It’s actually been two and half months since the trip I took to Santorini and Crete with Andante Travels, taking an expert led tour of Minoan Ruins. Akrotiri, the 16th Century BCE town buried in ash on Santorini, has been on my bucket list for years, but was closed during the 2000s due to the protective roof over the excavation having collapsed! A new and stronger roof has been built and the site reopened in 2011. So I’ve been champing on the bit to go there. I’d been shopping for archaeological cruises by Voyages to Antiquity, National Geographic, Martin Randall for a couple of years. We — my friend, Andrea, and I — found Andante Travels at the last minute and I’m so glad we discovered this tour company. We had a blast! It was everything I hoped it would be. My two traveling companions were Andrea and my daughter, Iphigeneia. Andrea and I had planned to travel together to Europe when our daughters had graduated from highschool. We missed that deadline — although she has more daughters than I and one of them has yet to graduate — but our adventure was none the less exciting for that. (We had great fun planning our wardrobes (not that you will be able to tell from the pictures of me). We started in London, having had a few days to knock around the museums and spend a day or two in Oxford — more on that in another blog — arriving at Gatwick Airport in plenty of time. There were stricter luggage weight requirements for the EasyJet flight to Santorini than there had been for our overseas flight. I noticed during check-in that my bag weighed 21.9 kilos, over the 20 kilo limit, but nothing was said, no money was demanded – I later found out why – so we checked at the X-ray machines and began looking around for the “distinctive” Andante baggage tags (as advised by our pre-tour instructions). Right away we found Janice. I’d actually noticed her rolling duffle in the long check-in line, thinking it looked very archaeologically tourish and envying it. Then we met Harmon and Nell, an American couple, who turned out to be from STOUGHTON, WISCONSIN! We laughed about that. Out of the 21 tour members, the only Americans were all from Wisconsin. (There was one other from state side, Stanley, from Washington DC, whom we met later.) We’d been told to look for our Tour Guide, Gudrun Schmid, before going through to departures and finally located her over by the check-in area. She was tall, dark haired and handsome. I will just mention at this point that she wore embroidered Pakistani tunics throughout our tour (along with supplex nylon zip-off pants) for their length and they became her very well. She said she traveled so often in Muslim countries, she’d found these airy, pretty tops a perfect solution to being covered up (a good tip for travel buffs). Harmon was tall and consistently wore supplex nylon shirts and pants and a brimmed hat, which so reminded me of my late husband, Matt. Matt would have loved our company of travelers. (This is, by the way, perfect gear for an archaeological tour.) We were delayed in London by weather, so it was after nightfall that we arrived in Santorini. We didn’t see one of the spectacular sunsets that are so famous. Our lecturer, (Alexander) Sandy MacGillivray met us at the airport, along with our Cretan Guide, Mania, and they swept us off to our two hotels, one for doubles, the other for singles, and then to dinner at a local tavern overlooking the caldera, which we couldn’t see unfortunately. (I imagine it had been specially chosen for the view and the sunset.) I will interject at this point that Santorini is a volcano. About 1600 or 1550 BCE it erupted spectacularly, then collapsed into the sea, leaving a crescent shape surrounding a fantastically deep caldera. It is that view overlooking the caldera and two small, still active volcanic islets, that one sees so frequently in pictures of t he Greek Islands.
When we’d arrived at the Kalimera Hotel, I’d gone immediately to Gudrun and asked her whether she could help me get a “very quiet” room. I’m not sure rooms were assigned yet, but the concierge immediately assigned Geneia and I to Room 18, which was way at the back, away from the road, on the other side of the pool, and had an adorable little courtyard attached. I slept like a top and afterward left two dresses I was planning to wear in Crete in the closet, of course. Doesn’t everyone do something like that when they’re traveling? Sandy was quiet-spoken and dryly humorous. He wore a sort of uniform every day, a white, airily woven shirt, a bandana, pants and several small-brimmed hats. He became our constant companion on the trip, both instructing and socializing. He must enjoy people because he rarely got a break from us and didn’t seem to be chafing at it. He was the soul of unflappability, intelligent conversation and kindness.
