By John Leonard
Seldom elsewhere in Greece are the diverse layers of history that have accumulated in this ancient land more apparent today – or more frustrating for archaeologists – than they are in and around the Old City of Chania, in northwestern Crete.
Inhabited since at least the late Neolithic period some 5,000 years ago, Chania – ancient Kydonia – was one of the five main Minoan centres of Crete in the Late Bronze Age during the second half of the 2nd millennium BC.
As such, it almost certainly once had a sprawling, multi-roomed palace like the distinctive complexes still to be seen at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros. Kydonia’s Minoan palace, however, constitutes one of Greek archaeology’s great remaining mysteries, still lying buried and awaiting identification somewhere beneath the material buildup of the strategic port city’s subsequent Geometric, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman Turkish occupation.
The focus of life on the site during all of these successive eras was Chania’s Kastelli Hill, where, since the mid-1960s, Greek, Swedish and recently Danish archaeologists have toiled to piece together clues from mostly small excavations – conducted wherever possible in the midst of an age-old urban landscape also capped by modern development.
Despite archaeologists’ essentially having to glimpse Chania’s rich past only through a series of small key holes cut in the ground, investigations are heating up, especially at Agia Ekaterini Square, where, since 1990, several tablets bearing Linear B script have been unearthed. With excavations ongoing in 2012, improved public presentation of the visible Minoan remains at the square and a new, large, ultra-modern archaeological museum being planned, Chania is clearly one place to keep an eye on in coming years.
The systematic exploration of Minoan Kydonia was launched in 1965 by Greek archaeologist Yiannis Tzedakis. Later, between 1969 and 2008, Tzedakis collaborated with Swedish archaeologists, under the auspices of the 25th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities (EPKA) and the Swedish Institute at Athens (SIA), to investigate prehistoric structures uncovered in Agia Ekaterini Square.
Since the 1960s, the 25th EPKA has also conducted innumerable rescue excavations in small areas or sites within Chania where modern development has dipped into underlying strata and revealed evidence of past inhabitation. Beginning in 2010, the Danish Institute at Athens (DIA) also became involved in the study of the square, with excavations led by Tzedakis, Ann-Louise Schallin (SIA) and Erik Hallager (DIA).
The 25th EPKA’s rescue operations, overseen by the ephorate’s current director, Maria Andreadaki-Vlasiki, have brought to light important archaeological traces from different eras that include impressive rock-cut chamber tombs of the Hellenistic era. One particularly remarkable example of a late 4th or early 3rd century BC family tomb, unearthed in 1981 but still accessible to the public beneath a modern building, features a long entrance corridor and nine separate burial chambers with the names of the deceased inscribed above each door.
The Greek-Swedish excavations have shown that Kastelli Hill was continuously occupied from at least Early Minoan II/Early Minoan III (EM II/EM III) times until the present day, except for a 400-year gap between the end of the Bronze Age and the end of the Geometric period (ca 1150-725BC). Previous Neolithic inhabitation is suggested through pottery, but no architecture has been located yet. The collaborative study also revealed that the life of ancient Kydonia was dynamic and subject to change. In the Late Minoan era, unlike at other Minoan centres in Crete, Kydonia experienced a renewal of its settlement seven times over a period of three and a half centuries. By the 14th and 13th centuries BC (LM IIIA & LM IIIB) Kydonia had become a busy commercial, maritime centre, supported by an extensive agricultural hinterland from which locally made pottery, oil, perfume and wine were exported throughout Crete, the Aegean and to more distant central and eastern Mediterranean areas ranging from Sardinia to Cyprus.
The fine display of walls to be seen at Agia Ekaterini Square, covered today with a protective modern roof, mostly belong to the phase of Kydonia that came to an abrupt, fiery end around 1450BC (LM IB). Visible are several domestic structures including House I, which offers visitors a view of a Late Minoan residence. A doorway with a large stone threshold leads into the house from a narrow paved street. A small, square hall then gives access in three directions: straight ahead into a main room with a light well, left into several small rooms of unknown function and right into a lobby with a staircase and beyond it a kitchen/workroom which held the remains of a loom. Adjacent to the kitchen is a storeroom that contained jars of foodstuffs including peas.
Overall, more than 300 complete vessels were recovered in the house. A family treasury beyond the storeroom contained clay and stone vessels, seals, sealings, amulets and jewellery. Upstairs, a room above the kitchen once held Linear A tablets, which, with the burning of the house, collapsed into the room below. Short flights of low steps connect some of the rooms, while light, air and temperature could be controlled inside the house through typical pier-and-door openings like those also known at Knossos. North of House I was discovered a large, later structure that also burned around 1350-1250BC (LM IIIA:2/IIIB:1) and contained at least three Linear B tablets. One tablet reveals the presence of a local cult of Zeus and Dionysus; a second refers to weavers from western Crete; while a third records ten chariot wheels – which seem, based on another tablet from Knossos, to have been common Kydonian trade items.
The unresolved question about the location of Kydonia’s Minoan palace led to renewed excavations in 2010 by an expanded Greek-Swedish-Danish team. Focusing on the northern structure where Linear B tablets had previously been found, the archaeologists produced a variety of intriguing Late Bronze Age artefacts, but no new Linear B inscriptions.
The results of further digging in 2011 have not been publicly disclosed yet. With one more excavation season and two study seasons left in the current five-year project, new information concerning Kydonia’s palace may still be forthcoming. Certainly, the constellation of evidence that increasingly points to the appropriateness of a palace at Kydonia seems reassuring of a positive eventual outcome for the specialists’ search.
In the meantime, other exciting developments are already taking place in Chania, as the old archaeological museum will soon be replaced with a new, significantly larger facility that will aptly showcase the remarkable archaeological finds from ancient Kydonia and its surrounding areas. Although the current archaeological museum has charm, thanks largely to its accommodation within the vaulted main hall of a Venetian monastery once dedicated to St Francis, exhibition and working spaces are severely limited.
The new museum, slated to open in late 2013, is designed by Greek architect Theofanis Bobotis, who also produced the stunning, new archaeological museum in Patra.
Chania’s equally innovative facility – to be erected in neighbouring Chalepa, near the historic home/museum of former prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos – will feature 1,800m2 of indoor and outdoor exhibition space, skywalks, laboratories, offices, a 140-seat amphitheatre, a museum shop and a restaurant. Stay tuned, as the future of the past seems bright in western Crete.
**** From Athens News.