The Vrokastro Survey Project

Providing a Context for an Early Iron Age Site

By: Barbara J. Hayden and Jennifer A. Moody

Originally Published in 1990

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Of the most dramatic coastlines in Europe is lo­cated along the northern shores of eastern Crete, where sea-weathered rock formations, promon­tories, and small beaches form the Bay of Mirabello. In 1986 a 50 ­square-kilometer area flanking the Bay was selected by Hayden for intensive and systematic survey. Two factors influenced this choice. Many surveys previously undertaken in the Aegean have focused on “central-place” areas—those contain­ing, for example, a large city-state of the historical Greek period or a Minoan palace. Although the Mira­bello region is topographically and ecologically varied, it remained pri­marily rural for most cultural periods. Since town and city life has always been based upon the success­ful exploitation of these rural en­vironments, they deserve study. In addition, important settlements ex­cavated early in this century in the Bay of Mirabello area will be better understood within the environmental and archaeological context the Vro­kastro Survey Project will provide.

The Site of Vrokastro

Early in this century Edith Hall, a pioneer in Cretan studies, excavated a settlement in a commanding position above the Bay of Mirabello on the terraced slopes and peak of Vrokastro. This mountain is near the sea and forms part of a limestone and conglomerate barrier between the fertile coast and inland, upland fields (Figs. 1-3). Hall’s excavation revealed an important Late Bronze and Early Iron Age town, significant for its size, broad chronological range (ca. 1200/1150-700 B.C.), and wide variety of artifacts, house plans (Hayden I983a,b), tomb types, and burial practices. Vrokastro remains one of the few excavated settlements within Crete belonging to the close of the Bronze and the Early Iron Age, generally regarded as a time of turmoil throughout the Aegean, when many low-lying or coastal settlements are abandoned and populations decrease or move to safer, more mountainous areas.

Hall suggested that this site was one of many contemporary settle­ments within a “circuit of 5 kilo­meters from the peak” (1914:82). Our regional survey within the Bay of Mirabello area continues Hall’s work begun 75 years ago, and will provide what earlier work at the site could not—an environmental and archaeological framework for the settlement on and near the mountain of Vrokastro.

Systematic Survey: Scope and Methods

Survey and excavation are two basic tools of field work available to archaeologists and other scholars and scientists who want to investi­gate past civilizations. Excavations generally involve the detailed study of the physical remains, history, and environment of just one site. An intensive survey, on the other hand, involves exploration of an entire region by walking across it, usually in some systematic manner (Fig. 4). Sites are identified by the presence of artifacts (usually pottery and architectural remains) and have a clear “edge” or boundary; these are mapped and analyzed according to size, function, and date. Comple­menting the identification of settle­ment systems belonging to all periods are interdisciplinary studies of the ecology, geology, history, demographics, and agriculture of the region. So in addition to locating sites dating from the Neolithic through the Turkish periods, our research program focuses on the physical environment, economy, and history of the area.

For the more recent periods (Vene­tian through Turkish), available statistics on land use, local histories, and population figures can be ap­plied directly to what is known about the number, type, density, and location of sites. Measuring the distances between sites is one tech­nique for determining the distribu­tion and possible clustering of sites, and analyzing spatial relationships between smaller communities and larger settlements.

For earlier periods different tech­niques must be used. Geomorphic studies, for example, can provide indications of soil conditions for earlier periods. Pollen chores provide another source of information re­garding ancient plant communities and climate; the types of vegetation represented by pollen indicate that western Crete during the Middle to Late Bronze Age may have been slightly less evaporative, with warmer winters and slightly cooler summers (Moody 1987:77-128). It is quite possible that, with minor ex­ceptions, extreme fluctuations in climate have not occurred for mil­lennia in the more arid eastern half of the island.

These data on soils and climate, coupled with careful recording of modern plant communities, can pro­vide a baseline from which to recon­struct earlier environments (Fig. 5). These may have differed very little from the recent landscape (before the advent of modern irrigation systems and massive bulldozing for olive terraces). Distributions of sites belonging to earlier chronological periods can then be measured against factors such as slope, soil conditions, altitude, water resources, potentials for agriculture, pastoral­ism, and defensibility. These factors or criteria will provide a framework for interpreting the history of settle­ment within the Bay of Mirabello area.

Topography of the Survey Area

The boundaries of the survey area are determined by natural topographical features. The northern edge is the Bay of Mirabello, punc­tuated by coastal promontories (Figs. 3, 6) and beaches capable of providing anchorage for small craft today and in earlier periods. The inland, upland valley of Meseleri (Fig. 7), enclosed on its northern side by the cliffs of Schinavria Koriphi, forms the southern limit. The western boundary extends from the rich agricultural land flanking the Istron River valley through a deep gorge to the village of Prina at the southwest corner (Fig. 8). The eastern side of the study area lies along the watershed between the Xeropotamns and Gourniapotamos rivers.

