Saturday, June 15 2024

Archaeologists strike gold on Crete!

“I feel this year’s findings have been a vindication for [Yannis A.] Sakellarakis. He always claimed – and I did not believe it at the time – that the excavations at Zominthos were very important. He would say, ‘I feel just like [Arthur] Evans when he excavated Knossos,’” the director of the dig, Dr Efi Sapouna-Sakellaraki, says of her late husband. It is she who continues to conduct the Athens Archaeological Society’s excavations at Zominthos, at an altitude of 1,200 meters above sea level, approximately 7 kilometers west of Anogia.

Findings indicate that the excavations at this site on a plateau in the northern foothills of Mount Ida (Psiloritis), once “inhabited by the descendants of the Knossos dynasty,” have not come to an end. On the contrary, it has many more secrets to reveal. Its location is strategic – exactly halfway between the Palace of Knossos and the Ideon Andron caves. It was an important economic, religious and cultural center. Access from the north gate of the palace was via a ramp, dating from the Protopalatial Period (approximately 1900 BC), that ended in a robust retaining wall. In the Neopalatial Period (1700-1600 BC) the ramp was covered with plaques twice.

The two-story, perhaps even three-story, main building was in use from at least 2000 BC. Findings from previous excavations have verified that the expansion of the complex began in 1700 BC. As the archaeologist explains, these structures are not flimsy constructions but entire apartments that formed extensions to the palace.

“We knew that there was an older structure under the palace, but we could not estimate its size. Now we were able to explore the older part as well. In the complex of the palace’s first addition, two smaller complexes north of the main building have been discovered. An important sanctuary was located in one. A section had been excavated last year, where we found an altar paved with stones, and some 200 ritual items (rhytons, large lamps etc). After cleaning and some serendipitous rainfall, a small part of a gold sheet was discovered. And so, this year, I decided to count the stones and raise the cobbled altar. And what a surprise: a burned tree trunk, lined in gold! We discovered 90 gold sheets, small plates, which must have been attached to the altar or scattered around it. It seems to have been a ritual idol, a xoanon (wooden image of a deity), next to which we found shells, a beautiful seal etc.”

Everything indicates that an early sanctuary operated there, which the later inhabitants respected and did not strip of its gold. They built a stone altar on top, where the 200 ceramic items were found. As the excavator explains, in the room where they located the xoanon, animal and human figurines were discovered, like those usually found at the most important sanctuaries. Among them was a lovely female figurine dubbed “the Lady of Zominthos.”

According to Sapouna-Sakellaraki, the stone-floored rooms of the second complex (in the north section) are also extremely interesting, as they have uncovered an exceptional sewage system with pipes and drainage. “We discovered the technical structure of a building constructed wisely, just like the entire palace itself. Everything at Zominthos points to advanced technical skills and expertise.” And if there is one thing that stands out, it is the seal in the shape of a flower that dates from before 2000 BC. “It is a small masterpiece.” As far as the gold plates found near the xoanon, “they were a surprise as they are not usually located in palaces, but in tombs.”

The team also found a coin depicting the Venetian Doge Pietro Gradenigo (1289-1311), which coincides with the Fourth Crusade and Venetian rule on Crete.

Of course, conducting an excavation during a pandemic was not easy. But the good news is that the archaeological site of Zominthos in the Municipality of Anogia has been included in the Regional Operational Program of Crete, and future excavation works will be conducted in the surrounding area.