Excavation project 2011 - 2015, study 2011 - 2019

In the frame of an application submitted by the Belgian School of Athens, the ULB team obtained a permit from the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports  in order to carry out a five-year programme (2011-2015) of archaeological research and restoration/enhancement in a particular sector of the necropolis of Itanos, a Greek city that is located in the eastern part of the island of Crete (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1 : Map of Eastern Crete.

More precisely, the archaeological exploration was focused on the western and the southern sectors of an archaic building, which was erected at an area that served as a necropolis in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and then again from the 4th to the 1st centuries BC. This building, which was partially uncovered during earlier excavation campaigns carried out in collaboration with the French School of Athens (1995-1999) (Fig. 2), is of major significance for Cretan archaeology of the Archaic and the Classical periods. Its first and main phase of occupation, dated in the 6th century BC, coincides with a period of interruption in the performance of archaeologically visible burials (or at least of significant decrease of such burials) observed not only at Itanos but also at other Cretan sites. When we resumed excavations in 2011, the precise nature of the building was not yet clearly defined; but its large size (16 x 35 m for the excavated part), its careful construction and the high quality of its ceramic finds – which consisted mainly of sympotic shapes - suggested a public function. Given the importance of this building, it seemed appropriate to continue its investigation in order to define more closely its function and, at the same time, to explore one of the biggest enigmas in Cretan archaeology, that is, the relative cessation of activity in the cemeteries of the island during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. This phenomenon has been often interpreted as a sign of "decline" of the cities. The new excavation project has shed light not only on the nature and the functions of this complex during the successive phases of its occupation, from the 7th to the middle of the 4th century BC, but also on its relationship with the rest of the site (Fig. 3). 

Fig. 2 : Panoramic view of the partially excavated archaic complex and the necropolis, after the 1995 - 1999 excavation programme (© CReA-Patrimoine). 

Fig. 3 : Aerial view (from South to North) of the area excavated from 2011 to 2015, archaic complex and restored necropolis (© CReA-Patrimoine).

The archaic complex (6th - early 5th centuries BC)

Located in a prominent area of the necropolis, which is largely visible from the urban centre, the archaic complex was erected at a site previously occupied by burials from the 8th and the 7th centuries BC. Although these burials were largely destroyed during the formation of the late classical and the hellenistic necropolis, it is still possible to reconstruct them as pits that were partially covered with low stone tumuli, sometimes integrated into enclosures. Excavations have shown that the monumental phase of the complex lies directly above some of these earlier funerary enclosures. This succession is suggestive of the link between the first, funerary, occupation of the site and the function of the archaic complex.

Fieldwork has also shown that the archaic complex was built at the western boundary of the Itanos necropolis. The plan of the complex combines large courtyards and covered rooms, including a hall equipped with a hearth (Fig. 4). Immediately to the north of these structures there was an extensive terrace, accessible by means of a staircase, whose northern limit and function are not yet clearly defined. The evidence thus suggests an effort of monumentalization of this sector of the necropolis, which was situated right at its edge, at a time when all traces of funerary activity seem, on present evidence, to disappear from the site.

This new complex seems to have had a "double centre". The first, completely new, consisted of the large hall with the hearth [B] (Fig. 4: B). The number of sympotic and cooking vessels found in this room suggests that this space was reserved to some sort of commensal activity, while Room C (Fig. 4: C) may have served as a storage space (which would explain the presence of two schist slabs on its ground, close to the walls, most likely used for the stabilisation of large containers) and Court E (Fig. 4: E) as a space for food preparation. The gutter drain that had its start in Hall B must have rendered the cleaning of this space very easy and its presence reinforces our interpretation. The second focal point, in the western part of the complex, had a ritual character and was related to the earlier remains in a much more explicit manner. In fact, inside Hall F (Fig. 4: F), which occurred from the monumentalization of a 7th-century enclosure, the area around a pit, which we have associated with a tomb [T71, fig. 5], appears to have been paved with stone slabs. In front of the tomb, to the east, we found an earthen structure that may have served as an offering table. Everything creates the impression that a 7th century tomb (the importance of which had already been stressed through the construction of an enclosure, to the south of this vast enclosure) had been chosen as the focal point for the performance of some ritual that would have taken place inside Hall F, though it cannot be completely ruled out that this room may have been roofless. A ritual function is also certainly attested for the great western court [D]. First of all, this court, too, preserved a tomb [T73] in its southwest corner, which in the 6th century BC was paved around and was complemented with a bench that faced the courtyard and may have received offerings (fig. 6). It was precisely in the 6th century BC when both graves [T71 and T73] were carefully cleaned up and at least the pit of T71 received an Aeginetan chytra, which dated from the second half of the 7th or the first quarter of the 6th century BC and was sealed with a stone (figs. 8-9). In addition, a series of pits that came to light in the northern part of the same courtyard attest to ritual practices that involved pyres (fig. 7), the remains of which contained figs and grapes.

