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Sweating the Small Stuff on Crete and Cyprus

By Rachel Kulick

In this essay, Rachel Kulick, a 2017-18 Multi-Country Research Fellow, discusses her research that was carried out in Crete and Cyprus in 2018-19.

Rachel Kulick (far left) leads students down the hill from Petsofas peak sanctuary

[I]t is the wine that leads me on, the wild wine

that sets the wisest man to sing at the top of his lungs,

laugh like a fool – it drives the man to dancing…it even

tempts him to blurt out stories better never told. (Hom. Od. 14)


It was indeed the wine that led me to navigate my tiny blue Peugeot rental car through streets originally meant for people and carts until I could drive no further. The narrow street in this Cretan village ended abruptly, so I shifted into reverse, squeezed my car backwards between two stone walls, and proceeded back down the hill towards an unassuming, white-washed stone building – that of Domaine Economou.

In winemaking, multiple local factors – including terroir, climate, weather, and the winemaker – mean everything for the outcome of the wine product. Small differences in slope, aspect, soil type, and weather can lead to very different products, which require the expertise of a winemaker to adapt into marketable wines. These local factors have led to the diversity of wines produced on Crete. For example, near Palaikastro, Toplou Monastery uses both local and Vitis vinifera varietals to produce various blended and single-varietal wines. The vineyards are tied to the 14/15th-century monastery, where the dry landscape is dominated by phyllite, limestone, and compact conglomerate with sands and marls. In contrast, Domaine Economou utilizes the varied topography and geology of the Ziros area to grow and produce world-renowned wines made from traditional varietals – Liatiko, Mandilari, Assyrtiko, and Thrapsathiri/Vilana.

Toplou Monastery vineyards

Sitting with Yiannis Economou, owner and winemaker of Domaine Economou, we discussed the unique characteristics of the terroir and microclimate of the Ziros area, only 20 km southwest of Palaikastro as the crow flies but an hour drive along a twisty mountain road. At an altitude several hundred meters higher than Palaikastro, the Ziros landscape of valleys, slopes, and ridges are the result of numerous geological formations – limestones, conglomerates, siltstones, sandstones – which in turn affect the soil, surface debris and sediments, and hydrology (e.g. karst features) of the landscape. The valley of Ziros village is covered with green vegetation growing on assorted colluvium. Both here, and in the Palaikastro basin, evidence for human activity exists from Neolithic, Bronze Age, Graeco-Roman, through modern times.

In modern times, what is apparent is that these towns and their production practices are integrally tied to their environments. What did human-environment relationships look like in Bronze Age settlements?

Human-environment relationships

Given the current challenges posed by unprecedented urban growth, archaeology—with its ability to analyze cities across the depths of human history at various spatial and temporal scales—offers important insights into urban socio-environmental dynamics. With the support of the CAORC Multi-Country Research Fellowship, the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI), and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), I was able to start investigating ancient social-environmental dynamics on Crete (Greece) and Cyprus. My geoarchaeological research project, organized in conjunction with two larger excavation projects, asks the overall question: how did the particular Mediterranean microecologies of Late Bronze Age (LBA) cities influence social behaviors? To study human-environment interactions across the first Mediterranean cities, this two-island geoarchaeological project investigates the urban areas and surrounding landscapes of two LBA urban sites: Palaikastro, Crete, Greece, and Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios (K-AD), Cyprus. The goals of the two larger projects, the Palace and Landscape at Palaikastro (PALAP) Project, on Crete, and the Kalavasos and Maroni Built Environments (KAMBE) Project, on Cyprus, are shared: to understand urban social dynamics by examining these first cities in the context of the significant socio-political changes that were occurring on Crete and Cyprus, respectively, during the LBA (c. 1700–1100 BCE).


How do we identify local environmental processes and behaviors? How do we spot the ‘small stuff’? Geoarchaeology and micromorphology can help identify human activities and environmental processes like the trampling of paths, re-plastering or sweeping of surfaces, single or repeated use of fires, seasonally-occurring events like spring flooding and rapid summer drying, as well as debris flows and wind-blown dust accumulating over sites. Identifying single events and repeated activities and processes across sites is telling of both human behaviors and environmental conditions. Did similar practices occur within and across many Bronze Age sites, or are the findings telling of unique, site-specific traditions and conditions?

My CAORC-funded research (2018-2019) at Palaikastro and at K-AD aimed to begin addressing how the particular Mediterranean microecologies of these Late Bronze Age cities influenced human behaviors, and in turn contribute to understandings of early urbanism in these and other geographic regions.

