The Atsipadhes Korakias Peak Sanctuary Project

Alan Peatfield

University College

The Atsipadhes Korakias Peak Sanctuary Project is currently the only archaeological project in Greece directed from an Irish university. Atsipadhes Korakias is a peak (mountain-top) sanctuary of the Minoan period (Bronze Age) on Crete. It is located in the western part of the island, about 20 klms south of the modern town of Rethymnon. Korakias peak is a northern spur of mt. Kouroupas; it rises above the modern village of Atsipadhes, and dominates the Ayios Vasilios valley.

There are some 25 Minoan peak sanctuaries known on Crete; they share consistent features of topography and of finds. The finds, in particular, reveal the nature of the cult. The finds were votive offerings, consisting of pottery and clay figurines. The clay figurines are of three main types: animals, human, and detached parts of the human body referred to as votive limbs. The animals are mostly domestic, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and reflect the agricultural concerns of the worshippers. The human figures represent the worshippers themselves, and the votive limbs were offered as prayers or thanks for healing. Peak sanctuaries are consistently located on or near a prominent peak, usually, but not always the summit of a given mountain. These peaks are easily visible and accessible from settlement areas, and are often close to land exploited for pastoral farming. Minoan peak sanctuaries were thus not places of remote and arduous pilgrimage, but were the ritual response to the landscape exploited by a rural population of peasant farmers and shepherds.

Peak sanctuaries came into being towards the end of the Early Minoan period (2300 B.C.), 400 years before the Minoan palaces like Knossos were founded (1900 B.C.). Most peak sanctuaries continued in use until 1700 B.C. (Middle Minoan II/III). At this time Knossos and the other palaces intensified their control of Crete by centralising economic and political administration. Religion was the ideological component that helped justify that centralising control. As part of this the peak sanctuary cult was centralised onto the peak sanctuaries of the palatial regional capitals; consequently all but 8 of the peak sanctuaries were abandoned, and the cult increasingly reflected not rural but palatial concerns. When Knossos, the last of the Minoan palaces was finally destroyed in 1375 B.C., the peak sanctuary cult, now alienated from the peasant population among whom it had originated, was not revived and the sites were left abandoned.

Until 1989 archaeological knowledge of peak sanctuaries was limited. Though 14 of the sites had been excavated, only two were published in any depth: Jouktas and Petsophas, respectively the peak sanctuaries of Knossos (the palace "capital" of Minoan Crete) and Palaikastro (a rich palatial town on the east coast). Jouktas and Petsophas were thus both large, rich, and important peak sanctuaries, and untypical of a predominantly rural cult. Thus there was need for the excavation (and publication!) of a small, poor, and rural peak sanctuary.

Atsipadhes Korakias was identified as a peak sanctuary in 1986, and I planned its investigation specifically to test my religious and chronological ideas about peak sanctuaries (as summarised above). The Atsipadhes Korakias Project was designed as an integrated project, combining both excavation and regional survey, for the first time to study Minoan religion within its landscape context. The excavation was completed in a single season in 1989; around 5000 figurine fragments and 2500 diagnostic postsherds were recovered and their distribution was point-plotted. There have been annual study seasons of the material since 1990, with a projected publication date in 1997. In 1991 the Survey explored the mountain slopes around the Korakias peak and also 19 sq. klms. of the Ayios Vasilios valley. A second survey season will be conducted in 1994.

The Korakias peak has two terraces, Upper to the west and Lower to the east. The finds were point-plotted specifically to reveal for the first time the detailed spatial layout of a peak sanctuary. Though laborious and time-consuming this methodology was successful. Only the east edge of the Upper Terrace was part of the sanctuary. This area was marked out by a dense scatter of water-worn pebbles, in the centre of which was a depression in the rock. The depression fill was empty of finds, but around it the earth was thick with potsherds and figurine fragments. Our analysis of the finds suggests that this was the main liturgical part of the sanctuary, where rituals were focussed on whatever sacred object (perhaps a baetyl or sacred stone) stood in the depression. These rituals seem to have involved libations (liquid offerings) to judge by the dominant shapes in the assemblage immediately around the depression: jugs, cups, bridge-spouted jars, vessel- and animal-shaped rhyta (a rhyton is a specialised Minoan libation vase). A little further away from the depression the pottery was different: large dishes, and open bowls were most frequent, suggestive of food offerings. It is the first time that this sort of spatial detail has been recorded from a Minoan shrine, and its success is a vindication of our methods.

Most of the Lower Terrace was within the sanctuary. The Terrace itself is divided into two distinct areas; to the west, immediately below the drop from the Upper Terrace are rock clefts, and to the east is a flat, open area. 60% of all the figurines were found in the rock clefts, suggesting that this was the main area of offerings. Furthermore in the 1993 study season we identified a secondary specialised offering area - a flat rock on and around which were many potsherds.

The votive figurines are mostly of cattle, clearly indicating the importance of cattle-breeding to the local economy. Interestingly travellers record that this area was still famous for its cattle even up to Mediaeval times.

The human figurines display the usual varieties of Minoan dress and hairstyle: loincloths and scalplocks for the men, and long dresses with open bodices and hats for the women. Among the votive limbs we have a few of the common types: legs, torsoes, etc., but there are also a great number of phalli - a votive limb type never before recognised on other peak sanctuaries.

Down in the valley, the Survey has allowed us to define the peak sanctuary's "parish". We have located a number of small settlements contemporary with the peak sanctuary, but no large town or palatial villa. This pattern of dispersed farmsteads and hamlets conforms to the picture of a rural community of worhippers suggested by the sanctuary finds. More closely we have identified a clay fabric common to the pottery from both the sanctuary and a restricted group of sites north and east of the sanctuary. This conforms exactly to the natural topography and visual links of the mountain and valley, as we had already observed.

A pioneering element of the Project has been its collection of environmental data. For example, we have been able to link the predominance of the cattle votive figurines and study of abandoned hillside terraces with ethnological data for a modern change in agricultural exploitation: as specialised bread production became widespread, so individual families no longer continued their own cereal production which had necessitated keeping cattle for ploughing. On the geological side we have discovered evidence for three large floods in the valley, one pre-Bronze Age, the second Bronze Age, and the third Mediaeval; we are still assessing the affects of this on settlement patterns and the evidence of earlier periods.

The chronology of the peak sanctuary may be summarised thus: the earliest material appears to be from Early Minoan III (around 2300 B.C.), consisting of cups and other vases, and figurines in the same fabric. There is also evidence of Middle Minoan I use (2000-1800 B.C.). The overwhelming majority of the finds are clearly of Middle Minoan II date (around 1700 B.C.). In this Atsipadhes conforms to other peak sanctuaries and to more pervasive evidence suggestive of a general increase in Minoan ritual activity at that time. Equally significant is the complete lack of any later material. This confirms my interpretation that the rural peak sanctuaries went out of use when the peak sanctuary cult was centralised after the palaces started to monopolise religion

The Middle Minoan II horizon also has a wider significance for this part of Crete. Contemporary with the peak sanctuary are several settlements sites, notably a possible palace at Monastiraki in the neighbouring Amari valley, all of which suffer major fire destructions and abandonments at this time. Warfare has been suggested. Atsipadhes Korakias will have its contribution to the solution of this problem.

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