The treasures of ancient Eleutherna on display

“Eleutherna: Polis-Acropolis-Necropolis,» due to open in late November at the Museum of Cycladic Art, will be one of the largest exhibitions to date and contain exhibits which have not been seen before. A tribute to the 4,000-year history of Eleutherna, it coincides with the 20th anniversary of the excavations in an area where digging constantly reveals new finds and new information. The kore of Eleutherna is one example. Only the lower part survives, but this is sufficient to date the statue earlier than the figurine in the Louvre, known as the Dame d’Auxerre, which has also proven to be the product of a Cretan workshop. The exhibition, which will run for 10 months, is the outcome of ongoing excavations conducted by the University of Crete. As Nikolaos Stambolidis, director of the Cycladic Museum and excavator of the necropolis at Eleutherna, says, «it is an ongoing scientific excavation where there is neither the anxiety of the political cost nor pressure from an owner.» Of the 15,000 finds that have been unearthed over the past two decades, 500 masterpieces have been selected for the exhibition, including sculptures, vases, jewelry, weapons, tools and other items of clay, metal, ivory, and glazed earthenware. They represent the entire historical span of the city, which began in the Early Bronze Age, and flourished in the Geometric, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian eras. The outcome of investigations into three different spheres, the polis, acropolis and necropolis (excavated by T. Kalpaxis, P. Themelis and N. Stambolidis respectively), the exhibition shows everyday private and public life and funerary customs, the birth, acme and decline of the polis. On the first and second floors of the Stathatos Mansion, the exhibits will illustrate Eleutherna’s relations with other Cretan cities, its contacts with other islands in the Aegean, cities in Asia Minor, Cyprus, the Syrian-Palestinian coast, Egypt and Italy. «The necropolis is a classic realization of Homer’s verses in ‘The Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ referring to burial customs, especially cremation,» explains Stambolidis. Visitors will be able to see examples of the burial customs. «There will be a pithos burial with a skeleton inside a 2-meter-high urn, a simple burial and a depiction of a cremation. The sight of the ossuary is certain to impress. «We discovered the cinerary remains in a single rock-cut grave which was in constant use from 900 BC to 670 BC. In it were more than 700 vases containing the bones of the dead, which we are examining in a laboratory in New York. The contents of the grave had not been disturbed since it was sealed. Now we are cleaning the ossuary and we will have the results by May or June.» What are the highlights of the exhibition? A Phoenician grave stele: «This means that the society of Eleutherna was very open, since it allowed foreigners to be buried alongside locals,» says Stambolidis. «And there is a statue of a playful Aphrodite about to take a bath with Pan teasing her. In the cemetery we found the legs of a kouros which would have been 2 meters tall, made from limestone, not marble, from quarries we know of there. We also found Daedalic limestone statues such as the lower half of a kore, which predates the famous Dame d’Auxerre in the Louvre, indicating that she may have been from Eleutherna. And there are some remarkable inscriptions from the acropolis, which say that soldiers shouldn’t drink.» For those who are dazzled by gold, there will be gold rosettes, earrings and necklaces, and the ivory lids of gold and ivory chests. Idols of Eastern deities, such as Sekhmet from Egypt, indicated considerable freedom, according to the excavator. The idol would either have been brought to Crete or made as a souvenir. So far, 15,000 finds have come to light. In the necropolis alone, an area measuring 1,000 sq.m., Stambolidis found 8,000 pieces. All of them are in storage at Rethymnon Museum.

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