1. An aerial view of the archaeological site set in the an wooded area of great natural beauty.

In the Eleutherian Grove

Eleutherna sits deep in the foothills of Mount Ida, midway between Rethymnon and Crete's capital, Heraklion. A thriving centre, particularly during the Iron Age, its past has gradually been brought to light since 1985 when excavations, undertaken by the University of Crete, began. Lying close to the sea, between ancient Kydonia (modern-day Chania) to the west, Knossos to the east, and Phaistos and Gortyn to the south, Eleutherna was well placed to prosper. Its roots date back to 3000 BC

and this site was continuously inhabited until the 14th century AD, but excavations at the nearby Orthi Petra necropolis indicate that it flourished particularly between circa 900 BC and the end of the 6th or beginning of the 5th century BC.

Now its history is illuminated in the Museum of Ancient Eleutherna, which opened last year, and in the Eleuthernian Grove, a sizable archaeological park that incorporates the ancient city and its necropolis. Inside, the elegant, low-slung museum is well lit and airy. Wide windows provide views of the wild beauty of the surrounding hills. Eleutherna's history is told here through a host of well-presented objects and several vivid audiovisual reconstructions of centuries of life here, all set out in three galleries.


2. A large white marble head of a goddess inside the Museum of Ancient Eleutherna.

The first two galleries present a wealth of finds that trace the political, social and religious life of Eleutherna throughout its long existence. Some are uniquely precious, like the heroon (hero)-sanctuary – believed to be one of the world's earliest monuments to an unknown soldier.

The third room showcases finds from the cemeteries of Eleutherna and from the nearby Orthi Petra necropolis. This site has yielded up dramatic evidence of the kind of funeral rites described in the Iliad, and other burial practices over the centuries.

The grave of one young warrior, dating from 720–700 BC, included the body of a man thought to have been a prisoner-of-war, slaughtered before the funeral pyre, in much the same way as Homer describes the execution of Trojan captives at the funeral of Patroclus. Intriguing, too, are the remains of four women, aged between 13 to 72, from the Early Archaic period, found in one building in the necropolis.


3a-3d. Four exquisitely beaded gold objects found in the Orthi Petri necropolis at Eleutherna: a deity; a turtle; a bee goddess and a pendant.

Great care has been taken to protect the natural beauty of the whole site, explains Nicholas Stampolidis, Professor
of Archaeology at the University of Crete, who has worked here since excavations began more than 30 years ago. 'The finds tell us everything about Eleutherna's life from the third millennium BC to the Byzantine period; from everyday life, food and accommodation, to architecture, sculpture, war, love and death,' he says.

'The site is a palimpsest of different periods of the life of the area, as well as Eleutherna's connections to other cities on the island and with the Aegean, Asia Minor, Dodecanese, Cyprus, Phoenicia, Syria, Egypt and Italy. For me, the important thing about Eleutherna is not just the objects and the remains of the site – "the antiquities" – but interpreting the people and societies behind them.'

Around the museum, the Eleuthernian Grove stretches over a number of wooded hills and valleys, connected by footpaths. The remains of the ancient settlement lie scattered on a hillside, the acropolis sits on a plateau shaded by olive trees and an imposing stone tower, dating back to Hellenistic times, looms up from a ridge near the village of Eleutherna. Vast cisterns are cut into a rock face. Further down, a stream winds through the valley, straddled by an ancient bridge, while inside the necropolis, a vast area protected by a modern arched roof, human remains are still in situ.

For visitors today, the museum, the grove and the necropolis evoke a palpable sense of Eleutherna's long and eventful life – and death.

(For more details visit http://mae.com.gr)
Diana Bentley



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