I can’t recount what we ate the first night. The food was always good and there was always local wine, both red and white. That latter was a very nice feature indeed. We usually had starters, ground fava beans as a spread, deep-fried squid or calamari, deep-fried goat cheese – that was heavenly – and bruschetta with tomatoes, herbs and feta ( tomatoes and cucumbers were abundant in different forms). The main course could be fish or lamb or chicken. For dessert there was often Greek yogurt with fruit. Pastries were served with breakfast.
The first day started out with what could have been the severest blow. We had breakfast and took the bus to Fira to see the Archaeological Museum and the Prehistoric Museum, before going to Akrotiri to tour the ruins and found that THE GREEKS WERE HAVING A STRIKE! ALL THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES WERE CLOSED! I was stunned as Gudrun, Mania and Sandy put their heads together to come up with Plan B. I’d come on this tour for the express purpose of seeing Akrotiri. I have to say that I didn’t unravel (pat, pat), although ideas of hopping the fence did occur. There was still a hope that we would see it on our half-day on the morrow – the strike was only supposed to be for two days and this was day two – but we wouldn’t ever get to see those museums. (I comforted myself with the thought that the actual Akrotiri frescos are in Athens.) Plan B became a voyage to the active volcano on two islands in the middle of the caldera. Nea Kameni and Palia Kameni, which mean “the new and the old burnt out islands.” (Sandy had related the comforting news at dinner the night before that there was an “unresolved” build-up of lava in the island beneath us that hadn’t been released in a big way since 1500 BCE. Santorini is still a live volcano!) I hadn’t worn my hiking boots, thinking we were going to museums. Nea Kameni turned out to be an uphill hike on crumbled lava leading to an older and newer caldera.
There were vents emitting sulphurous gas along the way, which I found pretty interesting (after having read Pompeii by Robert Harris about the Aquarius, or aqueduct engineer, in the days leading up to the eruption).
Sandy pointed out the sulfuric pools in the Aegean around the island. Venetian ships used to moor there to kill the barnacles adhering to heir hulls. The Aegean was impossibly blue. The reason you see all those domed roofs and doors painted brilliant blue in postcards (see above)
is because the color matches the Sea. It’s almost unbelievable. I longed to dive in, especially when our second stop turned out to be hot springs at Palia Kameni. Most of the other passengers were wearing swimsuits and jumped off the boat, as they’d known they were coming. We got our chance to swim later though.
While the Guides were purchasing tickets for the cruise, we had a chance to do some shopping. Caryn had asked me to bring her back some Greek textile from which she could make a pillow. One shop had actual pillow covers that were so beautifully needle-worked that I could hardly choose from among them. I finally narrowed it down to two, one for me and one for her, not knowing which I’d keep myself since I thought them both so gorgeous. I also saw a silver bee pendant that was in my price range, but passed it by because it just isn’t the same if it’s not gold. Then, just before the voyage, I found one in gold (see below, the real thing)! The shopkeeper quickly wrote down the price in Euros and Dollars so I could contemplate the expense. When we debarked from the cruise ship and took the gondolas back to the summit of the caldera, I quickly ran in and bought it. Apart from the textile for Caryn, I had had in mind when we booked the tour, that the only souvenir I would buy myself in Crete would be a replica of that pendant, which I’ve loved all my life.
We got our chance to swim in the Wine Dark Sea that very night. Our group was to walk down to the shore from our hotel and eat dinner at a tavern dug into the volcanic tephra. Sandy offered to walk down an hour early with us for a swim off the pier – it’s a harbor. We were joined by Joe and Elaine, two of our favorite people on the trip. Joe was a great swimmer. He was raised in Saudi Arabia and returned to the Middle East for work later. He and Elaine had met at college in Belfast, Ireland. It was nearly twilight, so we didn’t have the joy of leaping into that crystalline blue aqua, but it was warm and very salty. The saltiness was a bit of a shock. I mean, I knew it was salt-water, but it was salty enough to gag you if you swallowed it. When the others arrived, we were sitting on the patio being introduced by Sandy to Raki, a distilled Greek spirit made from grape skins. (I was missing vodka and it was the nearest thing.) I quite liked it.
