The Gavdos Project and the Bronze Age Building at Katalymata

Gavdos is the largest and most remote of the isles that surround Crete. Together with its neighbouring islet of Gavdopoula, it lies 36 and 22 nautical miles south of Paleochora and Chora Sfakion respectively, and is only 160 nautical miles north of the African coast. This apparently isolated dot of land in the Libyan Sea holds nevertheless a strategic position on age-old Mediterranean routes which connect the island to Crete and, apparently, to much more distant places. Its fragile small-insular environment is very individual, with rough and dry terrain, but also green, and at times even wooded, landscapes. Extensive sand dunes are combined with cedars and pine trees, especially on its northern part, while the entire western coast is a very steep cliff. The often much eroded interior is wrinkled with dried up gorges and includes numerous rock-shelters. The island has today approximately 50 permanent inhabitants but hosts hundreds of visitors in the summer months, most of them campers on its beaches.

Little touched by modern development, Gavdos’s natural and man-made features shape an ideal “laboratory” for archaeological, viz. interdisciplinary, research. This has encouraged a series of activities conducted since the early 1990s by the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Crete and coordinated by K. Kopaka, which were rather innovative for their time (click here). More specifically, these include:

  1. An intensive archaeological survey (1992-2000, in collaboration with the Chania Ephorate of Antiquities) that revealed dense surface distributions of architectural remains and artefacts: Gavdos’s first archaeological map was its result. This illustrates a human presence from early in the Paleolithic, through the Neolithic and Bronze Ages to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman periods, and down to contemporary times.
  2. A multi-disciplinary project (1993-1997) that brought together biologists, geologists, geographers and social anthropologists who studied Gavdos’s natural and cultural history. This is when the University’s field station was also created in a restored traditional farmstead (metochi), inland, at the site called Siopata on the Tsirmiris hill.
  3. A training excavation (since 2003), in the wider region of the University’s field station. This is focused on a large architectural complex (of about 1400 sq.m.) of the Bronze Age at the site of Katalymata. This building is covering two successive terraces, has several rooms and some open spaces. It was occupied for a rather extended chronological sequence, and was destroyed apparently by an earthquake and fire in the mid-2nd millennium BC (i.e. the end of the Late Minoan IB period in Crete).

The character, quantity and quality of the finds at Katalymata (namely, abundant pottery and several stone vases, plenty of grinding and pounding tools, a number of metal finds, and beads and a couple of seals, along with good quantities of plant and animal remains etc.) show manifold activities such as storing, food-preparing, cooking and consuming, but also important industrial work apparently related to the processing of grain (and grapes?) and maybe of raw materials such as clay, stone and metal too. They also reveal a significant degree of ease and comfort enjoyed by the building’s residents, and indeed by the whole island, which agree with the prosperity of contemporary palatial Crete – in fact, Katalymata can be compared to a Minoan “rural villa”. 

Because our whole research has a deeply educational character, most of the tasks, from the fieldwork to the study and even publication of the finds, are taken on by both undergraduate and post-graduate students, who gain experience, with the help of the team’s senior archaeologists, both on conducting research and sharing life with their excavation group and the islanders. Building and maintaining relations of mutual respect with the Gavdiots, and encouraging their visits to our dig and friendly discussions on our finds have been of priority to us. The islanders thus provide steady and generous moral support to our project and entrust to us, and especially our social anthropologist G. Nikolakakis, their memories and their “natives’ point of view”. Some follow our fieldwork with particular interest, and their remarks and overall knowledge provide precious [ethnoarchaeological] clues to our decoding of ancient and modern findings from the island.

In our effort to further engage with both the local community and the summer visitors, E. Theou, who is a prehistorian and long-term partner of the archaeological project but also an actor, conceived and staged the theatre/archaeology performance entitled ‘Gavdos: The House’. This was first presented inside the Bronze Age building at Katalymata during the 2012 excavation season – in the twilight, against the backdrop of the rising full moon of August.