Work Continues at Vrokastro 1910-12, 1979-82

A New Plan and Description of the Early Iron Age Settlement

By: Barbara J. Hayden

Originally Published in 1983

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Richard Seager originally identified the early Iron Age settlement of Vrokastro, on a limestone spur (Fig. 1) just south of the main east-west coastal road between the harbor town of Aghios Nikolaos, to the west, and the village of Pachyammos (“deep sand”) east of the site, near the narrow isthmus of Hierapetra (Fig. 2). Immediately west of the limestone spur of Vrokastro is the modern village of Kato Khorio, looking much the same today as it did in 1910, when Edith Hall, the excavator of Vrokastro, described it as a small village of white buildings and red tile roofs.

The Vrokastro summit overlooks the Gulf of Mirabello; at the foot of the moun­tain are several small beaches. Goat paths lead up to the settlement from the northern coast, from the east, and from Kalo Khorio to the southwest (Fig. 3). The most direct route from the north links the main coastal highway to the summit via a steep, rubble-strewn goat path encircling the mountain on its eastern side. Water sources for the settlement include two large springs south and west of the spur, and possibly a well located on a terrace flanking the mountain mentioned by Hall (Hall 1912: 41; exact location unknown: “… women and chil­dren from the village below stopped to water their ‘possessions’—generally a donkey, a goat, and a pig apiece…”). Rolling hills south of the mountain provide a large area for olive and wheat production, and fields along the coast as well as near the modern village of Kalo Khorio, only thirty minutes to one hour distant by foot, may have been cultivated by inhabitants of the Vrokastro settlement.

Though Seager first located the site, Hall was later to direct excavations on the summit, beginning work in the summer of 1910 with a crew of 30-50 men, supported by a small grant from The University Museum. All materials needed for the excavation were brought by caique from Pachyammos, and Hall and her workmen camped near the summit on rocky mountain ledges for the brief one-month season (Hall to family, May 9, 1910, Mediterranean, Crete, Edith Hall Dohan papers, University Museum Archives). The excavation was limited during the first summer to uncover­ing rooms on the summit, but Hall recog­nized the need to return to the site, for the extent of the settlement had not been deter­mined. Fragmentary rubble walls of unworked stone extended far down across the precipitous northern slope of the mountain, indicating construction over a very large area, and rooms were identified on a ridge of hills southwest of Vrokastro (Karakovilia, Mazikhortia, and Amighali; Fig. 3). The only setback to her brief exca­vation season was the passage of Halley’s comet, which so terrified her workmen that she had to make the rounds of the excava­tion several times, providing reassurance and keeping her men from returning to their villages, to await the end of the world (Hall to family, May 30, 1910).

Hall’s primary interest during both exca­vation seasons was not the architecture of the village, but the associated tombs and their contents, particularly pottery. This pottery helped to establish the date of the village as Late Bronze/early Iron Age (ca. 1200-700 B.C., comprising the LM IIIC, Sub-Minoan, Protogeometric and Geometric periods, according to pottery styles). Though easy identification was not forth­coming, a large number of tombs were eventually excavated (types included built tombs with rectangular foundations and corbelled roofs, pithos and cave burials, and cremations in rubble-built ossuaries; Hall 1914; 123-174).

When Hall returned to the site in the summer of 1912 for a longer, two-month season, most of the men were put to work excavating more rooms in the settlement. Though Hall rode her pony between tombs that were being excavated and the large settlement area, she admitted having diffi­culties keeping up with work spread across such a large area (Hall to family, May 20, 19121. The excavation lacked the services of an architect, and in a letter written to Gordon, then director of The University Museum (Hall to G. B. Gordon, December 27, 1910), she described deciding “to meas­ure up the hill myself, remembering… that not enough attention had been given to house-plans and architecture, I drew every wall uncovered, although they were the meanest, rudest, most irregular houses I ever saw.”

Because of lack of time and funding, a large part of the settlement, excavated in 1912 and located between 40 and 65 m. below the summit, was not described in the final publication of the site, and a plan of this area was never drawn (Hall 1914: 80, 83, 86). Further work on the mountain was curtailed by the First World War, and the incomplete plan drawn by Hall in 1910 of rooms located on the summit has remained in use until today (Fig. 5). This paper con­cludes work initiated in 1910-12, with a redrawing of the upper settlement area (Figs. 6, 7), a more thorough description of both the upper and lower portions of the excavated settlement, and a new plan of the north slope area excavated in 1912 (Figs. 9, 10).

