Forgotten Graves and Minoan Zombies: The Phourni Cemetery in Crete
Archaeologically-minded visitors to Crete flock to the famous palaces of Knossos, Phaistos and Kato Zakro, and why shouldn’t they?
Ancient palaces, mysterious bull-riding rites and bright frescoes fascinate even the most historically uninspired traveler.
But Phourni – arguably the most important archaeological site on Crete – lies ignored at the summit of a hill overlooking the Archanes township.
The site elicits so few visitors, that even though we’d confirmed we intended to visit that day, we showed up to find it closed.
One of my companions shook the iron padlock. “It’s closed.”
“It bloody can’t be. I checked this morning.”
“Tell that to Locky McLocksmith here.”
We sat on the edge of the hill and ate our lunches, enjoying the view of Mount Inktas across the valley, on which stands a peak sanctuary.
After no one showed up to unlock the gate we decided that hike to find the site wouldn’t be in vain, and slipped over the fence.
The Phourni cemetery remained in use for over 1000 years, from approximately 2400 BCE to 1200 BCE when the Minoan civilization had nearly died away.
The cemetery even contains later Mycenaean tombs. This and the fact that two undisturbed “royal” female burials were discovered here, make Phourni the most significant Minoan cemetery discovered to date.
Husband and wife team John and Efi Sakellarakis began excavations in 1964 and they still continue today. The excavated area stretches 150m along the south western end of the hill, and the twenty-six buildings survive in remarkably good condition.
Each building has more than one architectural phase, with bits and bobs added and subtracted over centuries of use. The dual nature of the site as a necropolis and religious center probably account for its long uninterrupted use.
Two types of tombs – tholos (beehive) and house tombs – are present at Phourni, whereas other Minoan cemeteries contain only one type (Tholos tombs are characteristic of the Mesara and house tombs of central and eastern Crete).
But since the Phourni cemetery first began they’ve been built here together, and even combined – tholos tombs concealed behind or inside house tombs. Scholars believe this reflects a political merging: two different cultural elements in an area with an increasing population and spurts of building activity.
Mycenaean Grave Enclosure
Starting at the north end of the cemetery, we encounter a circle of seven shaft tombs, each accompanied by a stelae sticking from the ground like a tombstone.
Stelae are unknown in Minoan tombs – this is how archaeologists date these tombs to Mycenaean times. Each tomb contained a larnax (sarcophagus) and other grave offerings. These have been relocated to the Archanes museum. The remains of an enclosure wall encircle the graves.
Tholos Tomb A
After we pass by the Mycenaean graves, we enter a long dromos (corridor) leading into Tholos Tomb A – a fully intact tholos tomb.
Tholos Tomb A was the first building discovered at Phourni in 1965. Townsfolk exploring a stone hut that had always been visible on the surface discovered that the structure was actually the top section of a tholos tomb – the rest filled in with debris over the years.
Inside the tholos tomb we find a dark side chamber, where archaeologists recovered an intact Minoan burial. The “royal” lady lay inside a larnax accompanied by rich offerings; gold necklaces, glass-paste and sardium beads, gold signet-rings, bronze and ivory vases.
The remains of a bull and horse, sacrificed and entombed in her honour, lay beside the sarcophagus. All these objects are displayed at the Iraklion Archaeological Museum.
After some silly photos of Minoan zombies, we exit Tholos Tomb A and notice Building 4 (the “secular building”) directly ahead of us.
Building 4 interests archaeologists because it is not a burial building – instead, objects found inside indicate the Minoans used the building for preparing the dead and placing religious offerings.
The East wing of the building (which was two stories high) contained at least one loom. Archaeologists found knives, cutters, lead weights and pieces of unworked bronze in this wing, suggesting the Minoans manufactured funerary objects there.
Room 2 on the ground floor contained a wine press.
The west wing was built on higher ground, and served as an open paved area supported by columns. A libation table sat in this area, along with some 250 cups placed deliberately upside down.
Funeral rites and the manufacture of objects to accompany the dead took place within Building 4. The only other place where such buildings exist is Egypt, where the manufacture was under the control of the priests. This may well have also been the case at Phourni.
Tholos Tomb B
We only have to walk a few meters from the entrance of Building 4 to enter Tholos Tomb B, the largest and most complex structure at Phourni.
The Minoans built Tholos Tomb B on top of a pre-palatial tomb, called Funerary Building 7, and over the centuries added more rooms and corridors till it became monumental.
Each outer wall is constructed with rubble masonry (placing stones with roughly rectangular faces in regular rows and filling the spaces with earth mortar and stone chips). Freestanding upright slabs decorate the north and west walls.
The dromos approaches the tholos from the south east and the tholos had two side chambers, one to the west and one to the east. We cannot see the east chamber on our walk. A bench surrounds the tholos.
The west chamber contained a massive larnax. The chamber itself would have been built around the larnax since the sarcophagus could not fit through the chamber entrance.
The larnax served as an ossuary, containing the remains of 19 people, including 2 children. Most of these people died before the age of 35.
South-east of the western chamber, we find a pillar crypt. Pillar crypts occur regularly in Minoan architecture, both in houses, palaces and house tombs. They appear to serve a ritual purpose, like a shrine or holy room.
The walls of the crypt are plastered and decorated with frescos. A second story roofed this area, and bones and artifacts from above fell into the crypt.
A passage leads south to five steps, directing us into a western corridor. Masonry sockets for wooden supports show a staircase used to lead to the second floor.
Nearly 300 pottery vessels were uncovered in the Tholos Tomb B complex, most in the pillar crypt area.
Funerary Building 6
West of and partially buried by Tholos Tomb B, we stumble across six parallel, oblong rooms. Most have no doors and would have been open from above.
Each of these rooms contained piles of human remains. At Phourni, the dead would go through rituals and eventual burial in the tholos or house tombs.
Periodically, these tombs would be cleared out to make way for more bodies, and the discarded bones dumped in these ossuaries of Funerary Building 6.
Wandering the rest of the cemetery, we admire Tholos Tombs C, D, and E. Other ossuaries and smaller house tombs crowd the space between the tholos tombs.
Peace presides over the cemetery, built as it is on a craggy hillock overlooking the valley. All human remains have been excavated from the site, so we’re alone with the ruins of these remarkable structures and our own thoughts of mortality.
An hour later, we tramp back down the hill, satisfied with our investigations despite not having seen a single zombie.
Archanes is located 15km south of Iraklion (10km south of Knossos). Admission is free.
The site is open Tuesday through Sunday except public holidays, and is only accessible via a steep 15-25 minute hike up the craggy hillock.
Tourkogeitonia (Perfecture of Iraklio)
T.K 70100, Ano Archarnes
Phone: +30 2810 226470, email
Open: Tues-Sunday 8:30-4:30
Closed: Mondays, and public holidays.
When she’s not lugging her husband’s drumkit from metal bar to metal bar, Stephanie Green writes on travel, alternative weddings, disabilities and music. Visit her website at steffgreen.com.
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