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The Stelida peak sanctuary (D. Depnering)

Discovery of 3500-year-old religious complex of ‘Minoan’ type by anthropology professor on the island of Naxos

A new paper published in the Journal of Greek Archaeology by Prof Tristan Carter and team members details the discovery of a 3500-year-old, Bronze Age ‘peak sanctuary’ atop the hill of Stelida on Naxos in the Cycladic islands. The character of the rituals attests to the overseas influence of ‘Minoan’ Crete, more specifically the Minoan palatial centre of Knossos.

Jan 20, 2022

Excavations since 2015 at Stelida on Naxos (Cycladic islands, Greece) by McMaster’s Prof. Tristan Carter and Dr Dimitris Athanasoulis (Greek Ministry of Culture), have focused on the Palaeolithic exploitation of the hill’s chert for toolmaking from at least 200,000 years ago. In 2019 the team shifted its attention to the 151m high southern peak where, unexpectedly, excavations revealed concentrations of pottery, ash, beach pebbles, and animal bones. It rapidly became apparent that the ceramics were later Bronze Age in date (~3500 years old), and while they were made from local clays, were stylistically of overseas style, emulating vessels of the Minoan culture of Crete.

The array and type of finds, in concert with the site’s elevated location, overlooking the nearby Bronze Age centre town of Grotta, and providing views on a clear day all the way to the West Cretan mountains, leads us to argue that we have found a new Minoan type peak sanctuary, one of only a handful found outside of Crete.

 

Stone ladle for ritual libations from the 2019 excavations (S. Crewson)

 Later Bronze Age Crete was palace-based, state-level society, expansionist in character, with several off-island sites displaying all the hallmarks of Minoan culture, the varying result of colonisation, intense trading links, and/or diplomatic relations initiated by local elites. In the Cyclades it was long accepted that the greatest Minoan influence was to be seen on the islands of Thera/Santorini, Melos, and Kea (the ‘western string’), with Naxos occupying a more politically marginal space.

In a paper just published in the Journal of Greek Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.32028/9781789698886-5) we argue how the new evidence from Stelida suggests that Naxos was in fact an active participant within the politically beneficial networks that connected Cretan palatial elites with overseas agents. More specifically, we argue that those worshipping at Stelida (many of whom likely came from nearby Grotta) had adopted a set of religious practices that we associate with the great palatial centre of Knossos. This includes the use of a rare stone vase type that is thought to have been used for blood libations from sacrificial victims (animal and/or human), plus bronze anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines, while in the other direction there is evidence for 100 wine-containing storage vessels of Naxian origin from Knossos’ central palace sanctuary.

The excavations have been funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – Insight Grant (#435-2015-1809), plus awards from the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Institute for the Study of Aegean Prehistory. The team is now working on further grant proposals and sponsorship to enable the next five-year cycle of fieldwork, student training/research projects, and lab analyses. There is much left of the peak sanctuary to reveal, and the site has already produced finds of remarkable quality, perhaps unsurprisingly given that Naxos is the island where Theseus abandoned Ariadne on his way back from slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Knossos…

 Carter, T., Mallinson, K., Mastrogiannopoulou, V., Contreras, D.A., Lopez, C., Pareja, M.N., Tsartsidou, G., Diffey, C., and Athanasoulis, D. (2021), ‘A new Minoan-type peak sanctuary on Stelida, Naxos’, Journal of Greek Archaeology 6: 60-99. https://doi.org/10.32028/9781789698886-5