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The Sphakia Survey: A Brief Introduction

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posted on 2024-01-04, 15:40 authored by Sphakia Survey


Sphakia is a deme (former eparchy), a modern administrative district in SW Crete (Greece with an area of 466.2 km. sq. It includes most of the White Mountains, and a dozen gorges, running S to the Libyan Sea – the best known is the Samaria Gorge – and very little arable land.


The Sphakia Survey is an archaeological project whose main objective is to investigate human interaction with the landscape.


We have looked at evidence for human activity from the time that people first arrived in Sphakia at the end of the Stone Age (by ca 3300 B.C.) to the end of the Turkish period in Crete (A.D. 1898). In other words, we have been working with a time span of some 5000 years. We divided this long period into three epochs: Prehistoric (PH, 3300–1050 B.C.); Graeco-Roman (GR, 1050 B.C. – A.D. 650); Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish (BVT, A.D. 650–1898).

The work of the Survey was done in several stages:

  • reconnaissance in Sphakia: 1986
  • field seasons in Sphakia: 1987–90, 92
  • study seasons in the Khania Museum: 1989, 1993–8
  • finds photography: 1999.


The Sphakia Survey is directed by Lucia Nixon and Jennifer Moody, with additional senior participation by Simon Price and Oliver Rackham. Jane Francis has joined us as an additional co-editor of the final print publication.

Many specialists and students have worked with us in Sphakia, in the Khania Museum, and in our home universities. We did our work with a permit granted by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sciences, obtained through the Canadian Institute in Greece (formerly Canadian Archaeological Institute at Athens). The staff of the Greek Archaeological Service, Khania Office, has supported us throughout. People in Sphakia have given us crucial information about their area, as well as much practical help and encouragement.

Our work has been funded by a number of agencies and foundation, principally the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, Philadelphia; and the Craven Committee, University of Oxford.

For full acknowledgements, please see the Project Team page.


Members of the Survey have collected and analysed environmental, archaeological, documentary, and local evidence. The archaeological material has been collected from the surface alone. For more information on this look at the research methods pages.


Sphakia has provided us with an extraordinary opportunity for archaeological research: it covers a large area, which had never been investigated systematically, with a broad environmental and altitudinal range. Our generous permit has allowed us to survey and collect surface finds in all parts of Sphakia. The number of sites known before (about 20, plus villages and neighbourhoods) and after our work (over 300, including neighbourhoods) gives a crude index of how much we have been able to learn about Sphakia. We divided Sphakia into eight regions, from west to east. Each site has a number (region number plus site number, e.g. 4.21). The size of Sphakia gives the project a truly regional scope (see map above), and has made it possible to test our ideas by contrasting different parts of Sphakia, e.g. different uses of the three main altitudes in the Anopoli and Frangokastello areas.

Perhaps the single most significant aspect of the Sphakia Survey is its role in the development of rigorous diachronic comparison. Almost all archaeological surveys declare an interest in diachrony. We have from the beginning tried to collect and analyse data from all three epochs of the Survey – Byzantine-Venetian-Turkish as well as Graeco-Roman and Prehistoric – and we have worked hard to find reliable methods of comparison.

In the document above, we summarise our results and their significance by epoch. The Archaeological Museum in Khania, where our finds are stored, has many Prehistoric and Graeco-Roman artefacts from west Crete. Click here to visit the website for this museum.

The Sphakia Survey has thus been able to document a range of human responses to an arid mountain landscape over a period of some five millennia. The Survey video has proved a useful means of communicating information about the landscape of Sphakia to students, especially in Canada and the U.S., and is also a way of reporting directly to people in Greece; the video was broadcast with Greek subtitles on Greek national television twice in 1996, as arranged through the Greek Embassy in London.

Our work has already had policy applications for the Greek Archaeological Service (sites to be protected), and is also beginning to show that in planning it is advisable to consider cultural (archaeological) and natural (environmental) resources not as separate entities, but as part of the same landscape.

For a slightly more detailed introduction to the project, read in sequence our three preliminary reports, 1988, 1989 and 1990 (reprinted here with numerous colour illustrations).

If you would like to discuss matters relating to the Sphakia Survey, please contact the University of Oxford's Faculty of Classics.


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