The upper portion of the settlement remains the best preserved section. This area can be approached via a narrow path above a cliff along the western side of the summit (Fig. 8): this cliff-path joins path 2 in the southwestern area of the settlement (Figs. 5, 6). Three narrow, winding paths can be traced through the upper settlement area: [1) path 2 in the southwest opens onto rooms 6, 1, and 22; (2) a north-south path leads through the center of the settlement; (3) in the eastern area, a path extends east-west between rooms 27, 31, 32 on the north and rooms 37, 33, and 34 on the south (Figs 8, 7). This path leads to a door in the east­ern wall of room 28 before turning south to end in a possible court (35), south of room 34 [Fig. 6], Wooden ladders must have beer used to gain access to rooms 27 and 31 north of the path, as room floors are well below (ca. 1.50 m.) the level of the path (Fig. 7).

Room 19 is on the same level as the north-south central path, and connected to it via a door in its eastern wall (Fig. 6). Directly south, the floor of room 20 is over a meter below the level of the path, how­ever, and access to this room could be gained only by ladder placed against the eastern interior wall.

In the lower settlement area, there are fewer discernible routes through the settle­ment. Path 20 (Fig. 9) connects courtyard 6, through area 13, to the rectangular struc­ture 22-26 farther east. The narrow north-south passage 21, between courtyard 6 and structure 22-26, may have led out to a door in the encircling northern terrace wall, or perhaps to a drain. Pieces of rubble placed on edge in the passage broke the flow of rainwater from higher up the slope. Court­yards 6, 41, and 50 also served to connect rooms grouped around them (Figs. 9, 10).

The eastern portion of the lower settle­ment is so precipitous (Fig. 9 section and Fig. 11) that ladders or rubble-built stairs must have been used to link different room levels, or doors may have opened onto roofs of rooms at a lower level (i.e., struc­tures 42-44, 45-47; Figs. 9, 10).

Building techniques show little variance at sites of the Cretan early Iron Age period (ca. 1200-700 B.C.; LM IIIC-Geometric). Terracing was required at all high sites settled, and two complementary techniques were used: (1) a level space was dug back into the slope of the hill and enclosed on three sides with a rubble wall; (2) a floor was leveled with earth fill behind a terrace wall. The rear wall, formed by cutting out part of the hillside, was lined with rubble, and often the front wall of a room above and directly behind was placed on top of it (sections, Figs. 6, 9). Rubble walls at Vrokastro were constructed of pieces of the local limestone. Inability to cut back pro­jecting bedrock necessitated its inclusion into wall construction, resulting in walls that were often far from straight, but sub­stantial enough to endure for three millen­nia. Flat roofs necessary for communication between structures placed on different levels were upheld by wooden columns; the three column bases Hall identified from the upper settlement are no longer extant (Fig, 5), but a round column base, no longer in situ, can be seen in room 52 of the lower settlement (Fig. 9). Flat pieces of rubble with straight edges were used to frame doorways, and employed as thresholds (door location is indicated by “D” in plans, Figs. 6, 9).

A few simple building plans can be dis­cerned on the summit corresponding to plans in use in Crete for several hundred years (ca. 1400-700 B.C.). A one-room building is the simplest type of structure, e.g. rooms 1, 22, 27, 31, and 34 of the upper settlement (Fig. 6); rooms 22 and 27 have interior chambers or “closets” built into corners (Fig. 6). In the lower settlement area (Fig. 9) rooms isolated on different levels or terraces may have formed one-room dwellings (i.e., rooms 31, 38, 39, 40, 51, and 54) since those rooms at least 10 meters square internally are large enough to have served as modest dwellings.

Two- or three-room units constructed along one long axis are also found scattered amid one-room buildings in the lower and upper settlement areas. On the summit, rooms 16-17, and possibly 19-20, are two-room units. It is possible that room 17 of structure 16-17 was approached from the east by a narrow path paralleling the north wall of room 19, or that it was entered from the north, via the small room 16 (Figs. 6, 7). A ladder must have connected the higher level of the path to the floor of 17 unless the path led directly onto the roof of 17 or into a second story of this two-room building (Fig. 7). The western wall of 16-17 is massive enough to have sustained a second floor. The large size of this building (ca. 78 square meters) and its possible second story make it one of the most impor­tant buildings in the settlement.

