When a farmer near the Cretan village of Kentri was parking on his property in August 2018, he chose a shady spot under an olive grove. But the ground beneath him was unstable, and he drove away as the earth fell beneath him. It wasn’t until he looked back at the hole that he realized he needed to call in archaeological experts. Because he’d just discovered a 3,400-year-old tomb and dozens of priceless artifacts.
Greece is a country of over 2,000 islands, but Crete is the biggest. It also has a long and rich history. People have lived there since before 6500 BCE. Even the people of mainland Ancient Greece were enthralled by the legends that Crete produced. And among them was the mythical creature Minotaur.
The Minotaur is human in shape, but with a bull’s head. The god Poseidon sent a beautiful white bull to Minos, king of Crete, to be sacrificed. When Minos refused to kill the animal, Poseidon forced his wife, Queen Pasiphae, to fall in love with the bull. And it was from the union of woman and bull that the Minotaur was born.
For many years, the Minotaur was trapped in a labyrinth specifically designed to prevent its escape. Minos demanded that seven maidens and seven young people from Athens be sent to be eaten by the beast. This continued until the hero Theseus offered to be be sacrificed and subsequently killed the Minotaur. He then fled with Minos’ daughter, Ariadne.
However, Minos himself may not have been a person at all. Indeed, excavations in recent years have led archaeologists to believe the name may actually simply be a title for the succession of Cretan rulers. Either way, the Minos name was significant enough that it became an identifier for the civilization in the region. And it was a relic of that era that lay buried under the olive grove.
The Minoans were known for their complex palaces that looked like labyrinths, and many believe these buildings inspired the Minotaur tale. They also created elaborate art, from wall frescoes to pottery. And Minoan influence spread to mainland Greece. However, much of its history is still unknown. Indeed, any new discovery could shed more light on how they lived, and died.
Since its ancient heyday, Crete has passed through many hands. First, Mycenaeans from mainland Greece invaded. Then it belonged to the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Byzantines again, then Venice, and later the Ottoman Turks. Crete was briefly independent, then in 1913 it reunified with Greece. And across thousands of years, much of its ancient treasure was looted or destroyed.
Now back to the farmer near the village of Kentri. Knowing he’d found a rare and remarkable piece of history, he contacted Lassithi Ephorate of Antiquities. As the local heritage ministry, it sent archaeologists to explore the hole, and discover what lay inside.
Experts discovered that the hole contained an enclosure carved out of limestone. This has been created to lay coffins within it. Indeed, this mysterious 2.5-meter hole actually contained a tomb, sealed 3,400 years ago during Minoan times.
And given that the Kentri tomb had remained hidden for thousands of years, its contents were still intact. Interestingly, it was also found in a part of Crete where Minoan discoveries are especially rare. Most evidence of Minoan civilization is found in the lowlands, rather than the mountainous part of Ierapetra where the tomb was found.
Meanwhile, the tomb was approximately eight feet deep and four feet wide. Inside, three separate niches had been carved with a vertical trench to allow entrance. Two of those niches, at the northernmost and southernmost points, contained the coffins.
The type of coffin used is known as a larnax, and Bronze Age Minoans commonly used them. They were made of clay but designed to resemble wooden chests. Known plurally as larnakes, they were so small that bodies would not fit inside without being forced into a crouching position.
The larnakes holding the bodies were carved with elaborate decorations. This is a common practice for this type of coffin. Previous discoveries have included larnakes that depicted hunting and religious ceremonies, as well as some patterned with abstract designs.
And there were not only coffins in the tombs. Other artifacts had been buried with the two Minoans. This included colorful, high-quality pottery. This type of vessel used is known as an amphora. Indeed, one of the larnakes was surrounded by over twelve amphorae.
In Greek, amphora means “carry on both sides”. This is because amphorae traditionally have two handles as well as a narrow neck. They were one of the most common pots in Ancient Greece, used to transport and store goods including oil, cereal, olives and wine. Indeed, they would be filled with oil and presented as prizes in the Athenian Panathenaic Games.
The high quality of the amphorae in the newly discovered tomb suggests that the occupants were once of high status. There are, however, other much more elaborate Minoan tombs. These are beehive-shaped structures with thick, domed walls and often a series of rooms around the circle of the central burial chamber.
So this style of tomb suggests that the bodies may have belonged to people of relative importance in their society. At this point, the deceased are thought to be male, but other than that there is still a lot of work to do. The skeletons in particular need to be studied.
Meanwhile, it is believed that natural disasters may have influenced the decline of the Minoan civilization. The eruption of the Thera volcano, along with a huge earthquake and tsunami eventually weakened the society. This allowed the Mycenaeans to later successfully invade from mainland Greece.
Other research has claimed that Minoans and Mycenaeans may come from a common ancestor. Analysis of these two skeletons and their tomb may shed light on both of these theories. It may reveal more about both the relationship and antagonism between these two ancient cultures.
Incredibly, it was an accident that this tomb was even found. If an irrigation pipe hadn’t been leaking, the soil wouldn’t have been so damp that it collapsed. Yet this small accident led to something amazing. It just goes to show how many historical treasures are hidden just out of view, and what discoveries lie ahead from remains that are yet to be discovered.