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Athena Review, Vol.3, no.3: Minoan Crete

Discoveries at Khania in Western Crete  

An Interview with Maria Andreadaki-Vlasiki

Director, K.E. Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities; Khania Archaeological Museum

Introduction: Minoan archaeologists have long postulated that a major Minoan center would be found in western Crete. The most obvious location was at the port town of Khania, an area with access to both a large catchment area of fertile land and the sea. Unfortunately, any prehistoric remains there were buried under not only a busy modern city, but also layers from many thousands of years of occupation including important Classical and Venetian remains. Over the past few decades a number of small areas of the Minoan town, often referred to as Kydonia by archaeologists, have been uncovered largely by a joint Greek-Swedish team led by Tzedakis and Hallager. The most important of these lie on the low hill called Kastelli behind the former Turkish mosque along the harbor front. Recent discoveries have supported the hypothesis that a major Minoan palace was located at Kydonia, although the defining structural feature - the Central Court - has not yet been found. These recent finds have been extraordinary, although not well-published; thus Athena Review is fortunate to have the first-hand account of these discoveries from Dr. Andreadaki-Vlasaki, who oversees the Archaeological Service in the Khania region.

[Fig.1: Map of the port town of Khania in northwestern Crete. Minoan palace ruins have been found under the modern quarters of Kastelli and Splantzia.]

AR: When did you start the current excavations at Khania? What made you decide to start digging there?

M.A-V: The modern town of Khania lies just above the ruins of the Classical city of Kydonia and the Minoan settlement of the same name, at least during the Creto-Mycenaean times (1400-1100 BC) (fig.1). Due to this, every year, rescue excavations are conducted under my direction. In the meantime, systematic excavations are held on the Kastelli Hill, where the Minoan center and the Classical acropolis lie. Systematic work was begun in 1965 by Dr. Yannis Tzedakis. In the Haghia Aikaterini Square a joint Greek-Swedish team conducts the excavations under the direction of Dr. Tzedakis and Dr. Hallager.

AR: Since the Minoan buildings at Khania lie under more recent remains - including a vibrant modern town - how have you been able to conduct your excavations? How large an area has been available for exploration?

M.A-V: It is really very difficult to conduct rescue and even systematic excavations in the center of a vibrant town, like the modern town of Khania. It is just as well that quite a few building plots have been expropriated by the Greek Archaeological Service and now wait for further investigations. Another difficulty of the excavations is the big number of different layers of earth created during the 5,000 years of habitation in the same area.

[Fig.2 (right): Plan of the excavations of an extensive Minoan building complex on Daskaloyannis street in the Splantzia Quarter. Fig.3 (below): general view from the south of the excations on Daskaloyannis street (KE'EPKA).]

AR: What have been your findings in this area to date?

M.A-V: The earliest findings in the Kastelli Hill and the Splantzia Quarter (figs.2,3) date back to the Early Minoan period (3500 BC). The Minoan settlement lasts down to the end of the Late Minoan IIIC phase (1100 BC).

AR: Khania has been mentioned as the possible site of an additional Minoan palace. What evidence have you discovered that would confirm this as a "palace" complex?

M.A-V: Recently, in a meeting on Minoan palaces in Louvain-La Neuve, Khania has been mentioned as one of the five main Minoan palaces, together with Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Zakros. The evidence available and in support of such an assertion is the following:

a) The archives of Linear A tablets, roundels, and nodules: This archive consists of 97 pieces of clay tablets, 122 roundels, and 28 nodules, inscribed with Linear A syllabograms and ideograms (fig.4). They contain lists of agricultural products and censuses of people and animals, and attest to the functioning of an advanced administrative system connected with the centralized economy of a powerful society. The Khania settlement holds the second position among the Minoan centers as far as the number of Linear A tablets is concerned, and the first position in terms of the number of roundels.

b) The palatial features in architecture: Adyta or "lustral basins", Minoan Halls with pier-and-door partition systems (polythyra), light wells, ashlar façades, fresco paintings, columns, pillars, well-organized storage rooms, well-developed drainage systems, and paved floors with red-painted plaster in the joints of the slabs, i.e. the most common features of the palatial architecture have also been identified in the Khania settlement.

