Monthly Archives: January 2014


At the beach of Phalasarna, on the far western coast of Crete.

Early days: at the beach of Phalasarna, on the far western coast of Crete.

This blog recounts our experiences in January 2014, during a travel course across Crete – all across Crete: up mountains, through ravines, from coast to coast to coast. You will see that we devoted much time to the archaeology and history of this island, from the Bronze Age through World War II. And we hope you will also be interested in our investigation of Cretan identity: we asked all kinds of people if they felt more Greek or more Cretan, and thought about the shifting status of Cretans in relation to external forces – especially through years of occupation by Roman, Ottoman, and Venetian empires, and even by other European powers in the 20th century.

All the students enrolled in “Crete through the Ages” contributed to the blog, so you are sure to note the diversity of their interests and hopefully how committed they all were to getting the most out of our experience. If you want to follow chronologically, start at the bottom of this page!

Our last day: on the steps of the Hellenistic city of Lato

Our last day: on the steps of the Hellenistic city of Lato


Cretan Religious Identity


The Late Minoan I town of Gournia

Crete, as we have certainly seen, has a complex religious history. From the Mycenaean introduction of early Greek deity names, Crete saw a devotional shift with each foreign occupation. Wednesday we visited three sites – Gournia, Panagia Kera, and Lato – where we saw three examples of devotional spaces wherein these fluctuations are manifest.
Gournia was originally excavated by Harriet Boyd Hawes, a Boston native and Smith College graduate, in May 1901; Boyd, having been blocked from participating in pre-existing major excavations on Crete, used her fellowship to fund her own excavations, and thus became the first woman to direct a major field project in Greece as well as the first to speak before the Archaeological Institute of America. Boyd’s excavation of Gournia uncovered both a Goddess with Upraised Arms and a sacred stone, or baetyl.

A short drive away we reached a monastery that some have called the most important Christian monument on Crete, Panagia Kera. Built in the late 12th century, the façade is unassuming, straightforward, making the interior frescos all the more impressive. Each aisle has its own decorative programme: the south aisle is dedicated to Saint Ann and illustrates her and Joachim’s apocryphal story as Mary’s parents; the north is dedicated to Saint Antony and illustrates the second coming; the central is dedicated to the assumption and illustrates, among other scenes, the last supper, Herod’s feast, and men and women in hell.

The frescos date to the mid and late 13th century, which makes the presence of Saint Francis of Assisi rather remarkable, particularly because he hold such a prominent position on the east-facing pillar, visible immediately upon entering. It is easy enough to attribute this oddity to Crete’s contemporary occupation by Venice, but that all these frescos survived intact throughout the long period of Ottoman rule is not so easily explained. Molly Greene says of the occupation:

By the time the Ottoman navy appeared off the island’s northwestern coast in the spring of 1645, Catholic and Orthodox Cretans had lived together for almost five hundred years in a relationship whose complexity had no rival in the Greek East. The Ottoman conquest added another layer to this already complicated past by setting off a process of conversion to Islam that resulted in one of the largest Muslim communities in the Greek world. (A Shared World, 2002, Princeton University Press)

Maybe it’s survival is evidence of lenience, or maybe simply of Ottoman priority on prominent monuments in large cities, such as Chania and Heraklion.


The “Large Temple” at Lato

At Lato (the Dorian form of the more recognizable “Leto,” mother of Apollo and Artemis), we saw a prytaneion, an agora, and an Hellenistic temple, which for us is a canonical example of a “Greek temple,” unlike most of the benched temples with central hearths we’ve seen before. Lato’s inhabitation, however, dates as early as the LMIIIC on the acropolis, indicating, perhaps, that this site was sacred well before developments such as cut-stone altars and massive cult-statue bases, visible today.

From these three close-together sites we saw and felt the development and inter cultural exchange of devotional practices through Crete’s immense and equally rich history. We will likely never fully understand the identity of a G.U.A. or the function of a lustral basin, the reason Panagia Kera was left untouched, or to which deity Lato’s temple was dedicated, but these open questions add up to a distinct Cretan identity that we were lucky enough to taste.


