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Minoan Plumbing at Roussolakkos

Minoan Toilets, Drains, and Water Pipes

Introduction to Minoan Plumbing

Roussolakkos is a Minoan port city at the east end of Crete. It's just east-southeast of the village of Palaikastros, which you can see on the map below. Officially the name ends -n or -ν, Palaikastron or Παλαίκαστρον. I was staying in the nearby city of Sitia, which makes a nice base for exploring eastern Crete.

Tactical Pilotage Chart G-3C from the Perry Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas, https://maps.lib.utexas.edu/maps/

Tactical Pilotage Chart G-3C from the Perry Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas.

Arriving at Roussolakkos

Entrance to the Minoan town of Roussolakkos near the modern village of Palaikastro in far eastern Crete.

This region was a center of trade for the Minoan empire, and Roussolakkos was one of the major ports. Roussolakkos was occupied during what archaeologists classify as Early Minoan IIA through Late Minoan IIIB, approximately 2900 through 1100 BCE. It was especially prosperous through the Late Minoan period of 1550–1220 BCE. That's when the Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland were replacing the Minoan civilization.

Roussolakkos grew to cover an area of more than 50,000 square meters or 5 hectares, making this the largest Minoan town discovered. A grid of roads divided it into nine districts. Houses along the main street were built to elaborate designs. And, as found at all other Minoan settlements, they had an advanced plumbing system. This was a sophisticated city.

The maps at the site show much more than you can see today. Archaeologists from the British School at Athens excavated here in 1902–1906, then again in 1962–1963, and then from 1983 onward. The earliest excavations have mostly been reburied.

The maps are nice, as otherwise it would be hard to interpret what you're seeing. Notice that the maps show wells. However, they don't show drains and latrines. You have to find those on your own.

Map of the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos near the modern village of Palaikastro in far eastern Crete.

The city had no surrounding defensive wall. The Minoan era was relatively peaceful, although it wasn't the idyllic matriarchal paradise that the British archaeologist Arthur Evans dreamed of and claimed to have found at Knossos. The Mycenaeans, however, were militarized. They were "the Greeks" in the Trojan War.

During the period 1200–1150 BCE all the civilizations around the eastern Mediterranean except for Egypt went through a general collapse. We don't know exactly why that happened. But that was the end of Roussolakkos being a prosperous port.

The collapse wasn't caused by the explosion of the volcanic island of Thira. That was a catastrophic event, thought to be the most violent volcanic explosion since the development of modern humans. It ejected about 100 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash in a column that would have reached 30 to 35 kilometers above the sea. That was certainly the end of the Cycladic settlement of Akrotiri, along with its plumbing, on the southern coast of Thira.

Cycladic toilets and plumbing on Thira

However, the latest dating results indicate that Thira exploded in 1627–1600 BCE. That date range is from carbon dating of an olive tree buried under a lava flow. It agrees with dendrochronology, tree-ring dating, showing that some large event interfered with tree growth across northern Europe and North America around 1628–1629. And, the Bamboo Annals of China tell us that the semi-legendary Xia dynasty collapsed was replaced by the Shang dynasty around approximately 1618 BCE, accompanied by "yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals." The "three suns" would be references to "sun dogs" or parhelia, optical phenomena caused by tiny ice particles in the upper atmosphere, possibly formed around high-altitude volcanic dust.

Besides, the Minoan civilization was still doing fine through the 1600s BCE. They still had a few prosperous centuries before the Mycenaeans arrived and began to take over the Minoan settlements. The book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed tells the story of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, including some possible causes.

Ancient Yersinia pestis and Salmonella enterica genomes from Bronze Age Crete

Who knows, maybe plague was involved. Good Minoan sanitation helps control cholera and parasitic diseases, but plague is carried by fleas.

As you enter the site you see some of the more elaborate ruins built with mud bricks under a protective cover. Mount Petsofas in the background had an open-air sanctuary at its 255-meter peak.

Mount Petsofas with its peak sanctuary near the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos in far eastern Crete.

The Minoans seem to have ranked two gods above all others, a Mother Goddess and a male youth with which she had both a mother-and-child relationship and a "holy marriage" relationship. That was very Mesopotamian.

