Greece?s rich Neolithic past

Marble temples, stone-seated theaters, hilltop citadels or maze-like palaces usually seem to be the first images to spring to mind when one thinks of ancient Greece. Thousands of years before Bronze Age fortresses or monumental Classical buildings were erected, however, Neolithic farmers, shepherds, craftsmen, traders and fishermen, living with extended families in protective caves or in humble houses clustered together on distinctive mounds or beside tillable fields, had already left their own mark on the ancient Greek landscape.

The Neolithic period (circa 6800-2500 BC in Greece) is considered today one of the most pivotal eras in human history ? a revolutionary time when nomadic hunters and gatherers began to settle down in sedentary communities, to practice agriculture, domesticate cereals and livestock, produce fired pottery, establish trade networks for exchanging raw materials and finished goods, and create diverse art in a wide range of media. Greece has a rich record of archaeological research on the Neolithic era, to which both local and foreign specialists have contributed since at least the mid-1880s.

Greek Neolithic culture has come to hold a special place in the study and broader understanding of this crucial era because it was through Greece that the Neolithic revolution spread northwestward from its Middle Eastern cradle into Europe. Sesklo, in particular, about 18 kilometers west of Volos, has lent its name to Europe?s earliest Neolithic culture ? due partly to the mound?s occupation by Neolithic peoples beginning at least by circa 6500 BC and to its early investigation by a pioneer in Neolithic archaeology, Christos Tsountas (1857-1934), who first excavated there in 1901.

Tsountas identified or probed 63 Greek Neolithic sites between 1899 and 1906, including Sesklo, Dimini and Argissa. His formative investigations were followed by two subsequent waves of Neolithic research before and after World War II. Between 1906 and the mid-1930s, archaeologists including A. Arvanitopoulos (1906-26), A. Wace and M. Thompson (1907-10), G. Mylonas (1920s), and W. Heurtley (1924-32) examined Neolithic settlements in northern and central Greece. Further investigations in Thessaly, Macedonia, the Cyclades, Crete, the Peloponnese and elsewhere between the 1950s and 70s by D. Theocharis, V. Milojcic and specialist teams from Athens-based archaeological institutions including the British School and the American School of Classical Studies have shed light on Neolithic settlements at Nea Nikomedeia (Macedonia), Franchthi Cave (Argolid), Knossos (Crete) and other important sites throughout Greece.

Although now about 1,000 Neolithic settlements have been identified, much remains to be learned about this fascinating chapter in Greece?s distant past. Researchers from diverse disciplines over the last three decades have scrutinized numerous aspects of Neolithic daily life through analyses of carbonized seeds, pollen, animal bones, seashells human skeletal remains, pottery and stone tools. The Neolithic environment, economy, art and craft production, and human diet and health are all better understood but gaps continue to exist.

Present knowledge of the Greek Neolithic is markedly more extensive for northern and central Greece than other regions. Were there simply fewer Neolithic settlements in southern Greece? Probably not, since the answer more likely lies in differential treatment by specialists who in southern areas have focused more on Bronze Age and Classical archaeological sites than those of earlier prehistory. Neolithic archaeologists, especially those concerned with interregional chronology and social organization, are fully aware, as Bill Cavanagh of the University of Nottingham writes, that the ??north-south divide? requires an explanation.? Since the early 1990s, more and more archaeological attention has been directed toward southern regions of Greece.

Two examples are the excavations of Sarakenos Cave in Viotia, by Adamantios Sampson of the University of the Aegean, and of the settlement at Kouphovouno south of Sparta, by Cavanagh and colleagues.

As results of field surveys and excavations continue to come in, it is becoming increasingly clear that Greek Neolithic peoples settled not only on the hills and plains of Thessaly, Macedonia and Viotia but also in many other areas of the diverse Greek landscape. One of the most intriguing Neolithic settlements to have been investigated is Dispilio on the southern shore of Kastoria Lake. Since 1992, excavations led by George Hourmouziadis of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki have revealed a lakeside settlement of Middle and Final Neolithic date (circa 5600-3000 BC) consisting of timber, reed and clay houses built on elevated wooden platforms.

Artifacts discovered at the site include bone hooks, fragments of a wooden boat whose design is still known among the fishermen of Kastoria, and a wooden tablet inscribed with linear symbols (circa 5260 BC) that comparative evidence from the southern Balkans indicates may represent an early form of written speech. With all the new data, new theories and interregional syntheses being generated, Neolithic studies are proving to be one of the most dynamic areas of current archaeological investigation in Greece.

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