Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Research project

Crete as melting pot: research into Late Antique, Byzantine and Early Islamic material culture at Gortyn, Greece

What does the excavated material tell us about the continuation and/or change of urban life during the transitional phrases from Antiquity to the Middle Ages on Crete and in the eastern Mediterranean more generally?

Joanita Vroom
  • Netherlands Institute in Athens (NIA)
  • Italian Archaeological School in Athens (SAIA)
  • University of Siena
  • Ephorate of Antiquities of Heraklion
Overview of the excavation at the ‘Early Byzantine District’ in Gortyn

Project description

An important topic this study tries to tackle is the problem of what happened to Late Antiquity and Early Medieval urban life on Crete and in the Mediterranean generally. This was an era when political structures changed, economic systems rearranged and territorial and cultural boundaries shifted significantly. What happened to Gortyn in the transformative and turbulent periods following the end of the Roman era? What changed and what stayed the same for city-dwellers, artisans, merchants, aristocrats, and servants all living together in this place?

Academic relevance

The study of (de)urbanisation of Mediterranean cities (demise, survival or revival) in Roman and later periods is still plagued by many uncertainties and is much-debated. In these debates, Gortyn is an interesting distinctive case as it was an important city that deviated from the conventional transformation urban centres generally went through during Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period. Gortyn did not suffer a decline, like so many other towns and cities.

The general aim of this study is to investigate the transformation of this medium-sized provincial city from Late Roman to Byzantine times, as well as examining the problem of what happened afterwards, namely during the Islamic conquest and the Emirate of Crete.

Since 2001, the University of Siena and the SAIA have been excavating at the ‘Early Byzantine District’ in Gortyn under the supervision of Prof. Zanini.

In 2019, prof. Vroom started a post-excavation project focussing on materials produced by the Siena excavation team. This pilot campaign proved highly successful, encouraging future research. Last year’s achievement confirmed the international collaboration between the universities of Siena and Leiden as a productive symbiotic relationship between the two teams. This resulted in a fruitful work sequence in which the complete procedure of an archaeological dig was carried out by separate teams with complementary specialisations working together: from the systematic excavation and artefact recovery (by the Siena team in the field) to the conservation, documentation, classification and further processing of the finds (by the Leiden team in the local depot).

The ‘Early Byzantine District’ is an area around 2000 m² and located in the Roman and Byzantine urban centre. This area is special as it is a non-monumental urban space. It yields substantial quantities of material (mostly ceramics) of an undisturbed sequence with Antique to Early Medieval layers.

The methodology is innovative because it differs from standard urban archaeological projects by moving away from (over)emphasising monumental architecture and instead focussing on objects of everyday life. These include finds of pottery, glass, stone, metal, and bone. Since the nature of the artefact corpus of the Gortyn Project is comparable to that of the previous Chalkis Project of prof. Vroom, and, hence, a similar methodology is used. This modus operandi was carefully developed and tested during the Chalkis Project, which showed that it is highly effective in processing large amounts of finds in a limited amount of time and with few resources (in terms of manpower and facilities) at hand.

The student’s internship programme of this project encompasses many stages of practical archaeological recording: from counting and weighing to describing, classifying, photographing, 3D-scanning and drawing objects.

The primary aim is to develop an overview of the excavated material, including basic documentation (e.g. photographs, drawings, 3D-reconstructions) and to establish a typo-chronology as well as the origin of the artefacts. This will help to indicate the nature of urban cultural and social life, domestic production and levels of (inter)regional interaction, and their developments through time. Furthermore, the recorded material will be prepared for future publication.

This website uses cookies.  More information.