Rachel & Amanda Gaggioli with micromorphology blocks

PALAP (Crete, Greece)

In the modern town of Palaikastro, no one is a stranger. The hospitality of the people of Palaikastro, and of much of Crete, makes one realize the value of relationships. Since the new excavation of a Bronze Age coastal ‘neighborhood’ at Palaikastro was being postponed, I focused my efforts on understanding geographic and human-environment relationships related to production practices. In addition to “getting to know” the landscape of the Palaikastro basin by informally field-walking, with students from the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario – sometimes challenging in the 40 C heat – I became acquainted with east Cretan producers at Toplou Monastery and Domaine Economou, and met other producers in the center of the island, near Knossos.

In Bronze Age Crete, new consumption and feasting practices at village and palatial sites varied in “intensity, character and scale of participation” (Hamilakis 2008: 5). Should we expect food and drink production – which are very much tied to environments – to have been organized along correspondingly diverse lines across these different sites? How did varying human and environmental factors at local, regional, and Mediterranean-wide scales impact these relationships? Learning more about the topography, geology, micro-climate, and thus production capacity in these varied areas provides valuable insight into ‘climate diversity’ and past production capabilities and socio-economic structures, including the urban-rural relationship between Palaikastro and the surrounding landscape (cf. Orengo and Knappett 2018).

KAMBE (Cyprus)

On Cyprus with the KAMBE project, I often learned most at water breaks and meal times, not just about the best sheftalia or baked goods on the island, but about the different stratigraphic challenges posed by each excavation site. All four teams (directors alongside students from the University of British Columbia, Cornell University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Toronto Mississauga) enjoyed lunch and dinner together discussing, among other things, their daily observations and questions. The KAMBE project – involving excavations at K-AD, Maroni-Vournes (MV), Kalavasos-Vounaritashi (KV), and Maroni-Tsaroukkas (MT) – seeks to bridge high-resolution, geoarchaeological data and macro-scale, environmental data; this will serve to connect discrete, small-scale contexts to establish neighborhood-level practices and understand socio-environmental dynamics at the site and the Maroni and Vasilikos river valleys. What started off as micromorphological sampling at a single site (K-AD) soon developed into thinking more broadly about the landscapes of these adjacent river valleys and the additional information that can be attained from the micro-scale study of multiple sites in these areas.

Greater insight can be offered on localized, centralized, and individualized behaviors and environmental processes by comparing these several sites within a limited geographic and temporal zone, so my research expanded to conduct sampling at all three land-based sites. As I currently prepare samples for analyses, plans are underway to continue and expand upon this research in subsequent excavation seasons.

Going forward – Going local and ‘modern’

To prepare for the Court of Master Sommelier certified exam, one needs to be able to identify nuances in wine – to know the effects of cool versus warm climates, the weather conditions in particular years, the types of sediments in the vineyards, the production processes used by individual winemakers. The final wine product is a combination of human decisions and environmental processes. On the one hand, the vineyard-specific location and micro-climate impacts decisions made by the producer; on the other hand, the producer alters the product to ‘make the place’ (the terroir) significant. Thus, human-environmental relationships are entangled in wines, but being able to decipher minute changes in the wines can provide information on both environments and human behaviors.

I relate these goals of disentangling these human-environment relationships to the goal of geoarchaeology – to understand how human-environment interactions impact and shape archaeological sites. From my preliminary research, my work with the KAMBE project demonstrates the need to investigate recent landscape and environmental transformations in conjunction with ancient ones in order to understand past landscapes, activities, and site formations processes. For example, the impact of the ‘new’ Vasilikos Dam over the past 30 years may have had a larger impact on the valley than many environmental events in the thousands of years prior. My work on the PALAP project similarly demonstrates the need to tie in coastal research as well as information from Palaikastro’s broader production region.

This research, therefore, initiated the start of a longer-term effort to establish comparisons between the different neighborhood areas at Palaikastro and those of K-AD to study community-level behaviors, based on micro-scale geoarchaeological analyses, on Bronze Age Crete and Cyprus. In ongoing research, the project combines a micro-historical (diachronic) component and a micro-regional (spatial) component, and this combination is transformative in creating detailed microecological reconstructions for these sites that can identify both local environmental and climatic changes (e.g., extended drought; sea-level rise) and local socio-environmental practices (e.g., changes in technologies, urban forms, or agricultural practices). Recognizing the interdisciplinary nature of this research, this year (2020-2021), in collaboration with Dr. Carrie Atkins (UTM), I have organized a virtual (online) Research Opportunity Program – CLA399Y5: Archaeological Science in the Ancient Mediterranean – to engage undergraduate UTM students from various disciplines – classics, forensics, anthropology – in developing research plans, analysis, and – hopefully this summer – field work experiences.


Rachel wrapping a sediment sample in plaster

Rachel Kulick is a Collaborating Geoarchaeologist and Curriculum Support Officer, Undergraduate Program in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her CAORC Multi-Country Research Fellowship was on 'Bronze Age Urban Environments on Crete and Cyprus: Investigating Socio-Environmental Interactions using Geoarchaeology'.

To learn more about the CAORC fellowships, click here.


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