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The Minoans of Crete

More than 100 years after it was first discovered, the town of Gournia is once again redefining the island's past

May/June 2015

Minoans Crete Gournia City


I know a place where there are a lot of old things,” a peasant named George Perakis told the schoolmaster of the small village of Vasiliki, on the island of Crete, in the spring of 1901. Aware of a visiting American archaeologist’s anxious search to find a site of her own to excavate, the schoolmaster arranged for Perakis and his brother Nicholas to take Harriet Boyd and her colleague Blanche Wheeler to Gournia, four miles northwest of the village. Over several hours on May 19 Boyd collected a few potsherds and located the tops of several ancient walls, enough to convince her it was worth sending a team of workmen to the site the next morning. When she arrived at Gournia on the afternoon of the 20th, Boyd was astonished to see the men holding a bronze spear and sickle and numerous fragments of stone and pottery vessels, and clearing the threshold of a house and a well-paved road complete with a clay gutter. The following day Boyd returned with 51 workmen, and within three days, additional houses and roads had been uncovered, as well as more vases and bronze tools, making her certain that she had found what she was seeking—a Bronze Age settlement of what she called “the best period of Cretan civilization.” During three seasons ending in 1904, Boyd and her team, which averaged more than a hundred workmen along with a number of local girls whose job was to wash the finds, excavated the remains of an ancient town that had lain buried and unknown for nearly 3,500 years.


Boyd couldn’t have come to Crete at a better time. During the years that she worked there at the start of the twentieth century, a new, uniquely Cretan, Bronze Age civilization was starting to be uncovered. In 1900, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans had begun digging at the site of Knossos on the northeast coast of Crete and, within months, had discovered what he named the “Palace of Minos,” after the legendary king of Crete whose labyrinth was once believed to contain the half-man, half-bull creature known as the Minotaur. Evans later used the name “Minoan” to describe the civilization, a term that had first been employed by the German scholar Karl Hoeck in 1823 in his history of Crete.


Although his interpretation of Knossos as the palace of Minos, and indeed some of his characterizations of Minoan civilization, have been disputed or even disproved over the last century, Evans’ pioneering work in Crete and his recognition of Minoan culture as something distinct from the Neolithic culture that preceded it, or the various cultures, including the Mycenaeans, that followed, cannot be understated.


Minoans Crete Gournia Archival PhotographWhen Harriet Boyd went looking for that “best period,” then, she wanted to find Minoans. At Gournia, she discovered something of a completely different nature from Evans’ palace. Now, more than a hundred years after she began her search, a new team of archaeologists is continuing what she began, re-excavating some of the spaces she first uncovered, and digging completely new areas in order to add to the picture of a very ancient civilization that developed at the same time as the Great Pyramid and Stonehenge were built, and about which many questions remain.




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