On day two, we headed to the ruin of ancient Thera, a Greco-Roman city perched on the height of an enormous hill overlooking the sea and named after the mythical ruler of the island, Theras. (Santorini’s ancient name was Thera. Thera is also the official modern name of the island, having been revived in the 19th century, so it’s a little confusing, because this ruin is called Thera too. Most people know the island by the name Santorini, which is derived from Saint Irene.) It was another steep climb. This time I wore hiking boots with my khaki skirt (see below; Elaine is also in the picture).
Sandy taught us to “scrottle,” his (? probably shared by his cronies) unofficial term for potsherd and coin hunting. Up until that time I’d hardly noticed that the ground was literally littered with potsherds. I’d thought they were little terracotta pebbles, but no! He picked up the handle of the cup to show us what was lying about and from that point on we all became avid scrottlers. Thera was inhabited from the 9th Century BCE to about 728 CE. Highlights were a theatre, stoa, agora and temples to imported Egyptian gods during the Roman era. We all wondered at the height of the hill and how fisherman and tradesmen could bear to hike down to the sea, then hike back up with their sales goods. It would have been so arduous. Piracy, however, was a real threat to islanders for most of the Aegean’s history once the Minoan Thalossocracy (rule of the sea) was destroyed with their fleet by the eruption of Thera. The sea was not safe again until Roman times!
Then, ….we went to see Akrotiri. The excavation is more extensive than one sees in pictures, and it was absolute thrill to walk through an ancient Minoan city and orient oneself to the space, the height of the doors and windows, and imagine what it might have been like to live there.
Akrotiri, destroyed by the Stupendous Eruption of Thera around 1550 BCE, a World Heritage Site
One thing more ticked off my Bucket List! Sandy met and introduced us to two colleagues, the world’s expert on Horns of Consecration, a common and controversial architectural feature of Minoan architecture, and an archaeological artist. (I asked Sandy whether archaeology still employed artists or whether that was an outdated practice and he said that artists were employed on every dig. Detail could never be recorded as clearly by photography as by drawing. Most archaeological artists start out as artists, not as archaeologists. Mmmmm…I should have looked into this earlier.) From Santorini, we took a catamaran to Heraklion, a voyage of about four hours. I sat next to Diana, who became another of my favorite people on the tour. She works for Scotland Yard. She dressed very femininely, unlike the rest of us, barring Andrea, no practical supplex for this girl!. Diana was FUNNY! I asked her why she always sat in the sun and wore clothes that offered no sun protection and she said it was because she worked in “black box, dear.” She was dying to get out! Her trenchant, comical evaluation of things was a constant delight. Our Hotel, Hotel Lato, was right downtown. I was concerned about the noise, but once again went straight to the desk with Gudrun and was switched with another couple for the quietest room possible. Once again I slept soundly both nights. Sandy walked us down through the streets of Heraklion, pointing out the Venetian architecture and the Lion Fountain (see below), which is no longer running, but is a favorite local area to meet and congregate in. We had dinner in a sort of covered market lined with cafes, where the tables and chairs were in the street. I remember what we had that night. It was the fried squid appetizers and wonderful lamb chops.
Here is the Venetian Landmark by Night, as we saw it
Each day there was a bit of rescheduling as the guides tried to avoid crowds at the more popular sites. We had been scheduled to see Knossos first thing in the morning, but they learned that four cruise ships would be decanting their passengers that morning and the site would be mobbed, so after a short stop at the Heraklion Museum to see the highlights of Minoan art, we drove to Vathypetro, which was perhaps a country estate, located on a hill – let’s face it, everything in Greece is located on top of a hill – amidst vineyards and olive groves. The Vathypetro complex was constructed around 1580 BCE at the beginning of the Late Minoan IA period and badly damaged around 1550 BCE, perhaps by an earthquake. The south sector of the building, which includes a wine press, was rebuilt as a farmhouse and industrial center after the 1550 BCE destruction and was finally destroyed around 1470 BCE. I was familiar with it from watching Bettany Hughes’ (my alter-ego) television documentary Island of the Minotaur, which I recommend as a very good synopsis of what we know or speculate about the Minoans. (I’m currently reading her Hemlock Cup, which is a fascinating picture of the Athens that Socrates frequented and was condemned by. It’s full of illuminating details, just as is her excellent Helen of Troy, one of the best books on the Bronze Age I’ve read.) The site appears to have been self-sufficent: local potter production is attested by two potters’ wheels and a kiln; numerous loom weights and spindle whorls testify to textile production. Vathypetro has an intact wine press, one of the oldest in the world. I thought at the time that I was going to love Vathypetro more than any of the other sites due to its beautiful setting and state of preservation. Now it is hard to pick a favorite, but the setting of this site is gorgeous.
