Excavations at the acropolis in Falasarna (also Phalasarna) in the far west of Crete continue to produce rich archaeological bounty. Most recently, hundreds of artifacts including female clay figurines dedicated to the Greek goddess Demeter have been discovered in the main area of the ancient temple in the acropolis.
An announcement from the Greek Ministry of Sport and Culture stated that the excavations had been carried out under its aegis by a team led by Dr. Elpidas Hatzidakis. The recent finds date mostly to the Archaic period (circa 800 BC to 480 BC) and consist of a host of female clay figurines, enthroned deities, heads with headdresses resembling the goddess Demeter, miniature water jars and female water carriers, all typical of sanctuaries of Demeter.
The rocky site of the acropolis overlooking Falasarna before excavations began. ( Greek Ministry of Culture )
Fascinating Falasarna Becomes a Forgotten City
Known today for its striking Blue Flag beaches, Falasarna in Crete was a thriving eastern Mediterranean port in antiquity, important enough to merit its own laws and coinage. The city-state’s port was astonishing for its time, a large artificial inland harbor protected by the sheer rocks of the coastline.
According to agrophilia, Roman forces sent out to eradicate pirates who had held out after the defeat of Macedonian King Perseus completely decimated the city of Falasarna with its rich past, killing most of its inhabitants. A gigantic earthquake in 365 AD near the west coast of Crete completed the destruction.
The powerful earthquake triggered a mega tsunami that lifted the entire west end of Crete by as much as 9 meters (29 ft). Today, this ancient port lies many meters inland from what would have been its original position.
These catastrophic events combined to turn Falasarna from a bustling port into an abandoned and forgotten city. Until British explorers Robert Pashley and Captain T. A. B. Spratt rediscovered its remains in the 19th century that is.
Aerial view of the temple dedicated to Demeter, found in the hills surrounding Falasarna. ( Greek Ministry of Culture )
Falasarna’s Ancient Temple of the Goddess Demeter
The recent finds are from excavations carried out at the temple located in a natural cave with a flowing water source. The Falasarna cave was situated on a rocky hill between two high mountain peaks and it collapsed at some point.
After the collapse the entire hill became an open-air sanctuary dedicated to the worship of the chthonic ancient deity associated with the earth, the life-giving power of water and fertility. Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, the sister of Hades and the mother of Persephone through Zeus was considered a chthonic or underworld goddess because of the association between crops and the earth.
Sometime around the end of the fourth century BC to beginning of the third century BC, the rock from the collapsed cave was reused to build the temple whose ruins survive today. It is surrounded by an enclosure that is mostly intact but for a section that seems to have been destroyed by a rock fall.
Clay figurine of a female figure holding a poppy and a pomegranate discovered in excavations of the Falasarna temple. ( Greek Ministry of Culture )
Artifacts Excavated at the Falasarna Temple
The temple was built on the natural rock in Doric style, with two non-fluted columns, parts of which survive. The roof incorporated Corinthian features with clay sleepers and covers. An impressive staircase led up to two single-room buildings that had a common wall between them as well as a common retaining wall on the northern side.
The building on the east was the main temple, while the other room served a supplementary function. An inner door in the eastern part of the main temple opened onto an outdoor area where sacrifices took place. The floor of the inner sanctum was paved as in the rest of the temple and on it were five slots for depositing offerings.
It is here that Hadjidakis and her colleagues excavated several elegant vases and other vessels, some of a ceremonial nature. One of them notably had the name of goddess Demeter inscribed on it in the Doric alphabet. The sculptural remains found in the excavations favor a Daedalic style with nude female figures with high headdresses.
Glass objects found at the site also show the links that Falasarna had with ancient Egypt and Phoenicia. Some other artifacts belonging to the sixth century BC include terracotta bird and animal pendants, arrowheads and spearheads, miniature vases, enthroned female figures and a female figurine holding a poppy and pomegranate. Little water pitchers, a beaked ritual pitcher painted with a red flying cupid, iron spikes and alabaster vessels from the third and fourth centuries BC have also been found.
Excavations of the Falasarna temple revealed several artifacts including this inscribed hydria engraved with the name of the goddess Demeter. ( Greek Ministry of Culture )
Future Excavations Should Help Identify Unfamiliar Structures
Geophysical surveys carried out by a team led by professors G. Tsokas and G. Vallianatos have revealed remains of an underground structure that appears to be semicircular. However, the upper part is not clearly semicircular and only further excavations will be able to identify whether it was a public building like a theater or bouleuterion.
Dr. Hatzidakis has been involved with excavations at Falasarna since 1986 and has, along with her colleagues, been responsible for the discovery of towers, quays, defensive walls, water tanks, baths, an altar, a wine factory and a public road. The latest discoveries were made with the support of the Director of the Ephorate of Chania, Dr. Eleni Papadopoulou, archaeologist Dr. Michalis Milidakis and the master craftsman K. Mountakis.
From fascinating to forgotten to fascinating again, the wheel has turned full circle for Falasarna. Each new excavation at the Cretan archaeological site reveals striking new facets of this remarkable ancient city and the story seems far from over.
Top image: The Falasarna archaeological site in Crete, with a representation of the façade of the temple dedicated to the Goddess Demeter. Source: Greek Ministry of Culture
By Sahir Pandey