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The Missing People of Crete

Posted On September 18, 2019 | 11:41 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Vera Klontza-Jaklova develops a method to find remnants of the island’s Arabic period

Vera Klontza-Jaklova, head of classical archaeology at Masaryk University, was a recent fellow in Byzantine Studies. Her research report, “Crete in the Period of Arab Expansion (7th–10th Century): An Island and Period Full of People and Questions,” outlined plans to uncover new historical and archaeological evidence for a crucial chapter in the Byzantine world.


Q&A with Vera Klontza-Jaklova 

Why does the island of Crete matter for Byzantine studies, particularly between the 7th and 10th centuries?

Crete is something of a hub or crossroads in the eastern Mediterranean. Whoever controlled Crete could control almost all the Mediterranean basin, including a big part of its western half. During this period, Crete was just in the zone where Byzantine and Arabic interests were clashing. It’s very important to know what was happening in the Arabic period, to compare it with similar periods on the island or in the region. 

Crete was part of the eastern Roman Empire, which we call the Byzantine Empire. From the mid-7th century, Arabs from Egypt and the Near East started raiding the island. Then in the beginning of the 9th century, Arab fugitives from Córdoba left Spain. They were not wanted in North Africa, in Sicily, in Alexandria. In the early 820s, they were forced to move again. Crete was probably their only option: it was relatively close, and the currents and wind helped them. We think about 3,000 people landed in southern Crete. Step by step, they moved through the island, probably destroying the capital and besieging what is now Heraklion. They established an Islamic state called the Emirate of Crete, which operated for almost 150 years.

Of course, Constantinople was not happy. There were campaigns to get this island back until 961, when Crete was reconquered by Nikephoros Phokas, who later became a Byzantine emperor.  


What makes the 9th and 10th centuries in particular an archaeological mystery?

This period is archaeologically and historically quite empty. We lack archaeological sources, and we don’t have a representative number of historical sources, which are themselves fragmentary and sometimes contradictory. But we know there were people living on Crete then. Historical sources describe trading and political and cultural activities.

Typically we identify people archaeologically by the traces they have left in the landscape. First there is immobile material culture: settlements, churches, graves. Then we have mobile material culture: pottery, tools, jewelry, coins, art, lead seals in the Byzantine period, human and animal bones. But except coins, we have found almost nothing from the Arabic period. It’s one big scientific question mark. The 9th and 10th centuries are something of an archaeological vacuum.


Why don’t we see much archaeological evidence of these people? 

One reason is that we cannot always recognize the material culture because it is continuous with the previous and following periods. Also, Byzantine archaeology is quite a new field, started in the 1990s. For comparison, the archaeology of Minoan Crete has been developing for more than century. The Byzantine period hasn’t been the target of archaeological research in Crete. Everybody was looking for the Bronze Age and later the classical Greek period.

Another potential reason is that the settlement pattern changed, and people left typical habitation zones. On Crete, people mainly lived on the coast. In dangerous periods, they tended to move to the mountains, to strategically placed spots where they could be safe. Cretans have used these tactics throughout history (for example, the Late Bronze Age, WWII). 

A final possibility is that a big part of the material culture was destroyed in the Middle Ages. Sources say Nikephoros Phokas ordered soldiers to collect everything. A huge amount of loot was displayed in a triumphal march in Constantinople. Another hypothesis is that Christians damaged everything Islamic, including mosques or simple graves. That’s why one of my goals is to create a method for finding the people of the 9th and 10th century on Crete.


How have you worked on that method at Dumbarton Oaks?

I made a huge effort to read both Arabic and Byzantine sources and critically combine what they say. I also worked on predictive models of habitation patterns. After starting the fellowship, I was awarded a grant from the Czech Academy of Sciences to develop an absolute chronology of this time period on Crete. It seems very simple, but it’s something we don’t have, and we need it. It is the first step.

Another of my goals is to bring historians and archaeologists together. It is the way. Right now, communication is not at a good level. We are using different sources and asking different questions. So I consulted with other Byzantine fellows and experts who are historians or philologists: Christos Simelidis, Thomas Arentzen, Dan Caner, Alberto Bardi, Mike McCormick, Mary Talbot, and others. 

Here at Dumbarton Oaks, you can be part of one continual brainstorming. I am convinced that to stay here for one year can reshape how you think about your field and start a new chapter of your career.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.