One of the points Sandy made at Vathypetro was that the ancient sense of time was circular rather than linear, as we conceive it. I’m not sure what that really means. He also pointed out that 1/3 of the days of the year were devoted to religious festivals. It reminds of the medieval Church Calendar. Medieval Europe and Crete were both agrarian societies. We know that the Roman and Byzantine Churchesadopted pagan festivals and assigned them new names to make them appear Christian. Might we derive a sense of what these religious festivals were like by the survival of rituals in the medieval church? He pointed out that the villa of Vathypetro had been expensive to build, had been preplanned with drainage etc. and that it was built to last. One of the interesting features of the site is a Pillar Crypt or man-made cave. Of course there are many natural caves on Crete that were used for religious rites and offerings. Sandy theorized that the Pillar Crypt was used for sensory deprivation, nothing to see or hear, and some sort of maturation rite. There are terracotta figurines of goddesses wearing poppies as a crown. Might opium have been used to achieve visions in such a crypt? After Vathypetro, we stopped at the Archanes Museum for a quick look around.
At the nearby sanctuary of Anemospilia, on the north slopes of Juktas (mountain), four human skeletons were found in its ruins; one, belonging to a young man, was found in an unusually contracted position on a raised platform, suggesting that he had been trussed up for sacrifice, much like the bull in the sacrifice scene on the Mycenaean-era Ayia Triadha sarcophagus.
A bronze dagger was among his bones, and the discoloration of the bones on one side of his body suggests he died of blood loss. The bronze blade was fifteen inches long and had images of a boar on each side. The bones were on a raised platform at the center of the middle room, next to a pillar with a trough at its base. The positions of the other three skeletons suggest that an earthquake caught them by surprise—the skeleton of a twenty-eight-year-old woman was spread-eagled on the ground in the same room as the sacrificed male. Next to the sacrificial platform was the skeleton of a man in his late thirties, with broken legs. His arms were raised, as if to protect himself from falling debris, which suggests that his legs were broken by the collapse of the building in the earthquake. In the front hall of the building was the fourth skeleton, too poorly preserved to allow determination of age or gender. Nearby 105 fragments of a clay vase were discovered, scattered in a pattern that suggests it had been dropped bythe person in the front hall when he was struck by debris from the collapsing building.The jar appears to have contained bull’s blood. (Italicized content from Wikipedia) Bettany Hughes suggested that the jar being carried away from the room contained human blood. There is also the suggestion that human sacrifice was underway to avert the very earthquake that interrupted it. In the “North House” at Knossos, the bones of at least four children (who had been in good health) were found which bore signs that “they were butchered in the same way the Minoans slaughtered their sheep and goats, suggesting that they had been sacrificed and eaten. The senior Cretan archaeologist Nicolas Platon was so horrified at this suggestion that he insisted the bones must be those of apes, not humans.” The bones, found by Peter Warren, date to Late Minoan IB (1580-1490), before the Myceneans arrived (in LM IIIA, c. 1320-1200) according to Paul Rehak and John G. Younger. Dennis Hughes and Rodney Castleden argue that these bones were deposited as a ‘secondary burial’. Secondary burial is the not-uncommon practice of burying the dead twice: immediately following death, and then again after the flesh is gone from the skeleton. The main weakness of this argument is that it does not explain the type of cuts and knife marks upon the bones. (again, Wikipedia) Bettany Hughes relates the evidence and succession of events that preserved the evidence in Island of the Minotaur. We had a lot to discuss at dinner. It was our free night. Sandy was offering to take anyone interested down to the Heraklion Yacht Club for dinner. Evidently they are famous for preparing a sort of small fish. In spite of that menu billing, I would normally have leapt at the chance to go on discussing Minoan religion and burial practices – both scholars and members of the tour were suggesting that the Minoans practiced excarnation, exposing their dead on the hillsides to be picked clean by the Lammergeiers (see below) we often observed soaring above our heads – but I was feeling tired, not physically, but emotionally, from exposure to so many new and interesting sights and thoughts.
