The Excavation Project consisted of systematic archaeological
research (excavations and surveys) on the Deserted Islands' group to the north
of Alonnessos, Northern
Sporades (Greece). The project was undertaken by the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology
- Speleology of the Ministry of Culture under the direction of Dr Adamantios Sampson,
Ephor of Antiquities. The project's purpose was to clarify the prehistoric occupation
sequence in the area of the Northern Sporades, a chain of islands off-shore to
the east of the Thessalian plain.
The research intended to fill a gap in our knowledge about human
activity in the area from Late Pleistocene to Early and Middle Holocene, with
emphasis on the pre-pottery stage; relevant evidence had already come to light
in previous short-term and short-scale local projects. The purpose was to recover
new data, which would give hints on the identity of the early communities, their
management of the ecosystem, their subsistence strategies and their contacts with
the Greek mainland and Asia Minor.
The project also intended to enrich knowledge on the palaeoenvironment, and to
detect phenomena such as sea level changes, regional palaeogeomorphology, climatic
conditions and local ecosystem idiosyncrasies (flora and fauna). For that purpose
a broad team of scientists (archaeologists and archaeological scientists) was
recruited, along with a competent technical support staff, who undertook the difficult
task of carrying out the research in the remote and inhospitable area in question,
where fieldwork and camping proved to be very demanding.
The research was purely systematic and scientific and did not involve
any rescue works. First and basic project's activity was the excavation of the
Cave of Cyclope,
an impressive cave
at the SE end of Youra,
one of the northern islands of the group. The cave was investigated in six trenches
(A, B, Γ, Δ, Ε and Ζ) and yielded thick deposits dated from the Early Holocene
to the Late Roman period. A brief description of the deposits per period is following:
- Roman finds were scarced all over the surface and the top layers and contained
mostly oil-lamps decorated in relief or inscribed, implying that the cave served
as a sanctuary around 2nd-3rd c. A.D. The cave was situated at the naval trade
route of the Athenian merchant ships to the wine markets of Macedonia and Thrace.
- A few ceramics dated to the hellenistic and classical periods were selected
from the deep interior of the cave, suggesting that its use at the time was occasional.
- Scattered Bronze Age material was found within the upper Neolithic deposits,
such as poor Late and Early Bronze Age pottery.
- All the above layers are underlied by a thick Neolithic
deposit, corresponding to two phases: Late Aegean Neolithic Ib and Early Neolithic
II. The layer contained exceptional painted
wares, such as the red-on-white
ware of Early Neolithic II with complicated canvas motifs and weaving inspired
designs, as well as the white-on-dark and matt-painted wares of Late Neolithic,
whose broad expanse throughout the mainland and the Aegean is hence verified.
The Neolithic material was enriched with the unexpected recovery of a small-sized
sherd from a coarse close-shaped vase bearing incised unidentifiable symbols.
It is possible that it echoes evidence on an Aegean Neolithic 'script' or 'proto-script',
a very fashionable subject of discussion in Greece, after similar finds in Kastoria
lake, East Macedonia.
- The main appeal of the excavation was the discovery of thick pre-pottery layers.
The C14 datings assigned the material to the Early Holocene, more specifically
to the 9th-7th mil. B.C., which placed Youra at a contemporary stage to Franchthi
Early Holocene levels; however it was the first time the existence of an Aegean
Mesolithic culture was revealed in full stratigraphy. Youra Mesolithic chipped
stone industry used local flint and Melian obsidian, which suggests that the trade/exchange
network for obsidian exploitation had been set up at such an early stage. During
the Early Holocene, the obsidian microliths from Youra (trapezoidal, semi-crescents)
find affiliations only in south Antalya
caves (Turkey). The Greek mainland shares no relevant evidence, since the Argolid
material, for example (Franchthi cave, Klisoura rock shelters), which is the best
studied, is far different in the adjacent area. Evidence of diversity between
Youra and mainland Greece is also supported by the cranial remain of a homo found
in the lowest layer of the cave of Cyclope, and was named as the "Aegean Mesolithic
homo"; the Mesolithic human skulls from Theopetra cave show strong anatomical
differences suggesting probably the co-existence of a "mainland homo type".
The cave of Cyclope deposits yielded a rich collection of worked
bone tools, such as fish
hooks of various sizes and shapes, ranging from the U-shaped
hook type to the bipointed implement for big fishes. A mass concentration
of fish bones, sea shells, land snails, mammal bones and bird remains imply that
Youra was occupied on a seasonal basis by hunter-gatherers specialized in fishing
and bird hunting. The mobile populations seem to have developed high skills on
both tasks; it is likely that people of the time follow the movements of birds
and fish, while at the same time they enrich their diet with game, seafood and
land snails. The correlation between their temporary occupation of the cave and
the itineraries of the migratory birds and fish also implies a well-developed
seafaring activity and a good knowledge of the winds and climatic conditions to
secure their voyages.
Youra Mesolithic subsistence strategies are strongly reminiscent
of the cultural processes which took place by the end of the Late Epipalaeolithic
in the Near East; the Natufian culture, well studied in various cave sites of
Israel, is the most famous aspect of this trend, still strongly foraging with
hints of sedentism. The recent excavation by A. Sampson of an open Mesolithic
settlement and underlying cemetery at a low promontory named Maroulas on the island
of Kythnos, dated to the
8th mil. B.C., strengthens the view that a new era has begun for Greek archaeology,
the era for the discovery of Mesolithic cultures.
of the cave of Cyclope's Mesolithic deposits provided the study of C14 with a
new good implement for the development of the method, the dating of other than
charcoal organic materials. Trial C14 datings on animal and fish bones, shellfish
and land snails have taken place in the Laboratory of Archaeometry in the Nuclear
Centre of "Demokritos" in Athens, and have been certified by measurements of C13
at the Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Heidelberg (Germany).
Both results have been correlated with the charcoal C14 datings from the very
same strata. Dating from the above 'new' materials appear to have a standard divergence
of some hundreds of years from the charcoal samples, which is due to the different
quantities of oxygen that the plants (charcoal), shellfish, land snails and mammals
absorbed. The correlation can be very useful for sites where no charcoal is found;
bones or shellfish, for example, can then be dated instead on the basis of the
data provided by the cave of Cyclope C14 chronology, where the divergence has
been statistically studied.
The excavation occurred parallel to a survey investigation on Youra
and the adjacent islands. A few more caves located on the island of Youra have
yielded evidence of the same Mesolithic culture with the cave of Cyclope, while
abundant Middle Palaeolithic and Neolithic material was also collected. A systematic
underwater research all along the seashore of Youra resulted in the location of
several underwater caves around the depth of 20-30 m. below sea level, which would
have been dry and probably occupied during the Mesolithic. No evidence of human
occupation was traced though, only due to the difficulties posed by underwater