SCY114 : Mitsero Lambadhiotissa

Check Dams and Byzantine Church

Grid reference: 510720/3878600
Cadastral plan: XXIX/53
Aerial photo: 1993, Run 177, No. 42
Survey units: 668-672

Remains of the Byzantine church of Panayia Lambadhiotissa. Photograph: Karen Ulrich

View showing the modern church of Panayia Lambadhiotissa and the view to the northeast. Photograph: Karen Ulrich

The modern church of Panayia Lambadhiotissa and its Byzantine predecessor lie immediately above a spring on the east-facing slopes of Lambadhousa. The spring has long been regarded as sacred, and emerges through a recently built tunnel-like shrine. Its waters - gathered by a concrete cistern constructed beside its masonry predecessor -are distributed among the orchards and small fields that lie below. Farther down, the stream is joined by four second-order streams, and becomes the third-order Argaki Kokkinobamboula. In the 800 m between the spring and the River Likythia in the valley below, there are at least five major check dams trapping the water-born sediment, as well as numerous smaller ones in the upper reaches. Regular rebuilding and raising of these check dams show that people have been using this method of creating arable land in the Lambadhiotissa area since ca. AD 800.

The church and ruins at Mitsero Lambadhiotissa are located at the headwaters of the Argaki ('creek') Kokkinobamboula. The areas of gentle slope on which the structures and surrounding fields are constructed are small bowls in the mass of a large complex Pleistocene landslide. The southern slopes of this basin have multiple inset failure and shallow landslides. The spring has its source in the headscarp of one of these subsidiary landslides. The area immediately surrounding the church consists of broken limestone that has been carried down the slope in the upper part of the highest landslide. The fields directly below the church lie in steep rubble with little flat tillable land, which accounts for their use as orchards instead of field crops. The small spring results from the exposure of an aquifer in the headscarp of a secondary landslide; it may have been in existence since the landslide occurred sometime during the Pleistocene. The Pleistocene date for this landslide is estimated by the erosion of the head scarp and the amount of fill that has accumulated in the hollows within the landslide mass.

The walls of the church survive to a height of 1-2 m; both they and the interior are quite overgrown. Little survives of the outer faces of these walls, which in most cases had to be estimated. The west end of the church has been obliterated by a retaining wall supporting the modern church. Papageorgiou dates the initial building to the early 12th century, based on the style of the surviving frescoes and the construction of the parastadhes (engaged columns). Its condition has clearly deteriorated since it was inspected it by Papageorgiou, as only a few small patches of frescoes remain. By the early 20th century the church was in ruins. The modern church was built immediately above and to the west in about 1950, according to village memory, following a healing miracle granted by the Panayia Lambadhiotissa.

The church of Panayia Lambadhiotissa is only one small aspect of human activity on the eastern slopes of Lambadhou. Even the limited amount of block survey allowed by the visibility suggests that some sort of broader, probably agricultural, activity across arable land has taken place here since the early Medieval period. This was confirmed by stratigraphic investigation of the check dams, along with 14C dating of their sediments.

The earliest possible date of check dam construction is AD 800, which falls at the beginning of a little-known period in the SCSP area. During the preceding Late Roman period (AD 300-750), major copper smelting took place and some sort of settlement existed at Mitsero Kouloupakhis (SIA 3), just 500 m to the southeast. In general this was a prosperous and well-populated period in the SCSP area, one which would have required intensive agriculture. The building of check dams may have been one means of expanding the available arable land, in which case we would expect it to be a common phenomenon during the Late Roman period. Alternatively, it may have been a means of coping with massive erosion that resulted from widespread abandonment of intensively cultivated land on the hillslopes, as may have happened at the end of the Late Roman period (ca. AD 750).

In the early Medieval period (12th-13th centuries AD), the population and economy of the area began to increase substantially. The church of Panayia Lambadhiotissa is one manifestation of this; a hoard of 145 12th-century coins discovered at the monastery of Ayios Panteleimon (2 km to the northeast) is another. From this period onwards people continued to use and repair the check dams along the Argaki Kokkinobamboula, and to build them higher in order to reclaim more land. During the 15th-16th centuries fields such as these were supporting considerable populations at the nearby villages of Mitsero, Mavrovounos and Agrokipia. During another period of high population in the area, in the 19th century, the check dams were still being maintained and extended. This continuing technology demonstrates the inhabitants' close association with and understanding of their landscape. The Panayia Lambadhiotissa, whose successive churches stood just above the holy spring at the source of the Argaki Kokkinobamboula, provided not just the water to irrigate the crops but also the soil in which they grew.