Tasting food from the past: Minoan style

Tonight we went to the INSTAP Study Center of East Crete and had a typical Minoan meal from the Bronze Age. Jerolyn Morrison, a researcher at the center, took the time to prepare the meal for us even though she is working on the last chapter of her dissertation. We tried the following dishes prepared with the methods used during the Neopalatial period: rabbit in white wine sauce and juniper berries, lentils with wild garlic leeks and honey, and octopus in beer and cinnamon and juniper.

Researchers, like Jerolyn, are able to identify meals and dishes prepared during the Neopalatial period from chemical residue analysis and macroscopic analysis. Jerolyn prefers to use macroscopic findings to support her research because it involves specific evidence such as animal bones, preserved seeds, and leaf imprints found on mud brick. In addition, researchers also look at frescos and vases to fill in the blanks for food lists.

20140122-170929.jpgOriginally trained as a potter, Jerolyn was able to replicate the cooking scene. The clay pots here we’re made in 2009 out of clay from Mochlos. Originally, Jerolyn had used other clay but the pots cracked and didn’t last as long. Instead, she used the type of clay the Minoans used at the time and it has proven to be durable.

The basic Minoan cooking pot is a tripod shape, with three legs supporting the bowl. The reason why they made their pots in that style was because the vessels elevated the pot so that way they could have a portable hearth.
Overall the meal was wonderful! And I found it interesting how cooking can help us understand ourselves as people and the evolution of our identities through by looking back and then recreating our interpretation of the past.

Artists, Ancient and Modern

For me, Monday was full of thinking about art and its many incarnations on Crete and beyond. We spent the afternoon following the journey of a pot at the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, an administrative center out of which excavations are run. Besides helping archeologists with the administrative parts of setting up an excavation, the center is also a place to process finds. First, an incoming piece of pottery from a place like Mochlos is washed and laid out in pieces on a large table.
20140121-054918.jpgThen, as sherds of the pot are identified (like puzzle pieces), they move on to a new artist – the conservator. She carefully reconstructs the pot with tape, glue and patch ceramic, using a range of technologies like X-rays along the way. Next, a pot might head to the artist’s studio. There, another creative person handles the ancient work, this time to accurately reproduce the pot in a book drawing. Ink drawings used to prevail, but now the art is all done on a tablet. Now the pottery, despite the many artists who have worked on it, likely does not go to a museum. Instead, it is labeled and stored in a giant basement among the other finds.


This trajectory is certainly not what a modern viewer has come to expect for a piece of artwork, including a Minoan pot. As many of us remarked at dinner, this art is approached differently, both in the Minoan world and in the world of archeology. Despite their communal goal, to recreate the work of the ancients, the staff at INSTAP are certainly individual artists. Likewise, I think we have all noticed the artistry of repeating Minoan designs (for example, sea creatures), even though ancient artists were privileging just a few pop images over the individuality we often value today. It’s a fascinating subject that was wonderful to discuss with my classmates, whose broad range of majors (History, Art History, Classics) brings to light ideas I never would have imagined as we enjoy the Cretan food that I’ve grown so attached to.