Before dinner, as a culmination of our day, we went to Knossos for about three hours. I’ve been to Knossos before, at the end of 1975, between Christmas and January, when Harry Kampert, Vicki Bailey and I met the St. Olaf Roots of Early Christianity Group in Istanbul. It had been nearly deserted at the time, as the weather was rainy, and we’d been able to wander at will through the entire site.
I hadn’t really remembered the scope of it though. It’s BIG! Sandy took us through it in the way that visitors would have entered to participate in a festival. The current thinking is that Knossos was more of a community center than a “palace,” although Evans’ description has stuck. There is no iconography of rulership here, or anywhere for that matter, in Minoan architecture. Thrones are most generally occupied by women, priestesses, and picture a religious or ritual activity. The famous Labrys, or double-ax (referred to as the “double-headed doo dah” by Terry, another member of our tour, and known henceforward by us by that name) is generally pictured hanging upside down, often from some sort of tray. This double-headed ax was once thought to be the instrument of sacrifice for a religion centered on the bull, the natural presupposition of Sir Arthur Evans who had the myth of the Minotaur in mind. That idea has been abandoned. Also, by the way, Sandy thinks that the alluring, frilled dresses that women are invariably portrayed in are just the way Minoan women dressed. I asked. It seems so impractical a costume.
It must be the reason why Minoan Crete hasn’t been widely adopted by hobbyists for historical recreations. Haha.
A couple of the pictures above bear commenting on: One of them shows the Pier and Door construction characteristic to Minoan architecture. The recesses of the deep walls and doorways allowed folding doors to be opened and tucked inside the doorways or closed to protect from weather. Immeditely above is the Processional Way into the palace. The paving stones are blue and the grout is pink. Another feature of the palaces are the Theatral Areas, wide steps with a courtyard at the bottom. People would sit on the steps to observe whatever was taking place in the coutyard. Sir Arthur Evans named the Theatral Area of the Palace of Knossos, the “Dancing Floor of Ariadne,” so…..
It was incomparably richer experience to visit Knossos with a knowledgeable guide who could make sense of everything you saw and tell you how the entire structure worked for its inhabitants. Over and over again I felt confirmed in my choice of a theme-tour for a vacation. We could never have gotten so much out of visiting these sites on our own. Sandy has excavated on Crete all his life and is intimately familiar with the digs. Also, by the way, it was great to be taken care of and not to have to expend OUR mental energy on finding good places to eat and stay the night, arrange for transportation, or have to lug my awkward, heavy duffle up and down the narrow streets of virtually anywhere in Greece. I was ready for a real vodka and cranberry at the end of my day…Ah divinity. We dressed and went up to rooftop restaurant, open to the sky with a panoramic view. The next day, which was Saturday, we visited Gortyn, a thriving from Homeric times through Roman, famous for the Archaic-era Gortyn Law Code, which was inscribed in stone. Later Hellenistic construction reused the great blocks higglety-pigglety in one of their buildings. The site was abandoned in the 7th Century AD due to Arab rades, but during Roman times it was the most important city on the island, the capital of the Roman province of Crete and Cyrene (in Libya) from 27 BCE. I think I have some potsherds from Gortyn. There is a sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods wherein Serapis, Isis and Anubis were worshipped.
Next stop was Ayia Triada, another Bronze Age Villa, where a famous sarcophagus, referred to above, was found.
