Ancient Eleutherna, the birthplace of the poet Linos, of the philosopher Diogenes, of the tragic poet Ametor, and of the sculptor Timochares, is located on the northwest foot of Mount Ida, approximately thirty kilometres south of Rethymnon, at 380 metres above sea level.
The city was allegedly named after Eleuthereas, one of the Kouretes, or after Demeter Eleuthous. The city's excavated remains belong to various periods. A thriving Hellenistic settlement has been identified on the Nisi hill, which was one of the city's nuclei, together with the Pyrgi hill.
Eleutherna fought against Rhodes and its ally Knossos in the third century BC, but sided with Knossos against other Cretan cities in 220 BC. It was besieged and conquered, however, and forced out of its alliance. Thanks to its naturally fortified location, the city successfully resisted Quintus Caecilius Metellus's attack in 68 BC, until betrayal led to its conquest.
Humphrey Payne of the British School at Athens excavated at Eleutherna in 1929. Systematic excavations by the University of Crete began in 1985, revealing important archaeological remains dating from the Geometric until the Early Byzantine period and evidence for continuous occupation from the Early Minoan period until recent times.
Ancient Eleutherna, is protected as an archaeological site but also as a natural woodland by law. The excavation teams that have worked at the site have planted rows of trees to delineate pathways, while the site of the museum that will one day house all the finds is just a short walk away, on the other side of the hill.
One of the most impressive observations about the site is the care taken by the archaeologists to preserve the natural environment, allowing visitors to take a mental leap back in time and imagine the location as it was when it was first settled – nestled in the protective embrace of the woodland.
“We are interested in Eleutherna becoming a paradigm of how we can showcase ancient sites. You can’t hear passing cars, and, other than the shelter, all of our interventions are discreet, retaining the purity of the landscape. We used large rocks rather than cement to divert the flow of a stream, the electricity cables are all below ground, thanks to the Public Power Corporation, and all the steps are made of rock and earth. Almost everything here is made by hand, and the best part is that we – the archaeologists and the workers on the dig, which is funded by the University of Crete – did it ourselves,” says Stampolidis (a professor of history and archaeology at the University of Crete).
The excavation’s chief archaeologist also explains how the university managed to appropriate the land under which Eleutherna was buried.
“I find funding myself by approaching people who love the place but want to remain anonymous. It is thanks to them that we could buy up all the land that comprised the woods in which the site is located,” he explains, adding that the project has also received the full support of the local community.
“I think that they have all realized that Eleutherna will never have all the annoyances, say, of Knossos, where there are souvlaki joints and souvenir shops next to the archaeological site. They love the excavation, they protect it and they have supported our work in every possible way,” Stampolidis adds.
The new Museum of the Eleutherna archaeological site, in the prefecture of Rethymno, is set to open during 2015 as its construction is in progress. So far, the floor’s roof is under construction while the semi-basement and the floor have been completed. As reported, the masterplan of shaping the Museum’s surroundings as well as securing the artefact’s security and transportation has been given the “green light” by the members of the Central Archaeological Council (KAS).
This is good news for culture, small village of Eleutherna, Crete ... guests of Crete.
Also, the KAS members approved a new excavation plan (2013-2015) for the site, which is being excavated since 1985 by the Department of Archaeology and History of Art of the University of Crete. Research in Sectors I and III, undergone under the direction of Classical Archaeology Professor Nicholas Stampolidis is to be continued while the request of Byzantine Archaeology lecturer Christina Tsigonaki to continue her research is still under consideration.
As presented to the KAS, the new, 5-year excavation plan,will have three targets: to define the Ancient Eleutherna’s city plan, to reveal the Hellenistic and Roman phase of the city and to locate the limits of the world renowned Geometric/Archaic necropolis of Orthi Petra, which is believed to spread under layers of later years.
The dig at Eleutherna has brought to light excellent finds of different chronological phases (Neolithic to Late Roman), such as houses and paved roads, sanctuaries, a huge limestone quarry, inscriptions, sculptures, metal objects, metal and glass vessels, figurines and objects of ivory.
However, the most impressive finds come from the necropolis of Orthi Petra. Gold jewellery and remains of gold-sewn pieces of clothing accompanying the remains of women found buried in three pithoi dating between 750 and 650 BC. While research has recently shown that the women were related to each other through blood (mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters), their identities and position in society remains a mystery.
It is worth mentioning that the excavations on the site have been characterised as exemplary as they are accompanied by a project of monument refurbishment, protection and restoration. The impressive Orthi Petra roofing, for example, with its characteristic curvy shape has been seen as “covering the Eleutherna’s bones such as Kouretes Elefther was covering Zeus’ cry with the sound of his weapons”.