We divided Sphakia into eight different environmental zones, in order to help us structure our archaeological sampling. These zones are based on altitude, geology, and vegetation. People in Sphakia have used different zones in different ways in different periods.
1. Coasts and Coastal Plains
Several locations along the coast of Sphakia show clearly the effects of the great uplift of the Late Roman period (4th - 6th c.A.D.), a single seismic event which raised much of W Crete by some 3 - 4 metres. The effect was particularly dramatic at Loutro, where the uplift made the shallower western harbour unusable; the deeper eastern harbour has remained in use. The largest coastal plain in Sphakia is the Frangokastello Plain, much of which was definitely cultivated in the Graeco-Roman period, as also in the more recent past.
2. Lower Slopes (0 - 800 metres above sea level)
The lower slopes, along with the mountain plains, are the preferred location for villages in Sphakia. Villages on the lower slopes are nearly always nucleated. The surrounding areas were traditionally used for terrace-cultivation (grain, pulses), and olive-growing. Good examples of lower slope villages are Kolokasia, now deserted, and Komitadhes, both in Region 8.10
3. Basins and Mountain Plains
The mountain plains (Greek: oropedhia) -- areas of flat, cultivable alluvial fill, in depressions high in the mountains -- are a special feature of Crete. The three major examples in Sphakia (Anopoli, Askyphou, and Asphendou) lie at roughly 700 masl. All three, and at least four more at slightly higher altitudes, have settlements and cultivation. Some mountain plains, such as Anopoli and Askyphou, were used year-round; others, such as Asphendou and Kallikrati were used only in summer. In all cases, settlement in mountain plains is non-nucleated, consisting of several separate neighbourhoods (Greek: geitonies) around the edge of the plain, or on other rocky areas.
4. Gorges and Cliffs
There are a dozen major gorges in Sphakia, and as many smaller ones, mostly running roughly N-S, and opening onto the Libyan Sea. W Sphakia is particularly rich in gorges, two of which once had villages: the Trypiti Gorge; and Sphakia's largest, the Samaria Gorge. The Samaria Gorge and its surrounding area have been famous for its tall cypress trees since antiquity. Endemic plants often develop in gorge environments (Samaria, Imbros). The gorge bed of the Imbros Gorge was the gateway to Sphakia for centuries.
5. Middle Slopes (800 - 1200 metres above sea level)
The middle slopes are less arid than the lower slopes, with relatively little soil, supporting scattered trees. These slopes were often cultivated in the past, but are now used either as woodland, or pasture for sheep. Along one ridge in Region 6 were once three small villages or neighbourhoods, now deserted (Mouri Ridge from W, with settlements at Koutsoura, Mouri, Kavros). Endemic plant species growing in this zone include the extremely rare elm-like Zelkova cretica (Greek: ambelitsia, still used for making shepherds' crooks).
6. Upper Slopes (1200 - 1700)
The upper slopes are now mainly woodland (often grazed) and show little sign of ever having been anything else. The trees at this altitude include cypresses and maples. Few trees grow much higher than this in Sphakia. Two different kinds of limestone weather differently: rugged platy limestone in W Sphakia; karst funnels in E Sphakia.
7. Mountain Desert
The Mountain Desert of the high White Mountains is an astonishing landscape of conical hard limestone hills covered in scree, tower karst, and fissured black limestone. Much of it is over 2000 masl. In some areas, periglacial activity continues. The Mountain Desert has no continuous vegetation, but it has nonetheless produced many endemic plants.
The Madhares, in the northern half of the White Mountains, are lower than the Mountain Desert (below 2000 masl), and slightly less arid, though still too high (1700-2000 m) for tree growth. The area consists of conical hills separated by small basins with enough soil to support continuous vegetation; there are also water sources. The Madhares (Greek for summer pastures) have been used for this purpose at least since the 17th c. A.D. Some shepherds' huts (Greek: mitata) and milking pens are still used in the summer. There was no tradition of cultivation in the Madhares, but shepherds since World War II have successfully grown potatoes here.
The Sphakia Survey: Internet Edition, University of Oxford 2000
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