Those deities were associated with vegetation and fertility, and the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth. The youth may have been associated with the Orion constellation, visible through the winter. The vegetation god was gone, up in the sky, hopefully returning with the spring.

The Mycenaean Greeks arrived in Crete around 1500 BCE and concluded that the local male deity was really their own supreme deity. This was a precursor to Zeus, although the Mycenaeans didn't call him by that name. They called him God of the Sky, di-we or di-wo, 𐀇𐀸 or 𐀇𐀺 in the Linear B script used to write Mycenaean Greek.

Covered mudbrick structures in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos in far eastern Crete. Mount Petsofas in the background.

Crete in general and specific caves and mountain peaks on the island came to be regarded as the birthplace or a hiding place of Zeus as Greek mythology developed.

Archaeologists first explored this peak in 1903, briefly. They carried out a proper excavation in the 1970s. They found a walled precinct containing a small shrine with plaster benches. It may have been oriented to align it with sunrise on the summer solstice. There was evidence of animal sacrifices and feasting.

Objects found on the peak and at this town show that there were sacred sites here throughout prehistory and into historic times. Ptolomy wrote in the 2nd century CE about a temple of Diktian Zeus that still stood on the mountain peak above Roussolakkos.

Just like all the other Minoan peak sanctuaries, archaeologists have found a large number of clay figurines of animals and humans at the peak sanctuary on Petsofas. The Petsofas sanctuary is the only one to have included figurines of weasels, hedgehogs, and tortoises. The Minoan deity referred to as the Goddess of Animals very likely was worshiped here. Archaeologists have also found stone lamps and ceramic models of buildings at the Petsofas peak sanctuary.

Some cylinder seals found on Petsofas show a male figure that seems to be the same vegetation god depicted on objects found at Knossos.

Covered mudbrick structures in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos in far eastern Crete. Mount Petsofas in the background.

The Palaikastro Kouros was found here in various rooms of Building 5. It's a statuette of a male youth, unusually large at about 50 centimeters in height. It's chryselephantine, gold foil over ivory, specifically hippopotamus tooth. Its hair was carved from gray-green serpentine and its eyes were rock crystal. It probably represents that primary vegetation god. The Palaikastro Kouros is the only known Minoan cult image for worship.

The statuette had been intentionally desecrated, burned and smashed during an ancient invasion. This probably happened around 1450 BCE when the whole city was badly burned during a Mycenaean invasion.

The kouros was found in stages beginning with the torso in 1987, then the head in 1988, and parts of the legs about ten meters away in 1990. Thorough sieving of six tons of soil yielded hundreds of further fragments. Then four years of work were needed to assemble all the pieces. A wooden piece painted in blue pigment from Egypt and decorated with gold leaf is thought to have been its base, possibly representing the starry sky on which the god walked.

One of the maps at the site shows where kouros fragments were found (stars) as well as an interior well, a well accessed from within a building.

Map of the covered mudbrick structures in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos in far eastern Crete.

A green serpentinite boulder was very close to many of the kouros fragments. Serpentinite is light to dark green overall with irregular coloration, a slippery feel, and a surface texture resembling the scales of a snake.

It's thought that this irregular green boulder was the shrine's baitylos or sacred stone.

Covered mudbrick structures where the Palaikastros Kouros was found, in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

Most of the cultures of the ancient Near East plus the following Greek and Roman religions had a concept of a baitylos or sacred stone. Neolithic temples on Malta and Gozo had them. Many of the cultures recognizing these sacred stones believed that interaction with the stone could bring about a vision of a god. The Hittites worshiped sacred stones they called Huwasi stones. Several Minoan seals and large rings seem to depict someone rubbing or sleeping on a baityl.

Some of these objects were meteorites, or at least they were believed to have fallen from the sky. The one from Roussolakkos wasn't a meteorite because it's serpentinite, a mineral that contains quite a bit of water and is formed by hydration and metamorphic transformation of rock from the mantle.

Covered mudbrick structures where the Palaikastros Kouros was found, in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

Baitylos or βαίτυλος is a Greek word of Semitic origin. The Hebrew Bible contains a story of Jacob sleeping with his head on a large stone and then dreaming of a staircase reaching to heaven. Angels were going up and down the stairs and he heard the voice of God coming from its top. Jacob then named the location בֵּיח אֵל or beth-el, Hebrew for "House of God".

