Kythnos (Greek: Κύθνος) is a Greek island and municipality in the Western Cyclades between Kea and Serifos. It is 56 nautical miles (104 km) from the harbor of Piraeus.
Kythnos can lay claim to one of the oldest known habitations in the Cycladic islands, a Mesolithic settlement (10000 BCE – 8000 BCE) at Maroulas on the northeast coast. The site, close to the village of Loutra, is situated on the shore, and large portions have eroded into the sea. Excavations in 1996 found intact human skeletons, along with stone artifacts and part of a floor pavement, which indicates a long-term settlement, probably of hunter-gatherers.
Third millennium BCE (First Cycladic Period) findings at Skouries near the highest peak of the island, Mt. Profitis Elias, suggest that Kythnos was a supplier of raw materials for metallurgy to other islands during the Bronze Age. Remains of copper smelting sites and open-air copper mines were investigated in 1984-1985. (A recent paper by Myrto Georgakopoulo points to the seminal work here by Gale and others.)
The earliest inhabitants of the island known to historians were the Kares (Carians), a pre-Hellenic tribe probably allied to or under the dominion of the Minoans, who eventually were forced by pressure of invading tribes to move on and settle in Asia Minor. Herodotus (Bk. viii, 73) records that in the 13th century BCE, another pre-Hellenic tribe, the Dryopes, originally from the Greek mainland near Mount Parnassus, migrated to the islands, first to Euboea and later spreading to Kea, Kythnos, and beyond. This tribe most probably gave rise to the name of one of the two main villages, Dryopis or Dryopida. Some sources say the island took its name from King Kythnos of the Dryopes; others suggest this is a mythical rather than a historical figure. (Speculations on the origin of the name are contained in Vallinda, 1896.) The Dryopes eventually moved on as well under pressure from Ionians, who migrated out of mainland Greece as Dorian tribes moved in from the north.
A Hellenistic site at Vryokastro, above the bay of Episkopi on the northwest part of the island, was partially excavated in the mid-20th century, yielding floor plans of houses and a sanctuary, as well as a few artifacts. In Greek newspaper articles of December 19, 2002, archaeologist Alexandros Mazarakis-Ainian announced a spectacular discovery on this site: an inner sanctum (adyton) of the temple was found intact and unplundered. Over 1,400 objects, including precious jewels and gold, silver and bronze artifacts, terracotta figurines, and painted vases, were excavated from what the archaeologists have determined is a 2,700-year-old temple dedicated to either Hera, queen of the gods, or Aphrodite, goddess of love. The artifacts date mostly from the 7th to the 5th centuries BCE. The site at Vryokastro was inhabited until Roman times. In this era, the islands of the Cyclades suffered frequent predation by pirates, and perhaps for this reason, the main settlements moved inland and to more defensible locations.
Remains of another old settlement, with extensive stone walls, can be seen in the extreme northern headland. This site, called Kastro (Greek for Castle), was likely the capital of the island from about the 1st century through the Byzantine era and into Frankish times. This site seems nearly impregnable: on three sides is a sheer 500-foot (150 m) drop to the sea. The fourth side is approached via a narrow track, which was barricaded with a thick, high wall, parts of which are still extant (along with walls delineating hundreds of houses). Nevertheless, there is evidence that the town was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The population fluctuated dramatically during this period and at times the island was decimated due to marauders and plague (Smith, 1854 and Bent, 1885, reprinted 2002).
In the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE), Herodotus records that Kythnos contributed a trireme and a penteconter, and this contribution is commemorated on the base of a golden tripod at Delphi (Herodotus, Bk viii, 46).
Innumerable sources repeat, without providing a citation, that Aristotle praised the government of Kythnos in his “Constitution of Kythnos.” Exactly what he wrote is difficult to ascertain, since all of his essays on the constitutions of 158 city-states are lost except for the one on Athens. (Possibly, the origin of the quote is from the 2nd century lexicographer Harpocration. See Smith, 1854. The entry on Kythnos is under the spelling “Cythnus”).