c) Emphasis on ceremonial and cult areas: The numerous ceremonial and cult areas, which have been recognized in a Minoan palace, suggest a great dependence of the Minoan society on religion, especially in times hit by tremendous upheavals of the forces of nature.

d) The scenes on seal-impressions: Quite a few Neopalatial seal-impressions with interesting cult scenes derive from Khania. Besides, the unique Master Impression found alone in a pit, among Late Minoan IB (1500-1450 BC) material of the final destruction, could well depict a familiar, local landscape. It portrays a low hill by the sea, with a rocky and steep shore, i.e. a landscape identical to the topography of the Kastelli Hill, where it was found. A complex of multi-story buildings, crowned with horns of consecration, occupies the hill and the surrounding plain. The complex has seven wings, in a heraldic composition. It contains four levels, the lower of which consists of an enclosure of a type of fortification, two gates with doors made of large tree trunks, with a frieze of half-rosettes on the lintel. Fourteen windows give light to the buildings. Its closest parallel is a Zakros sealing which has been interpreted as a town, a fortress, or a sanctuary. At the top of the central and higher wing, a male figure is holding a spear or staff in the gesture and position of a Young Master. The fact that he stands among horns of consecration emphasizes the sacred character of the scene, reminding us of the Young God in the well-known Kydonian sealstone.

[Fig.4: Linear A tablets from Kastelli Hill,  ca. 1450 BC (photo: Khania Museum).

e) Mason's marks: Only three mason's marks have been identified so far, on stones in second use.

AR: How does Khania compare - in size and features - to some of the better known palaces such as Knossos and Phaistos?

M.A-V: The size of the Khania palace could be close to one of the other four main palaces, each of whose size differs considerably. The Knossos palace has an architectural mass of about 13,000 m2, double in comparison with Phaistos and Malia and quadruple with Zakros, and it would account for nearly 40,000 m2 with its outlying features.

AR: What is the date of the "palace" building at Khania? How does the date of the Khania palace compare to the other Minoan palaces? While the beginning of construction of the palaces has traditionally been dated to the MMI period, several scholars have recently claimed that antecedents of these "courtyard" structures can be found much earlier, perhaps dating to the EMII period. Have you found any evidence for such an earlier courtyard at Khania?

M.A-V: Up to now, no courtyard has been recognized in the Khania excavations. This is the reason why we are speaking of a "palace?" (i.e., with some remaining question). The available evidence dates a "palace" building at Khania back to the beginning of the Neopalatial period (MMIII). For an earlier building of the same structure dated to the Old Palatial or the Prepalatial period the evidence is slight and obscure, destroyed by the extensive building activities during the Neopalatial and later times.

AR: Traditionally, these central court buildings have been viewed as the residences and seats of kings, such as the mythical Minos at Knossos. Now that the number of possible "palaces" keeps growing - including Khania, Petras, and Galatas, and perhaps Palaikastro and Arkhanes as well - how do you think this changes our idea of the function of these complexes? How do you interpret the function of the central court structure at Khania?

M.A-V: The central court buildings, usually called palaces in Minoan architectural terminology, could be divided into first- and second-order buildings. In the first order would be included the five main palaces, already mentioned above, one of which is the Khania palace we are looking for. Both first- and second-order complexes had an administrative and religious function and role in the Minoan society and world. They also correspond with either first- or second-order settlements, which they ruled and served at the same time.

AR: Scholars have long detected periods of destruction and rebuilding at the palace sites - which they have separated by date into the "Old"and "New" palace periods. In the past, these destruction and rebuilding periods were thought to follow some island-wide natural disaster, such as a volcanic eruption or large earthquake. More recent evidence seems to indicate that different palaces were rebuilt at different times. Have you been able to relate different building periods at Khania with other palace sites? How does this affect our general chronology of Minoan sites?