The Hebrews continued the practice of sleeping in sacred locations to have divinely inspired dreams or visions. 1 Kings 3 describes how Solomon went to Gibeon as it was the most renowned high place to offer sacrifices. He had a dream there in which he had a conversation with God, who promised to give Solomon great discernment as a judge, plus long life if he behaved.

Some Minoan gold seal rings depict someone rubbing or sleeping on a baitylos to summon a vision of a god.

The cultures all believed that their baitylos was sacred because of something inherent to its nature. Human intervention such as carving wasn't necessary. However, sculptors in some cultures worked on the baitylos, changing their overall shapes to more of a cone or cylinder, or inscribing writing.

Toilets and other plumbing at the Asclepeion

The ancient Greeks used a practice they called έγκοίμησις or incubation, sleeping in a sacred area in the hopes of experiencing a divinely inspired dream, or being cured of some malady. This was one of many practices at the ancient Greek medical school and treatment center at Asclepios on Kos, where Hippocrates taught and practiced medicine.

More on Roussolakkos and ancient baitylos

See the detailed travel page for more on the non-plumbing aspects of Roussolakkos, and for much more on other examples of mystical baitylos stones in ancient Greece, Temple-era Judaism, and continuing today with the Black Stone embedded in the east corner of the Kaaba in Mecca.

Minoan Plumbing at Roussolakkos

The Minoans had sophisticated plumbing. Their water supply and sanitary drain systems during the middle of the second millennium BCE were far better than those of Europe some 3,000 years later in the early modern era.

Covered mudbrick structures where the Palaikastros Kouros was found, in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos. The rock outcropping known as Palaikastros is on the shoreline in the distance.

The Minoan settlements all had so-called "lustral basins". Sir Arthur John Evans became the first western European archaeologist to excavate Knossos, after some shady financial shenanigans gave him control of the site. He believed that Minoan religion must have involved priestesses doing lustral bathing, some ritual carried out in a large sunken bath tub the size of a small room.

The Minoan settlements all have examples of a rectangular space you could enter by descending a few steps that make one or two 90° turns. These are called "lustral basins", but they could not have been used for ritual bathing.

All of the examples with any of their original surfaces intact have floors and walls covered with panels of gypsum. That's a water-soluble mineral. This means that the "lustral basins" were lined with something like today's sheetrock or drywall panels. Plus, the Minoans were quite good at designing and building water supply and drain lines, and no "lustral basins" have any.

Around the 1950s, the same decade in which Michael Vestris figured out that Linear B recorded Mycenaean Greek, the academic community at large began questioning Evans' overly inventive analyses. "Lustral basins" like this one did not have any connection to plumbing or other water use.

What appears to be a so-called 'lustral basin' in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

The Minoans did have several wells at Roussolakkos, many of which would still be useful today with little to no maintenance work required. The maps at the site show where several wells can be seen, and where others have been re-buried after the initial scientific excavations.

Opening of a well in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

House N is one of the outstanding structures at Roussolakkos. Remnants of its connections to the municipal plumbing remain.

House N in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.
Minoan symbolic objects

House N contained a shrine with Horns of Consecration and stands for double axes in an upper room. See the detailed travel page about Knossos for details on those Minoan symbolic objects.

But what's especially interesting are the remaining traces of its connections to the municipal water supply and the drain systems.

Plan of House N in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

That's systems, plural, both storm drains and wastewater drains.

Drain line at House N in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

Like other Minoan sites I visited at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Agia Triada, Roussolakkos had separated drain systems. That is, their storm drains were isolated from their waste or sewage drains. Many cities in the U.S. still don't have this sanitary technology. Of course, many cities in the U.S. have public health situations that are worse than those found in what are considered to still be developing countries.

Drain line at House N in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

This main road and the roads perpendicular to it divided the city into nine districts. A drain runs along the left side of the road in this view.

Drain line running along one of the main streets in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

A fence surrounds the site. Reburied excavations extend a significant distance onward toward the shoreline. The city's wastewater and storm drain systems led off in that direction.

View toward the sea in the Minoan port city of Roussolakkos.

Much research remains to be done at Roussolakkos.

More Minoan Toilets, Drains, and Water Lines