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Flowers of Crete

The island of Crete is in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Europe, Asia and Africa meet. Given its position and geography (high mountains, craggy canyons) it is no surprise that it has a very rich and varied ecosystem. It is estimated that the island is home to about 1750 species of plants and 1000 of animals, many of which are endemic (= they are found nowhere else).

As an archaeologist, I am intrigued by how this natural wealth was perceived (and recorded for us to find) by the different cultures that waxed and waned on the island during the course of its long history. To me, the representations of the natural world made during the last 5,000 years in Crete are more interesting (and certainly just as varied) as the species that adorn the island.

I will show you a few samples, beginning with the Minoan civilisation, a rich bronze-age culture, many aspects of which still mystify archaeologists.

01 golden jewellery from mochlos 2600-1900 BCE

Golden jwellery in the shape of flowers from a grave in Mochlos, Early Bronze Age, 2600-1900 BCE. Today in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum.

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02 ceramic vessel from phaistos 1800-1700 BCE

Large crater (wine-mixing bowl) of the colorful Kamares style, from Phaistos, 1800-1700 BCE. Today in the Heracleion Archaeological Museum.

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03 fresco of the lillies, Amnissos 1600-1500 BCE

Lillies on a fresco from the so-called ‘Villa of the Lillies’ in Amnissos, 1600-1500 BCE. Today in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum.

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In stark contrast with the naturalism of Minoan Art, in early archaic times, plant and flower motifs  are stylised.

04 pottery from Knossos, 7th century BCE

Archaic-style vessels from a grave in Knossos, 7th century BCE. Today in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum.

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I have few good photos of classical or Roman samples, so allow me to leap a few centuries forward, to Byzantine times.

Panel from the sanctuary of 12th-century Byzantine church of St. Titus in Gortys. Today in the Herakleion Historical Museum.

Panel from the sanctuary of 12th-century Byzantine church of St. Titus in Gortys. Today in the Herakleion Historical Museum.

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In the 13th century, the Venetians occupied the island, bringing with them the artistic styles that prevailed in Western Europe at the time: at first Gothic, later Renaissance and Baroque ones.

A late Renaissance (1607) door pediment from Rethymnon, bearing the Clodio family coat of arms and rich floral decoration.

A late Renaissance (1607) door pediment from Rethymnon, bearing the coat of arms of the Venetian noble family Clodio and rich floral decoration.

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Fragment of a sarcophagus of the Kallergi family tomb, in the village Thronos, Crete. 16th century CE; temporarily exhibited in the Byzantine Museum of Athens.

Fragment of a sarcophagus of the Kallergi family tomb, in the village Thronos, Crete. 16th century CE; temporarily exhibited in the Byzantine Museum of Athens.

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After long and bitter fighting, the Venetians were replaced by the Ottomans. However, the baroque style seems to have been in vogue, despite the island’s becoming part of an Empire with different norms, language and faith.

A richly decorated arch, above the door of a house in Rethymnon, with an Ottoman inscription above, dating it to 1844.

A richly decorated arch, above the door of a house in Rethymnon, with an Ottoman inscription above, dating it to 1844.

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08 Rethymnon gate, 18th century CE

A grapevine, heavy with fruit, decorates the gate of a former Ottoman school in Rethymnon. Dated in 1796, the arch resembles a gate of the town’s fortress.

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Regardless of who was in power, life went on, and ordinary folk continued to decorate everyday items with flower and animal motifs in vibrant colour:

09 traditional Greek embroidery, 18th century CE

Human figures, birds and brightly coloured flowers are seen on this piece of an 18th-century shirt.

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10 traditional Greek embroidery by a child, 19th century CE

Flowers, possibly sunflowers, decorate this border, embroidered by a 6-year-old in the 1800’s.

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Even in the hostile environment of the modern city, nature still finds its way, through street art.

11 flower graffiti, Crete

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