Lesson 1: Narrative

The Southern Greek Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic Sequence at Franchthi

The Site

Franchthi Cave is unique in Greece in having an essentially unbroken series of deposits spanning the period from ca. 20,000 B.C. (and probably even earlier) down to ca. 3000 B.C. This is by far the longest recorded continuous occupational sequence from any one site in Greece. The site itself is located in and immediately outside of a large cave in the southeastern Argolid, across a small bay from the modern Greek village of Koilada. Excavation at the site began in 1967 and ended in 1976. The deepest sounding in the cave is in Trench F/A (over 11 meters of stratified living debris); the earliest homogeneous cultural deposits yet found (of the Upper Paleolithic period) come from Trench H/H1 at a depth of 9 meters.


The dates for the various phases of occupation in the cave are derived from radiocarbon (C-14) analysis of a total of over fifty samples, the largest number of radiocarbon samples from any prehistoric site in Greece. The earliest radiocarbon date is ca. 20,000 b.c. for the Upper Paleolithic, the latest near 3000 b.c. for the Final Neolithic. [All dates cited in this summary are uncalibrated radiocarbon dates (years "{b.c.}") rather than calibrated or calendrical dates (years "{B.C. }").] But the earliest artefactual material is unmistakably Middle Paleolithic, although such material is rare, and the earliest strata to have been excavated in the cave probably date from between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Paleolithic (ca. 20,000 – 8300 b.c.)

[most of Renfrew's Era of Hunting and Gathering]

The period is divided into three phases on the basis of major shifts in the relative frequencies of the various animal families (genera) attested among the faunal remains (animal bones):

  • 70% equid (probably wild ass), ca. 30% red deer; also pig, hare, tortoise, birds.
  • 40% equid, 25% red deer, 25% large bovid (i.e. cow), 10% large caprine (wild goat?); also a few small fish; fox and mole at the top of this level.
  • 70% red deer, 20% or less equid, ca. 10% pig, no large bovid, sporadic caprine at 10% or less; voles appear.

Inhabitants of the cave were probably seasonal hunter-gatherers. No certain gathering of plant foods is attested before ca. 11,000 b.c., although large numbers of seeds of the Boraginaceae family may come from plants gathered to furnish soft “bedding” or for the dye which their roots may have supplied. First appearing at ca. 11,000 b.c. are lentils, vetch, pistachios, and almonds. Then ca. 10,500 b.c. and still well within the Upper Paleolithic period appear a few very rare seeds of wild oats and wild barley. Neither wild oats nor wild barley become at all common until ca. 7000 b.c., after which they become a regular and typical feature of the Upper Mesolithic botanical assemblage. At present, there is no evidence for inhabitation of the cave during the winter. The chipped stone industry consists of flint and chert for the most part, although a small amount of obsidian from Melos appears well before the end of the Paleolithic period (ca. 10,900 b.c.); the typical tool is the backed bladelet, a tiny multi-purpose cutting tool, but small end-scrapers (for removing the flesh from hides) are also common. There is no pottery or architecture. No burials have been found.

Mesolithic (ca. 8300 – 6000b.c.)

[end of Renfrew's Era of Hunting and Gathering]

This period is divided into two phases on the basis of shifting frequencies among the animal families (genera) represented by the faunal remains:

(D1) ca. 70% or more red deer, ca. 30% or less pig, no equid or caprine, large bovid scarce; also much fox, hare, and birds; hedgehog appears, mole rat disappears; some small fish bones.

(D2) as for D1, but fish bones increase in number to ca. 20-40% of the total bone assemblage, and these fish are mainly large.

The plant remains are much the same as those of the preceding Paleolithic period, with the exceptions that wild pears and a few peas begin to appear ca. 7300 b.c. and that wild oats and barley become common after 7000 b.c. The disappearance of the equid and caprine bones from the faunal assemblage and of seeds of the Boraginaceae family from the botanical assemblage, as well as an increase in the number of pistachios, all taking place ca. 8000 b.c., suggest a change of environment to open forests. There is also the possibility, however, that the change in the animal bones represents a change in the hunting preferences or practices of the cave’s inhabitants. The overall economic picture of the early (or Lower) Mesolithic (D1) is much the same as that of the latest Paleolithic, although there appears to be a hiatus in occupation of some 300-600 years between the latest Palaeolithic deposits in the cave and the earliest Mesolithic materials.

