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Sphakia Survey: The Internet Edition

The Sphakia Survey: A Brief Introduction


Sphakia is a deme (formerly eparchy), a modern administrative district, in SW Crete (Greece) with an area of 472 km. sq. It includes most of the White Mountains, and a dozen gorges, running S to the Libyan Sea -- the best known is the Samaria Gorge -- and very little arable land.


The main objective of the Sphakia Survey is to investigate human interaction with the landscape.


We have looked at evidence for human activity from the time that people first arrived in Sphakia at the end of the Stone Age (by ca 3000 B.C.) to the end of the Turkish period in Crete (A.D. 1898-1900). In other words, we have been working with a time span of some 5000 years.

We divided this long period into three epochs: Prehistoric (3500 - 1050 B.C.); Graeco-Roman (1050 B.C. - A.D. 700); Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish (A.D. 700 - 1900).

The work of the Survey was done in several stages:
reconnaissance in Sphakia: 1986
field seasons in Sphakia: 1987-90, 92 08.042
study seasons in the Khania Museum: 1989, 1993-8
finds photography: 1999.


The Sphakia Survey is directed by Jennifer Moody and Lucia Nixon, with additional senior participation by Simon Price and Oliver Rackham.

Many specialists and students have worked with us in Sphakia, in the Khania Museum, and in our home universities.

We did our work with a permit granted by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sciences, obtained through the Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens. The staff of the Greek Archaeological Service, Khania Office, has supported us throughout.

People in Sphakia have given us crucial information about their eparchy, as well as much practical help and encouragement.

Our work has been funded by a number of agencies and foundations, principally the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (New York); and the Craven Committee, University of Oxford, U.K.

For full acknowledgements, please see the Project Team page.


Members of the Survey have collected and analysed environmental, archaeological, documentary, and local evidence. The archaeological material has been collected from the surface alone. For more information on this look at the research methods pages.


Sphakia has provided us with an extraordinary opportunity for archaeological research: it covers a large area, which had never been investigated systematically, with a broad environmental and altitudinal range. Our generous permit has allowed us to survey and collect surface finds in all parts of Sphakia. The number of sites known before (about 20, plus villages and neighbourhoods) and after our work (about 315, including neighbourhoods) gives a crude index of how much we have been able to learn about Sphakia. (Each site has a unique number, e.g. 4.21, which makes it easy to look up further details in the Site Catalogue.) The size of the eparchy gives the project a truly regional scope, and has made it possible to test our ideas by contrasting different parts of Sphakia, e.g. different uses of the three main altitudes in the Anopolis and Frangokastello areas.

Perhaps the single most significant aspect of the Sphakia Survey is its role in the development of rigorous diachronic comparison. Almost all archaeological surveys declare an interest in diachrony. We have from the beginning tried to collect and analyse data from all three epochs of the Survey -- Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish as well as Graeco-Roman and Prehistoric -- and we have worked hard to find reliable methods of comparison.

Here we summarise our results and their significance by epoch.


Working in Sphakia has produced evidence for new sites and new patterns of exploitation in difficult terrain. The upper levels of the settlement hierarchy for Bronze Age Crete are fairly well understood; the lower levels are not well documented, let alone understood. Our work is helping to remedy this situation, both through the discovery of small Prehistoric sites, and through Moody's innovative fabric analysis of the Prehistoric coarse wares. . We have found important new evidence for the beginning and end of the Bronze Age in Sphakia: a number of Final Neolithic/Early Minoan and Early Minoan sites all over Sphakia, including high in the White Mountains; two large Middle Minoan-Late Minoan sites in the Frangokastello plain; and several sites with evidence for an Late Minoan III -- Early Iron Age phase. Wilson's study of the lithics has shown that worked quartz was used to make both obsidian and chert tools.

The Archaeological Museum in Khania, where our finds are stored, has many Prehistoric and Graeco-Roman artefacts from west Crete. To visit the website for this museum, click here.


Sphakia had four known poleis (Anopolis, Araden, Poikilasion, Tarrha) and we are producing detailed information about them, including the relationship of pottery to structures still visible above ground, which can be seen at Tarrha (1.28) and Anopolis (4.21), and even better at the port site of Phoinix/Loutro (5.11). Pottery data from especially intensive transects at Phoinix has been accurately plotted against individual structures on the site plan drawn by Richard Anderson, to reveal chronologically and functionally separate areas. Other surveys in Greece have of course wished to do this, but ours is the first where such a comparison is actually possible. Sherd distributions have also been matched to structures at Anopolis and Tarrha. The comparison of smaller and larger Graeco-Roman sites in the Anopolis plain (now 57 sites) and Frangokastello plain (now 34 sites, including a possible fifth urban settlement) is of special interest for this as for other periods.

Our work has shown that the Agiasmatsi Cave (8.61) was indeed a cult site, scarcely used in the Prehistoric and Earlier Iron Age, but with unique deposits from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods. We have also done a special study of ancient Graeco-Roman ceramic beehives, evidence for the economically important activity of honey production. See the publications section for references to relevant articles.

The Archaeological Museum in Khania, where our finds are stored, has many Prehistoric and Graeco-Roman artefacts from west Crete. To visit the website for this museum, click here.


While most scholarly research has concentrated on art and architecture (i.e. icons and churches), we are combining archaeological and environmental data with the historical sources, which results in a more balanced general picture, and is particularly useful for the study of forestry and shepherding, two economically important activities in these (and possibly earlier) periods. We have also produced plans for many of the eparchy's Turkish forts, a previously undocumented architectural type for the area. The analysis of ikon stands and outlying churches is providing a new view of the sacred landscape of Sphakia for the BVT and modern periods. Read more about this in an article from our Publications section.

The Sphakia Survey has thus been able to document a range of human responses to an arid mountain landscape over a period of some five millennia. The Survey video has proved a useful means of communicating information about the landscape of Sphakia to students, especially in Canada and the U.S., and is also a way of reporting directly to people in Greece; the video was broadcast with Greek subtitles on Greek national television twice in 1996, as arranged through the Greek Embassy in London. There is more information about the video in the video section of the site.

Our work has already had policy applications for the Greek Archaeological Service (sites to be protected), and is also beginning to show that in planning it is advisable to consider cultural (archaeological) and natural (environmental) resources not as separate entities but as part of the same landscape.

The Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Collection of Khania displays artefacts of the Byzantine and later periods from west Crete, including Sphakia. To visit the website for this museum, click here.

For a slightly more detailed introduction to the project read in sequence our three preliminary reports, 1988, 1989 and 1990 (reprinted here with numerous colour illustrations).


   © The Sphakia Survey: Internet Edition, University of Oxford 2000
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