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Archeological Research at Loutres, Mochlos: Investigation of a Bath Complex of Medieval Crete

Natalia Poulou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Project Grant, 2016–2017

Located 2 km east of the small village of Mochlos on the northeast coast of Crete, the site of Loutres is marked by ruined structures interspersed with bushes (figs. 1–2). In two short field campaigns during 2014 and 2015 (6 weeks in total), a team from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki carried out archaeological investigation. Work continued during 2016/2017 campaigns funded by the Dumbarton Oaks Project Grant and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. My main collaborator on the excavation has been A. Tantsis, architect, Assistant Professor in Byzantine Archaeology (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki). The other team members are S. Didioumi (archaeologist, MA, PhD candidate), N. Theodoridis (archaeologist, BA, MA), D. Maggana (architect, MA), F. Stefanou (topographer, MA), L. Chatzakis (conservator), A. Vassou (archaeologist), as well as students trained at various levels in archaeology and Byzantine architecture. Excavation permits were provided by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Lasithi.

Fig. 1 Fig. 1: Google Map, detail of east Crete (annotations N. Poulou).

Fig. 2 Fig. 2: The wider Mochlos area showing the sites of Pseira, Mochlos village, Mochlos island, Loutres, and St. Andreas (view from the east; photo N. Poulou).

Preliminary Fieldwork (2014–2015)

During the first period of research (2014–2015) it became apparent that the largest structure, Building A, built of stone and already visible above the ground, was a barrel-vaulted medieval cistern (5.10 x 4.10 m; figs. 3, 4). After removing the bushes that covered the whole area as well as several layers of dirt, loose construction, and stones, we uncovered at about 25m north of Building A the upper part of a cross-shaped building, Building B (6.60 x 6.06 m), and at 5 m northeast of there, the vestiges of a second cross-shaped building (Building C, 6.03 x 5.28 m; fig. 3). After excavation of Buildings B and C, details of construction suggested that these buildings were bathhouses. Therefore, during the Byzantine era, the site was a bath complex, relating to the management of water resources.

Fig. 3 Fig. 3: The site of Loutres-Mochlos, northeast Crete, aerial view (2016, photo F. Stefanou).

Fig. 4 Fig. 4: Building A (2016; photos and plans A. Tantsis and F. Stefanou).

Building B ceased to function as a bath likely in the twelfth or thirteenth century, and was converted into a ceramic workshop. The kiln was constructed in the central area of the bathroom, destroying many of its elements. A third phase began in the nineteenth century, when it was used as a lime kiln.

The 2016–2017 Field Seasons

The 2016–2017 field seasons revolved around two axes: the site per se, and its historical and social context.

The Site

Further excavation brought to light all architectural elements of Building B and some of Building C. The cross-shaped nucleus of Building B was the caldarium of a bathhouse (fig. 5a, 5b). Its center was covered with a low dome. On three sides (north, east, and west) open rectangular niches were covered by vaults, of which only traces survive. The elongated rectangular space on the south side of the building was covered with a semi-cylindrical vault on the east-west axis. It was constructed of very strong hydraulic mortar, which covered its internal and external surfaces.

Fig. 5a Fig. 5a: Building B, plan of the hypocausts (2017; drawing by D. Maggana).

Fig. 5b Fig. 5b. Building B, plan of the bathhouse (2017; drawing by D. Maggana).

Fig. 5c Fig. 5c: Building B, section A-A' (2017; drawing by A. Tantsis and D. Maggana).

Excavation also brought to light initially the western and then the eastern and northern niches’ floor. During the subsequent removal of the lime kiln stones, the hypocausts were discovered, preserved in excellent condition under the western and eastern niches and under the rectangular space on the south side of the bathhouse (fig. 5). The size of these niches indicates personal use.

During the archaeological research many features of the building’s arrangement and construction technique came to light. The construction of the floors of the eastern and western niches were of special interest. They are made of a substructure of large tiles and finished with successive layers of hydraulic mortar. The final surface of the floor of the western niche is better preserved and is made with a thick layer of fine mortar. The lower part of the western niche’s walls is covered with mortar as well. At the eastern side the niche is circumscribed by a very low partition wall with a hole that facilitated water drainage (fig. 6).

Fig. 6 Fig. 6: Building B, western niche (2017, photo N. Poulou).

A similar arrangement must have existed in the eastern niche but later constructions covered this. The north niche, covered with a different mortar, must have functioned as the cistern of warm water, with a praefurnium in its lower level. We know that the rectangular space on the south side of the caldarium was a warm room (tepidarium), as the hypocausts extend below its floor.

