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Which ancient warrior would have worn that helmet? To whom did this shining and decorated armour belong? Was it perhaps a local hero honoured in a worship area? These are the questions that researchers from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice posed when gradually uncovering the armour of a warrior during the archaeological excavation at Phaistos on the Greek island of Crete.
The exceptional discovery, a bronze warrior’s panoply consisting of a shield’s umbo and fragments of a helmet, and possibly a belt, occurred during the archaeological excavation at the Phaistos site in Crete in July 2023. The excavation was led by Professor Ilaria Caloi’s team from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice under the direction of Professor Pietro Militello from the University of Catania. The excavation, initiated in 2022, is carried out under the concession of the Italian Archaeological School of Athens, directed by Professor Emanuele Papi, and authorized by Vassiliki Sythiakaki, head of the 13th Greek Ephorate.
In Greece, finding a warrior’s panoply in a settlement context rather than a burial ground is extremely rare. Therefore, researchers questioned the origin and function of these deposited weapons.
“The most intriguing hypothesis, which only further excavation can confirm,” explains Ilaria Caloi, “is that the armour may be attributed to a local hero, honoured within a worship area or cenotaph, closely connected to the foundation of the city-state of Phaistos between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE.”
The bronze umbo found constitutes the central part of the shield, which was likely made of perishable material, possibly leather. It features a central conical element with a long protrusion and an outer disc with a series of holes around the edge, likely used for fastening. The same function was likely served by the protruding bronze ring internally, corresponding to the central protrusion.
The best-preserved part of the helmet is the two cheek-pieces, bronze parts that protected each cheek, descending to the jaw. They are decorated with circular elements and equipped with holes for attachment to the helmet. They are currently undergoing restoration.
“The extraordinariness of the Phaistos find,” adds Caloi, “lies in the peculiar deposition of the weapons within a non-funerary context: they were, in fact, found inside a pithos, a huge storage container nearly 120 cm in maximum diameter, hidden beneath a terracotta lid, itself covered by a large fragment of a vessel with decorative motifs resembling oinochoai (wine jugs) and swirling spirals. The pithos containing the weapons was found in the northeast corner of a large room, Room OO, still under excavation, which opened to the east with an entrance featuring a massive monolithic threshold 160 cm long.
It is likely that the area where the discoveries were made was a dedicated worship area, a hypothesis also suggested by the ritual deposition of the parts of the panoply and the appearance of the environment.
The objects found in the immediate vicinity outside the large pithos also support this hypothesis. These include two iron knives, a series of differently sized pouring vessels (aryballoi) dating between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, and a small terracotta shield painted in white. These objects are reminiscent of a warrior’s tomb, but in this case, they could represent votive offerings in a sanctuary area.
The location of the discovery is equally significant: it is located on the southwestern slopes of Kastri hill, the same hill where in the 19th century BCE, the First Palace of Phaistos was built, just west of the sumptuous western courtyard of the palace.
Discoveries of armours like this are much more common in the rich grave goods of Greek tombs. In Crete, the better-preserved specimens come from the necropolis of Knossos, Mouliana (Siteia), and Eleutherna, dating between the 12th and 7th centuries BCE.
However, the closest comparisons for the Phaistos shield and cheek-pieces are found outside of Crete: in Tomb XXVIII of Tiryns, Argolis, dating to the Submycenaean period (11th century BCE), and in Tomb 40 of Kourion-Kaloriziki in Cyprus. This confirms that Phaistos, straddling the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age, was still well integrated into a dense network of relationships with both the Aegean world and the much more distant lands of the eastern Mediterranean.
This singular discovery sheds light on a crucial period for the archaeological site of Phaistos, that of the city-state’s foundation. It is an important piece in reconstructing the history of a millennia-old centre: founded in the 5th millennium BCE, Phaistos first became a Minoan palace, akin to Knossos, then a Greek city-state, and remained an important centre until 146 BCE, the year of its destruction by the nearby Gortyn.
The archaeological site of Phaistos, now a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status alongside other Minoan palace complexes on the island, has been the focus of archaeological investigations by Ca’ Foscari University of Venice since the 1990s and continues to astonish with its extraordinary findings.