Corfu in the Stone Age

“Drepani” – sickle – is one of the oldest recorded names for Corfu. “Korkyra” is how the Corinthian settlers in 734 B.C. baptised the island, probably after a mythological nymph (although the word also meant something lik “tail”). “Korkyra” of course seems to echo in modern Greek: “Kerkyra”. “A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava”, was the rather romantic observation by Lawrence Durrell in the first lines of his Prosperos’s Cell (1945). A fact is, if you would look downwards from high altitude the island – sickle – tail – looks like a mere splinter torn off of the massive mountains of Albania and Epirus.

And it’s true the mainland is never far away: no more than two kilometres of sea divide Cape Agios Stefanos in the northeast from the Albanian coastline and a mere eight kilometres Kavos (Cape Koundouris) at the southeastern tip and Sivota in Epirus. With this broader picture in mind it is a small step to see that the 593 km² of Corfu island and the vast mainland were once connected. A dramatic change set in some 10.000 B.C. when ice started to melt and sea levels rose in the Mediterranean.

The western coast of the island more or less follows a fault, and the sea-floor drops rapidly to over 1000 m. The oldest rocks are hard, gray limestones (250–145 million years old), which crop out in the north (Mount Pantokrator, 906 meters). Further south, the rocks are younger and softer and have developed thick, red soils. Paleolithic tools have been found in this soil, dating back to the period that the fertile island was in fact an outer region of the mainland.

Cave Grava Gardiki
Tools made of flint, bones of boar and deer and other objects were unearthed in Cave Grava Gardiki (Halikounas). The cave is to be found in an olive grove at an altitude of 60 metres, near the 13th century Byzantine Fortress in Gardiki. The cave has two entrances, is about 20 meters long and wide and 13 meters high. It is accessible, even for children with adults, but some climbing is involved. For those who know where to look the geological history of the region can be traced in the cave’s inside. Many of the cave finds are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. They have been dated to the Late Paleolithic Age (between 30.000 and 9.000 B.C.).

From the Neolithic Age (circa 6.000-3.000 B.C.) – after the rising sea levels had turned Corfu into an island – are the finds from the earliest human settlements: near Sidari, and on the small islet Diaplo, just off the northwest coast. While on the coast itself the traces of prehistoric villages were discovered in Aphionas, Kephali and Ermones. Objects of stone, clay and – in the latter stages – copper tell a tale of agricultural communities. Closed societies, trading mainly with tribes on the Epirote coast, to whom they seem to have been related. A relation that dates back to the days before the flood?


Strongyli hosts olive tree planted in 928 A.D.

Olive Tree in Corfu, planted around 928 AD. Source: Athens-Macedonian News Agency AMNA

A field near Strongyli in Central Corfu is home to one of the oldest and largest living trees in Europe. The age of the olive tree, to the locals known as ‘Evdokía’ (Grace), has been estimated by German scientists from the Dresden University of Technology to 1200 years, with a margin of error of ten percent. Researchers professors Andreas Roloff and Stern Gillner believe the tree was planted around  928 A.D., even before the island’s successive occupations by Saracens, Normans and Venetians.

Dendrochronologists from the TU Dresden’s Institute of Forest Botany and Forest Zoology began their examination process in Corfu in 2014, with the aid of biologist Eleni Louka, a resident of Strongyli. The result of the German study was presented only last June on Corfu at an event organised by Louka and Eleni Konofaou, founder of the Hellenic Union of Heptanesians (HUH).

Evdokía is one of three especially enormous olive trees on Corfu. The HUH aims at promoting all three areas where these trees are located as alternative tourist destinations.

Source: Athens-Macedonian News Agency AMNA

Archaeological Museum of Corfu up and running

The west pediment of the archaic Temple of Artemis, depicting Gorgo, ca. 590-570 BC, has a central place in the museum

It was a running gag for me and my wife on every visit to the island. We would walk the long way to the Archaeological Museum of Corfu again and again to find the entrance gate shut. We would stare at the board advertising the opening date, after years of renovation. A date that slipped further and further into the past… Last spring we were unexpectedly rewarded for our stubbornness: the museum had reopened on March 23rd 2019. And what a great job has been done! Now the recently launched museum’s website is bound to add to its reputation.

Τhe antiquities on display originate from the ancient city Corcyra as well as various other sites on the island, such as Kassiopi, Acharavi, Almiros, Afionas, Roda and the palaeolithic caves of Grava Gardiki.

The layout of the exhibition – aided by modern audiovisual device – follows a narrative that invites visitors to experience aspects of the of the daily life of the inhabitants of ancient Corcyra. One is introduced to their relation to death, their cult beliefs and their artisanal and economic activities. Much attention goes to the city-state, the institution that structured and deeply influenced public and private life.

Ground floor
On the ground floor the wonderful prehistoric collection of the museum is displayed, and in an adjacent room are finds from the era of the foundation and colonization of ancient Corcyra and the city’s relations with other powerful Greek city-states.

Upper floor
The four rooms of the upper floor take the visitor on a tour through Corcyra from the Archaic to the late Roman period, by presenting six thematic units. These are: Topography and Civic Organisation, Private Life, Burial Customs, Cults, Worship of Artemis, Public life, Economy.

Temple of Artemis
The magnificent centrepiece on the upper floor is the complete west pediment of the Temple of Artemis, 17 meters long and over 3 meters high. With the winged Medusa Gorgo in the heart of the presentation, flanked by her two children and two mythological lion-panthers the sculptured porous limestone is probably the oldest surviving artwork of its kind in Greece.

Very much worth the visit, not to mention the other highlights on the upper floor such as the Pediments of Dionysos, the Lion of Menecrates, the Stele (gravestone) of Arniadas and the Capital of Xembares.

Running gag
On leaving after our enjoyable visit I enquire with one of the staff members why the renovation was so long overdue. Ah well, I had got it all wrong. The renovation had maybe taken a little longer, which was to be considered normal in unique and complex projects like this one. But the real problem was the hiring of the staff. I was very surprised: who would not want a job like this? Ah well, but that was exactly the problem. ‘Everybody wanted an easy government job at the museum’. So it took ages to sort out which candidate was more entitled to it than so many others.

The museum is closed on Wednesday. General admission fee: € 6,-; reduced fee: € 3,-. Free for minors up to 18. For opening hours etc. check the website.



 

Kaiser Wilhelm II postcard

Postcard showing Kaiser Wilhelm II (black hat and binoculars) and Prince zu Fürstenberg at the Kaiser’s Throne, Pelekas

The undated postcard above shows the German Kaiser Wilhelm II (left) and Prince zu Fürstenberg. The kaiser is checking out the surroundings with binoculars. The two men are stood a little below the actual ‘Kaiser’s Throne’ where Wilhelm would often sit to admire the sunset. Today this spot would be found under the metal construction that accommodates the thousands of tourists that visit the summit of Pelekas Hill every year to check out the 360 degrees view. The photograph is taken in the direction of the mountainside of Pantokrator.

Kaiser Wilhelm (1859-1941) had a Corfu summer residence in the Achilleion Palace, that he purchased in 1907 from the daughter of Empress Sisi of Austria (1837-1898). Until the start of World War I in 1914 he would come and stay in the Achilleion every spring. In 1911 he was in charge of the excavations by archeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld of the famous Artemis Temple in Garitsa.

Who knows more?
Anyone who can shed light on the occasion or date when the photograph for this postcard was taken is kindly asked to leave me a message!

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