The mountain range of Vrokastro and Sopranos, at an altitude of 300 m, separates the densely populated coastal zone from an upland region of hills and fields (Fig. 10). Seasonally occupied fieldhouses and metochia (a group of fieldhouses, sometimes concentrated, sometimes dispersed) scattered across this upland region offered shelter for man and animals and a place to store harvested crops and tools. Many of these inetochia belong to the Late Venetian or Turkish periods (A.D. 1500-1898) and are abandoned.

South of these upland fields the land rises steeply, broken by a series of deep ravines, first to the mountain range of Kolumnbous (Fig. 10) and then to the upland terraces of Tza­machi below Schinavria Koriphi (alti­tude 700 m). Much of this terrain is covered with dense woodland con­sisting primarily of pine and juniper. Along the Tzamachi terrace there are more metochia and fields that until recently were cultivated. Thus the entire survey region from coast to southern boundary falls within the altitude range of permanent settlement within Crete and the traditional crops for such a range include olive, vine and grain.

The Wild Vegetation

The uncultivated vegetation of the Vrokastro region is similar to other areas within Crete; it consists of a mosaic of maquis, gangue, and steppe in varying proportions, along with patches of woodlands (pri­marily pine, juniper, and prickly oak). Maquis is a plant community consisting of trees that have been reduced to shrub size, in many instances due to browsing by sheep and goats. Garigue consists of under-shrubs, that is woody plants that never grow into trees and are usually green-gray and aromatic. Steppe consists of plants such as grasses and legumes. Pine has been invading the area from the south coast and upland Lasithi plain to the west, and now forms areas of continuous woodland, especially in the higher altitudes. The proportions of each kind of vegetation in any Cretan environ­ment are directly related to activities such as cultivation, browsing, wood­cutting, and burning, as well as soil and water conditions. When land goes out of cultivation, progression in the wild vegetation is from steppe to garigue, with marquis taking many decades to become established.

Cultivation, Land Management and Pastoralism

Within the Vrokastro region and throughout the island much of the cultivated land is supported by ter­race walls; terracing is even found in the most remote ravines of the sur­vey region. Once cereals were grown on many of these terraces, and today the more accessible terraces are frequently planted in young olives. Viticulture was once more extensive (Edith Hall, letter of 10 May 1910), and carob, used for animal fodder and in the production of sugar, was once widely exported (Spratt 1865, 1:110-111).

Areas that are well-watered and contain deep soils, such as the Istron River valley, are planted in vege­table gardens and fruit trees. At least 3,000 sheep and goats browse within the study area, especially in the upland areas of Columbus and Tzamachi. Flocks maintained region­ally may have always been impor­tant for subsistence (meat, milk, and wool are consumed locally), and today they generate a cash-income. 


The Early and Middle Minoan Periods (Fig. 12a,b) 

Three years of walking across this landscape have revealed many sites contemporary with the first periods of occupation of the peak of Vru-kastro, that is the Middle Minoan IA-III periods (ca. 2160-1600 B.C.). These sites testify to extensive occu­pation of the coastal zone and areas near the coast; preliminary geo­morphic studies indicate that some of the coastal settlements are now partially under water and others may be buried under deep alluvium in the Istron River valley or along the northern slopes of Kopranes. The cluster of Early and Middle Minoan sites on the low hills flanking the Istron River valley suggest early use of this area of deep soils for cul­tivation.

Many Early and Middle Minoan sites are located on hills and slopes between 100 and 200 m in elevation. At 300 m, Vrokastro (VK 1) is an exception, and reasons for use of the peak in the Middle Bronze Age can­not be known. Hall emphasized its usefulness in the subsequent Early Iron Age as a lookout and citadel (1914:81-82); the peak is clearly visible from both the eastern and western sides of the Bay of Mirabello (Kavousi and Aghios Jikolaos). The peak may have served a similar need in this earlier period. One other alter­native is that it may have been the site of a Middle Minoan cult place or “peak sanctuary” (see Muhly, this issue) but this is not supported by Hall’s excavation (no figurines were found, only fine painted pottery).