Archaeological Adventures in the Thripti Mountains

Today we had another mountain adventure. We set out in our vans and headed to meet some pickup trucks in the town of Kavousi that would take us to the top of the mountains. Kavousi is a historic village in the municipality of Ierapetra, and it literally translates as “water source.” Many archaeological sites have been discovered in Kavousi. First we traveled up quite high to the most prominent refuge site,the upper settlement, Kavousi Kastro, or “castle,” located on the peak of Kastro in the Thripti range of the Siteia mountains. Kastro was in use from Late Minoan IIIC until the Orientalizing period. We took a leisurely walk down to the associated site, Kavousi Vronda, which was in use from the end of the Bronze Age throughout the Iron Age. These sites were excavated originally by Harriet Boyd in 1900 for the American Exploration Society, and later in 1981-84 and 1987-90, 92, by Gesell, Day, and Coulson for the American School. Harriet Boyd used to be a guest lecturer at our very own Wellesley college!
By living in this refuge site, inhabitants of Kavousi sacrificed some of the comforts afforded to other Cretan settlements in exchange for the protection and isolation offered by the high mountains. For example, today the nearest water source is at Xerambela, which is a 45 minute walk below Kastro.
During our presentation, my partner Caitlin made some intriguing remarks. She claimed
“Because of Kavousi, we have learned much about the foundation, growth, and development of an Early Iron Age community from its inception early in Late Minoan IIIC until the end of the 7th century. Kavousi helps modern scholars understand the Dark Ages due to otherwise limited material available and demonstrates how the Cretans transitioned from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (Late minoan III C-7th c.).”
The architects wanted to maintain a high level of quality and the old grandeur of the palaces in pretty difficult terrain, as we experienced while hiking. We get buildings from different time periods all working within the same environment. In this way Kavousi actually acts as a great way to see how living areas progressed and changed from one period to another, all in the same site and by people with familial ties.

The best preserved architecture on the site is of Building A. It is most likely a five room house from LMIIIC. In contrast to earlier architecture, the high quality of the masonry indicates the level of attention and care put into the construction of Building A, as seen by such features as niches, the bin, the oven, and the bases, and by the fact that certain walls are still standing over three meters high. On the opposite west slope, we see facades, larger room sizes, and axial symmetry or regular internal dimensions. These structures were built during the Late Geometric period, and the architects were attempting to overcome the extreme slope, instability, and erosive tendencies of the narrow terraces in order to build something just as magnificent as those built on level ground.

20140121-152654.jpg After Vronda, we got back on the pickup trucks and headed to Azoria, another archeological site with some beautiful intact walls and a particularly large gathering area. Boyd even has a trench named after her here. The was definitely some type of round storage in this trench lined with clay. I wondered if they had stored water there as it would have been hard to keep enough for even a small village .
We headed back in the pickup trucks, visited the olive tree civilization in Crete, and took a picture surrounding a tree estimated to be 3250 years old. That’s way older than pretty much any treeI can imagine. Back in the pickup trucks, and we went to a local cafe for some down time.

Minoan Culture Then and Now

For me, the greatest struggle of this trip is not to somehow clear plate after plate of delicious Greek food during meals or to stay awake during all the amazing (but tiring) activities we do, but to comprehend the culture of the Minoan civilization. I find it too easy to dismiss the Minoans as primitive, especially when touring the ruins of palaces and towns. After packing up and leaving the hotel at Sitia, we visited the settlement on the island of Mochlos, which includes ruins from the Byzantine, Hellenistic, Mycenean, and Minoan periods. We saw several features of Minoan architecture that we are now well acquainted with: a pillar crypt, some ashlar masonry, and a group of house-like tomb structures. Then Bryan pointed out a triangular purple stone in the floor of one of the buildings and talked about a pagan religion that was founded in the 70s and worships Minoan deities, particularly the Cretan Mother Goddess. A group of goddess-worshipping women visits this site and others, where they perform their own religious rituals. It was surprising to hear how such an ancient civilization still influences contemporary culture in such a profound and direct way.

A short drive and several ABBA songs later, we arrived at the INSTAP research center in Pacheia Ammos. Eleanor Huffman took us on a tour and showed us the process all the artifacts go through before they’re published. They collect the fragments and sort them based on where they were found, then they meticulously try to piece them together and draw the finished (or partially finished) product – a process that is now fortunately digitalized. The most intriguing aspect for me was how thorough the researchers were in using all the parts from the excavation site: not only do they analyze pottery sherds but also bones and even the soil. Eleanor mentioned that once when analyzing soil, a researcher found some parts from olives and used radioactive carbon dating to determine when the olives were picked. The basement was full of shelf after shelf of labeled and crated artifacts. Someone asked what the process was for discarding artifacts and Eleanor responded that nothing is discarded. Every single find remains in the basement or is sent to a museum.