Fig. 4 : Plan of the archaic complex with successive phases of occupation (7th - mid-4th century BC) (© CReA-Patrimoine).

Fig. 5: Funeral pits T73 (left) and T71 (right) with paving remains, seen from the west (© CReA-Patrimoine).
Fig. 6: Excavation of the T73, in the foreground the paving and, on the left, the remains of the mud brick and ammouda slab bench (© CReA-Patrimoine).
Fig. 7: Western courtyard (space D on the plan) and pits dug in the rock for sacrificial pyrids, seen from north to south (© CReA-Patrimoine).


Fig. 8: Pit T71 and Aeginetan chytra in place (© CReA-Patrimoine).
Fig. 9: The Aeginetan chytra of the T71 after restoration (© CReA-Patrimoine).
Fig. 10: The louterion of the 5th century after restoration (© CReA-Patrimoine).

The classical reoccupation (early 5th - mid 4th century BC)

The archaic architectural complex was brutally destroyed at the beginning of the 5th century BC. However, it was not abandoned, though its subsequent use does not seem to have entailed the reconstruction of its roof. In fact, during this phase ritual practices took place in a complex that was largely unroofed (fig. 4). The hearth in the main hall of the earlier building remained in use; an altar was constructed and a basin was placed in the corridor, which was now closed to the west; the memory of the graves was preserved, even if their surrounding area was refurbished and in the case of T73 it received a bench. While the space of the western courtyard was reduced, the area to the south of the complex was reorganized with relation to one of the graves (T71), which was now in direct contact with this space in the south. It is highly unlikely that this earlier grave, which had received a new form in the 6th century BC, survived the violent destruction of the early 5th century. Still, the ritual character of the new structures seems to be evinced by a 5th-century louterion (fig. 10) that was found at the northwest corner of Hall F. This artefact must certainly attest to the sacredness of the space.

The abandonment of the structures

During the first half of the 4th century BC, this space was voluntarily abandoned, and the same also holds true of the area to the south of the complex. During the same period, burial activity was resumed at the necropolis and was marked by the appearance of carefully constructed funerary monuments, which consisted of an ammouda base topped by two steps made of blocks of grey limestone. It should be noted that the first tombs from this phase followed strictly an axis that was parallel to the eastern façade of the archaic complex. There is, therefore, no doubt that, even if preserved only in ruins, this complex maintained its role as an architectural and certainly also as a symbolic point of reference within the surrounding landscape. The same graves are also very likely to have bordered an old road, which had led directly to the main entrance of the archaic structure. The importance assigned to this complex in the frame of the late classical and hellenistic funerary context is suggested by the fact that the whole area remained unoccupied until the middle of the 1st century BC. This was the time of construction of one last grave, which belongs to the latest phase of this sector of the necropolis.

The study of the material discovered during the excavations is at a finalizing stage. This study, which aims at the publication of the archaic complex, is complemented with ongoing archaeometric, archaeobotanical and archaeozoological analyses.

The Team  (2011-2019)

- Project directors

  • Athena Tsingarida (ULB Professor) and Didier Viviers (ULB Ordinary Professor)

- Archaeologists 

  • I. Algrain; A. Attout; Th. Brisart; M. de Wit; V. Saripanidi; D. Tonglet; J. Vanden Broeck – Parant; V. Vlachou.

