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An important note

Monastiraki is one of the most important Middle Minoan sites on Crete but it has proved extremely difficult to create a web page for this archaeological site for two reasons. Firstly photography of the site is not allowed and the villagers who open the site to visitors enforce the ban rigorously. Secondly, almost every contribution to the first volume of the excavation report, the only one published so far, has been written in Italian. For the sake of completeness I have decided to include Monastiraki on the website, unillustrated and with only a summary of the limited information I can find.

A palatial centre

Monastiraki is situated on a hill overlooking the Amari Valley, south east of Rethymno and close to the village of Monastiraki, from which it takes its name. The Minoan name of the complex is not known. Monastiraki is one of the most important Middle Minoan archaeological sites in Crete. Not only is it an extensive site, with palatial features, but when it was destroyed at the end of MM IIB, it was not rebuilt and so we have a Middle Minoan building complex undisturbed by later levelling and rebuilding.

Limited illegal excavations were carried out by Germans in 1942, during their occupation of Crete in the Second World War. More recently further excavations have been carried out under the director of excavations, Athanasia Kanta. She describes this Middle Minoan site as a palatial centre because she points out that so far no houses have been found in the excavations. However, she doesn't rule out the possibility that they may be found in the future, given the enormous size of the site. There might well be a Minoan settlement around the palatial centre.

Before the MM site was built there was some limited Early Minoan habitation and after the MM buildings were destroyed in a fire most likely caused by an earthquake, the site was abandoned and only partially reoccupied in LM IIIC, right at the end of the Minoan period.

The fire which destroyed the site was apparently very fierce. A number of factors would have contributed to this. In particular, wood was widely used in the form of beams in the construction of walls. Also, much of Monastiraki was given over to storage areas and these basement or semi-basement areas may well have been lit by lamps, even during the day. An earthquake would have upset these lamps which could then have set fire to olive oil stored in the buildings. Whatever the cause the palatial centre was completely destroyed at the end of MM IB at the same time as the first palaces of Phaistos and Knossos.

While both Phaistos and Knossos were rebuilt, Monastiraki was not. Kanta wonders if this was due to the growing power and influence of Knossos during the neopalatial period, at the expense of Phaistos, which would have had much closer ties with Monastiraki.

Apart from the huge storage area already mentioned, there is also evidence of agriculture and animal husbandry being practised as well as the manufacture of wool and cloth. Monastiraki was also a major administrative centre as revealed by the hundreds of sealings found on the site, many linking the complex with the Palace at Phaistos.

It is not yet known if Monastiraki was the seat of a local ruler who controlled the Amari Valley, and if so whether he was a vassal of Phaistos or an independent ruler in his own right.

Because the site is estimated to cover over 300,000 square metres it has not been possible to excavate the whole site. Instead, three separate areas have been investigated.

The Southern side

Firstly, the southern side of the hill has been partially excavated. The original excavations were carried out by Yannis Tzedhakis and Prof Louis Godart, with subsequent excavations carried out by Athanasia Kanta and the Greek Archaeological Department. Of the few rooms excavated one in a building on the southern entrance to the site produced what is now known as the first archive of sealings. The role of the building seems to have been administrative.

A clay shrine discovered in this building shows a two-storied building with veranda on which are placed horns of consecration. It clearly is a copy or allusion to actual buildings of the Minoan period. One surprising find when a reconstruction of the shrine was attempted was the presence of an arched doorway. Painted plaster fragments suggest the archive building was well decorated. A number of roads cross the area near the archive building, which was destroyed in the protopalatial period but before the final phase of the Monastiraki site itself.

The East side

The second area which has been excavated is on the east side of the hill. A huge building complex with at least 90 rooms so far has been uncovered though not all of the building has been excavated. The building went thorugh several construction phases before its final destruction. Ground floor rooms were used mainly as storerooms and workshops while the first floor rooms were used as living quarters and administrative offices. Two rooms produced evidence of ritual activity.

An open air oven, similar to those used in Crete up until recent times was uncovered. Evidence was also found that the Minoans used to resinate their wine by adding pine resin as in the retsina found in Greece today. In the eastern complex a second archive was found. 900 sealings had fallen through from the upper floor. The large number further attests to the likely palatial character of the site. Some of the sealings have impressions from two or even three different seals, a practice also seen at Phaistos. Loom weights, also thought to have fallen from the floor above, suggest that first floor rooms were also used for weaving.

A rocky outcrop on the site known by locals as Kokkinos Charakas is thought to be the site of cult activity. Retaining walls up against the rocks were originally plastered which indicates that they played some important function. A large number of conical cups were found there which are thought to be explained by the cult nature of the site. A unique pair of figurines was discovered showing what appears to be a naked woman suckling a young adult. The head of the male is missing but if present would be pressed up against the woman's breast. This is suggestive of Egypt where the Pharaoh is depicted being suckled by Isis or other goddesses. The use of a large rock outcrop for religious purposes is not unique to Monastiraki.

The West side

The third area to be excavated lies on the west side of the hill and on the northern terraces. This area was originally excavated by the Germans. A building using cyclopean masonry was uncovered. Here the walls are different from other parts of the site. Elsewhere, the lower parts of walls were built with unworked stones packed with clay, while upper parts were built with mud bricks made in moulds. The walls were extensively supported by timber frames. The wood has long since rotted leaving holes which enable archaeologists to understand how extensive the use of wood was. Here, however large stones were used in the building of the walls, suggesting that the building was more significant. Plaster floors were uncovered as well as painted plaster from the walls. One of the rooms was a Minoan Hall with a central column and a door with stone piers more tyical of neopalatial architecture. In the monumental building two courts were found, one in the centre and one to the west. Extensive terracing had been carried out covering earlier rooms one of which contained sealings, most likely the site of a third archive.

Monastiraki can be approached through the village of the same name or from the south. If you are lucky, by the time you pull up at the entrance to the archaeological site, a villager will already be walking down from the village with the keys. The villagers don't speak English and will simply follow you around the site, making sure you don't take any photos. Greek-speaking visitors will be rewarded with a basic tour of the site.