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Understanding the process by which artifacts are found and restored and how the ancient culture continues to shape peoples’ lives helps me comprehend that the Minoan civilization was more complex than the ruins suggest. And now when I walk into a museum and see a pieced together vase, I’ll think of the work that was behind restoring it and appreciate it much more.



Archaeolgical Museum of Sitia and Petsofas

Today’s visit to the Archaeological Museum of Sitia was an opportunity to view the amazing finds from archaeological sites in Eastern Crete such as Mochlos and Palaikastro. The Palaikastro Kouros is an ivory figurine found burned and in fragments in a shrine room at the Minoan town settlement of Palaikastro. The discoloration of the burning makes it clear the Kouros was burned after being broken, perhaps deliberately. This intricate and exquisite object has fascinated archaeologists and art historians due to to its aesthetic virtuosity. Some archaeologists even speculate it may have been a cult statue of a young Zeus, who, according to myth, was born on the island of Crete.

Not only modern archaeologists speculate about the usage of unusual found objects. The Archaeological Museum of Sitia also displays pygmy hippopotamus skulls and a pygmy elephant tooth found on the island from approximately 80,000-50,000 BCE. Some archaeologists believe that ancient people who saw these unusual skulls may have misinterpreted the hole where the elephants tusk would go as something else entirely: a single eye socket, thus explaining the origins of the mythological Cyclops.

We ourselves were archaeologists today when hiking up to the Peak Sanctuary of Petsofas, where thousands of pottery fragments serve as visual evidence for the many ancient pilgrimages to this sacred site. Investigating and imagining what the sherds originally belonged to, for example a human figurine or a vase, was a fun and exciting exercise!


Relaxing after our investigation of the Peak Sanctuary at Petsofas

Kato Zakros and Putting Our Skills to The Test!

Today, one of the main sites we visited was Kato Zakros – the smallest of the four Minoan palaces, where the center court is 12 meters across opposed to the typical 22 to 28 meters. By our technique of measurement with our wingspans is about 4 people short: as you can see below the Knossos central court takes all 12 of us to span, but Kato Zakros barely holds 8 of us!

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The remains of the town at Kato Zakro extend right up to the northern edge of the palace, suggesting the town existed first. Since the site was never robbed, when it was found, there was a great wealth of Linear A tablets, bronze swords and tools, and over 10,000 pots from which many conclusions have been drawn.

From our past palatial observations, we had assumed that within the town walls, each community held the supplies to be self sufficient; however, Kato Zakros was different in this regard. While the architecture revealed 4 distinct well or fountain structures (cisterns meant to hold water,) a sign of advanced plumbing, they also discovered storage intended not for grains, but for imports. The fact that they didn’t have much land and space in general to produce all they needed, the increased trade with the Middle East was undeniable. (The assumption furthered by other findings as well, in particular, an elephant tusk and copper ingots.)

A unique characteristic to this palace that we haven’t seen anywhere else is what seems to be a kiln as Vasilli, our pottery instructor described. The long parallel compartments through which the heat would reach the pottery placed above. This palace was unique for its direct combination of spaces for religion, commodity storagep, and archives all very closely in the same space; which probably reared a stronger community than the other palaces.

Later that day, we hiked Petsofas, the sanctuary site above Palaikastro. The hike was steep, yet rewarding (and incredibly windy!) when we reached the top. We put our archaeological caps on and searched for anthropomorphic figurines. Most of what we found were cup fragments and handles – all in all, deeming this yet another successful day!

Minoan Myths In and Around Knossos

It’s easy to say that most people who think of archaeology and Crete think of the site of Knossos. Knossos is the most publicized and well-trafficked of the Cretan sides.

