An Ancient Middle Class

A five-year archaeological dig in Crete unearths a surprisingly equitable society

Gournia excavation site.

By Charlotte Hsu

On the balmy, northern coast of Crete lies an ancient marvel: the Late Bronze Age town of Gournia.

The ruins are expansive, providing the best view in Greece of what a prehistoric town looked like around 1500 B.C. Archaeological finds include 64 homes, many sprinkled with ceramic- or metal-working tools. These and other treasures hint that Gournia, a town of artisans, was both prosperous and egalitarian for its time.

“It was a middle-class settlement. We’re not looking at a hierarchical society like you have elsewhere in the area, with a huge lower class,” says UB’s Vance Watrous, a visual studies professor leading a five-year dig at Gournia.

UB researcher Matthew Buell, who recently finished his PhD in classics, has helped direct UB student diggers to uncover a plethora of objects that provide a glimpse into the town’s past.

Discovered artifacts at Gournia dig site

A - Respect for the gods

Clay vessels

More than 700 of these clay vessels were found lying in heaps near a stone altar. The vases held offerings of wine and pomegranates that townspeople made to the gods after a volcano erupted on the neighboring island of Thera around 1600 B.C. The force of the explosion shook Gournia and collapsed houses, Watrous says.

B - A literate society

Tablet fragment

This tablet, found inside the palace, appears to be a receipt documenting ancient trade. The words are in a system of writing called Linear A. Other artifacts bearing inscriptions have been found in homes, showing that citizens were able to read

C - The palace

Partially reconstructed incense holder

Home to the town’s religious leader, the palace is the one spot with ostentatious architecture. The building’s masonry is elegant, and artifacts discovered inside include a banquet set, incense holders, figurines and cult stands.

D - Home décor

Decorated pottery

Residents all over town owned gorgeously decorated pottery, a middle-class status symbol.

E - A center of craft production

Potter’s wheel

Excavations have revealed a wealth of craftsmen’s tools, including potter’s wheels, a metal-working furnace and spindle whorls. Artisans made Gournia a hub of regional trade—the place you went “to buy stuff,” Watrous says. Exports ranged from bronze weapons to textiles, pottery and wine.

F - Home, sweet home

House foundation

This well-preserved house is typical of Gournia, with two stories joined by stairs. The kitchen was likely on the first floor, and the living quarters on the second. Storage vessels for crops, like wheat, appear limited in Gournia’s homes, suggesting that residents had steady access to fresh food, bartered for through trade.

G - Egalitarian walls

Limestone-based walls

The town’s houses had limestone bases topped by a wood-and-mudbrick second floor. Watrous sees a story in these walls. In other ancient settlements, masonry quality varies by house, with the well-heeled able to afford better work. In Gournia, craftsmanship is consistent across dwellings.

H - Equal in life, equal in death

Cemetery tomb

Another sign of Gournia’s middle-class status comes from its cemetery, where all the graves held the same modest contents. In death as in life, no one seemed richer than his neighbor.

I - The Blue stone road

Among Gournia’s many cobblestone streets, this one stands out for the shimmering blue of its paving stones. Watrous thinks the roadway’s builders chose the color for a simple reason: It was beautiful.

About Gournia

Gournia was part of an ancient Minoan civilization, based in what today is Greece. The town includes dozens of dwellings, a palace and a network of cobblestone streets. About 2,000 feet to the north, fortification walls overlook the sea, protecting a massive ship shed and terraced vineyards.

Map courtesy of D. Matthew Buell and John C. McEnroe. Images courtesy of  D. Matthew Buell, Chronis Papanikolopoulos, Janet Spiller and L. Vance Watrous.