Notes from the Field: If Stones Could Speak

Well, I should have known better than to say in my last post that the summer would leave me with some extra time…That may have been true in the summers of old, when the end of the school year brought about the lazy days of lying in the grass reading Archie comics, going for ice cream after soccer games, or catching up on all those TV shows I missed during the year… But now, as an archaeologist, I prefer to voluntarily get up at 5:00 am and hack through dirt for eight hours straight. Follow that with another couple of hours of artifact processing, and a jam-packed day flies by with little time for anything else. Lunacy? Perhaps. Worth it? Most definitely.

What really proves our insanity is the fact that what precious time we do have off, we often spend climbing mountains, traipsing through thorn bushes, or navigating hair-raising dirt roads, usually to visit another ancient site or two. And usually in the blistering heat. But really, when this is the view, can you blame us??

Mochlos, Crete

Plus, these adventures often give us even more food for archaeological thought, not only about the ancient sites and those who occupied them, but also about how people continue to interact with them today. I encountered a striking example of this at the Early Minoan site of Myrtos Phournou Korifi on the Greek island of Crete. Myrtos is famous for being the home of the so-called ‘Goddess of Myrtos,’ an anthropomorphic libation vessel more than 4000 years old (odysseus.culture.gr/h/4/eh430.jsp?obj_id=4851). Shaped like a woman holding another jug, she is believed by some, members of the public and scholars alike, to be one of the earliest Minoan representations of a sacred goddess. As a Minoan archaeologist, it irks me to write this statement without getting into a detailed discussion of the arguments for and against such an identification, but as it would take thousands of words to give that discussion justice, and the pottery out back is calling my name (sorting pottery is a never-ending task…), I will save such an analysis for another post. In the meantime, I merely wanted to share this example of how people not only visit Myrtos as an important archaeological site, but also revere it as a religious site; while exploring the ruins of this small hilltop settlement, we came across a low stone platform covered in pebbles and shells, some decorated with paint, others left in their natural states. The platform is regarded as the spot where the Goddess was found (although the excavation reports indicate that the discovery was made in a different room nearby… But it’s the thought that counts, right?)

Myrtos, Crete

Shrine with offerings to the Goddess of Myrtos.

Apparently the site is a particularly popular place of pilgrimage for the ‘goddess tours’ which frequent the Greek islands. These tours visit sites significant to goddess worshippers, those who believe in the power of a female deity of fertility and nature. The Minoans, a people who may have practiced a religion centred on a goddess/goddesses (Minoan monotheism remains a contentious issue…), feature strongly on these tours. Indeed, one of the rocks on the Myrtos ‘shrine’ was even decorated with a painting of a snake, a popular ritual symbol in Minoan religion.

Stone with a painted snake left as an offering.

Stone with a painted snake left as an offering.

Whether or not you support the idea of a prehistoric goddess religion is beside the point. Ongoing activities such as this one, the laying of offerings at a site built more than four millennia ago, demonstrate the important role that the physical remains of past peoples continue to have in the modern world. For many, archaeological sites are not simply the remnants of people who lived alien lives completely disconnected from our own, but represent ideas, values, and beliefs which continue to this day. For some, physical and spiritual engagement with these spaces enables them to engage more fully with those who came before them, despite the years of history which separate us.

So the next time you visit a site, take a look around and remember the power that ancient places still hold over people. If stones could speak…

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