An island of Collectors: Circulation of Heirlooms and Handicrafts on the Aegean island of Skyros, Greece

Theocharidis Andronikos, PhD student, Social Anthropology and History, University of the Aegean, Mytilene, Greece

The typical conical shaped fireplace decorated with plates and bowls standing on the selves and jugs hanging on top. Top right: the built iconostasis and other mobile icons. Below left: Skyrian wood-carved skamnia (little chairs) positioned in front of the fireplace. Early 1920s. Photographic Archive of the Benaki Museum, Athens.
Skyros is a small island located in the northwest Aegean Archipelago and in the south of a group of islands known as Sporades of which it is a part. It has around three thousand permanent inhabitants most of them living at the capital village which is situated at the east side of the island and is built on a hillside above the coast, with Saint George’s monastery and the old Fortress standing on the rock on top of it. In Skyros, there is a long tradition of collecting various types of ceramic, glass and copper wares. From the accounts of travelers who visited the island from the middle of the 18th century onwards we know that by that time these items were plenty and were used for the house decoration in a way that they covered almost completely the walls of the house. In published and unpublished documents, mostly marriage contracts (concerning the dowry of the bride or sometimes of the groom) and to a lesser extend wills (late 16th – early 19th century), one notes an extensive account / record of a variety of objects such as household utensils, tools, bridal costumes and other locally made or imported craftworks (embroidered cotton or silk quilts, bed sheets, towels, garments, dresses, carpets, wooden carved or painted chests and varieties of tin ware). The careful description and distinct place of these objects in the contract which also includes houses, land, animals and sometimes money denotes their importance. The various ceramic and glass wares because of their number are mentioned as an entity, as the ‘aloni’ (αλώνη) of the house, at the end of the document. In certain lists where all the portable property of an individual is written these objects are mentioned one by one and it is specified along with their number, also their material, color, shape, provenance (or the previous port where they came from) and sometimes whether it is an ‘old’ item.
The examination of the remaining such objects in contemporary houses, local and national museums and antique shops, in relation to the relevant literature, shows that some of these imported objects were even at the time when they were first acquired, luxury or semi-luxury items not only for the Skyrian upper class of the time but more widely in Europe and the Ottoman empire of which Skyros was a part from 1538 until 1830. Some of these are Italian Maiolica from the 17th to the early 19th century, Iznik ware from the 17th century and Kutahya ware of the 18th century, two of the main ceramic industries of the Ottoman empire, as well as European industrialized porcelain of the late 18th century and the 19th century, other varieties of ceramics from Italian, French and Dutch workshops of the 19th century and Tsanak kale ware, made by Greek potters in Asia Minor during the 19th century.
The upper class of the island, mainly literate landowners and merchants involved in the local administration, and the clergy connected to the monastery of St. George in Skyros, started to loose gradually their previous power and influence after 1830 when Skyros was incorporated to the newly formed Kingdom of Greece. The extended intervention of the Greek state and the overall social and economic changes led them to new means for acquiring economic and symbolic capital and many of them became doctors, high-rank officers, lawyers and professors or extended their mercantile activities. Their collections though of the various table wares retained their value and some of the merchants opened shops in the main city of the island and in so doing continued the import of these objects. The wealthiest of the shepherds and farmers had now greater access to such items which in the past constituted mostly the privilege of the upper class. Furthermore, as some of the families of the upper class moved to Athens they sold some of these valuable heirlooms to antique dealers and peddlers who were active in Skyros and in Athens. The interior of the Skyrian houses were these objects were displayed became more sophisticated with the adjustment of curved shelves and other constructions which the local carpenters and woodcarvers made. By the end of the 19th century and even more at the interwar period the local market of such ‘antiques’ (παλαιά, literally means of old) or ‘antiquities’ (αρχαία), as they are called in Skyros, was at its peak and during this period and later on in the second world war and in the 1950s and 1960s when more of the upper class families migrated to Athens, many such heirlooms changed hands between the Skyrian families or were purchased by outside dealers and found their way to antique shops or museums. At the same time new decorative wares of similar qualities kept coming into the island and these together with the local products of the ceramists (which started as copies of the ‘antiques’ in the 1920s and later created its own interpretations and variations) replaced the loss.
The interwar period was also the time when Skyros became more widely known to the Greek public and to an international circle of poets and intellectuals. The book of the folklorist Aggeliki Hatzimichali, published in 1925, in which she described the ‘Skyrian house’ and the local ‘folk art’ was one of the first studies in Greece which dealt with the ‘vernacular’ architecture and the so called ‘material life’(υλικός βίος) of ‘folk culture’ and her overall activity had a great influence on the aesthetic choices of a certain part of the Athenian upper class. The ‘Association of Greek Folk Art’ in Athens of which she was a leading member and the ‘Union of Skyrians’, founded at 1922 by a Skyrian elite who was living in Athens, helped to promote the Skyrian customs and handicrafts. The work of Skyrian woodcarvers won a distinction at the International Exhibition of Thessalonica in 1932 and at other national festivals. Also, many Greek poets and painters visited the island at the time and were inspired by its natural environment and its culture. The event that brought all those activities together and attracted the attention of the media of the time was the festival that took place at the island on the 5th of April 1931 for the occasion of the unveiling of the monument of the English poet Rupert Brook (1887-1915) who was buried in Skyros. The president of Greece Eleutherios Venizelos was present at the event along with Greek, English, Belgian and Egyptian scholars and politicians. The local municipality in collaboration with the ‘Union of Skyrians’ took great care in preparing the city for the reception of the honored guests, the journalists and the other visitors and founded a local archeological museum and a folklore museum which was actually a replica of the ‘Skyrian house’ and included an exhibition of local handicrafts.
With such a launching it is no wonder that from the middle of the 1950s and on, when the tourist industry start to grow in Greece and with the renewed interest in crafts internationally, Skyros and its local arts (mainly woodcarvings, ceramics and embroidery) came once again at the epicenter of the national crafts market. Especially the woodcarvings were very popular during the 1970s and 1980s when the use of ‘Skyrian’ furniture in the living rooms of many middle class apartments in various urban centers in Greece was a fashion. The embroideries were mostly popularized as images through the reproduction of their motifs in museum catalogues, magazines, postcards, pillowcases and advertisements of mass produced goods such as cigarettes. The potters’ products had also a wide circulation in Greece and to a certain extend outside of Greece. The period from 1955 to approximately the end of the 1980s was the time when the local arts ‘flourished’ and the local crafts market was at its peak, although some part of the potters’ production was made in workshops in Athens or was sold there. In addition, some non-Skyrian woodcarvers established workshops in Athens where they made ‘Skyrian style’ furniture. The connoisseurs and the aesthetic institutions played an important role in the promotion of ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ crafts and in the formation of the criteria of its authenticity but they were finally disappointed by the direction that the crafts market took because in their view it produced goods that lacked innovation and quality. From the beginning of the 1990s the demand for ‘traditional’ crafts is increasingly falling but ever since their price has been rising as many of the workshops have started to promote their artistic and their craft value.
The flourishing of the local arts at this period was a result of and depended on both the external and the internal demand. The Skyrian consumers influenced production with their preferences on color, technique, motives and their local knowledge in general, especially in the formation of the new ‘artistic ceramics’ and the numerous tourists (foreign and Greek) who bought souvenirs and made orders for their apartments contributed to the growth of the local market. This meant also that the Skyrians (both living in Athens or at the island) were able to purchase many decorative objects for their homes and enrich the interior constructions. In this way the local custom of decorating the walls with painted ceramic wares and the ‘traditional’ arrangement of the house with its wooden mezzanine, selves and other constructions were maintained and were gradually extended also to the rooms made for rent as well as the hotels and the houses that the foreigners bought. At the same time a series of replicas of the ‘Skyrian house’ became available to the wider public and contributed to the further institutionalization of this local morpheme of house decoration and interior arrangement. Furthermore, one of the commonly used statements for the advertisement of the island is that each house comprises a ‘little museum’.
Following the social biography of the Skyrian handicrafts as an imaginary totality and of the ‘Skyrian house’ as a complicated artifact in itself, I examine each one as a ‘distributed object’ (Gell 1998:221-23): an object having many spatially separated parts with different micro-histories. In this sense both the Skyrian handicrafts and the ‘Skyrian house’ are not viewed as ‘symbols’ but as indexes of agency. A pattern of protentions and retentions can be identified in the history of these interconnected orders of material culture which can be understood as distributed objects that are ‘structurally isomorphous to consciousness as a temporal process’, in this case to the collective consciousness and/or memory of the Skyrians. In the part of the Skyrians, both producers and consumers, various strategies have been adopted towards the reproduction of their crafts and the ways of decoration and interior arrangement of their houses which are relevant to constructions of their individual, family and collective identities.


Naturalistic paintings hanging on the main wall of the living room along with a framed embroidery in between. The plates are Italian ‘Cerreto’ ceramics which had a wide circulation in Greece during the 19th century. The overall effect is that of a petit bourgeois living room with the high table in the center, reminiscent of similar living rooms in urban apartments of the 1970s and 1980s. Photo by the author.

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● Carswell, J., 1998. Iznik Pottery, London: British Museum Press.
● Gell, A.,1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
● Miller, D. (ed.) 2001. Home Possessions. Oxford and New York: Berg.
● Χατζημιχάλη, Αγγελική 1925. Ελληνική Λαϊκή Τέχνη: Σκύρος [Hadjimichali, Aggeliki, 1925, Greek Folk Art: Skiros]