Eleutherna, the heart of Crete

“If you were to imagine Crete as a human being, Eleutherna would be its heart.” I am standing with Nicholas Stampolidis, a professor of history and archaeology at the University of Crete, on a small hill overlooking the archaeological site of Eleutherna, some 30 kilometers from Rethymno. From this rise, we can see the entire area of the university’s excavation of the site, which began in 1985. The view is breathtaking, with swaths of olives trees, carobs, oaks, plane trees, laurel bushes and walnut trees across the terraces of the hilly landscape. It is the horizon especially that is most striking.

The archaeologist takes me by the arm and turns me 360 degrees so that I can take in the majesty of the peaks of Psiloreitis, Talaia, Aravanes and Tympanatoras, the latter of which took its name from the myth according to which local tribesmen would beat their shields with sticks, making a drumming sound that would cover the sobs of young Zeus so that Cronus would not hear him and devour him as he did his other children. Further away, on the horizon, I can see the sea shimmering in black-and-white tones under the hot, bright sun. I am standing on ground under which one of the island’s most important city-states is buried, between ancient Knossos and Cydonia.

The heart of Eleutherna beat for a very long time, from the Neolithic era to the Byzantine period, when it vanished from the map. When the Culture Ministry granted the University of Crete permission to excavate the site, no one could have imagined that it would uncover a palimpsest showing a constant human presence that dates back to 3000 BC, architecture from the late Minoan period, prosperity in Homeric times and a great burst of growth in the Roman era. The decline of Eleutherna was gradual, starting in the 8th century AD and culminating in the 13th century. In the 14th century, the Venetians prohibited the unruly Cretans from living in the fortified city due to fears they would create a rebel stronghold.

The excavation has uncovered hundreds of objects and remains of homes, but it has been focused mainly on the rich bounty yielded by a cemetery used from the Geometric period, which, like one end of a piece of string, will lead to more discoveries.

Ideal location

As we descend toward the imposing yet elegant shelter that covers the excavation site of the cemetery, Stampolidis explains why the ancients chose this particular spot to build their city.

“It overlooks the sea, but is also invisible to enemies approaching by boat. It is only one-and-a-half hours’ walk from its port. It is on a hill that can be reached only through a narrow pass, providing excellent natural protection. No weapons during antiquity could shoot this far,” Stampolidis says.

“There is fresh running water nearby, as well as woodland that provided lumber, land for farming or grazing, and a quarry. We have found 252 species of herbs and wild greens that were used in many different preparations, and the spot forms a crossroads for those traversing the island either north to south or east to west,” the archaeologist adds.

Stampolidis says that there is also ample evidence of lively commercial activity.

“Many of the grave offerings we have found were brought from other parts of the Aegean – Cyprus, Asia Minor, Phoenicia and so on – proving that the city had developed commercial ties beyond Crete,” he says.

Protecting nature

With the modern-day village of the same name behind us, we entered Ancient Eleutherna, which is protected as an archaeological site but also as a natural woodland by law. The excavation teams that have worked at the site have planted rows of trees to delineate pathways, while the site of the museum that will one day house all the finds is just a short walk away, on the other side of the hill.

One of the most impressive observations about the site is the care taken by the archaeologists to preserve the natural environment, allowing visitors to take a mental leap back in time and imagine the location as it was when it was first settled – nestled in the protective embrace of the woodland.

Stampolidis confirms that preserving the natural environment was one of his team’s biggest concerns.

“We are interested in Eleutherna becoming a paradigm of how we can showcase ancient sites. You can’t hear passing cars, and, other than the shelter, all of our interventions are discreet, retaining the purity of the landscape. We used large rocks rather than cement to divert the flow of a stream, the electricity cables are all below ground, thanks to the Public Power Corporation, and all the steps are made of rock and earth. Almost everything here is made by hand, and the best part is that we – the archaeologists and the workers on the dig, which is funded by the University of Crete – did it ourselves,” says Stampolidis.

The excavation’s chief archaeologist also explains how the university managed to appropriate the land under which Eleutherna was buried.