M.A-V: An earthquake, often severe and ruinous, was a frequent event in Minoan times. According to most scholars, this was the main cause of the several reconstructions of not only the palaces but the settlements as well. Except for the natural disasters, a war affair could be responsible for a great destruction. It is widely accepted that the end of the LMIB phase was marked by a large conflagration, in all the main palaces except Knossos, caused by a military episode.

In Khania, three main phases are evident during the Neopalatial period: MMIII, LMIA, and LMIB. The last two phases can be divided in two more sub-phases, one early and one late in each phase.

[Fig.5: Linear B tablet from Kastelli Hill referring to Zeus and Dionysus and a sanctuary of Zeus; 15th century BC (Khania Museum).]

Concerning the existence of a later palace in Mycenaean Kydonia, the following evidence supports such a supposition: a) In only three Cretan sites have the excavations uncovered Linear B tablets: Knossos, Khania, and Malia, suggesting a Mycenaean palace in each of them.One of the Linear B tablets tells about the cult of two male gods in Kydonia, Zeus and Dionysus, and the existence of a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus, probably in the vicinity (fig.5). Another one mentions weavers with ethnic names of towns attributed to western Crete: wa-to and pu-na-so. Part of a third one provides information about ten chariot wheels, reminding us of another Knossian tablet that mentions the supply of chariots from Kydonia.

b) Kydonia in the times of the Mycenaean koine was a strong, rich, and cosmopolitan center, as the excavations are revealing. Its commercial network extended to Canaan in the east and to Sardinia in the west, with probable social implications. Local inscribed stirrup jars for transporting perfumed olive oil or wine have been found at many sites in the rest of Crete and the Greek Mainland, while fine ceramic products of the distinguished Kydonian workshop have been recognized in most of the centers of this period, including Cyprus and Sardinia (fig.6). The above evidence presupposes the existence of a central authority for the control of such extensive commerce and communication.

[Fig.6: Double ceremonial jug, a product of the Kydonian workshop (photo: Khania Museum).]

The position of Khania as the most important center of northwest Crete might have induced Mycenaean leaders to use this site as a base for the control of the rest of Crete.

AR: How big do you think the Minoan settlement was at Khania? Can you estimate the Minoan population at Khania? What region do you think Khania controlled?

M.A-V: Khania/Kydonia was the strongest Minoan city in western Crete and it seems that it controlled an extensive area, including: the Khania plain in the south towards the Malaxa mountain (ancient Verekynthos) and the Aptera territory, the Akrotiri peninsula in the east, and towards the Polyrrhenia territory in the west. According to several excavations and findings, one could suggest an area of circa 100,000 m2 for the Minoan settlement of Khania, excluding the suburbs.

AR: Where are the findings from Khania currently being housed? Are any on display? Is it possible for visitors to tour the site? Do you have any plans for reconstruction at the site, or building an information center or museum for tourists?

M.A-V: The Minoan findings are housed in the Khania Archaeological Museum, together with the Geometric, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Roman findings from the excavations in the town. The most important of them are on display in the museum. The Kastelli Hill is near the museum and both of them are in the middle of the Old Town and by the Venetian Port. So, anyone may tour the site and have a look very easily at the several excavations.

Soon, a huge cover will be erected above the Haghia Aikaterini Square to protect the Greek-Swedish excavations. An expropriated, small, and old house nearby will be used as an information center for the antiquities on the hill. Another ambitious project, not being fulfilled for the moment, is the uncovering of the excavation in Daskaloyannis Street in Splantzia where part of the important sanctuary had been revealed. The study is ready, but this work will cause a serious change in the circulation in the town since Daskaloyannis Street is an arterial road, and the local authorities are not ready to risk it.

AR: How can our readers learn more about your discoveries at Khania? Do you plan any further publications?

M.A-V: For the moment, some information is included in my book The County of Khania through its Monuments. In the meantime I am trying to publish my dissertation thesis, "The City of Khania (Kydonia) in the Minoan and Geometric Periods."

[Note: This is an abridged version of the interview, "Discoveries at Khania in Western Crete" with Metaxia Tsipopoulou, whose full text and illustrations appear in the printed issue of Vol.3, no.3 of Athena Review (pp.44-51).]

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