The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Work of ASCSA-Affiliated Project leads to First Pre-Neolithic Artifacts on Display in Crete

Thomas Strasser and Eleni Panagopoulou

The new temporary archaeological museum in Rethmynon now exhibits the first pre-Neolithic artifacts (>7000 B.C.) found on Crete, despite over a century of archaeological research, all of which were discovered by the Plakias Mesolithic Survey, a synergasia project of the ASCSA and the Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology.

The museum, located in the early 17th century church of St. Francis in the center of the old town, opened in early May 2016. It is the first museum in West Crete to display archaeological finds from an American School-sponsored project, and the first exhibition of pre-Neolithic artifacts in a Cretan museum since the inception of archaeology on the island. The finds on display greatly deepen the antiquity of Crete and have a profound impact on the history of island seafaring in the Mediterranean. 

The new exhibition case, excellently organized by members of the archaeological service and museum staff, holds Palaeolithic and Mesolithic artifacts found by the the Plakias Mesolithic Survey, directed by Tom Strasser and Eleni Panagopoulou with the essential assistance of Curtis Runnels, Priscilla Murray, Karl Wegmann and ASCSA Wiener Lab Director Panayiotis Karkanas.

Visitors at the opening read about the discovery of the tools dating from 10,000–7000 B.C.

These items were discovered in 2008-2009 when the team explored caves in the area around the town of Plakias, a location they chose for its well-watered environment. The project was immediately successful in finding Mesolithic artifacts (ca. 10,000–7000 B.C.), since the region’s support of perennial rivers, which are somewhat rare for Crete, provided a fruitful ecosystem for opportunistic hunter-gatherers. The stone tools found there include traditional microliths, spines, denticulates, end scrapers, and perçoirs. The archaeologists also unearthed an assemblage of Lower Palaeolithic tools of the Acheulean technology (1.8 million years ago–100,000 B.P.), including bifaces (hand axes), cores, and cleavers that were published in the ASCSA’s journal Hesperia (2010: 79.2). 

Co-Director of the project Tom Strasser with artifacts from the Plakias Mesolithic Survey

Optical Stimulated Luminescence dating demonstrated that the Plakias Palaeolithic tools are over 100,000 years old. Prior to this discovery, the earliest evidence for seafaring in the region was the Melian obsidian found at Franchthi cave in the Argolid with radiocarbon dates of 13,000 B.C. Since Crete has been an island for 5.6 million years, the hominins that made the tools must have crossed significant expanses of water (at least ca. 25km from Antikythera at times of low sea-levels) to arrive on the island. In this way, the finds from Plakias dramatically lengthen our evidence for seafaring in the Mediterranean.

This new museum display illustrates the ASCSA’s commitment to furthering our understanding of Greece’s rich past and its support of novel research projects.