“I find funding myself by approaching people who love the place but want to remain anonymous. It is thanks to them that we could buy up all the land that comprised the woods in which the site is located,” he explains, adding that the project has also received the full support of the local community.

“I think that they have all realized that Eleutherna will never have all the annoyances, say, of Knossos, where there are souvlaki joints and souvenir shops next to the archaeological site. They love the excavation, they protect it and they have supported our work in every possible way,” Stampolidis adds.

The Homeric-era cemetery

The archaeologist and I walk downhill to the shelter. Nikos Stampolidis knows every rock and tree here like the back of his hand. After all, it was one of the first digs he ever participated in and he was not yet 30 years old when he started.

“The broader area of the Eleutherna excavation was separated into three zones. The first picks went to archaeologists Petros Themelis and Thanasis Kalpaxis. I took the zone west of the hill on which the acropolis stood. I had observed that the earth there had a grayish tint unlike the yellow earth in other parts. This often occurs because of rotten leaves, but it could also be attributed to ash from wood fires. The first dig we made revealed finds just a few inches beneath the surface. It was the crematorium. We proved that the ancients used to burn their dead in this spot. We also found that the locals had used a lot of material from the site to build the terraces along the hills,” Stampolidis explains.

“Do you need luck in archaeology?” I ask.

“Of course. But in which sense? As the piece that completes knowledge. Manolis Andronikos knew where to look for for Vergina, but he was lucky in finding a grave that was intact,” says the professor.

We are now standing on a necropolis that dates back to Homeric times, unique in the Mediterranean region. You cannot but feel awed. We see the burial sites, some consisting of large ceramic coffins, funerary monuments and a fascinating maze that goes deep underground, revealing the different chronological periods during which the cemetery was used.

“Once the excavation is finished, we will make special cases to house the bones of the dead that are now being examined by anthropologists. They belong here, not in the storage room of some museum. Who am I to disturb their peace?” asks Stampolidis.

The archaeologist moves between the graves, talking about some of the most striking finds he and his team have made. The excavation so far has revealed remains ranging from aristocratic warriors to very simple burials. One of his most touching finds was the grave of a 12-year-old boy, whose dog was buried in a small marked grave right beside him. One of the graves that contained the remains of several women from the same aristocratic family also contained ornate jewelry.

Prisoners of war

The ancient cemetery of Eleutherna also provided the answer to the age-old question that had split Plato and Aristotle – whether the Greeks killed their prisoners of war.

“These were not human sacrifices, but the justice of war, ritualistic revenge,” explains Stampolidis. “Beside the funerary pyre of a prince who died in battle, we found the skeleton of another man who we believe had his elbows tied together behind his back. We also found a knife and a whetting stone nearby. Traces of his skull were later found at the prince’s feet and were singed by the fire, suggesting the sequence of events. He was a prisoner of war who was executed in retribution. One of the workers on the dig told me the story of Stefanoyiannis, a Cretan hero who was executed by the Nazis in World War II. His fellow fighters saw who it was who had killed him and stole into the enemy camp at night, kidnapped the perpetrator and killed him on Stefanoyiannis’s grave in revenge,” Stampolidis explains.

Every burial site has it own fascinating story. After two hours touring the excavations, we headed back to Rethymno, making a brief stop at the museum, which is currently under construction.

In the car, Stampolidis tells me his own story, a kind of epilogue to our tour: “When I first came here as a young man, I told myself that I would dig up all of Eleutherna before I retired. The hill must have heard me and laughed at my plans. Now that I am older, I am better at hearing what the hill has to say.”

The museum is a very impressive structure that resembles a shelter of sorts. It is slated for completion in 2015 and so far only the exterior has been completed. It will contain an exhibition hall for the thousands of finds made at the cemetery and in the city so that visitors can see the pieces of the puzzle that compose this fascinating site.

From its lofty position atop a hill, it affords a wonderful view of the acropolis and the shelter protecting the cemetery, as well as the entire area where Eleutherna once stood and, of course, Mount Psiloreitis.

Plans for the museum include landscaping the surrounding environment and applying some of the latest concepts in museology. The project is moving apace and is expected to be ready on time, while Stampolidis makes certain that, like at the site, every last detail is just right.

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