In the upper settlement, the rooms 28-30, oriented north-south, may have formed a three-room building, but again ladders or rubble steps would have been required between the three floor levels (Figs. 6, 7). In the lower settlement area, a two- or possibly three-room dwelling, comprising rooms 3-5, was built behind a massive rubble terrace wall (Fig. 11) which encircles the entire lower town (Figs. 9, 10). The dwelling is the approximate size of the sum­mit building 16-17 (ca. 80 square meters), and is one of the better preserved buildings in this part of the settlement. A central door in the east wall of room 5 opens onto an exterior court, 6 (Fig. 12); rooms occupy­ing a roughly triangular area to the south and up the slope (rooms 14, 15; Fig. 9) may have served as auxiliary or storage rooms for structure 3-5. They were linked to the lower floor of the court by a roughly built rubble staircase (Figs. 9, 10).

Poor preservation makes it difficult to determine whether other axially con­structed rooms, built on different terraces across the lower settlement area, formed parts of individual houses. The small struc­ture 32-34, located in the south central area of the plan (Fig. 9 section), is a probable dwelling, though the rooms of this structure are small for habitation and the slope in this area is so steep it is difficult to stand up right.

Other rooms, ranged on terraces on a north-south line across the precipitous eastern section, may have formed three-room dwellings: rooms 42-44, for example, which were almost completely cut out of the earth and clay of the hillside (Fig. 13). All rooms on the lowest terrace were built against the now fragmentary encircling terrace wall (rooms 52, 56-59, 61; Figs. 9, 10]. It must be assumed doors between these rooms were either placed in the partially extant party walls which extend north to the encircling terrace wall or that rooms were entered from rooftops.

In addition to one- through three-room, axially built dwellings, rectangular struc­tures containing rooms sharing party walls can be identified from the upper [Fig. 6; rooms 3-7+21?) and lower (Fig. 9; rooms 22-26] settlement.

In the upper settlement area, a total of eight possible dwellings can be identified: one room, 22, 27, 31, 34; two room, 19-20, 16-17; three room, 28-30; contiguous, 3-7+21? In the lower settlement, one-room units include 51, 54, and possibly 27, 28, 29, 30, 38, 39, and 40; two-room units, 8-9, 18-19; three-room units, 3-5, 32-34, 42-44, and possibly 45-47. Structure 22-26 is corn- posed of rooms sharing party walls.

The four building types described above occasionally had internal features, such as stone built benches that can be paralleled elsewhere in construction of this period (east wall, room 20, upper settlement; south wall, room 27, lower settlement). In an area where Hall found figurines (room 11; Figs. 5, 6), a rectangular stone built projection, possibly a bench, can be seen built against the western exterior wall of room 6 (Fig. 6). This construction in conjunction with figurine fragments indicates the presence of a “bench sanctuary,” a type of shrine derived from the Minoan period that con­tinues to be constructed into the Iron Age [Gesell 1972: 181-191; Hall 1914: 101-102).

Another feature of importance is the partially preserved, rubble-built terrace wall, encircling the lowest level of the north slope settlement (Figs. 9, 10). The wall is composed of medium to large, dry-laid stones and served to retain the rooms built against it to the south while protecting the mountainside community from winter winds from the sea. It may have functioned as a defense wall as well, though this can­not be proved. Other possible fortifications of the transitional Late Bronze/early Iron Age have been identified across the island [Hayden 1981: 156-160; 1983: n. 27, in press). Fortifications indicate that the third phase of the Cretan Late Bronze Age [LM III A, B,] and the succeeding early Iron Age (LM III C—Geometric] was a more unsettled time than the previous LM I, neo­palatial period.

The range of building plans found at Vrokastro is fairly representative of domes­tic house plans in use at this period (at sites such as Karphi, Kavousi, Dreros, and Phaistos; Hayden 1981: 130-143). At Karphi one-room dwellings appear to have been the first constructed at the site, and as at Vrokastro, doors are usually off-center and face either courts or routes through the settlement (Drerup 1969: 39). One- to three-room buildings may have been preferred at Cretan high sites because of the very rough terrain confronting builders. It was far easier to construct small terraces for one to three rooms on different levels than to accommodate a larger structure of many rooms placed upon one terrace.

