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Rich Pickings
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Rich Pickings

Nikos Psaroudakis has spent the last 11 years scratching around for a living. But he likes it that way because he can leave work every day with history under his finger. As he pecks away with his hand pick at the rocky soil beneath Aptera’s ancient wall on the edge of Megala Horafia, east of Hania, he says: “Maybe I don’t earn a fortune, but I’m rich in other ways“Every day I find something – part of the blade of a knife, an old nail or piece of ceramic pot – that by itself doesn’t seem important but I always get excited at the thought that nobody has touched it for possibly thousands of years.”

It could of course also be a vital piece of an archaeological jigsaw puzzle that changes the course of history, all of which keeps Nikos chipping away in temperatures of up to 35 deg C every day from 7am until 2.30pm, when he reluctantly downs tools.

“All this land appears to be just fields and trees, but a few metres below our feet there hide many secrets,” adds Nikos, a local who first started digging at Aptera 50 years ago while tending his grandmother’s vegetable plot and who knows the ground like an old friend.

He is currently part of a 25-strong team of diggers, sorters, cleaners, cataloguers and archaeologists helping to restore the 4km wall that surrounds the ancient site to its 1st century BC state, a project that began last summer and has already brought to light coins, oil lamps, stone shots and the occasional empty grave.

But the main task is to collect the huge blocks that have been dislodged over the past 2,000 years – thanks mainly to a devestating 7th century earthquake and the Saracens attack of 823AD – and number them in preparation for one of the biggest rebuilding projects in Cretan history.

That, says Nikos, is going to be near impossible in places. “Many of the blocks have been removed to build the fort at Kalami and the Turkish castle, while some houses in Megala Horafia have Hellenistic inscriptions on them.”

The archaeologists, though, don’t be knocking on doors and asking for their 500kg stones back. Nor, one imagines, will the gaps be filled with concrete as happened at Knossos, where Sir Arthur Evans reconstructed the Minoan Palace as he thought it might have looked.

Impressive though Knossos is, Nikos feels Aptera could prove to be more important than its 220BC Cretan Civil War ally, saying: “I believe Aptera will turn out to be a more interesting site than Knossos. But it took more than 30 years to excavate that one so we will be here for many years yet.”

The Hellenistic period, between the 4th and 1st centuries BC, marked the zenith of Aptera’s powers as a great trading state, its two harbours dominating Souda Bay: one at Minoa on the Akrotiri Peninsular, where Marathi beach is today, and other at Kisamos, somewhere between Kalami and Kalives. It was also one of the few cities to have had permanent trade consulates in all the major Greek and Mediterranean ports.

Nikos was 45 when he quit his trade as a furniture maker, swapping dowels for trowels to dig full-time. But he has never regretted it. “The great thing about this job is that even when you have found something, you are left wanting more. Every time you answer one question, you are left with two more.”

And the history of Aptera, which has left a legacy of Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Turkish monuments, is full of questions: The earliest remains found at the site are from the Geometric period (1000-685BC), but the city is mentioned in the Linear B tablets found at Knossos, placing it in the Late Minoan period (1580-1070BC); the huge Roman water cisterns that dominate the centre of the site are said by some academics to have been use to store grain; and some say the ancient settlement of Hippokoronas, which gives today’s Apokoronas region its name, existed on the site long before Aptera was founded, while others say that was at Apicorono Castle, near Kalives… or was it near Nippos? Then there is the naming of the city.

One theory is that it came form the legendary Cretan king Apteron, who settled there during the collapse of the Minoan civilisation. Another says Aptera, meaning ‘wingless’, refers to the Sirens’ defeat in a musical contest by the Muses, who were known throughout mythology for their exquisite voices. The wingless Sirens then ended up in the sea, forming the small islands in Souda Bay. How they got there, though, is a thing of folklore. Did the Muses clip them as punishment for trying to take them on? Did the Sirens pull out their own wings in an act of shame? Or did, as Nikos’s grandmother say, they simply commit suicide rather than face the King’s wrath after failing to halt a passing ship.

“She mentioned nothing about a musical contest,” adds Nikos. “My grandparents told me a lot of Cretan history. Listening to old tales and reading books was how you learned. I try to do the same to the youngsters in my family but they are more interested in the internet.

“Also, when I was at school, mythology was part of our history lessons. And I know this might sound strange but I believe there is something in the old stories about this wall being built by Cyclopean giants.”

Mock as you might but Homer’s tales of Troy and of Minators were once thought of as things of legend until archaeologists discovered the reality behind the myth. If the wall at Aptera was indeed originally built by ‘the strong men of Mycenaea’, who won the seige of Troy in 1184BC, they may well have seemed four metres tall to the diminuative Minoans.

“Mythology is just history without the proof,” says Nikos, and he may yet have the last laugh.


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