Sunday, 19 January 2014

Womb/tomb


Tucked away amongst the Bedlington photos, I found this one, which - again - I had looked for a few years ago and didn't discover until now. In the immortal words of Rolf Harris, can you guess what it is yet?

Most people who visit the beautiful island of Crete never get to see these things. There are only a handful to see anyway, and they are located a few miles South of Heraklion, hidden in a grove of almond trees set on a steeply inclining hill of rock.

We were driving from the middle South coast up to visit Heraklion and the main museum, when we drove past a small, hand-painted sign saying 'Minoan Tombs'. I turned the car round and we parked up and walked into what looked like an ordinary patch of dusty agricultural land which rose steeply up the hillside.

In amongst the almond grove, there were a handful of narrow trenches cut into the rock which - when viewed from the top - just looked like that. Uniformly narrow trenches rising up the hillside.

At the entrance to these trenches on the lower slopes, you could see that they had been cut in an inverted 'v' shape, and the floors where perfectly level, meaning that the deeper the trenches went into the side of the hill, the steeper the walls became until - in the larger ones - you could outstretch your arms without touching either wall.

They varied in size quite dramatically, from tiny ones which only entered the hillside by a few feet, to vast ones like the one above, but they all followed the same design and terminated in a smallish chamber which could be entered by squeezing yourself through a narrow portal cut into the back face of the living rock.

There was no illumination inside any of them, but I could make out bench-like boxes which I guessed to be the final resting-place of the bones of the honoured Minoan.

In this large one, I decided to take a flash photo so that I could examine the structure later at home, and I apologised to the German couple who were down there with us, warning them to close their eyes for the half second the flash would take, so that their night vision was not destroyed by it.

We don't know much about the Minoans, but I would say that the rarity of these tombs and the lengths which were gone to to build them denote that the occupants must have been of high status, and it is tempting to suggest that the bigger the tomb, the more important the deceased was in life. It's also tempting to think that the really small ones were possibly for children. I expect whoever excavated them knows the answer to this, having pulled out the skeletons along with jewellery, but that might have been done by robbers, who were not known for their methodical record-keeping.

One thing we do know about the Minoans was that they produced some of the most beautiful of all ancient wall paintings - scenes with fish, fruit and dolphins, divers and dancers - and their towns and cities were even more sophisticated than the Egyptians', with highly efficient sewage systems and roads fit for the finest, wheeled traffic.

Sometime before the Egyptians had really taken off, there was a massive volcanic eruption on the distant island of Santorini - also a Minoan settlement - which dropped hot debris, ash and stifling smoke on the whole of Crete, destroying the Minoan islands culture forever. Whoever survived the catastrophe must have been absorbed into the early Greek culture, leaving the islands pretty much deserted for many years to come.

Sitting on the beaches of Southern Crete, you can still pick up quite large pieces of volcanic pumice - large enough to remove dead skin in the bath at home - all these thousands of years later.

The best time to visit Crete is during Springtime, when the temperature is perfect and the rocky mountainsides are carpeted with bright flowers which - even when seen from miles away - look like vivid painting on the lower slopes.




12 comments:

  1. If I hadn't read the text, I would have said
    It's something quite rude

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  2. While we wouldn't be in the present without the past it's a shame so few care to know of it. Then again, the Minoans were living and painting in their own present.

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    1. Tell that to Weaver's son. That fruit they painted is still fresh, and the blue swallows are still flying around as well.

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  3. I've always thought it sad that Minoan culture was mostly destroyed. I've never heard of these tombs and it's years since I've been to Crete. I always try to go in the spring to Greece. This spring it won't be possible, perhaps next. Your post has made me want to return.

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    1. It's made me want to return as well, Jenny.

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  4. Before reading your text, I thought it was some structure for dipping Welsh sheep.

    I remember touring the tiny island of Kos with my oldest son (on mopeds), and coming across all sorts of decrepit sign posts pointing towards some ancient site or other. Usually they were un-cared for and filled with tourist rubbish. Maybe in Athens they respect their archaeology; but not so much elsewhere.

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    1. That sounds like a euphemism for John.

      If you visit Knossos by car, you will most likely - as I was - be flagged down at the side of the approach road by any number of unofficial car-park owners. You drive in, give them a load of money, then find you have a quarter mile walk to the official car park, which is (or was) free.

      In Athens + Rome and most other parts of Italy, they are surrounded by so many fragments of antiquity which would sell for ££££s in London, that they become blase about it.

      In Egypt, the only reason that they have not completely obliterated the antiquities is because there is money to be had from them. To be fair, there are now many dedicated Egyptian antiquaries and archeologists who love the culture for its own sake, but it took them a long time to get around to this attitude.

      Left to the fanatical Muslims, it would all be blown up and turned into mosques, as the cladding for the Great Pyramid was, or those Afghani Buddha statues were a few years ago. Bloody Taliban.

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    2. Also, the Great Pyramid is just too big to be obliterated - it contains more stone than all the religious buildings in Europe put together.

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  5. Beautiful. The minotaur woulda been proud.
    Hey Tom, I've been absent out the back of beyond (Walpole) finishing that thing I've been complaining about for years,
    just so you know.

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    1. There you are! I thought you'd left me forever... (sob)...

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