The second phase of the Mesolithic (Upper; D2) is characterized by two new developments: (1) the appearance of large quantities of fish bones, particularly those of large fish; (2) the appearance of substantially larger quantities of obsidian from Melos as a material in the local chipped stone industry. These two developments were initially considered to be closely related and to show that the inhabitants of Franchthi Cave not only sailed to Melos (150 kms. away) for obsidian but also fished in deep water for the first time. However, more detailed analysis of the fish bones has shown that the actual number of large fish (probably tuna, for the most part) represented is relatively small; the fish in question might well have been herded into shallow water and clubbed or speared, so their bones need not imply deep-sea fishing. As for the obsidian, its appearance at the cave in small quantities as early as the Upper Paleolithic shows that there need have been no particularly novel developments in the later Mesolithic to explain its presence on the site. The chipped stone industry is now characterized by small, geometrically shaped tools ({microlith}s). There is still no pottery or architecture.

A novel feature in ground stone during both phases of the Mesolithic is the appearance of millstones made of andesite, imported almost certainly by sea from the Saronic Gulf to the north. The earliest burial found at Franchthi is of Lower Mesolithic date: a 25-year-old male buried in a contracted position in a shallow pit near the mouth of the cave. The pit was covered with fist-sized stones; there were no burial goods; the young man had died from blows to the forehead, but he seems to have already been suffering severely from malaria. Further examination in 1989 of the human bone found throughout the cave resulted in the realization that this Mesolithic male burial lay at the top of a deposit of several other, disturbed Mesolithic burials (five inhumations and two cremations) plus fragments of another two to five individuals that are not necessarily the remains of burials. Analysis of the human bone from elsewhere in the cave produced evidence for at least one other Mesolithic burial, this of the Upper Mesolithic phase, in another location, in addition to fragments of another 6 to 25 individuals sprinkled throughout Mesolithic strata within the cave. These bones represent individuals of all age groups (adults, adolescents, infants, neonates) and hence would appear to make the conclusion inescapable that the human groups that occupied the cave during the Mesolithic did so on a permanent basis. Otherwise, the existence of what amounts to a genuine cemetery here, one which accommodated the full spectrum of the social group occupying the cave, is difficult to explain.

In his 1995 review of the evidence for the Mesolithic throughout Greece, Runnels argues that the foraging culture of this earliest stage of the Holocene exhibits a number of commonalities wherever it is represented in continental Greece or on the island of Corfu: first, it appears to be unconnected with the preceding Upper Palaeolithic; second, it is manifested at coastal, or near coastal (Kleisoura Gorge in the Argolid), locations only, and is surprisingly absent in some large areas where both preceding Palaeolithic and ensuing Early Neolithic remains are abundantly attested (e.g. eastern Thessaly); third, it exhibits an unusual focus on marine resources and long-distance maritime acquisition networks involving such raw materials as obsidian and andesite, as well as such food resources as tuna; and fourth, it is the first human culture attested in Greece to manifest any concern for the ritualized disposal of its dead. Runnels sees in these various facets of Mesolithic culture grounds for identifying the bearers of Mesolithic culture as an intrusive group approaching the Greek Mainland by water rather than overland and spreading from east (e.g. Franchthi Cave) to west (the open-air site of Sidari on Corfu) during the course of the period. This Mesolithic “colonization” of Greece thus represents for him an episode of demic diffusion from the east that precedes a second such episode about 1500 years later that inaugurates the Neolithic era.

Early Neolithic (ca. 6000 – 5000 b.c.)

[Renfrew's Introduction of Simple Village Farming]

The beginning of the Neolithic period at Franchthi Cave is characterized by three new features: (1) the appearance of domesticated forms of sheep and goat; (2) the appearance of domesticated forms of wheat, barley, and lentil; (3) the appearance of polished stone tools (e.g. celts, with which to fell trees and thus clear land) and a significant increase in the number of grinding stones (for grinding grain) and sickle elements (flint and obsidian flakes and bladelets with a distinctive {silica gloss} along one or more edges from having been used to cut plants). On present evidence, there seems to be a brief period at the beginning of Early Neolithic when pottery was not yet made (in other words, an {Aceramic}Neolithic phase), but this is of short duration. Thus another major feature of Early Neolithic culture which sets it apart from the preceding Era of Hunting and Gathering (i.e. Paleolithic and Mesolithic) is the appearance of pottery. Also during the Early Neolithic period, occupation at Franchthi for the first time extended beyond the confines of the cave into the so-called “Paralia” (= “Beach”) area where there is, for the first time at the site, evidence for some kind of rough architecture in the form of stretches of rubble walls. It is likely that these were rough retaining walls on the uphill side of a fairly extensive open-air settlement outside the cave which, as cores drilled in the bay below the site have revealed, is now just about totally submerged. The shed milk teeth of sheep from the cave show that this area of the site served at least occasionally as a sheepfold in Neolithic times.

