Sometimes a site becomes a ‘life’s work’ for an archaeologist. Such has been the case for Nicholas Stampolidis, who has been excavating the necropolis of Orthi Petra at Eleutherna on Crete for more than 25 years. But whilst some archaeologists dig for years and never greatly add to the corpus of knowledge, this excavation has been immensely rewarding for Professor Stampolidis, and his findings have certainly added to the scholarly debate around the so-called ‘Dark Age’ of Greece.
Within a single tomb, between 1992 and 1996, Professor Stampolidis and his team discovered a massive assemblage of 141 cremated individuals, all but two of whom were aristocratic men who may have met their death in battle. Tomb A1K1 is an elaborate rock-cut tomb containing fantastic burial goods dating from the ninth to the seventh century B.C., including bronze vessels, gold and silver jewellery, and military trappings.
However, it is the discoveries made since 2007 that are really exciting scholars: three jar burials containing the remains of more than 10 related female individuals and a monumental funerary building where a female of high status was buried with three others.
The four females ranged in age from about seven to seventy and were found in an eighth-century B.C. monumental funerary building. The floor of the building was stewn with thin strips of gold from the burial garments, and the women were surrounded by bronze vessels, figurines, and jewellery of gold, silver, glass, ivory, and semiprecious stones from Asia Minor, the Near East, and North Africa.
Other artefacts from the tomb: a stone ‘altar’, ritual bronze tools, and a glass phial for libations have led to the speculation that these women may have been priestesses or females from a family involved with the ritual welfare of the community. Clearly, women played an important role in the religious life of Eleutherna.
Anagnostis Agelarakis is a forensic anthropologist from is Adelphi University. She has discovered that all four women shared a genetic dental trait. Interestingly, the women buried in the three pithoi (large jars) also had this trait, and further research is expected to establish that they were also related.
Agelarakis has discovered a matrilineage of two centuries – an unprecedented find. The imported artefacts, such as the Mesopotaian phial, suggest that the women were of high social standing. The continuity of the wealthy grave goods, imported from afar, combined with the sophistication of many of the burials, certainly does not fit with past preconceptions of the ‘Dark Age’.
So, who did these priestesses serve? Mount Ida, home of the sacred cave of Zeus, can be seen from the site of Eleutherna. There is intriguing, but at present there is no evidence to point to a particular deity, but perhaps further work from the indefatigable Professor Stampolidis will uncover some.
Further information can be found on the website of the Archaeological Institute of America: Archaeology.