The Law Code of Gortys is carved on the Great Inscription in twelve columns. The Law Code was originally set in the circular wall of a public building used as a Voulefterion or Ekklesiasterion, the meeting place for the citizens’ assembly. In the 1st century BC, a new building was erected on the site of the Bouleuterion and the Laws were set in its wall again.
The Great Inscription of Gortys was not found in one piece. Two French travellers, G. Perrot and L. Thenon, discovered a small part with the first 15 lines of the eleventh column, forming part of a watermill in Agioi Deka.
Twenty years later another Frenchman, B. Haussoulier, found another part of the inscription bearing the first 15 lines of the Law Code, set in the wall of a house in the same village.
The main discoverer of the inscription, however, was archaeologist Federico Halbherr in 1884. In a systematic excavation of the area, he discovered the first four columns of the Law Code of Gortys. Halbherr was unable to complete the excavation himself but he instructed German archaeologist Ernst Fabricius, who found the rest of the Great Inscription. At the time, the Great Inscription was considered the archaeological discovery of the century.
The Great Inscription is written in voustrophedon (“ox-plough turn”) writing, running right to left in the first line and left to right in the next, and so on. It resembles the way an ox turns when plowing a field, whence its name.
The Great Inscription is composed of 12 columns or deltoi (whence its Greek name Dodecadeltos), with a total of 630-640 lines, of which 605 are preserved.
The Law Code of Gortys treats matters of civil law, with no clauses on criminal or commercial law. The laws are strikingly liberal and progressive. They are not simply the laws of a Cretan city-state; they form the oldest Greek law code and are therefore considered the greatest contribution of Classical Crete to world culture.
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