnos was at Vryokastro, overlooking a complex of inlets in the middle of the west coast. It appears to have been continually inhabited from the 10th century BC to the 7th century AD, and has yielded rich archaeological finds. Kythnos supplied two ships to the Greek fleet at Salamis. It was a member of the Delian League and became tributary to Athens. Aristotle appears to have praised Kythnos in his (now lost) essay, The Constitution of Kythnos.
After the death of Nero in 68 AD, an imposter claiming to be the emperor was driven ashore at Kythnos in a storm; he was seized and put to death by Calpurnius Asprenas, the proconsul of Galba. Pliny noted that the island produced excellent cheese, a tradition which is maintained today. With increasing piracy and insecurity of the coasts, the main settlement at Vryokastro was abandoned in the 6th/7th century AD in favour of the impregnable site of Kastro tis Orias on the rugged northwest coast. This remained the capital during the periods of Byzantine and Latin rule, during which time the island was known as Thermia, from its renowned hot springs at Loutrá. In 1207 the island came under the rule of the Venetian overlord of Naxos, Marco Sanudo, nephew of Doge Enrico Dandolo, and became one of the seventeen islands of the ‘Duchy of the Archipelago'. In 1336 Niccolo Sanudo gave the barony of Kythnos to the Gozzadini family of Bologna, who held onto the island for some time after the capitulation of the larger members of the archipelago to the Turks. The early 1600s saw the migration of the population from the coastal stronghold of Kastro to the centre of the island where the new settlement of Chora was established with many fine churches. In 1617 the island finally fell to the Turks. In 1823 the population was decimated by plague. The island became a place of exile for political prisoners under the increasingly autocratic rule of Greece's first King, Otho, and an unsuccessful expedition was mounted by rebels from Syros to free them in 1862. The industrial prospecting for iron-ore altered the traditionally agricultural economy of the island in the mid 19th century; the yield was less than expected and the mines were closed at the beginning of the Second World War.
The road north from the port follows the indented coast and rises to a ridge above Episkopi Bay before turning inland. To the northwest stretches the hilly promontory of Vryokastro (sometimes called ‘Rigokastro'), the site of Ancient Kythnos and the island's principal point of archaeological interest. From the sharp turn eastwards in the road (3.75km), a pathway with walls to either side, leads up to the hilly plateau above. There are three successive summits; the ancient city stretched between and below the two furthest (northernmost) of these summits. A stepped path connected it to the harbour below which was delimited by the spit of land which then joined the now detached islet which lies off-shore to the southwest. The southern limit of the city was latterly marked by a Hellenistic fort which topped the second and highest summit. It is thought that this is probably the fort built in 201 BC and mentioned by Livy (XXI. 15) in which the garrison of Philip V of Macedon held out against a Roman siege in 199 BC. On the north side of the summit the entrance threshold and supports of the door-jambs are visible, but little else remains.
From here a curtain of fortification walls ran along the ridge, best seen at a point 50m to the north, where the method of construction with large polygonal blocks in two parallel curtains with rubble in-filling dates them to the Late Archaic period. In the immediate vicinity are examples of substantial terracing and construction in similar polygonal style, above a level and open area over whose surface lie the foundation remains—perfectly rectilinear by contrast—of buildings of the Hellenistic period. This whole area is underpinned to the west by two massive protrusions of terracing in Hellenistic isodomic masonry on which may have stood two temples. The area rises to the third peak at the northern end where the remains of a sanctuary have been uncovered by the archaeologists. Inside the corner of an impressively constructed retaining wall which functions as the sanctuary's peribolos, can be clearly seen a rectangular altar which faces east, and, further to the north, the podium of a temple of the 7th century BC dedicated to a female divinity. The building has a socle of conspicuously protruding drafted blocks and is built out over substantial terracing to the north to compensate for the drop in level of the land. The plan of the temple has been revealed by the excavations, and a small rectangular adyton is visible running transversely across its east end: it is here that a quantity of precious votive objects were found undisturbed. (These are now stored in the archaeological collection in Chora.) Amongst them were rich votive offerings in gold and bronze—including a finelywrought lotus flower in bronze. Remains of the cisterns and aqueduct of the city are visible lower down the hill as you descend southwest towards the ancient harbour. It appears that the site continued to be inhabited into Early Christian times before it was abandoned some time in the 7th century.Chronique des Fouilles linkWikidata ID: Q739779
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)