A small town set amongst beautiful olive groves, on a low hill overlooking the sea, its winding cobbled streets – opening up into a small square here and there – lined by small houses of only a few rooms each, with a low number of larger public buildings or places of worship making for prominent exceptions.
I could be talking about pretty much any traditional Greek island settlement, such as the ones we visit on our escorted cruises in the Cyclades and Dodecanese islands, but the one described here is a special one: Those stone-paved stepped lanes one walks to explore the site were laid more than 3500 years ago!
The site is Gournia, near Pachia Ammos in East Crete, and counts among the best-preserved prehistoric settlements in Greece. Gournia provides a unique opportunity to get a tangible sense of daily life in a town that thrived between 1700 and 1450 BC. It was first excavated by American archaeologists in the beginning of the 20th century, but work is ongoing to this day. It is also a highlight on our Exploring Crete tour.
What is most striking about Gournia, whether you actually enter the site or whether you just pass it on the nearby main coast road linking East Crete to the central parts of the island, is how complete the town appears. Although all its buildings have been reduced to their foundations, the visual impression, especially from the East, is of a complete city plan, sprawling downslope from a low hilltop plateau towards the sea. In fact, a substantial proportion of the settlement still awaits excavation on the far side of the hill, but that does not take away from the extraordinary sense of comprehensible and approachable urban layout the site presents.
The arteries of Gournia are a series of curved lanes, all solidly paved with large cobbles, following the natural contours of the topography, intermittently joined by narrow stepways that lead straight to the hilltop. Walking up or down those lanes, the visitor passes what makes Gournia such a unique experience: the remains of literally hundreds of private homes.
These are by no means the mansions or “villas” found at prominent Minoan centres elsewhere on Crete, such as Knossos, or at important Bronze Age cities further afield, the most prominent example being the lost city of Akrotiri on Santorini. Gournia’s houses are more modest and ordinary structures, never exceeding much beyond a size of 5 metres square. Often, a little stairway protrudes into the street, much as it might in a modern island village, giving access to the entrance, which is usually marked by a finely cut threshold block. Within, one typically finds a rectangular area that is carefully paved with flat stone slabs, representing what used to be an open-air courtyard, surrounded by a series of small rooms.
Today, only the stone-built foundations survive; the upper parts of these buildings would have been built of mud-brick and wood and have perished long since. Therefore, the spaces now visible are probably mostly basement rooms, used for storage and similar purposes. In many of the houses, the bottom steps of internal staircases can still be seen, indicating the existence of upper floors, where the living accommodations would have been. With the help of recent traditional island settlements, often built along similar lines and of the same materials, but also of Minoan house models, frescoes and other illustrations found elsewhere in Crete, it is not difficult to imagine the place as a whole.
Beyond that generic layout, many of the houses contain surprisingly well-preserved details (sometimes pointed out by modern information panels placed outside). Especially interesting examples include a platform for treading grapes to make wine in one house, a carefully built framed window in another, and stone-built internal cupboards set into the walls of several more. Nearly every building features one or several large quernstones or mortars. These were used for grinding grain, providing the basic material for bread-making. The mortars are locally known as “gourna” in modern Cretan dialect. They were visible on the site in substantial numbers even before excavation, giving the location its modern name “Gournia” – its Minoan name, i.e. that by which those who built the settlement and dwelt in it knew it, remains unknown.
Supported by the objects archaeologists found within the dwellings, mostly pottery and the occasional bronze tool, Gournia gives the impression of a relatively affluent town, but hardly a rich one, with a few thousand inhabitants, probably mostly engaged in farming and various crafts. Gournia was in all likelihood involved in trade with the larger Minoan centres elsewhere in Crete. There is little evidence of social stratification or hierarchy on the site.
This coherent and consistent pattern is broken only by a few particular buildings set on the most prominent part of Gournia: the hilltop at its centre. Here, there are remains of a much larger and more substantial structure that shares some of the grander features achieved by Minoan architecture elsewhere. Scholars tend to call it a “Palace”, while sceptics insist on using a less decisive term, e.g. the “palatial building”. It clearly represents the public and administrative centre of the town. Its most striking aspects, beyond its sheer size, are the use of finely dressed ashlar blocks in the foundations, and the presence of specific architectural spaces not found in Gournia’s private homes.
To enter the “Palace”, one has to pass through a large open square, by far the biggest in Gournia. It is easy to imagine it being used for public gatherings or ceremonies. The entrance proper is formed by a very finely constructed cornered stairway. Inside it was a substantial open courtyard, separated from a large roofed hall by a series of pillars, only the bases of which survive. The western and northern parts of the complex are made up of rows of magazines, elongated storage spaces linked by corridors, a typical feature of the more famous Minoan Palaces at sites like Knossos or Phaistos. Their function was the storage of large quantities of agricultural surplus, such as oil, grain or wool, to be redistributed, traded or used in public events. Drawing parallels with what we know of Minoan socio-political organisation elsewhere, it appears likely that this building was the residence of a local ruler or official.
At the same time, the central hilltop also seems to have served as a symbolic or religious centre to Gournia. Outside the “Palace”‘s southwest corner, a strange standing stone was built right into a lane. It is associated with a buried clay drain reaching down from the “Palace” square. Scholars have been tempted to connect the arrangement with liquid offerings, suggesting that the stone is a sacred rock. A little further north, back among the “normal” houses, a short path branches off the same lane and leads to a dead end fronted by a small single-room structure with a stone bench along its back wall. On that bench, archaeologists found a series of clay figurines. As that type of object is usually interpreted as being of religious significance, the small structure may just have been a small shrine or temple.
To the south of the “Palace” are the foundations of another substantial structure, which turns out to be of later date than its neighbour and actually than most of the town. It is a so-called megaron, an axial complex consisting of a main hall and outer porch, alien to Minoan architecture, but typical for places of power and/or worship in the Mycenaean World, i.e. the Late Bronze Age civilisation of mainland Greece. Along with many other key sites in Crete, Gournia appears to have been nearly completely destroyed around 1450 BC, as part of a sequence of events that is probably associated with an invasion of Mycenaean Greeks from the mainland.The megaron thus indicates a temporary and very specific reuse of the destroyed town’s central point.
As excavations continue, more is being revealed of Minoan Gournia. For example, its harbour facilities, but also a possible fortification wall have recently been found, but are not yet accessible to the visitor.
But even without those, Gournia is great place to see, a uniquely informative site in an especially lovely setting. One way to experience it is on our “Exploring Crete tour“.