All this time we were busy scrottling. Ayia Triadha and the nearby “palace” of Phaistos were reached by driving through the extremely scenic Mesara Plain. I have pictures of this plain from my first visit to Crete, one day of which we spent touring Phaistos, Zakros and Mallia by bus. Now I can identify my old pictures of this gorgeous topography. The sites are related and situated on opposite ends of a single ridge. As I’ve said, Phaistos is a palace akin to Knossos, though not as large. Agia Triadha is town with possibly a “royal” villa. According to mythology, Phaistos was the seat of king Radamanthus, brother of king Minos, who was later thought by Greeks to have become a judge in the underworld. It was also the city that gave birth to the great wise man and soothsayer Epimenidis, one of the seven wise men of the ancient world. The Royal Villa was built at the end of the Middle Minoan period (MM IIIB) or possibly in LM IA, possibly as late as 1550 BCE. It was destroyed by fire in the generalized destruction of 1450 – when the Myceneans apparently took violent possession of Crete — so it was in use for between 100 and 150 years at the most. Its existence has been explained by some as a “Summer Palace” for the “King” of Phaistos or other important officials. Others have argued that Agia Triada was the seat of a local chief. As I’ve already mentioned, there is a lot of controversy about the use of these “palaces.” Agia Triadha’s identification as a royal villa stems from the monarchist school of thought. Agia Triadha’s Minoan ruins are topped by a Mycenean megaron. (Chania in Western Crete show the first Mycenean warrior burials.) There are a couple of interesting features of the palace at Phaistos. One is two steps about four feet high in the corner of the Central Courtyard from which, it has been suggested, acrobats used to leap over bulls. This isn’t entirely speculation. There is actually a seal-ring picturing just such a feat, from just such a platform.
The picture above is from one of the informational plaques at Phaistos.
Geneia and I have talked about the whole bull-leaping thing during and ever since the trip. Most experts have pronounced the feat impossible, at least as portrayed in Minoan iconography (see below).
If they weren’t actually leaping over bulls, the frescos and many sculptures portraying it could be relating a mythical narrative central to Minoan religion. The same is true of the monkeys gathering saffron and the Mistress of the Animals and other fresco themes. We’ve simply lost the “story,” and so don’t understand it. That seems feasible, but considering that the Myceneans took over the Minoan sites, I find it difficult to believe that some vestige of a myth that featured bull-leaping didn’t survive to explain the pictures as a story. I frankly believe – and Geneia recognizes that she WANTS to believe – that the Minoans were actually leaping bulls. There are so many pictures of it and they all look alike. There’s someone at the horns and a spotter at the rear and a figure somersaulting frontwards over the bull’s back. Now, there is a current sport of bull-leaping in which the athlete leaps the bull side-on, but not a single Minoan illustration suggests that it was ever done any other way than head-on.
Bull Leaping Fresco from the Palace of Knossos
Seal Ring with Bull Leapers — not the One showing the Platform though
Sandy also suggested an astral explanation of the Bull Leaping fresco in which the figure grasping the bull’s horns is Orion, the bull is Taurus, who has swallowed the seven Pleiades, and is spotted by Andromeda. It is the actual map of the sky. It also supports the Minotaur myth in which the Minotaur ate seven maidens. I think that’s interesting. In Greek Mythology, Orion did pursue the Pleiades and Zeus transformed them into stars to escape his amorous pursuit. There is no bull in the Greek tale though. However, Michael Rappenglück of the University of Munich believes that Taurus is represented in a cave painting at the Hall of the Bulls in the caves at Lascaux, which he believes is accompanied by a depiction of the Pleiades. The name “seven sisters” has been used for the Pleiades in the languages of many cultures, including indigenous groups of Australia, North America and Siberia. (Wikipedia) So, a bull might be provided there.
Bettany Hughes said that the bulls used by the Minoans were hybrid Aurochs. Now, I first became familiar with Aurochs, the European bison, extinct since the 17th Century AD, from Quo Vadis, because the heroine Lygia was tied to the horns of one in the Colosseum. I had to find out about them.
The proportions and body shape of the aurochs were strikingly different from many modern cattle breeds. For example, the legs were considerably longer and more slender, resulting in a shoulder height that nearly equaled the trunk length. The skull, carrying the large horns, was substantially larger and more elongated than in most cattle breeds. As in other wild bovines, the body shape of the aurochs was athletic and, especially in bulls, showed a strongly expressed neck and shoulder musculature. (Wikipedia) Cows were red-brown; bulls red-brown to black. They had a white dorsal stripe. See below for size comparison with a human.
This has been photoshopped, no doubt, but it gives an idea
Sandy wasn’t familiar with aurochs, which rather surprised me. He wrote it down to look it up. He was familiar with Mary Renault, of course. Mary Renault speculated in the King Must Die that the bulls used in Bull-Leaping were hybrids as well, to make them a little slower and little more stupid than a wild bull. I have thought ever since reading Quo Vadis that the wild bulls referred to in the Bible, the paradigm of strength and power, were aurochs.