The Late Minoan I Period (Fig. 12b)

Very few sherds of Late Minoan I date (ca. 1600-1450/1425 B.C.) were recovered from the site of Vrokastro, suggesting a temporary abandon­ment of the peak. At the northwest foot of the mountain, however, re­cent bulldozing beside the coastal highway has revealed a site (IS 1) of Late Minoan I date with pottery of high quality. Just south of the peals, near a spring, an extensive sherd scatter indicates another Middle Minoan-Late Minoan I community at LK 6, so disuse of the peak does not indicate retreat from contiguous areas. Inland and south of Vrokastro, Minoan sites tend to be found near springs, together with sherds of later periods, suggesting the use of these water sources through time. Irrigated gardens might have been grown near springs, and upland fields, still dry-farmed today, may have been planted in cereals, olives, and vines. Beekeeping and sheep and goat herding, prevalent in the area today, may have been activities practiced in the Bronze Age.

The distribution and extent of Middle Minoan and Late Minoan I pottery on the promontory of Prinia­tikos Pyrgos indicate one of the largest Minoan coastal settlements. Walls and sherds of Late Minoan I date protruding from the western scarp of the promontory and extending into the water testify to the extent of physical evidence for the Bronze Age remaining under later occupation levels (Greco-Roman and Byzantine through Turkish), and to the extent of coastal submergence. Minoan settlement in this area also centers on the hill Kato Arniko (KA 1, 2) and the Aphendi Christos Valley (AC 2), directly east of the Istron River valley.

just south of the modern villages of Kalo Chorio and Pyrgos, in the lower or southern extent of the Istron River valley (Fig. 3), another Middle Minoan-Late Minoan I settlement (KK 1) is located on a low hill near a chapel dating to the Venetian period. These Bronze Age sites, as well as settlements of later periods, are frequently placed above the most fertile soils, where they are strate­gically located to exploit the re­sources of the region. The sites of KM 1 and 2 (Kendromouri), located on hills overlooking the western end of the Gournia plain, may have used the plain for cultivation. The site KM 1 may rival in size the settlement of Gournia on the opposite side of the plain.

Another factor that appears to influence site location are routes through the survey region (Fig. 11). For example, there is a Middle Minoan-Late Minoan I site and a later Medieval settlement in the small, upland Prophitis Ilias Valley (PI 2), beside an important route that con­nects the north coast (at Kalo Chorio) to the south coast and town of Hiera­petra (the ancient Hierapytna) via the Meseleri Valley. Most of these routes were constructed during the Venetian or Turkish periods for foot traffic and pack animals. These cobbled roads probably follow more ancient paths.

At a higher altitude for Minoan occupation, in the area called Tza­machi between Kolumbous and Schinavria Koriphi, more Minoan sites have been found, some encom­passing the Late Minoan I period, again near water sources (Fig. 9; TM 1, 7). Only the ridge south of Schinavria Koriphi, overlooking the fertile Meseleri Valley, appears not to have been exploited during the Minoan period. (It may be that the fertile Meseleri Valley, as yet un­explored, contained the major settle­ment of this period.)

The Late Minoan I/III through Early Iron Age Periods (Fig. 12c) 

It is often difficult to distinguish between the Late Minoan I and Late Minoan 11IA-IIIB periods (1600-1200 B.C.) based on pottery fabrics col­lected from the surface. Both periods, for example, produce fine buff pot­tery. Sherds of these periods with a recognizable shape or decoration do occur together at some sites. One such site is at Aghios Phanourios (APB 3) in the coastal foothills over­looking the Vrionisi promontory. Late Minoan I, HI, and later historical (Greco-Roman) pottery extends from a ridge top where a ruined village of the Turkish period is lo­cated, down a long hill slope to the north. Remaining walls are massive and may be Bronze Age in date (Fig. 13). This settlement overlaps re­newed occupation of Vrokastro (ca. 1200 B.C.). Only one hill and a deep ravine called “Change” (bowl) sep­arate these two sites, and Late Minoan III burials (1200 B.C. or later) in pithoi were excavated in this ravine by Hall (1914:172-173). The settlement at Phanourios falls within Hall’s “5-kilometer circuit” of con­temporary sites.

Another site within her circuit was identified in the cove of Elias to Nisi, the coastal promontory at the base of Vrokastro (Fig. 3). Although the site is denuded and many walls were destroyed in a nearby lime kiln, sherds indicate a Late Bronze, Early Iron Age and Orientalizing date, especially pithoi fragments with rope decoration, incised circles or spirals (ca. 1200-600 B.C.). These sherds are similar to examples from Vrokastro (Hall 1914:91, fig. 48). On the south, the site is enclosed by a massive and possibly contemporary wall built on fill containing Late Minoan I and earlier sherds. The wall safeguards the most exposed approach to the settlement, just as cliffs protect the other sides of the promontory. This is the first walled coastal settlement of this date found within the island, and it may have served as a lower, forti­fied community providing the Vrokastro population with access to the sea.

