Uncovering an Early Christian Center on Karpathos, Greece

Greek archaeologist Eleni Christidou describes the recent excavation of a production center at a villa maritima on Lefkos beach

Author Eleni Christidou's field office at Lefkos beach is a stunning setting for the analysis of an early Christian villa and production center on the Greek island of Karpathos.

Archaeology is not an easy job. Being an archaeologist in Greece—a country whose current economic crisis makes the daily news—makes things even more difficult. I recently ran an excavation on Lefkos beach on the west side of Karpathos, a Greek island between Crete and Rhodes in the southeastern Aegean. Things can be rough for someone coming from the big city (Athens) to a small village on a remote island in the winter. Despite problems with locals fighting over inheritance and land property issues and challenges with the municipality, police and public services, never did I regret working at the site. The magic of adventure stayed vivid and the finds got more and more interesting every day at our site, which was set against one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Over the course of the Karpathos excavations, a puzzle that had been disassembled for centuries unfolded in front of my eyes.

In October 2012 I was assigned by the Fourth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities to excavate two private fields on Karpathos to assess the value of the antiquities there. The first field was the location of a structure used as a venue for the selling and the processing of a royal purple dye made from murex shells. Known as porfyra (πορφύρα) in Greek, the garment dye was prized across the Mediterranean in antiquity. It is referred to as argaman in Biblical Hebrew as well as Tyrian purple, reflecting its Phoenician provenance. While porfyra dye has been written about by ancient authors and modern scholars for over 3000 years, many questions are left to be answered (see, for example, the recent debates on tekehelet, a related dye, in BAR). Evidence of the dye has been uncovered at second millennium B.C.E. Bronze Age sites on the Levantine coast, and its popularity continued through antiquity and into the Middle Ages. Yet there was a secrecy about the techniques used to dye textiles and consequently there is a dearth of information on this topic. Today, excavations of production centers provide the best clues into the royal dye.

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Eleni Christidou's excavations at Lefkos. The pottery kiln is visible in the bottom left corner of this photograph.

The material gathered from the Lefkos excavations provides answers about more than just porfyra; the excavations were conducted near a large early Christian basilica, providing clues about the population associated with the church. Excavations at Lefkos beach in 1968 uncovered the basilica, revealing mosaics and a large apse which had sunk into the sea. The lengthy size of the apse indicates the grand scale of the church and the large population that it could serve. Most probably, there was a large Christian community by the seaside that enjoyed a period of prosperity between the first and the seventh centuries A.D. Karpathos would have served as a stopover for war vessels and trade ships restocking provisions along the sea route from Egypt–Crete–Karpathos–Rhodes–Turkish Coast–Constantinople. According to the 11th-century historian Michael Attaleiates, Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas’s navy stopped in Karpathos, and Karpathian ships showed him the way to Crete in order for him to liberate it from the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in 961.

One of the most well-preserved pottery kilns from first millennium A.D. Greece. Shown here from above.

Three in situ stones mark the kiln's firing chamber.

A short section of the pipe leading to the kiln. A diverse collection of organic material was uncovered in the piping system.

Based on our findings and the surrounding structures at the second field, one could argue that this was a villa maritima, a Roman seaside estate. A typical villa maritima includes a pars urbana (residential area) and a pars rustica (production or agricultural area), evinced on our site by port facilities, a circular cereal storage construction (found during a previous excavation), numerous buildings for garum (fermented fish sauce used as a condiment) production and a unique pottery kiln (shown above)—in fact, we uncovered what may be the best-preserved kiln in the Dodecanese (an island group in southeastern Greece). The kiln was used for baking ceramics produced in the region. It is a double-decker upward combustion kiln, with a clear separation between the combustion chamber and the firing chamber. It fits into a category of kilns featuring central corridor combustion and transverse walls that form side channels. Remarkably, the curve of the dome has survived to such an extent that it is possible to reconstruct the chamber, which is topped by a 6-foot wide grate. The grate is made out of a thick layer of clay with 39 holes (6 of which are significantly larger airways). These holes draw heat from the combustion chamber into the firing chamber above. The combustion chamber consists of a 7-foot-long central corridor and three smaller ones across, measuring between 3 to 5 feet each. In front of the firing chamber we uncovered three stones marking its entrance.

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Investigations into the piping system at Lefkos revealed preserved food remains including a nutshell, fragments of egg shells, fish and animal bones, several shells (including mussels and a snail shell), an olive kernel and seeds.

The kiln was in use from the first construction phase of the area (first-second centuries A.D.) through the seventh century, when the whole region was abandoned due to piracy and Arab migrations in the Aegean Sea. Piping is one of the main architectural elements associated with large kilns. Pipes supply and drain water used in the production process. A 23-foot pipe section was found linked to the kiln. To our surprise, the stone piping created the ideal environmental conditions for the preservation of food remains. Within the pipe, we found a nutshell, fragments of eggshells, fish and animal bones, several shells (including mussels and a snail shell), an olive kernel and seeds, all of which are almost 2000 years old. This is quite incredible – think about how easily an eggshell breaks and how fast it decomposes in your garbage bin after you make an omelet!

Unfortunately, the economic situation in my country prevents us from conducting further excavation at the site or from conducting urgently required repairs to the kiln. Regrettably, this is neither the first nor the last time an excavation in Greece has been impeded by the economic crisis. Archaeologists today face a tremendous increase in looting and a growing illicit antiquities trade, all while providing for proper maintenance of museums, public archaeological sites and adequate archaeological services, institutes and universities. Sadly, a crisis in the 21st century is letting the marvels of more than 21 centuries fade away.


Eleni Christidou

Eleni Christidou is a Greek archaeologist currently residing in the Netherlands. She was the director of the Karpathos excavations on behalf of Greece’s Fourth Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities.

Posted in Post-Biblical Period.

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  • Charles says

    I doubt the Christians were there prior to Christianity becoming the State church.

  • Noah says

    Yes Daniel, thank you for the catch. The text has been updated accordingly.

  • Daniel says

    Fascinating excavation.
    Did she mean “argaman” ?

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