The American School of Classical Studies at Athens
ASCSA

Hand axe found at the west flank of the Preveli Gorge

02/01/2010

Plakias Survey Finds Mesolithic and Palaeolithic Artifacts on Crete


While claims for pre-Neolithic artifacts on Crete have been made for decades, the Plakias Survey is the first project to identify Mesolithic and Palaeolithic artifacts in datable geologic contexts.

The survey, led by Eleni Panagopoulou (Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology, Southern Greece) and ASCSA alumnus and Managing Committee member Thomas Strasser (Providence College) under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Greece, identified 29 sites associated with caves and rockshelters and collected a sample of just over 2,000 stone artifacts attributable to the Mesolithic and the Lower Palaeolithic periods. Since Crete has been an island for five million years, these findings have significant implications for the history of seafaring in the Mediterranean. The Plakias team presented these findings to a rapt audience at the Archaeological Institute of American Annual Meeting in Anaheim, CA in early January.

In 2008 the Plakias project found the Stone Age artifacts; the 2009 season was devoted to conducting geological analyses to provide datable contexts and providing a terminus ante quem more than one hundred and thirty thousand years B.P. for the Lower Palaeolithic artifacts. A Mesolithic site-location model was used to identify regions on Crete likely to have early Holocene sites. The team considered that if Mesolithic foragers found smaller islands attractive for subsistence, Crete must also have been a desirable habitat and so they searched for habitats that were preferred by foragers and also have the appropriate environmental features to preserve their sites or activity areas. The coastal area around Plakias has limestone caves and rockshelters, proximity to coastal wetlands, and a steep bathymetric drop-off that both attracted foragers and preserved their cultural remains. Upon examining all caves and rockshelters near the mouths of fresh water perennial streams and rivers emptying into the Libyan Sea, the survey team discovered lithic artifacts on the slopes directly below the openings. The geological context at five of the sites allowed an approximate date to be assigned of 130,000 years although the artifacts may, in fact, be much older.

ASCSA Photo
Photo, left: The Preveli Gorge; photo, right: Curtis Runnels and Tom Strasser take a close look at a find.

The principal raw materials found were quartz and to a lesser extent various types of chert and both were used for manufacturing the majority of Mesolithic and Palaeolithic artifacts. Mesolithic period tools include end scrapers, notches, denticulates, truncations, spines and combination tools. The absence of polished stone axes, ground stone querns, clay or stone spindle whorls, and characteristic ceramic wares of Neolithic or later type strongly argues against a post-Mesolithic age for the Plakias industry.

Lower Palaeolithic lithic artifacts were collected from nine sites. The Palaeolithic artifacts are distinguishable from the Mesolithic ones by their larger size as well as by technological and typological criteria. The tools include bifaces (handaxes), cleavers, scrapers, and other forms. The geological contexts at five of the sites, including associations with raised marine terraces and fossil soils, suggest an approximate age of 130,000 B.P. for the oldest artifacts, and they are probably much older. The presence of Lower Palaeolithic sites is strong evidence for an early period of seafaring in the Mediterranean, with implications that the colonization of Europe by early African hominins was not exclusively land-based.

Besides survey leaders Panagopoulou and Strasser, the Plakias Team includes Managing Committee member Curtis Runnels (Boston University), Priscilla Murray (Boston University), Nicholas Thompson and Panayiotis Karkanas (Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology, Southern Greece), Floyd W. McCoy (University of Hawaii), and Karl Wegmann (North Carolina State University).

The ASCSA is co-sponsoring a lecture by Professors Strasser and Runnels on the survey findings in Providence, RI on April 7, 2010. An in-depth article will also be published in an upcoming issue of Hesperia (79.2), available in June 2010.