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Crete is the findspot for several objects in the Fitzwilliam collection, such as the Greek inscribed ‘Dolphin Rock’, found at Itanos, and the Roman ‘Pashley sarcophagus’, found at Arvi. These objects show the spread of Greek and Roman art and culture in the historical period. However, it is the pre-historic Bronze Age for which ancient Crete is best known. The Fitzwilliam holds a collection of material from this period from the archaeological excavations of the sites of Palaikastro and Petsophas in east Crete.

The island of Crete

 

Bronze Age Crete was the centre of the Minoan civilisation between about 3000 BC and 1450 BC. The Minoans are perhaps best known for their ‘palaces’, elaborate building complexes such as Knossos, and Phaistos. These ‘palaces’ were centres of religious, trade and administrative activity, and were used for storage of produce grown on the fertile island. The archaeological remains show that the Minoans were fine craftsmen, accomplished architects and adventurous traders who developed a network of contacts throughout the Mediterranean world. Around 1450 BC a wave of destruction swept the island and brought the Minoan civilisation to an end. The cause of this destruction is still debated, but it dramatically changed the nature of the Cretan settlements and palaces, and some never recovered.

The British School at Athens excavation of the site at Palaikastro in 1902 British School at Athens Archive, Excavation Records: Palaikastro (East Crete), 1902.  © Archive, British School at Athens

Near the modern town of Palaikastro is the site of a large and wealthy Minoan town. Its ancient name is unknown, and it is today called Palaikastro or Roussolakos. This town flourished for over a thousand years from around the middle of the third millennium BC. In the ‘Neopalatial period’, when elsewhere in Crete the palaces were being enlarged, Palaikastro produced finely-built houses built on a network of paved streets with a drainage system, and town shrines with rich dedications. Individual finds, such as Linear A tablets, show that this was an important administrative centre, with a strong tradition of craft production, but so far no remains of a palace structure have been found. After the wave of destruction that swept the Minoan settlements of Crete around 1450 BC, Palaikastro continued to be inhabited. Indeed, despite a decline in living conditions, it became one of the most important centres in eastern Crete.

Excavation of the site began in the early twentieth century (1902-1906), directed by R.C. Bosanquet and R. M. Dawkins of the British School at Athens (BSA). Further excavations by the BSA in the 1960s and ongoing work since 1980s have uncovered about 30 hectares (one third of a square kilometre) of the town, but geophysical surveying using remote sensing suggests that more of the town, perhaps even the town centre and the Minoan palace, remains unexcavated to the south and east.

Panorama of the coast of east Crete from the Petsophas peak sanctuary. Ancient Palaikastro is in the bottom left of the view. Photo: Hugh Sackett, c. 2000. © Archive, British School at Athens

 

In 1903, during the early work at Palaikastro, on the mountain ridge to the south of the site the excavators discovered the peak sanctuary of Petsophas. This type of sanctuary, positioned on a high mountain peak with views of settlements, the sea and other peak sanctuaries, was typical in Minoan Crete. Peak sanctuaries were usually open-air, dominated by the natural landscape with few man-made features. They are identified archaeologically by the votive offerings that survive.

Excavations in the 1970s by K. Davaras of the Greek Archaeological Service revealed the history of the Petsophas peak sanctuary. Its foundation probably predates the nearby town of Palaikastro, and at first it was simply an artificially levelled terrace. Around 1800 BC, when most other Minoan peak sanctuaries had been abandoned, this sanctuary still flourished. A small shrine was built, and most of the dedications, which include terracotta votive figurines and miniature limbs, bronzes, horns of consecration and libation tables, some inscribed with Linear A, date to this time. The sanctuary seems to have fallen out of use around 1500 BC, shortly before the destruction throughout Crete.

A small selection of objects from Bronze Age Petsophas and Palaikastro is on display in Gallery 21 Case 1, and all the material in the Fitzwilliam from these sites is on the museum collections database.

Further material from both excavations is displayed in Crete at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and Siteia Archaeological Museum, as well as in several museums in the United Kingdom and North America. The records of the excavations conducted at Palaikastro are held in the Archives of the British School at Athens.

Further reading

B. Rutkowski, Petsophas: A Cretan Peak Sanctuary (Warsaw, 1991).

J. Driessen, A. MacGillivray, and H. Sackett (eds), Ancient Palaikastro, an exhibition to mark 100 years of archaeological work 1902-2002 (London, 2003).

For information about the archaeological site of Palaikastro see the website of the Greek Ministry of Culture