Sunday, 19 June 2011


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Gournia - the ancient name of which is not known - is the best known of Cretes smaller

palaces. Dated to the period of the peak of Minoan culture 1550-1450BC it lies on a

small hill, a few hundred metres from the sea in the Gulf of Mirabello, close to the

north end of the Ierapetra Isthmus.

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Today it is one of the best preserved Minoan settlements from the period of the

new palaces. It was excavated from 101-104 by the American archaeologist Harriet

Boyd-Hawes and her colleagues, who were urged by the discovery of a sealstone in the

site. The ruins of the settlement were visible before the excavation - hence the name

Gournia given by the villagers because of the stone basins (gournes - in Greek)

preserved in the area.

Harriet Boyd was a pioneer in archaeology for women. At a very young age

she was the first woman to discover and excavate a Minoan settlement though she had

very little support. This was a very brave move, since Crete was just emerging from

the war and was far from safe for a you woman and her collegues.

Gournia offers a picture of the Minoans everyday life evidence found during

the excavation reveal their main occupations, details about their trading partners, the

features of palace and housing architecture and some of their beliefs regarding religion.

Harriet Boyde uncovered the little town systematically and finally revealed an

unfortified town that was divided into blocks with irregular stone-paved streets

between them. They are sloped and all connected to a drainage system and divide the

town into seven separate quarters around which the houses were built.

The numerous houses uncovered were small, two storeyed houses and tightly

packed together. Made of stone and more commonly mud-brick they were built around

a wooden frame, the most likely reason for this was as protection against earthquake


Some of the houses have small rooms attached to their rooves and are assumed

to have been used for sleeping in during the hot summer months. It is also evident that

rooms on the first floor had windows, while those on the ground floor did not,

although some of them had doors, it may be that windows on the ground floor were

avoided for simple reasons of security -- to avoid burglary.

Houses were entered either directly at street level or by steps leading from the

street. Some of these steps are still visible today and large threshold stones can still be

seen at the entrance to many of these houses. Also preserved today are the magazines

and workshops of the ground-floor and the underground rooms, reached by wooden

ladders from the upper floor and were likely used for the storage of simple household


The houses are centred on a main square and at the highest point, dominating

the settlement “the palace” was excavated. Although quite small its features imitate

those of the larger palaces of Minoan Crete. It has a West Court, a Central Court and

magazines. However, the resemblance with the palaces is clearest along the west

facade, where there are storerooms behind and rooms above. Even the style of

masonry is reminiscent of that of the traditional larger palace.

There were three entrances to the palace, from the south, west and north east.

A low flight of steps, L-shaped, is attached on the south side of the building, facing the

courtyard. It seems that people sat here, to watch the ceremonies of ritual character, so

the courtyard served as a primitive theatral area. Behind the steps there is what might

be a sacrificial stone. Holes carved in the stone may have enabled a table to be slotted

in, on which the animal to be sacrificed was tied. Beside it lay a kernos - a small

stone with hollows - serving for libations to the gods or for fixing a religious symbol,

for example a double axe.

The west side of the palace opened on a small paved west court, and had a

monumental facade, with recesses and projections, a door in the middle, and windows

which are not preserved today. Also poorly preserved is the interior of the palace. No

specific details are known, however, it had several official rooms and magazines, over

which were spacious halls. The central hall of the palace was separated by the central

court by a row of round wooden columns, alternating with square stone piers.

To the north of the palace, and separate from it, suggesting it was public, was a

small civic shrine dating to the LM1 period. This small shrine was m by 4m and had a

ledge on the south side for the deposition of religious objects. In the shrine, the finds

themselves dated from a much later period and included idols of a female figure with

raised arms - though a cult idol whether she represented a Minoan goddess or a

priestess is a problem. A clay vessel with handles on either side in the form of snakes, a

relief of horns of consecration and a tripod altar where also discovered at the shrine.

The nature of the cult itself was elusive but it was believed to be dedicated to the

Minoan “snake goddess” due to the snake featured artefacts uncovered there.

Unfortunately it is not know if snakes represent chthonic powers of fertility or death or

if they are simply manifestations of control over natural forces through human aid. But

what we can draw from this evidence is that the worship of such goddesses/cult objects

was a common and regularly practised ritual.

Most importantly however Gournia is in fact one of the richest in evidence to

reveal the daily working lives of the Minoans. It reveals information about a town that

was rich in the manufacture of fine products and involved in a range of occupations

including potters, farmers, weavers and fishers. Among the best preserved houses are

those of carpenters where numerous hammers, saws and chisels have been found. The

uncovery of hooks, coppersmith’s forge, potters wheel and oil press also reveal the

range of occupations these ancient people were involved in. Tools and pottery were

recovered from every section of the town and show that Gournia was plentiful in

materials to fulfil all of their daily need while still having enough resources to have a

strong trading industry. This is assumed because of far more luxurious vases such as

rhyta that were uncovered and the fact that there have been seal impressions found

here that link Gournia to the palace administration at Zakro. Gournia is also one of the

very few towns to have harbours on Cretes north coast making it an important link in

the trading industry.

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