Lyktos Archaeological Project

Co-directors: Professor Antonis Kotsonas (NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World) and Professor Angelos Chaniotis (Princeton Institute for Advanced Study)

An outline map showing Lyktos on the island of Crete at center bottom, with the full Aegean Sea stretching northward to the Hellespont with the major islands, mainland Greece on the west and coastal Asia Minor on the east. Labeled sites include Knossos, Sparta, Corinth, and Athens. Figure 1: Map showing Lyktos' location in the Aegean Lyktos was one of the most powerful cities of the Mediterranean island of Crete, Greece, in the Greek and Roman periods (Figure 1). The site is located in the hinterland of central Crete, southeast of ancient Knossos and modern Heraklion (Figure 2). The site occupies a tall and long hill, which rises to 620 meters above sea level. It is set between high mountains and a vast plain, and commands a view of north coast of the island and the Aegean Sea (Figure 3).

A topographic map of east central Crete that uses contour lines to indicate changes in elevation. Lyktos, labeled in Greek, is in the center of the map, with several other sites around it. Figure 2: Map showing Lyktos in its Cretan context Celebrated by Homer and considered as the birthplace of god Zeus by the early poet Hesiod, Lyktos boasts an unusually rich literary and epigraphic record from Greek and Roman antiquity. Aristotle and other authors held that Lyktos was a colony of Sparta and deliberated the extent to which she was the source of the famed Spartan constitution. Lyktos was an arch rival of Knossos for several centuries, and the stealthy attack and dramatic sack of the city by the Knossians in 220 BCE captivated the ancient historian Polybius. Lyktos was quickly resettled, and by the Roman imperial period it was a major exporter of wine to Central Italy, and it attracted the sponsorship of emperors, especially Trajan and Hadrian, in the second century CE. In Early Christian times the city was the seat of a bishop but it declined over time and was abandoned during the Medieval period. The site has since remained largely unaffected by building activity and the surrounding landscape is basically pristine.

Excavations in progress can be seen in the each of the labeled sectors (A in the foreground, B in the middle distance, and C at the top of the hill). The acropolis hill otherwise features a mixture of open areas and paths of sandy soil, green shrubs and small trees. Figure 3: Aerial view of Lyktos acropolis from the northeast Notwithstanding the rich textual record for Lyktos, and the interest of many renowned archaeologists in excavating it, the site has attracted very limited and only small-scale fieldwork. The Lyktos Archaeological Project (LAP) was established in 2021 to explore the untapped potential of the site for Classical studies and Mediterranean archaeology, and aims at generating a longue durée urban history of the ancient city, ranging from its probable foundation in the end of the Bronze Age to its abandonment in the Medieval period. The project is co-directed by ISAW’s Antonis Kotsonas and Professor Angelos Chaniotis, from the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; it involves the collaboration of Dr. Vasiliki Sythiakaki, from the Greek Archaeological Service, runs under the auspices of the Archaeological Society at Athens, and encompasses both fieldwork and the study of archaeological material previously unearthed at Lyktos. The project team is diverse and includes specialist collaborators, and graduate and undergraduate students from ISAW/NYU and other institutions in North America and Europe.

A topographic contour map labels the "Acropolis of Lyktos" at middle right and highlights sectors A, B, and C on its northern side in blue, yellow, and red. Sector D, in brown, appears at the far left edge of the map, immediately north of a large shaded area labeled "Village of Lyttos/Xydas". Figure 4: Map of LAP excavation sectors Ancient Lyktos was vast in size (100 hectares by a certain estimate), but LAP has targeted specific areas which shed light on key aspects of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine periods (Figure 4). Any longue durée approach to Cretan urban histories faces the problem of the low archaeological visibility ca. 625–425 BCE, which has been conceptualized as a “Dark Age” for the island, or as the time of the “Archaic gap”. The ISAW/NYU team working at Lyktos has targeted this period and is revealing an exceptional wealth of finds from the alleged “Dark Age,” at both settlement and burial areas. The settlement area (location Vorina) we are excavating lies on the upper north slope of the acropolis of Lyktos, and has yielded evidence for occupation ranging from the Early Iron Age to the Medieval period, including thick stratified deposits of the 6th to 4th centuries BCE (Figure 5).

A series of rectangular pits, surrounded by open ground and shrubbery, reveal built stone structures, including what appears to be a straight segment of wall made of large, light-colored stone, and another, curving segment of wall made of smaller, browner stones. Figure 5: Aerial photograph of excavated multi-period context The rich ceramic finds, which include copious imports from Attica and other Aegean regions (Figure 6), and the associated large quantities of animal bone are indicative of feasting activities, perhaps in the context of the famous syssitia (the ritualized dining) of the men from Lyktos (Athenaios 4.143). The burial location, which dates to the late 7th and 6th centuries BCE, lies west of the acropolis (location Alonas), and presents unusual funerary rites, and locally produced and imported objects. Our work there is the first systematic excavation of a Cretan cemetery dating from this period.

Eleven pottery fragments, using reddish-orange and black glazes, preserve portions of depictions of a sailing ship, animals, human figures, clothing, furniture, and geometric patterns. Figure 6: Attic pottery fragments from the excavation The archaeological investigation of Lyktos in later periods of antiquity is spearheaded by the project co-directors, who excavate on the acropolis of the site: In Sector B, Professor Angelos Chaniotis is revealing a public building complex of the Roman imperial period, which includes an assembly hall, as well as a space lined with statue bases and inscriptions for emperors of the Antonine dynasty and their spouses. In Sector C, on the top of the acropolis of Lyktos, Dr. Vasiliki Sythiakaki is revealing a large and richly adorned Early Christian Basilica. Given its location, and its size and decorative elaboration, the monument could have been the seat of the local bishop.