At the building’s inner corners, where the crossarms join the main domed space, we were able to detect the traces or remains of clay pipes, which perforated the building and facilitated air circulation. A striking feature for the dating of the structure were the amphorae parts that had been reused as air conduits, serving as terminus post quem for the erection of the building: we recognized the so-called spatheia, small-size amphorae imported from the area of Tunisia and dated from the mid-seventh to the early eighth century (Bonifay 2004, 127–29, fig. 69, type 3B). Furthermore, during the excavation we uncovered a number of small finds and ceramics that can also be dated to the same period and up to the end of the eighth century (Poulou and Tantsis forthcoming).

Building C shares with B similar construction techniques and functional details: rough stone masonry with very strong mortar and scarcely used pieces of bricks, hydraulic mortar in the surfaces of its walls, and clay pipes in the corners of its main core (fig. 3, 7).

Fig. 7a Fig. 7a. Building C, view from the northwest (2016, photo F. Stefanou).

Fig. 7b Fig. 7b. Building C, aerial view (2016, photo F. Stefanou).


The buildings’ typology is significant, since we normally expect function to be the main design influence in bathhouses. As noted above, during the transition from the late antique to the middle Byzantine period, baths became reduced both in size and luxury; bathing became a more private process that did not need as much space or time. This shift led to the development of small niches with basins for bathers. These niches usually project from the building’s central space, as in the bathhouses we excavated in Loutres.

Three other buildings in eastern Crete provide further interpretive context: the Church of SS. Georgios and Charalampos in Episkopi Ierapetras, the Church of the Holy Apostles in Kato Episkopi Sitias, and the Church of St. Vasileios in Epano Episkopi Sitias. Each of these buildings had a first phase as a bathhouse and a later one as a church, after transformations and additions. They present many similarities with the Mochlos bathhouses in typology, building technique, and overall morphology (Poulou and Tantsis forthcoming).

The buildings’ cross plan and vaulted covering ideally served the functions of a bathhouse. It is striking that the cross shape of the vaulted structure, despite being purely the result of function, could later accommodate the symbolic-formalistic needs of a church. The buildings were easily turned into churches. We currently believe that the three other bathhouses mentioned above were also constructed after the early Byzantine period and were transformed into churches after the thirteenth century, judging by certain features that were added at the time of their conversion.

The study of Byzantine bathhouses of eastern Crete acquires an added importance since Byzantium’s secular architecture is understudied. The project in Loutres gives us the opportunity to rethink issues of typology in Byzantine architecture both secular and religious. In our opinion, the designs of secular architecture, where function was more important than symbolism, recall forms of church architecture, where symbolism was the main concern. This could be explained partly by builders applying the same materials and construction techniques everywhere, resulting in similar forms and shapes both in secular and religious architecture (Poulou and Tantsis forthcoming).

Fig. 8 Fig. 8: Buildings B and C, view from the east (2017, photo N. Poulou).

Only the first stage of excavation at Loutres has finished (fig. 8). Future fieldwork will hopefully provide information on other buildings of this complex as well as on the settlement which they served. Surface finds across the coastal zone, between the village of Mochlos in the west and the church of Ag. Andreas in the east, bear strong indications for the existence of a settlement dating from the sixth century onward.

Ιt is of interest that a coastal settlement emerges and gets established in Crete during the transitional period of Byzantium. Some scholars have suggested that the coastal settlements, in Crete and other Aegean islands, were abandoned due to the Arabs prevailing during this period. The results of excavation at Loutres constitutes for that reason strong evidence that during the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, despite the Arab threat, coastal or island settlements on the north coast of Crete maintained activity and contacts with the entire Aegean, and reaching as far as Constantinople (Poulou-Papadimitriou 2014).


Bonifay, M. 2004. Études sur la céramique romaine tardive d’Afrique. Oxford.

Poulou-Papadimitriou, N. 2014. “Θαλάσσιοι δρόμοι στο Αιγαίο κατά την πρωτοβυζαντινή περίοδο: Η μαρτυρία της κεραμικής.” In Αρχαιολογία και Τέχνη στα Δωδεκάνησα κατά την Ύστερη Αρχαιότητα, Ευλιμένη 2, Μεσογειακή Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία. Edited by Ν. Zarras and E. Stefanakis. Rethymnon. Pp. 127–52.

Poulou, N., and A. Tantsis. Forthcoming. “Παρατηρήσεις στα Μεσαιωνικά Λουτρά της Ανατολικής Κρήτης.” 12th International Congress of Cretan Studies, Heraklion, 21–25.9.2016.