If it’s been quiet for a while on the blog, it’s because I’ve been taking some annual leave on the island of Crete. Christine and I stayed in a small resort called Gournes to the east of the island’s capital Irakleion. Though it only has a few tavernas, it has the advantage of not being as built up as nearby Gouves, and some of the finest ancient Greek archaeological sites and museums are just a 25 minutes bus-ride away (single ticket 1.8 euro). You can take a bus to the station and ten minutes later be sitting on a bus en route to Knossos. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
We found that unlike on an earlier visit some 16 years ago, parts of the site are now closed off, presumably because of the wear and tear of having hundreds of thousands of visitors walk over the site every year. However, it was still possible to see the beautiful, though contested, reconstructions of the rooms of this type-site for Minoan Crete. Though you have to queue to see the Throne Room when its busy there are quiet little corners where few visitors go where you can see a stunning evocation of a Minoan room.
There is a joint ticket to visit the Archaeological Museum in nearby Irakleion. The Museum has just been redeveloped and new galleries have been added. Do go because the galleries are beautiful, airy and well-lit, the exhibits breath-taking and there’s just the right amount of text for the objects. Treasures here include the Phaistos disc, a boar’s tusk helmet as described in the Iliad, and a realistic model bull’s head.
In my humble opinion some of the most fascinating exhibits are the less obvious, smaller pieces such as the votive models of Rhinoceros beetles from a Cretan sanctuary site at Piskokephalo near Sitia. They date 1650-1500 BC. There is quite a useful little introduction by Liliane Bodson in the Classical Outlook for Oct/Nov 1983. Or check out M.Davies and J.Kathirithamby (1986) Greek Insects Duckworth, London, where there is a passing reference to representations of insects in Cretan sanctuaries but the models are not figured. Why were they making votive offerings of the beetles in this particular sanctuary? What’s the story? I suspect there is more information about this somewhere.
I’ll ask colleague Dmitri Logunov, Curator of Entomology at Manchester Museum. He’ll be sure to know. We have covered bees in an earlier post on the Ancient Worlds Blog. We should get a thread going on ancient insects. A few years ago we were very interested in doing an exhibition centred on Pliny the Elder and Roman Natural History. Manchester Museum’s wide-ranging collections clearly allow us to look at many subjects, and in a multi-disciplinary way, which I suspect may be more be engaging to visitors – but is there any research on this to substantiate this suspicion?
The only inconvenience is the large guided tour groups who can completely monopolise star exhibits for 10 minutes or so. If you’re prepared to be flexible and move where the guided tours are not, or visit later in the day, this is an absolute treat. There is a separate gallery for each of the major periods and the exhibits are spectacular. The cafe is another improvement at the Archaeological Museum and in fact it’s well-worth going there for a sandwich or for coffee and cake. I particularly recommend the ‘cream pie’. A single slice is sufficient for two people – but don’t go near this if you’re worried about atherosclerosis.
Whilst staying near Irakleion we also visited the Natural History Museum. It features some rather basic animatronic dinosaurs. Sadly we could not see a temporary exhibition about historic food plants nor the mammoth mentioned in a Rough Guide but the room that simulated an earthquake was rather queasy fun and there was a great temporary exhibition about light, trompe l’oeil and holograms, which ironically included a hologram of Lindow Man! One of the more useful displays was a table top case showing the sources of pigments in antiquity. With a temporary exhibition of our own about the Colour of Sculpture in preparation this was very helpful.
We also visited the Crete Historical Museum which has some great Byzantine mosaics and religious sculptural fragments and tells the story of the later history of Crete. This was far less busy than the Archaeological Museum and was good for an hour or two if you fancy a rest from the beach.