Early Neolithic pottery is mostly (70%) dark monochrome burnished ware in the form of hole-mouthed jars and deep hemispherical bowls fired at relatively low temperatures (<650C) in small batches. A variety of painted ware with patterns in red or red-brown paint appears after the beginning of the Early Neolithic but never exceeds 5% of the total pottery. The relative rarity of pottery in EN levels at Franchthi has led Vitelli to estimate production at a very low level, perhaps only some 10-13 vessels per year. The function of these vessels, to judge from their shape, size, decoration, and signs of wear and repair was neither storage nor cooking (which one might perhaps have expected from human groups in the initial stages of a sedentary existence) but rather display; that is, the initial function of pottery may have been as some sort of prestige artifact. Among the chipped stone, the percentage of obsidian has risen from 10% in the Upper Mesolithic (D2) to 40% in EN and blades become more popular. In the category of worked bone, fish-hooks appear for the first time.

Of eight EN burials, two are of children and six of infants younger than one year; an adult (17-year-old) female burial dates to the transition from Early to Middle Neolithic. All except one are simple inhumations in shallow pits without any grave goods. The exception is an infant only a few weeks old who was buried with a small footed vessel made of marble and about half of a clay vase. The reason for the extraordinary “richness” of this grave is unknown, but such wealth in the grave of an infant suggests that status may have been hereditary in this society. The clay vase deposited in it may have been ceremonially “killed”, thus accounting for the fact that almost exactly one half of it, but no more, is preserved.

The shift in the nature of the botanical material is both sudden and dramatic. The wild oats, barley, lentils, pears, and peas disappear; emmer wheat and cultivated/domesticated forms of barley and lentil occur for the first time. At present, it is uncertain whether all of the cultivated forms were introduced from elsewhere or whether some of the domesticated species could have developed locally from wild forms. This dramatic change in the plant remains is paralleled in the faunal material by the equally sudden appearance in quantity of domesticated sheep and goat.

Middle Neolithic (ca. 5000 – 4500 b.c.)

[beginning of Renfrew's Diversification of Village Farming Pattern]

This period is distinguished from the preceding EN and the subsequent Late Neolithic on the basis of minor changes in the pottery. The relative frequencies of animal bone (exclusive of fish) in the MN period are: ca. 70-75% sheep/goat, 10% pig, 15% red deer, and 5% cow. Fish (including large ones) constitute ca. 10% of the total bone assemblage.

There is a smooth transition from EN to MN pottery. Basically, early MN pottery is made of a finer fabric, is harder, and is more uniform and lighter in both surface and fracture color than that of the preceding EN period. Potters had clearly learned to purify their clay more thoroughly and to fire their products at higher temperatures (ca. 800C), in significantly larger batches which required the stacking of vessels during the firing process, and under more carefully controlled conditions. Another characteristic of early MN pottery is the application to it of a reddish slip or wash, either as a solid coating or in the form of simple linear patterns. This early MN slipped ware gradually develops into the pottery characteristic of mature MN, so-called {Middle Neolithic Urfirnis} (a German term meaning, literally, “old glaze”). This latter ware’s slip (often called a “paint” by Aegean prehistorians) is characterized by being finer and more lustrous than the early MN slip. By mature MN, the range of shapes has increased dramatically over the relatively simple repertoire of EN. “Urfirnis” occurs in three varieties: (a) solidly painted, plain; (b) pattern-painted; (c) solidly painted, pattern-burnished. The plain solidly painted variety remains roughly constant at 50-65% of the total pottery; the {pattern-painted} variety (= dark-on-light patterns created by the application of “Urfirnis” paint/slip to the pale-firing ground of the clay body) begins from zero, rises to a maximum of 20%, and then declines in popularity in favor of the {pattern-burnished} variety (= vases coated solidly with “Urfirnis” paint/slip and then selectively burnished to create highly lustrous [= burnished] patterns against the less lustrous [= unburnished] background). For the first time, truly coarse clay pastes are used to produce pots fired at lower temperatures than the finer wares and having less carefully finished surfaces. These first examples of “coarse wares”, to judge from the evidence in the form of localized surface discolorations for repeated secondary burning, functioned as cooking vessels.

In chipped stone, the percentage of obsidian has risen again, now to 75% of the total. MN levels are characterized by two types of arrowheads, transverse (which come from deposits of the EN/MN transition, of MN, and occasionally of the MN/LN transition, but never from later deposits) and shouldered.

Two adult burials belong to women whose ages at death are estimated to have been 33 and 39. The older woman was buried with a whole pot, some bone tools, and some obsidian blades. Her bones were packed so tightly into the pit in which they were found that the excavators assume the burial to have been a secondary one, a mode of burial which does in fact appear to begin in southern Greece during the MN period to judge from finds at other sites. The grave goods found with this middle-aged woman are strongly suggestive of personal possessions and may indicate that the dead woman had some special status as a craftswoman.

Just before the end of the MN period appears the first einkorn wheat.

