East Cretan peak sanctuary project

This blog for the ‘Day of Archaeology 2013’ is about the East Cretan Peak Sanctuary publication project. We are on the lovely island of Crete where the breeze is gently rippling over the deep blue sea, clouds cluster on the peaks of the high mountains, the cicadas are chirping, the air is scented with Cretan herbs, and at night every star is visible in the velvet dark sky.

Tearing ourselves away from the beauty of our surroundings, we are doing a museum study season in the Ayios Nikolaos museum. Our task is the study of thousands of small clay figurines of people and animals from the peak sanctuaries of the Cretan (Minoan) Bronze Age. The project is a collaboration of archaeologists based in both Ireland and Greece: Professor Costis Davaras (Greek Archaeological Service); Alan Peatfield (Dept of Archaeology, University College Dublin); Christine Morris (Dept of Classics, Trinity College Dublin); Brendan O’Neill (TCD/UCD) who is in charge of the Next Engine 3D scanner.

The overall aim of this project is to publish the finds, especially the figurines, from the East Cretan peak sanctuaries excavated (often to save them from looting) during the 1970s by Professor Davaras, who has generously invited us to collaborate with him. For this work we are fortunate to have funding support from the Irish Research Council for 2012-13.

Prinias, Crete

The peak sanctuary of Prinias in Eastern Crete

For the past two weeks we have been working away – cataloguing, photographing and 3D scanning (of which more in a moment) this archaeological material, focusing first of all on the site of Prinias seen here from the road into the town of Sitia. Our day starts with a stop at the Melissa bakery for delicious chortopitas (spinach pies) and freshly brewed coffee. In the museum apotheke (store rooms) we have ample space to spread out and study the figurines – these include representations of men and women, animals large and small, including large bulls and more miniaturized animals – bovines, sheep, goats, and some more unusual creatures – horned beetles, weasels (the Cretan nifitsa) and even the occasional cat. Many of these mountain sanctuaries, including Prinias, also have miniaturized clay models of body parts – legs, arms, half bodies, swollen hands – which were offered as part of a healing cult.

Female clay figurines from Prinias.

Female clay figurines from Prinias.

Votive leg offered for healing at Prinias.

All these objects were made locally and carried up the mountain, where they were left as part of the rituals performed there. It is not difficult to imagine them being somewhat like modern Greek Orthodox rituals at mountain churches (sometimes even on the very mountains where their Bronze Age ancestors had their peak sanctuaries) – activities that were social, communal, and accompanied by food, drink and much celebration. We are interested in every aspect of the figurines – technology, style, the gender and gestures/postures of the human figurines, the dazzling variety of hair and hat styles, perhaps indicators of social status or age.

 

Cataloguing the figurines in a relational database

Cataloguing the figurines in a relational database

 

Brendan getting the scanning underway!

Brendan getting the scanning underway!

Alongside the standard archaeological cataloguing (in a Filemaker Pro database), we are excited to be creating 3D scans of many of the figurines. To date, we have around 150 completed scans. We plan to make these available – and so make Minoan figurines much better known to the wider public – on a website, to complement the more conventional printed publication. The 3D models show off the complexity and character of the figurines more effectively than photographs. The scans also capture subtle details of modeling and can help us to study how the figurines are made. For this latter task, we have also explored making our own Minoan-style figurines – enlisting the help of keen students in Dublin, and, last week, the students on the Priniatikos Pyrgos field school, whom Brendan instructed in the mysteries of making figurines from local Cretan clay. Where there is a 3D model there can also be a 3D print; we have a few sample printed models, and hope to expand on this further for educational use.

Our Prinias cat head being scanned

Our Prinias cat head being scanned

 

Results of the scan of a male figurine from Prinias

Results of the scan of a male figurine from Prini

 

Some samples of our scanning work are available on Youtube:

And: