The Petras excavation project in Crete. Unveiling Mysteries, Understanding Jewelry

Published: 18.07.2021
Loukia Richards
Edited by:
ZLR Betriebsimperium
Edited at:
Hamburg / Athens
Edited on:
From left to right: Jasper seal, 1900 BC. / Carnelian seal, 1900 BC..
From left to right: Jasper seal, 1900 BC. / Carnelian seal, 1900 BC.

© By the author. Read Copyright.

Archaeologist and Director Emerita of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Dr. Metaxia Tsipopoulou talks to SMCK Magazine about the Petras excavation on Crete, a life project revealing four thousand years of history. A source of inspiration for contemporary jewelers, the project spans 37 years and must be completed.

The text is an extract from the seven-page long interview with Dr. Metaxia Tsipopoulou published in SMCK Magazine #Greece200 issue.
SMCK: Please tell our readers a few things about the Petras excavation.
MT: The monumental complex at Petras, Siteia, in eastern Crete extends on two neighboring coastal hills, 60 and 80 m. high respectively, which were promontories in antiquity to the southwest and the southeast of a deep and narrow bay which is covered by soil brought in by a small rivel.
Petras is situated two kms east of the modern town of Siteia and is investigated through excavations and intensive surface surveys since 1985, under my direction, as a systematic research project of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Human presence at Petras is attested since the Final Neolithic period (ca 3400 BC), and continued uninterrupted to the end of the Bronze Age (ca 1100 BC).
Furthermore, on the remains of the Minoan palace, a Byzantine cemetery was established in the 12th and 13th centuries AD.

SMCK: What was jewelry’s use and why was it placed in tombs with the deceased?
MT: Jewelry of many types has been produced in Crete since Neolithic times. The earliest ornaments were natural stones and animal teeth. In the early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC), they produced beads of various shapes made of stone, clay faience, silver, and gold, as well as pendants in the forms of humans and animals. Most of these items were not only decorative, but also served as amulets, and were deposited in tombs as status symbols of the deceased. Gold and silver were used for beads, pins, bracelets, rings and earrings, hair-spirals, adornments of clothes, and diadems. Gold sheets and wires were made by hammering, and decoration consisted of repoussé and stippling. Diadems were decorated with geometric motifs and animal figures. Pendants had the shape of leaves and animals suspended by very fine single or double chains. The finest jewelry of this period was found in tombs, especially in at Mochlos, Petras. and the Mesara. 

Bronze seal ring, 1900 BC.

SMCK: Which material and which techniques did Minoan jewelers used? Are there characteristic motifs in different eras or throughout the whole period? 
MT: Adornments were made of various materials, from shells or pebbles to precious metals, gold, silver, semiprecious stones, and ivory. Silver was imported from the Cyclades, gold from Egypt, bronze from Cyprus, and semi-precious stones from Syria. Geometric motifs, human and animal figures were common in all periods.

From left to right: Gold beads, ca 2200 BC. / ca 2600 BC. / ca 2600 BC.

SMCK: Did jewelry come from local workshops or was it imported – materials, findings or whole pieces – from other regions?
MT: Most jewelry excavated in Crete is of local production, especially produced in highly specialist, usually palatial workshops. Most raw materials – bronze, gold, silver, ivory, semi-precious stones – are imported from the Aegean (silver), Egypt, (gold, stones), Cyprus (bronze), or Syria (hippopotamus ivory). A bead of lapis lazuli was even found at Petras. Finished pieces are very rarely imported. At Petras we excavated a very rare gold bead figurine of two men embracing, probably imported from Syria. The motifs and techniques are the same throughout the island and evolve with time, especially with the introduction of new techniques. 

Gold pendant, 2000 BC.

SMCK: How could we make a bridge of inspiration by updating ancient models for contemporary use? What is your advice to designers inspired by Greek history and culture?
MT: Jewelry is, in all societies, a symbol of status and social class, but we also wear ornaments today because we like them and we like to express ourselves through them, independent of their price. I believe that the simple forms of the Minoan jewelry made of gold, silver, and polychrome semi-precious stones can be a great inspiration for modern artists to create original contemporary items.

Gold bead, ca 2200 BC.



All images in this article are published with kind permission of Petras excavations archive. Photos by C. Papanikolopoulos.

About the Interviewee

Dr. Metaxia Tsipopoulou was born in Athens. She obtained her BA and Ph.D. from the University of Athens, in archeology. The subject of her dissertation was “The Early Iron Age in Eastern Crete”. She continued post-doctoral studies in Εngland, at the University of Bristol for two years, in the National Research Foundation of Italy in Rome, on a European Union scholarship, and at the State University of New York at Buffalo, as a Fulbright Fellow. Recently she was a visiting professor at the University of Bristol, in the Peter Warren chair.

Dr. Tsipopoulou worked in the Archaeological Service of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture between 1975 and 2011, mostly in Crete, both West and East. From 2007 to the end of 2011 she was appointed Director of the National Archive of Monuments of the Ministry of Culture and was responsible for the management of the digital heritage of Greece and the Historical Archive of the Archaeological Service. During these years she coordinated various projects funded by the European Union, related to the promotion of the Hellenic Cultural heritage through digital applications, mostly connected to the Europeana digital library.

Dr. Tsipopoulou is a specialist for the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age of the Aegean, and Crete in particular. Her scholarly interests are focused on the settlement patterns, the pottery and the archaeology of death. She directs major excavations in Crete, including the urban settlement, the palace and the Minoan cemetery at Petras, Siteia, as well as the settlement of the end of the Bronze Age at Halasmenos, Ierapetra. She has also directed the excavation of the Prepalatial rectangular fortified building at Aghia Photia, Siteia, as well as the excavations of the late Minoan III cemeteries at Kritsa, Mirabello and Achladia, Siteia. Furthermore, she has conducted surface surveys, has organized museum exhibitions and international conferences and has given lectures and seminars in many Universities in Greece, Europe, the United States and Canada. She has also created websites about Greek and Minoan Archaeology. Her publications include more than 110 articles, and several monographs, Acts of Conferences and edited volumes.

About the author

Loukia Richards (Athens, 1965) is a visual artist, curator, journalist and co-publisher of SMCK Magazine. A Fulbrighter and Onassis Foundation alumna, Richards was nominated for the European Award for Applied Arts (2018 and 2021) and the Herbert Hofmann Prize (2017 and 2020). Richards is a graduate of the National Kapodistrian University of Athens (Economics) and University of the Arts Berlin (Visual Communication). A former Reuters financial reporter, she has been educated and trained in Journalism in London and Athens. Along with her partner Christoph Ziegler, Richards is the curator of the group show Helen's Dress at Vienna Art Week 2021 (Galerie Puuul).