There are some variations of the basic two- or three-room axial plan. Auxiliary (storage?) rooms are occasionally found aligned beside the main chamber, as possi­bly in the case of rooms 12, 13, paralleling the large structure 16-17 on the summit (Fig. 6; this plan occurs at other Cretan sites of this period, such as Phaistos, house AA-Q, and Karphi, the remodeled “Great House,” rooms 8-14; Levi 1961-62: 405-408; Pendlebury, Money-Coutts 1937-38: 77-78, 84-85). The ancestry of this structure may possibly be traced to the Mycenaean main­land, for the “Mycenaean megaron” with its auxiliary rooms has a similar plan. Rooms sharing party walls also form houses at other sites [e.g. Karphi, rooms 130-133). For a description of other vari­ants, see Hayden 1981: 130-143; 1983: in press.

It should be emphasized that this small number of house plans does not reflect the entire range of possibilities. A large struc­ture of many rooms (on three levels) found at the Praisos illustrates the type of com­plexity possible, where the terrain did not present major obstacles to construction (Bosanquet 1901-2: 237-239; Drerup 1969: 35-36; Renard 1967: 591-92). Little is known of Cretan architecture for several hundred years after the close of the Minoan palace period, and while the completed Vrokastro plan augments the slim Late Bronze Age/ Iron Age typology, there is still much to learn about the architecture of this transi­tional period. The origin of these axially constructed, simple buildings has not yet been determined. The plans may be the result of internal development beginning about 1450 B.C., at the close of the Minoan palace period, or they may be related to Mycenaean architectural influences affect­ing Crete after the fall of the Minoan palaces.

Edith Hall’s “mean, rude, and irregular” building plans are thoroughly representa­tive of the basic forms in use at mountain­ous sites in early Iron Age Crete, and may demonstrate a continuous architectural tradition traceable, perhaps, to the mid-15th century B.C. It is possible that their ances­try, whether Minoan or Mycenaean, may one day be established, and if more can be determined about room function, these structures will one day teach us more about how people ordered their lives and went about their work activities. The house plans presented in this paper can only be supple­mented by future excavation, accompanied by careful attention given to the architec­ture of this transitional period.

Vrokastro’s significance extends beyond its architecture, however. It has been described as “… the second most impor­tant site in Crete…” of this period (Desborough 1952: 266). It remains one of the few settlements where both domestic architecture and over fifty tombs have been excavated. The large amount of pottery produced from this early excavation has been only partially published, and analysis of the published pottery (Desborough 1952: 262-268) indicates that the site was not affected by the introduction of mainland Greek (Attic) Protogeometric pottery shapes and motifs, possibly in the early 10th century B.C. (Kanta 1980: 5). This Attic influence was felt in central Crete, especially at Knossos. It has been assumed, therefore, that settlements of this period (1200-700 B.C.) were relatively isolated, with trade and contacts restrained during an unsettled time in which descendants of the old Minoan stock fled to mountainous sites for protection (i.e., settlements such as Karphi at the northwest edge of the mountain range inclosing the upland plain of Lasithi).

Possibly a more thorough analysis of unpublished Vrokastro pottery will alter this view somewhat, and indicate stronger ties to other island communities. This new study, which I have undertaken, will supple­ment other ideas emerging concerning life in Crete at this time. It has been recognized that not all Cretan early Iron Age com­munities were located in mountainous and remote areas, and that some sites are low-lying, inland or coastal (Vrokastro itself might qualify as a “coastal” community, with part of its economy based on fishing, for the summit is a forty-minute climb from the coast; Figs. 2, 3). Many more villages and farms belonging to the LM IIIC, Sub Minoan, and Protogeometric/Geometric periods have now been identified either through location of tombs or surface sherds. Defense was not the only motivation in choice of site. A number of villages in remote areas may have resulted from the cultivation of upland plains and mountain slopes for wheat and grapes, or may have been related to the seasonal movement of sheep flocks from low-lying to mountainous pastures (Bintliff 1977: 115-117, 630). Today Cretan farmers often maintain two dwellings, one in a village, the other near fields which require cultivation on a sea­sonal basis (Bintliff 1977: 114). A number of these sites (i.e., Vrokastro, Kavousi, Dreros, Arkades, etc.) are also located near impor­tant cross-island routes, indicating that trade and communication between sites may be a more important factor than previ­ously believed.

Vrokastro as a large, early Iron Age community is an important part of this emerging picture of a long-neglected phase of Cretan prehistory. The 1910 excavation directed by Edith Hall has provided the basis for continued work at the site which will increase our understanding of this complex period.

Cite This Article

Hayden, Barbara J.. "Work Continues at Vrokastro 1910-12, 1979-82." Expedition Magazine 25, no. 3 (March, 1983): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/work-continues-at-vrokastro-1910-12-1979-82/


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