- Paleoenvironment – physical anthropology – archaeometry

  • A. Boucherie (archaeologist-anthropologist, CReA-Patrimoine); E. Margaritis (archaeobotanist, The Cyprus Institute); T. Theodoropoulou (Archaeozoologist, ARSCAN, CNRS - University of Paris I - Panthéon Sorbonne); E. Nodarou (laboratory ceramic analyses, Institute of Aegean Prehistory, Study Centre for East Crete, INSTAP)

- 3D; topographical survey/plans; computer graphics and drawings; restoration and stabilization work

  • O. Debeer, R. Ercek, & N. Warzée (LISA, Faculty of Polytechnics ULB); S. Delcros (architect); A. Stoll (drawings and computer graphics); St. Chlouveraki (conservator-restorer, University of West Attica); E. Toumbakari (engineer, Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Monuments and Sites); G. Missemikes (restorer).

- Technicians

  • G. Kafessakis (contractor); I. Milidakis, M. Oikonomakis, Y. Papadomanolakis (technicians).

- ULB Students


D. Viviers & A. Tsingarida, « Facing the sea: Cretan Identity in a harcour-city context. Some remarks on the early development of Itanos”, in F. Gaignerot-Driessen, J. Driessen (eds), Cretan Cities. Formation and Transformation, Louvain-La-Neuve, 2014, 165 – 182. 

A. Tsingarida & D. Viviers, “No more Gap: some new evidence of collective practices in Itanos during the 6th and 5th centuries BC”, in I. Lemos & A. Tsingarida (eds.), Beyond the polis. Rituals, Rites and Cults in Early and Archaic Greece (12th – 6th centuries BC), Bruxelles, 2019, [Études d’Archéologie 15, CReA-Patrimoine], sous presse. 

A. Tsingarida, D. Viviers (dir.), La Nécropole d’Itanos : le complexe archaïque, en préparation


2019 campaign and excavation project (2020 – 2024)

The campaign scheduled for 2019 will be devoted to the topographical mapping of all structures that are visible in the north part of the sector that was excavated in the period 2011-2015. These works will aim to record an assemblage of archaeological structures, the analysis of which will allow us to gain a better understanding of the site and its spatial organization.  

The topographical survey will concentrate on 3 zones of the archaeological site (Fig. 11): 

1.    On the hill of the necropolis. They will record the structures that are present on the one hand, to the north of the archaic complex and up to the modern road; and on the other hand, on the east slopes down to the beach, as well as to the south of the archaic complex. 

2.    At the foot of the necropolis hill, at the bottom of its east slope, at a point where the paved road is succeeded by a dirt road leading to the beach. The frequent passage of cars from this spot has brought to light part of a wall, which could belong to the defensive wall of the ancient city. 

3.    Inside the ancient city, on the Western Acropolis and more precisely at its northern and western slopes.

The topographical survey of these three zones is deemed necessary for the production of a complete archaeological map that will record all existing structures that are visible on the surface. Such a document will serve the archaeological documentation of the site and the preparation of the excavation campaigns (2020-2024).

This future project is going to explore the sectors to the north and the south of the archaic complex and will allow for a better understanding of the spatial organisation of the necropolis and its relationship with the archaic complex, on the basis of earlier and later occupations of these sectors. 

The topographical survey of the second zone in particular will also complement our application for the permission to excavate the spot that yielded part of a wall, which probably belongs to the fortification of the city. If excavations confirm the nature and function of this structure, we could further plan on bringing to light the ancient road that connected the city with its necropolis. 

In such a case, we could further propose to the public a new access path to the site of the cemetery and the archaic complex. Following an ancient road, this path would allow, in the final stage of the project, for a better enhancement of the archaeological zone. 


The excavation project has benefited from the support and help offered by the Ephorate of Antiquities of Eastern Crete and more precisely by Ms Chryssa Sofianou and Ms Vasso Zografaki. With regard to the restoration campaign, we have equally benefited from the advice and help of Clio Zervaki (restorator, Ephorate of Antiquities of Eastern Crete).  The entire team is thankful to the archaeologist Despoina Koinaki, who is in charge (epoptria) of the site of Itanos on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Service, Massimo Resti, for the maintenance of our strorerooms and the inhabitants of the villages of Palaikastro and Agathias, for their warm hospitality and their precious friendship throughout the years of our continuous presence at this part of Crete. 

Click here to discover the restoration-conservation program undertaken at the Northern Necropolis of Itanos.