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Why dig at Sissi?

Minoan culture – the material remains left by the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean island of Crete – was first explored by Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist who, from 1900 onwards, excavated at Knossos and revealed a unique Prehellenic or pre-Greek society.

From about 3000 BCE, Crete witnessed the rise of what has been called the first European civilisation, termed Minoan after the legendary king of Crete Minos. Although a literate civilisation, the scripts in which the Minoans recorded their affairs have not yet been deciphered, thus the only way in which we can hope to learn about Minoan social and political life – and perhaps glimpse some of the realities behind Crete’s rich mythical past – is through archaeology. In the centuries around 2000 BCE a series of monumental palaces were constructed, each located within its own fertile plain. These sumptuous ceremonial buildings were truly labyrinthine in their complex arrangement of space, combining grand pillared halls with smaller more intimate spaces, purification areas and magazines, grand entrances and smaller access points, multiple and single storeys, with walls and ceilings decorated with frescoes and floors with colourful stone paving, all of which was arranged around a large central court, that served as a ritual gathering place. Over the last century of excavation we have identified at least half a dozen of these buildings, most notably those at Knossos, Malia and Phaistos. However, we still remain largely ignorant of the wider context of these buildings, both their immediate urban context and their wider hinterlands.

Some of the questions we specifically want to address with our project are: How was Minoan society composed?

  • Most modern societies are composed of nuclear families, households constructed around parents and children, living under a single roof till the children marry. Is this how we have to envisage Minoan society?
    Many Minoan sites also comprise very large domestic dwellings too large for conventional nuclear families, so perhaps another system existed too. One clue to this question is funerary customs: through the excavation of burials we may discover whether the people buried together had specific ties. For this we may want to take DNA samples and use other techniques.


View through the Selinari gorge towards the Bouffo hill

View through the Selinari gorge towards the Bouffo hill


  • What was the political organisation of Crete during the heydays of Minoan society?
    Crete in general and Knossos in particular has in later Greek myth been associated with King Minos, the first, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, to have had a powerful navy with which he ruled the Aegean. Some believe that Minos was a title, like pharaoh, carried by the sea-kings of Crete. 



  • But is there good evidence to reconstruct royalty on the island?
    The large buildings organised a central court are conventionally called « palaces » but royal iconography and royal burial lack till the Late Bronze Age when, under influence of the Mainland Mycenaeans, Crete was progressively Hellenised.


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