|10 November 2003
Stone Age to Bronze Age on ancient Crete
One of the Aegean’s oldest known metal-smelting workshops has been identified at Chrysokamino, on the Gulf of Mirambelou, north eastern Crete (Greece). Pottery sherds date the workshop as far back as 5,000 years ago, to the Neolithic era. The workshop and its furnace are sited to exploit the prevailing winds. Isotope analysis has shown that copper ore smelted at Chrysokamino before 3000 BCE came from Lavrio in Attica or, possibly, the island of Kythnos in the northern Cyclades. The end product was improved by the addition of arsenic – or it possibly occurred in the ore – which produced harmful vapours that gave a further reason for the remote windy location. In the Late Bronze Age, from around 1500 BCE, arsenic was replaced by tin as an additive to the molten copper, yielding high quality bronze. Gold, silver and lead were also smelted on the site.
The excavation of the site was begun in the late 1990s by American archaeologist Professor Philip Betancourt, director of the Institute of Aegean Prehistory [INSTAP], in collaboration with leading Bronze Age metallurgist Dr. James Muhly, past director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Improved scientific techniques have been fully embraced to help the research work: metallurgist Iannis Bassiakos, of the Athens-based Demokritos research institute, analysed the range of metals found on the site. Betancourt and Muhly are now preparing findings for publication.
Chrysokamino is one of a number of Cretan sites being investigated by INSTAP. Dovetailing neatly with the Chrysokamino project is the twelve-year excavation of Pseira, the offshore island that dominates the view from the smithy. Pseira’s protected south-facing harbour was a port of call on the northern coast trade route for 2,000 years, until late Minoan days when Greek-speaking Mycenaens took control of Crete. Betancourt has shown that the ancient mariners imported goods to Pseira from the Cyclades, Cyprus and Syria. Another port under long-term investigation is Bronze Age Kommos, the thriving sea outlet of Phaistos, second in importance only to Knossos in the Minoan world.
Betancourt’s latest project began in 2002 at a huge Minoan burial cave high on the Lassithi Plateau in the Dikti Mountains (site of the Diktaean Cave, birthplace of Zeus and a long time Minoan cult centre). Close to the village of Agios Charalambos, the cave features a massive Minoan reburial of hundreds of human remains from the Early and Middle Bronze Age (3rd and 2nd millennia BCE). Bone analysis will provide information on diet, lifestyle and life spans. The remains were interred with jewellery, figurines, pottery, stone vases and other artefacts in good condition. The evidence suggests that Lassithi supported a flourishing society in remote antiquity. The number of domestic animal bones unearthed points to a stock-raising economy. Betancourt’s collaborator at Lassithi was Costis Davaras, who had also worked on Pseira. Further expertise was provided by Helene Stravopodi, of the culture ministry speleological service, when it became apparent that conditions in the cave were hazardous.
Betancourt has this year been awarded the Archaeological Institute of America’s most prestigious accolade, its annual gold medal. Of Minoan archaeology, Betancourt says: “We’ve only scratched the surface. We really know so little.” He believes that archaeology overall is a growing field, benefiting from modern technology and rising popular interest.
Source: Athens News (31 October 2003)
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