2,500-year-old building dedicated to worship rewrites history of Crete

The lack of burial sites in 6th century BCE Crete was not the result of a decline on the island, but a shift in funerary practices, archaeologists say

Aerial view of excavations at Itanos in Crete (photo credit: DIDIER VIVIERS/ULB/CREA-PATRIMOINE)
Aerial view of excavations at Itanos in Crete
(photo credit: DIDIER VIVIERS/ULB/CREA-PATRIMOINE)
The discovery of a ceremonial building, burial monuments, cultic vessels and manipulated tombs has bolstered confidence that ancient worship was taking place 2,500 years ago at Itanos, an archaeological site of extreme importance on the island of Crete with a well situated harbor and a key place for trade roads.
“The fact that we have erected cenotaphs (burial monuments) and a concentration of cultic and drinking vessels clearly indicates that the activity within this necropolis was not daily life, but ritual practice. It was a place where the community gathered to honor their ancestors," says Professor Didier Viviers, who is the co-director of the excavations alongside Professor Athena Tsingarida.
Two cenotaphs found at Itanos in Crete. (Credit: Didier Viviers/ULB/CReA-Patrimoine)Two cenotaphs found at Itanos in Crete. (Credit: Didier Viviers/ULB/CReA-Patrimoine)
The archaic building consisted of a large reception hall, adjoining a storeroom, where members of the family clan could hold a funeral banquet. But most of the surface area was devoted to a large courtyard, in which offerings to the dead were made around a erected cenotaph built on an ancient tomb. A separate room, where, probably more intimate, rites were performed, was used for another equipment also related to an ancient tomb.
“At the time of the construction of this funerary complex, some of the ancient burials were manipulated. They were emptied of their contents which were replaced with a pot (chytra), containing olive leaves, which may have been used during the preparation of ritual meals addressed to the dead” notes Professor Didier Viviers.
Chytra (pot) found at Itanos in Crete. (Credit: Didier Viviers/ULB/CReA-Patrimoine)Chytra (pot) found at Itanos in Crete. (Credit: Didier Viviers/ULB/CReA-Patrimoine)
The discoveries at the communal burial ground at Itanos have rekindled a longstanding academic brawl over the lack of burials on Crete during this period which had been interpreted as a sign of austerity and decline of the Cretan society.
The excavators exploring Itanos are not saying that the cemetery was necessarily used to inhumed or incinerated the inhabitants per se. But they are now confident: Cretan ritual festivities worship took place there to honor the ancestors while the lack of burials does not necessary signify a decline of the society but rather reflects a change of social practices attesting frequent visits and tributes to the dead.
“This exceptional discovery helps to understand the political and social use of the cemeteries in Crete during this very important period for the construction of the Cretan city-states”, explains professor Didier Viviers.
Where sea-lanes crossed
Itanos is situated at the eastern tip of Crete and was established in the 9th century BCE but quickly rose to prominence thanks to its trade with purple dye that was obtained from shellfish or mollusks. Purple-dye was highly sought after in ancient times and became a mark of wealth since the amount of fluid acquired from each shellfish was small and a time-consuming process to extract. It is therefore easy to understand how Itanos quickly could rise to wealth and fame from selling this luxurious dye. Its fair harbor also made it a great international port where merchants from the Aegean, Anatolia, Egypt and other parts of the Mediterranean traded various commodities such as wine, perfume and ceramic wares.
Its vast material prosperity is also attested by the fact that the city-state minted its own coins which often depicts mythical sea creatures, such as Glaukos, a bearded god with a trident who was the protector of fishermen as well as coins with the sea-god Triton.
Many Itanian coins carry the image of Athena, the main divinity of the city which had a sanctuary on the western Acropolis. All good things come to an end and Itanos started to decline from the mid-7th century CE due to earthquakes that partly but repeatedly destroyed the town that was eventually abandoned.
The site of Itanos has been under excavations by the École Belge d´Athenes (Belgian School in Athens) since 2011, apart from the necropolis the excavations have uncovered numerous buildings dating from the 7th century BCE and downwards.
Ceremonial worship in the hall of the dead
The recent discovers in Itanos have forced archaeologists to rethink their ideas of Cretan burial sites in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE but also how the society at that time reinforced its social structure.
At the edge of the necropolis, on top of a hill, the excavators discovered a cultic site featuring ritual feasting, a building complex sporting altar, offering pits and cultic opulent and imported objets d'art.
5th cent. louterion (cultic vessel) found at Itanos in Crete. (Credit: Didier Viviers/ULB/CReA-Patrimoine)5th cent. louterion (cultic vessel) found at Itanos in Crete. (Credit: Didier Viviers/ULB/CReA-Patrimoine)
The ceremonial hall that was discovered, a spacious building, 6 meters long and 4,50 meters width, and was partly erected in clay on a stone foundation and had a hearth in its center used for burnt offerings. Numerous archaeobotanical remains such as grains and grapes were discovered in the courtyard in the several burnt offering pits that were used during the ritual ceremonies. Cultic, drinking and storage vessels such as goblets and chalices, perfume vases and amphoras which were used during ritual ceremonies honoring the dead were also found inside the building.
“This ceramic material is mostly imported (especially from Attica but also from the Aegean and East Greece). This international profile of imports is relatively exceptional in Crete and probably serves the family clan's desire to demonstrate its social status”, comments Professor Athena Tsingarida.
Since no bodies was discovered in these tombs (that was converted into cenotaphs for worship), cults were dedicated to all the ancestors of the clan rather than to a single member suggests prof Viviers.
“The nature of these rituals and ceremonies suggests that the lack of actual burials or cremations in the necropolis of Itanos in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, also known in other Cretan necropolis, was not necessarily a sign of recession or decline in the Cretan society but rather the result of a voluntary change in social behavior towards death and the rituals that go with it” postulates prof Viviers.
Itanos was a port city that still has much to teach us about the burial practices in Crete from the Geometric to the Roman period. Therefore, Itanos is an excellent site for understanding the evolution of Cretan societies during these periods, which were in constant contact with the Greek world and the Eastern Mediterranean. t
“The excavations taking place on the site allow us to highlight the leading role played by the port of Itanos in the maritime exchanges but also in the understanding of the trade circuits inland (for instance, through the distribution networks of locally maid ceramic products)", concluded Professor Didier Viviers.
The Belgian archaeological mission plans to resume excavations in summer of 2021, to explore the early necropolis more widely and reconstruct its topographical organization and the funerary landscape.