Cretan excavation sheds light on Dark Ages of Greek history

On a narrow spur under the shadow of Mount Ida in central Crete, archaeologists for the past 20 years have been excavating a town that flourished from the Dark Ages of Greece’s early history until Medieval times. The Eleutherna project, a systematic dig carried out by a three-pronged team of top archaeologists from the University of Crete, is in itself unusual in a country where most excavations are carried out by harried Culture Ministry employees chasing after land developers. And in what must surely be a record for any Greek excavation, the finds – albeit lacking in ornate jewelry or Classical bronzes – have already furnished sufficient material for two public exhibitions, in 1993 and 1994. A third and more comprehensive selection is now on display in Athens in the new wing of the Museum of Cycladic Art, whose director, Professor Nikolaos Stampolidis, is in charge of one of the three excavations at Eleutherna. The other two digs are directed by professors Petros Themelis – who also heads the systematic excavation of the ancient city of Messene, in the southern Peloponnese – and Thanassis Kalpaxis. «Eleutherna: Polis – Acropolis – Necropolis,» which opened on December 1 and runs until September 1, 2005, contains a selection of 507 artifacts from the town and its rich cemeteries, including a good number of Early Christian and Byzantine pieces – some of which give a new definition to the word «key-ring.» The guest star in the exhibition is one of the most celebrated works of early Greek sculpture, the seventh-century-BC Lady of Auxerre, on her first trip out of the Louvre in Paris. The exhibition is enlivened by a couple of scale models showing the modern lie of the land at Eleutherna, as well as part of an excavated cemetery as it was during the Iron Age. Three burials – including the funeral pyre of a warrior and his wife, beside whom a young man had been put to death by beheading – are displayed as they were found, in a room painted pomegranate red for Persephone, lady of the underworld. The excavation The ruins of Eleutherna lie among the northern foothills of Ida, some 25 kilometers southeast of Rethymnon and 5 kilometers from the Arkadi Monastery, one of the Crete’s main tourist attractions. The ancient settlement occupied a steep, naturally fortified ridge between two deep torrent beds some 9 kilometers, as the crow flies, from the island’s northern coastline. The olive-covered site was chosen by the University of Crete as it promised to open a window into an obscure historical period, according to Stampolidis. «[Eleutherna] was known as a town during historic times, and our intention was to bring into focus other periods of Cretan history, instead of the Minoan period with its great palatial complexes that dominated Cretan archaeology for decades,» he said. The remarkable Minoan civilization flourished from around 3000-1000 BC. In the event, Minoan finds proved impossible to dodge, in the form of scattered pottery shards and a stone bowl. Themelis thinks there must have been a flourishing Minoan settlement on the site, although no traces of buildings have been found yet. Other prehistoric finds included stone axes, obsidian flakes and fragments of Cycladic marble figurines. The triple excavation, which started in September 1985, focused on the town, the hilltop citadel and the cemetery at Orthi Petra, which was used continuously from 880-570 BC. The latter dig produced some of the most interesting finds, including seventh-century sculptural fragments that Alain Pasquier, head of the Louvre’s Greek, Etruscan and Roman department, likened to «lost relatives» of the Lady of Auxerre. An unbroken line Eleutherna was continuously inhabited from the early ninth century BC to the late eighth century AD. During the first five centuries, the settlement consisted of a collection of villages congregated round an administrative center. Even then, Eleutherna was a prosperous place which developed trade and cultural relations with the southeastern Mediterranean. By the late fourth century BC, it was a full-blown town covering an area of 1.5 square kilometers. In 68 BC, Eleutherna was besieged by the Romans, who, according to one ancient account, conquered the town by soaking a section of the mud-brick walls with vinegar overnight – causing the structure to collapse. Destroyed by earthquake in AD 365, the town was immediately rebuilt and became the seat of a bishop in the fifth century, from which point at least three early Christian basilicas were built. The town fell into decline after the Arab conquest of Crete, and was abandoned after 787. The area was resettled in the late 10th century, to be finally evacuated around 1340.