Late Neolithic (ca. 4500 – 400 b.c.)

[continuation of Renfrew's Diversification of Village Farming Pattern]

This period, like MN, is distinguished primarily on the basis of changes in pottery. Within LN and the succeeding Final Neolithic period there are three separate patterns of animal bone frequencies:

(F1) ca. 90% sheep/goat, 10% pig; cow and red deer very scarce; fish ca. 5%.

(F2) as F1, but fish up to 20-40%.

(G) ca. 70% sheep/goat, 10-15% pig, red deer and cow up to 10-15% and 5% respectively, fish down to 5% or less.

The beginning of the period is defined by the appearance of {Late Neolithic Matt-painted} pottery (= dark-on-light pattern-painted ware where the paint is dull, or matt, in contrast to the lustrous “Urfirnis” paint of MN). This change in the luster of the paint/slip used for decoration may reflect the substitution of a manganese-based paint for an earlier iron-based one; the former has no luster but also does not vary in color when fired, whereas iron-based paints usually vary in color from red through brown to black depending upon the degree of oxidation of the iron in the paint. In advanced LN, Matt-painted ware accounts for up to 50% of the total pottery. A transitional MN/LN class of pottery is Fine Black-burnished ware, often decorated with fugitive white paint which usually survives only as a “ghost” or “negative” on the black-burnished surface. At its peak, this Fine Black-burnished ware accounts for ca. 20% of the total pottery.

In the chipped stone, barbed or barbed-and-tangled arrowheads appear, but such arrowheads persist as late as the beginning of the Early Bronze Age further north in the Argolid and so can hardly be considered absolutely diagnostic of the LN phase. The percentage of obsidian is now up to 85%. Wild grape pips appear during LN and continue into Final Neolithic.

Final Neolithic (ca. 4000 – 3000 b.c.)

[continuation of Renfrew's Diversification of Village Farming Pattern]

This period has only been recognized as a major sub-phase of the Neolithic, distinct on ceramic grounds from the preceding LN, since about 1970. Some scholars prefer to view it as no more than a later stage of the Late Neolithic (i.e. LN II). On the southern Greek Mainland, and particularly at Franchthi, the pottery of this period is characterized by a predominance of coarse, unpainted wares exhibiting a variety of odd handle types and a preference for plastic, as opposed to painted, decoration. Small amounts of a number of odd wares (e.g. red-on-white painted; crusted; dark slipped-and-burnished; pattern-burnished) also occur during the period.

In chipped stone, large triangular arrowheads of flint, bifacially flaked, are characteristic. Obsidian now accounts for 95% of the chipped stone at Franchthi. For the first time at Franchthi, the buried population in the FN period consists both of adults (4) and children (2), the adults including both women (3) and men (1). As in the case of the MN burials, adult burials appear to be secondary whereas the child burials are primary.

With FN, the prehistoric occupational sequence at Franchthi Cave ends. A few odd bits of Bronze Age material suggest that the cave was visited sporadically over the ensuing two millennia, and finds of specialized votive material at the back of the cave show that it served some sort of cult purpose in Classical times, but it never served again as a principal residence for any significant number of people. The reason for its abandonment ca. 3000 b.c. was the steady rise in sea level which, though not rapid in comparison to that which took place between 14,000 and 6,000 B.C., nevertheless buried at this time the broad terrace below the cave on which both the settlement and the fields of the Neolithic inhabitants had been located.

Paleolithic and Mesolithic elsewhere in Greece

Only a limited number of sites producing remains of these periods have yet been excavated in Greece: Asprochaliko Cave in the Louros River valley and the Kastritsa Rock Shelter at the south end of Lake Pambotis (or Ioannina), both in Epirus; the not too far distant Klithi Rock Shelter near the Albanian border and the Grave Rock Shelter and Sidari open-air site on the island of Corfu, all also in northwestern Greece; Theopetra Cave in Thessaly; Seidi Cave in the Copaïc Basin of Boeotia; Kephalari Cave and the Kleisoura Rock Shelter in the Argolid; and Kalamakia Cave in the Mani region of Laconia. Paleolithic stone implements have now also been found in a number of areas as the result of surface surveys: in the Peneios River valley of Thessaly, on the island of Euboea, in Boeotia, in Epirus, in the Peneios River Valley of Elis, and in the central and southeastern Argolid. Some of the material from Asprochaliko and from the southeastern Argolid belongs to the Middle Paleolithic period (ca. 30,000 to 40,000 years ago). No pre-Neolithic material has so far been found in Crete nor is there any certain evidence for pre-Neolithic settlement in the Cycladic islands, despite the fact that Melian obsidian is to be found on the Greek Mainland as early as the Upper Paleolithic period at Franchthi Cave.

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