It’s only 5 km outside of the bustling city of Heraklion (a bus even runs there from the city) and the site has been well publicized by it’s discovery and recreation by Sir Arthur Evans. The site unlike others on the island is partially reconstructed to more closely resemble its appearance in Minoan times. But what’s of interest to me is the strong cycle of myths associated with the area. King Minos, his family, and the myths involving him are strongly associated with the site of Knossos and the surrounding area.

The origin story of Minos starts with his mother, Europa. The story goes that Zeus came upon her, gathered with her friends in a field and was struck by her beauty. He turned himself into a bull that moved amongst the girls, until Europa climbed on his back. Then he took off, carrying her across the sea to the island of Crete. He convinced her to lie with him then, promising her that a continent would be named for her and her children would be kings. Eventually, she gave birth to Rhadamanthys, Sarpedon, and Minos.

Minos went on to become king of Knossos, marrying Pasiphae a daughter of the sun (Helios). Poseidon sent a bull from the sea many years later as a sign of auspicious rite and for it to be sacrificed in turn to him. Minos was so caught by the bull’s beauty that he didn’t sacrifice it and instead replaced it with another bull, not as shiny and white. In order to punish him, Pasiphae was cursed with an unnatural lust for the bull and she convinced the palatial architect to create a decoy bull so that she could mate with him. This union brought forth the Minotaur – half man, half bull – then concealed within the Labyrinth of Knossos. He remained there until killed by the Athenian Theseus with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne.

Walking around Heraklion, there was plenty of evidence of this mythological past. Streets named after Pasiphae and Ariadne lead the way to the Heraklion Archaeological museum, and the image of the bull is present in everything from t-shirts to graffiti. The art we saw at the Heraklion museum supported this connection to the past: images of women exotically “Cretan” and sexually vibrant, and bulls everywhere. You could feel the old stories as you walked the halls and streets, echoing the people currently walking them.

17Jan-Knossos7-column&pillar2-MatthewHaysomSmYet this feeling wasn’t as present in Knossos. Perhaps this is partly Arthur Evans’ reconstructions. Here and there, bright red painted walls climb upwards mixed with Minoan ruins. The mix of old and reimagining tried to harken those times. The mythological past wasn’t part of Evans’ attempt to recreate the experience of being in the palace, nor did it seem evident in the more “untouched” areas of the ruins. Even the frescoes placed only harkened to a rare bull sighted. Where was the Labyrinth, even of myth? One sign was to look at the layers of ruins built on top of each other and the marks of the double headed axes about labrys. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine the mythological presence further away from these sites, rather than right on top of them.

Reconciling Ancient and Modern Crete

This trip we have not only been learning about ancient Greece and its inhabitants but also about the experience of modern Crete and the interactions of the island’s people with their rich history. We visited a weaving workshop in Zaros and met with Kyria Maria, who crafts her own designs, ones inspired both by ancient and modern motifs.

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We also met with a potter who emulates the ancient pottery techniques but also creates his own modern designs.


Vassilis Politakis creating a clay vase on the electric wheel

These designs and themes remain similar across time, with the meander and rolling waves patterns, the octopus and dolphin images. Even the theme of the flora and vegetation of the island remain common embellishments like they do in Minoan wall frescos and pottery. There is a entire industry that thrives on producing replicas of  famous archeological finds and I wonder how many of these artistic tropes and themes are a product of Greece capitalizing on what tourists expect to see and be able to purchase for their own mementos and how much of it remains in the artistic canon because of pride in their heritage. We have asked numerous people whether they consider themselves Cretan or Greek, and many responded that they are a Cretan first and a Greek second. This immense pride is evident in everything they do from creating textiles to producing olive oil and I’m sure that many of these artistic choices are deliberate in order to keep the Cretan spirit alive. Even with a history of 800 years of continuous occupation, the language, culture, and art of Crete has thrived and remains a core part of their identity today.

As an Art History and Classics double major, it’s extremely easy to only focus on the ancient side of things and forget that life continued beyond the second century A.D. This trip is not only about visiting as many archeological sites as possible but about experiencing the lives of the modern Cretans.