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Water Management in Prehistoric Crete:
The case of Choiromandres, Zakros

 

Humans around the water resources

The construction, operation and maintenance of the water management system of Choiromandres presupposed the existence of efficient human resources, and may imply an authority that undertook and coordinated the entire project. It is speculated that the land reclamation project at Choiromandres successfully met the needs that ensued the climatic changes of the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. The trend towards a drier climate must have necessitated new forms of exploitation of the available water resources, so as to ensure the productivity of the arable areas.

The complex system of dams and barriers of the valley apparently succeeded in meeting these needs, as the system remained in operation during the rest of the New Palace period, if not later. This, because its builders adopted technical solutions which were in keeping with the local geomorphology and the valley’s natural environment.

The water management system of Choiromandres may be regarded as a successful example of practices, which were current in the Aegean Bronze Age. It may be considered as an example of the public works commissioned by the Minoan palaces.

The Minoan palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Zakros and Galatas were the seats of a powerful centralized administration that controlled trade and carried out large-scale public works, ranging from the construction of roads to water supply and irrigation projects, such as the one in the valley of Choiromandres.

 

Ritual practices related to the water management system at Choiromandres           

Regarding the needs which evoked the construction of the eater-management system at Choiromandres, and the way it was perceived by the people or the authority which commissioned and built it, important clues have been provided by an unexpected find. Being a recent discovery, the picture presented here as to its implications is, by necessity, of a preliminary character.

The digging of the road that now runs through the valley, while destroying parts of the Minoan walls at the south-east side of the site, revealed a small storage vase beneath the megalithic enclosure that defined the terraced area on its uphill side. Excavation established that the vase was placed in a hollow that had been opened in the soft bedrock. Its upper part was surrounded by the earth filling retained by the wall, whilst above it were placed stones belonging to the inner face of the latter. This find may be interpreted as a foundation deposit. This means that the vase was deposited right before the construction of the wall, during an inauguration act of a ritual character, which possibly aimed at sanctifying the system of agricultural terraces or at ensuring the success and longevity of the whole project.

In Minoan Crete foundation deposits were normally placed beneath private dwellings or buildings of a public character, such as the palaces. The example from Choiromandres is the only one of its kind that is related to an enclosure – that is, to a structure of a seemingly humble function, related to agricultural activities. Therefore, this find is indicative of the importance that was placed on the construction of the water-management system and the related group of agricultural terraces – a large-scale undertaking that changed the landscape of the valley, permitting its more intensive and efficient exploitation.

Further clues as to the needs, which necessitated the construction of these structures, may be provided by the content of the vase. This was pure fine-grained soil of a powdery texture, which can be identified as ash coming from the Late Bronze Age eruption of the volcano of Thera (Santorini). According to current research, this eruption had a particularly severe impact on Crete. Apart from tsunamis that affected the north coastal areas, it caused an ash fall, which may have destroyed harvests and impeded agriculture for a short time-span. The above imply that the foundation deposit from Choiromandres had a distinctly apotropaic character – that is, it aimed at avoiding the reoccurrence of similar catastrophic events. Consequently, the foundation deposit is indicative of the way in which this natural phenomenon was perceived. It provides insight to the feelings of awe inspired by the eruption, as well as to the immediate response to it: the undertakings and the coordinated efforts, which aimed at solving the problems created by this devastating event.

TEXT: Leonidas Vokotopoulos