Site History

The Sissi Archaeological Project on the Kephali on Crete, represents one of the most important Bronze Age excavations in Crete during the past decade, because of its extent, chronological range and the type of buildings uncovered.

Less than 4 km east of the major palace centre at Malia sits the coastal hill of Kephali tou Agiou Antoniou, locally known as Buffo. With a beach on both sides, the hill lies at the outlet of the river flowing down the Selinari gorge, which is exactly opposite the Kephali.

Aerial View (2016) of the Kephali at Sissi (© Sissi Project)

Then and now this gorge formed the only overland access from central to east Crete and indeed this strategic position was undoubtedly the reason why the Kephali attracted the attention of early settlers and from its initial foundation around 2600 BC, it remained occupied till the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. During its early history, the Kephali was apparently only one out of a series of small hamlets, which dotted the coast of the larger Malia Bay but soon it would outgrow its neighbours and become the second settlement after Malia in the region.

Apart from architectural remains of the Early and Middle Bronze Age (c. 2600-1750 BC) on the summit of the hill, an adjoining cemetery of house-like tombs was installed at the north foot of the hill, close to the sea. This allowed the evolution of burial rites until the sudden abandonment of the cemetery in the 18th c. BC. The abandonment coincided with the destruction of the First Palaces on the island, including the violent devastation of nearby Malia Palace. Sissi too seems to have suffered.

In the following period, the picture is still somewhat hazy but the possibility exists that the Kephali at Sissi henceforth steered a more independent course. The clearest indications for this are the construction of a fortification wall at the foot of the hill and especially the creation of a court-centred complex on a lower terrace of the summit, intentionally incorporating earlier remains in its construction. Excavation of this court-centre is unfinished but its central court, made of plaster and with a size of at least 450 m², could host larger crowds for festivals and religious meetings, as indicated by some ritual installations that were found. At or around the time of the Santorini eruption, however, this ceremonial complex was abandoned although the remaining settlement continued.

Not long after, however, Sissi too, as so many other Minoan settlements and palace centres was destroyed by fire and the nature of occupation drastically changes. On the summit of the hill, the ruins of one or more Neopalatial houses were partly incorporated and overbuilt by a new type of structure that betrays influences of the Mycenaean Mainland: one large complex organised around two columnar halls with central hearths with a small snake-tube shrine between them. During its occupation, it suffered from an earthquake destruction accompanied by fire after which it needed rebuilding. Oddly enough, late in the 13th c. BC, it and the rest of the site were suddenly abandoned. Fortunately, apart from metal, all other objects were left in place, allowing a proper reconstruction of its internal functioning.

The Kephali hill would, in the centuries to follow, become a place of memory and gradually disappear from history until its excavation from 2007 by a team of the University of Louvain under the auspices of the Belgian School at Athens.


Jan Driessen