Airport survey uncovers a 4,000 year old structure on Crete

KASTELLI, Crete, Greece – The plans had already been made: a new airport for the island of Crete was set to open in 2027 near the town of Kastelli, and a hilltop had been designated as the site of its new airport tower. But while surveying the area, archeologists have discovered a 4,000 year old structure from the time of the Minoan civilization – and the airport has found it needs somewhere else to put its tower.

The structure, which the Associated Press reports is some 19,000 square feet in area, is circular and look a bit like a gear or the wheel of a car when seen from above. The center circle is divided into several compartments, and archeologists believe it may have had a conical roof. Surrounding this main area are eight stone walls that reached up to almost six feet in height.

Archeologists discovered this 4,000 year old structure while surveying the site for a new airport radar tower [Greek Ministry of Culture]

It’s unclear what the structure’s purpose was. The Greek Culture Ministry does not believe it was a dwelling, according to CNN. Some of its features are comparable to Minoan tombs, and it contains a large number of animal bones – possibly evidence of sacrifice.

“It may have been periodically used for possibly ritual ceremonies involving consumption of food, wine, and perhaps offerings,” said the ministry in a statement. ““Its size, architectural layout and careful construction required considerable labor, specialized know-how and a robust central administration.”

The ministry believes the structure was in use between 2000 and 1700 B.C.E., 4,000 years ago, making it roughly contemporaneous with the famous Palace of Knossos, the earliest parts of which are dated to about 1900 B.C.E.

Knossos and other archeological sites on Crete belong to the Minoan civilization, which is named for the mythological king Minos. In Greek myth, Minos was known for commissioning the architect Daedalus to build a labyrinth to contain the half-human, half-bull creature known as the Minotaur. The hero Theseus managed to defeat the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth through the assistance of Minos’s daughter Ariadne – though Theseus later abandoned her. (Some gratitude.) “Minoan” is a modern coinage – it is unknown what the historical Minoans called themselves.

The historical Minoan civilization existed from about 3100 B.C.E. and began to reach its height about a thousand years later, at the same time the structure at Kastelli is dated. Much about the Minoan society is unclear, as most Minoan writing is undeciphered: though we have several examples of the Minoan script called Linear A, it is unknown what language it encodes. A later script for writing Mycenaean Greek, Linear B, shares some signs with Linear A, but the languages do not appear to be related.

Minoan art and architecture, on the other hand, continue to thrill visitors, with famous pieces like the Bull-Leaping Fresco bringing many tourists to the Heraklion Archeological Museum in Crete. Indeed, the popularity of Minoan archeology is part of the need for the new airport at Kastelli, which is intended to replace the current airport at Heraklion and serve up to 18 million tourists annually.

The “Bull Leaping Fresco” from Knossos, now on display at the Heraklion Archeological Museum [public domain]

But the Greek Culture Ministry makes clear that the government considers both cultural heritage and modern infrastructure needs to be paramount.

“We all understand the value and importance of cultural heritage,” Lina Mendoni, the culture minister, said. “It’s possible to go ahead with the airport while granting the antiquities the protection they merit.”

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