Traveling Classroom Foundation
Monday October 2nd 2023

Innovations in ancient Dreros

Often on our return from archaeological sites in eastern Crete, we stop in the city of Neapoli to enjoy a cold frappe at one of the little cafes around the city square. On this occasion, we decide to drive out to the excavation of Dreros (now called Driros), just a few kilometers outside Neapoli.

Gated entrance to the Dreros excavation site

The narrow country road takes us through a valley green with olive groves and gardens. We turn off onto an even smaller road that climbs Chorais hill, and finally stops next to a fence with a gate to a path leading up. We lace our hiking boots and begin the ascent on a rocky trail. This has a familiar feel; it is very much like the roads into other Dorian towns.

Rocky path to Dreros passes under fortified walls

On our left, the path edge offers a very dangerous (possibly fatal) tumble down a rocky hillside. On our right are strong stone walls, from which defenders could force attackers over the side. The Dorians were an aggressive people from northern Greece, who invaded Crete. They were – in turn – harassed by sea raiders during the centuries of chaos that saw the fall of great empires; so they were obsessed with security and order. As at Lato, Vrokastro, and Karfi (“The Nail”), the Dorians built their fortress town of Dreros on a rocky and easily defended hill.

We find several recently covered excavations at the site

We arrive at a large open area located between two hill peaks and surrounded by oak trees. This appears to be the city agora (marketplace and community center). There are a few ruined buildings around the periphery, as well as huge heaps cut stone that appear to be the remains of many collapsed structures. Unlike some ancient towns, Dreros has not been reconstructed. In fact, the excavation is not yet complete. We find several open trenches covered with a heavy green fabric (to protect whatever artifacts lie below) and then partially refilled with dirt and rubble.

Dreros temple under protective cover, with community cistern

On one side of the agora is one of the earliest Greek temples, which dates from the Geometric period (around 750 BCE). It was dedicated to Apollo Delphinios (the god Apollo transformed into a dolphin to protect sailors).  What we see is not the temple itself, but a shelter built by archaeologists to protect the remains of this very unique and valuable structure. In front of the temple is a large communal cistern, which was the town’s main water supply.

Drawing of how the Temple of Apollo Delphinios was built

The temple itself is rather small, and very different from columned Greek temples of later periods (such as the Parthenon). Inside was a small altar, where three bronze statuettes were placed as devotional objects.

Hammered bronze statues from the temple altar

Discovered in the 1930s, these now-famous statuettes (created around the 7th century BCE) are thought to depict Apollo, Artemis, and their mother Leto. The statuettes were made of bronze sheets hammered over molding cores. The first of their kind (that anyone knows of), they mark a technical milestone in the history of Greek art – the first time anyone used bronze in sculpture.

The sacred laws of Dreros were written for public display

Other important finds from this excavation are many inscriptions from the geometric and archaic periods, when Dreros was at its height. One of those inscriptions is “the sacred law of Dreros,” the oldest written law ever found. It was posted at the agora for all citizens to see. In later years, this was how all Greek cities composed their legislation and established their constitution. The Dreros inscription is the most ancient example of this, and suggests the Dorians were innovators in legislation as well as art.

The wooded trail continues up through the old city

We leave the agora and continue hiking up the hill, passing fortification walls and ruined buildings of different types.  On the bare and rocky summit of Chorais hill is the small barrel-vaulted chapel of Ayios Antonios.

Chapel of Ayios Antonios at the top of the hill

This remote location seems appropriate, since Antonios was a religious hermit. In another way it is ironic, because this hill was the home of people who established community guidelines and legislation that allowed people to live together under laws that applied to everyone.

Related Tags:

Leave a Comment

More from category

Windy Island — Day 2: History
Windy Island — Day 2: History

On our second day, we looked forward to exploring towns in the southern part of Karpathos.  All of these are very old, [Read More]

Way Station
Way Station

The ancient Cretans, known as “Minoans” today, created a far-flung shipping and trade network with Europe, Africa [Read More]

Ancient Sailors
Ancient Sailors

Until recently, it was thought that humans began sailing the Mediterranean Sea around 12,000 BCE. But scientists now [Read More]

Measuring the Past
Measuring the Past

Turning southwest from Mirabello Bay, we drive through Kritsa village and up towards the Lasithiotika mountains. We are [Read More]

Last Day of Digging
Last Day of Digging

We revisit the Minoan town of Gournia to learn what new things have been discovered at those excavations. Sadly, we [Read More]

Under the Sea
Under the Sea

After British friends give us a tour of the renovation project at their Latsida home, they suggest a visit to Elounda [Read More]

Under the Excavation
Under the Excavation

As we noted in an earlier report, excavations are a lot like peeling away the layers of a tall cake – where the [Read More]