Hall excavated structures and tombs south and southwest of the Vrokastro peak in the fields and rocky slopes of Karakovilia, Amig­thali, and Mazikhortia (1914:123­174); the Vrokastro Survey Project relocated some of these excavations. A major spring just south of Vro­kastro served an earlier Minoan site (VK 8) and a village or metochi of the Turkish period. Just east of this spring another Late Minoan III site with massive wall foundations was identified in 1987 (VK 7).

Farther west in the lower Istron Valley Late Minoan IIIB-IIIC pottery has been found on the summit and sides of Xivouni (KK 2), the highest hill in this valley. This site produced high quality fine and coarse wares belonging to the last part of the Bronze Age, with motifs and shapes paralleled at such contemporary high sites as Karachi in the mountains enclosing the Lasithi plain. A bull figurine was also recovered, a rare find for a surface survey. This settle­ment, in contrast to those at Vro­kastro and Phanourios, does not seem to extend past the close of the Bronze Age. More Late Bronze Age pottery was found on western slopes of the gorge linking this valley to the Purina area (AN 3), and Early Iron Age pottery was identified in terraced olive groves north of the hilltop chapel of Stavromenos northeast of Prina (PN 2; Fig. 8), indicating a number of potentially contemporary sites along a route to the south coast (Fig. 11).

Late Geometric through the Archaic Periods (Fig. 12d) 

Sites belonging to the Late Geo­metric period (at the close of the Early Iron Age) through the Archaic period (750-500 B.C.) have been identified at locations on the high ridge of Schinavna Koriphi north of and overlooking the Meseleri Valley and at Prina. Abundant wall founda­tions exist at these sites, and sherds include Orientalizing or Archaic pithoi with concentric circles, spirals, and lotus and palmetto patterns in relief (Fig. 14). One feature noted at SK 2 and KPh 3 (Fig. 12d) is place­ment of a few rectangular buildings on raised platforms. Sherds of Orien­talizing date also occur at the Vro­kastro settlement and possibly on the coastal promontory• of Nisi Pandelei­mon (NP 1). (Initial occupation of this coastal promontory at the close of the Geometric period could indi­cate a less threatened coastline.)


By systematically walking across this landscape the Vrokastro Project has supplied a context for the Early Iron Age site on the Vrokastro peak that appears to support one sugges­tion made by Hall: this settlement was located within a cluster of sites that were, in part, contemporary with it, and it was probably the most important of these communities in terms of size and length of occupa­tion.

The limits of systematic survey are demonstrated by Hall’s second sug­gestion—she believed that at some stage in the history of the area the older Minoan/Mycenaean stock was driven into the hills (i.e., to ro-kastro) by “invaders” who seized the Istron River valley (1914:82). Im­ported pottery made of non-local clays, which may have been carried into the area by new settlers, has been identified at some of these coastal sites. Alternatively, these fabrics may simply represent pottery imported by a stable, local population. It is therefore unlikely that surface survey alone can prove that any of the con­temporary settlements were estab­lished by newcomers.

During earlier periods Vrokastro was one of the more unusual locations selected for occupation—most Mid­dle Minoan settlements within this region were at lower elevations—suggesting a special and as yet un­known function for this peak in the Middle Bronze Age.

Pottery recovered from sites found during the survey indicates that there are more Minoan settlements of Late Minoan I and earlier date than Late Minoan III through Early Iron Age communities. Although these later sites are fewer in number, they appear to be larger. This may indi­cate either a smaller population in these later, less stable times, or that the local population was moving into fewer, larger settlements (for pro­tection?).

One significant insight resulting from close examination of the coast is the presence on most of the promontories of some pottery, especially pithoi fragments, belonging to the period between 1200 and 700 B.C. These sherds, along with the settle­ment in the cove of Elias to Nisi, indicate continued though perhaps limited use of the exposed coastal region (possibly for fishing, agri­culture, or trade) subsequent to and at the close of the Bronze Age. Certainly it was imperative during this period to maintain a watch on the coast, and the summit of Vrokastro was ideal for this purpose. The moun­tain was more than a “lookout” for nearby sites, however, for it pro­vided a refuge with easy access to fertile coastal and upland areas.

Intensive, systematic survey coupled with ethnographic, environ­mental, and historical studies can yield extensive data pertaining to site size, location, date, possible function, and relationships between sites and their physical environments. These detailed regional perspectives form a solid basis for future work, including excavation. Current surveys based in Crete are making a valuable contri­bution to research concerning this great island, where current develop­ment threatens antiquities and our ability to reconstruct the past.

Cite This Article

Hayden, Barbara J. and Moody, Jennifer A.. "The Vrokastro Survey Project." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 3 (November, 1990): -. Accessed April 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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