The prehistoric Sesklo settlement in Thessaly, Greece; Naval Trade, Art and Warfare in the Neolithic Age

This article presents general information on the Neolithic settlement of Sesklo, Thessaly, Greece.

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“The remains of one of the most important Neolithic Greek and European settlements sits on the Kastraki hill, near the modern village of Sesklo. The site, which gives its name to a Neolithic culture found throughout Thessaly, was inhabited from the Early Neolithic period (seventh millennium BC) until the Middle Bronze Age, though it flourished mostly in the Middle Neolithic period (fifth millennium BC). Judging by the longevity of the prehistoric settlement, the choice of the site was auspicious. Indeed, it has all the features coveted by early settlers: deep seasonal streams with ample water supply, flatlands for cultivation, hills and the sea nearby.

Sesklo

Sesklo is one of the most important sites for our knowledge of this period in Greece, since it demonstrates clearly the so-called ‘Neolithic triptych’ of sedentary habitation, agriculture and animal husbandry. The size of this first settlement (Sesklo A) is impossible to determine because of later occupation. However, traces of this period located 125 metres beyond the hill’s northeast border (Sesklo C) show that it was quite large. Shallow circular depressions, the narrow foundation trenches of a rectangular building and pieces of clay used as building material are all that remains of the settlement’s makeshift houses. The settlement contained very few objects, such as obsidian and chert blades, stone and bone tools and terracotta figurines.

Traces of the larger, Early Neolithic, settlement of the sixth millennium BC were identified on the hill (Sesklo A), but also on the plain to the west (Sesklo B) and in the surrounding area. The main characteristic of this period is the variety of building types and building materials. Some buildings were made with stone foundations and brick walls, others were made of wood and clay, and some were outlined with standing stone slabs. The inhabitants of this settlement used simple stone and bone tools, terracotta figurines and terracotta vases – both monochrome and with painted decoration.

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Sesklo was at its peak during the Middle Neolithic when it occupied an area of approximately 100,000m², which included the Kastraki Hill (Sesklo A), the plain (Sesklo B) and the surrounding area. On the hill, the settlement’s 500-800 dwellings were densely arranged, with narrow streets and squares running between them, surrounded by large retaining walls. The dwellings in the plain were larger and more separated. All houses had stone foundations, mud brick walls, timber two-sloped roofs and chimneys. The pottery of this period, also known as the ‘Sesklo culture’, is used to date the different phases of the Middle Neolithic period. Vases are handmade, usually with painted decoration. Improved firing techniques account for the beautiful red colour of the motifs painted on a white background. The settlement’s inhabitants used a larger number and variety of stone tools than before, including tools made of obsidian imported from the island of Melos. The settlement burned down towards the end of the fifth millennium BC and only the hilltop was re-inhabited 500 years later, in the Late Neolithic. A ‘megaron’ was built during this later period at the highest point of the hill, in the middle of the new settlement, surrounded by a system of circular stone enclosures. The settlement lived on throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. Several houses at Sesklo A and the cist graves uncovered at Sesklo A and B belong to this period.”

(Source: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2500)

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NovoScriptorium: Agriculture and animal husbandry were known very well, and  apparently were quite well organised in Neolithic Sesklo. Logic defines that the procedure of taming animals, selecting the best seeds for cultivation and, finally, the best sites for organised settlement to apply all this knowledge should be a rather slow one. Most likely it took hundreds or even thousands of years to reach an adequate level. In our opinion, procedures like this indicate a localized evolution; local animals, local seeds, familiar environment in terms of ground, climate and any other possible local particularity. The idea of people massively moving in/invading from somewhere else and bringing along species of tamed animals -in great numbers- and seeds -we all know that  seeds do not grow on every soil and climate- sounds ridiculus really. Therefore, we completely disagree with theories that suggest a massive replacement of population and the establishment of completely new cultures over the older ones. It is probable though that a human group evolved first in organised Agriculture (somewhere on Earth) and then propagated the acquired knowledge. Knowledge propagates easier than…populations. To avoid any possible misunderstandings, let us note here that population movements and admixtures are not excluded; on the contrary, we are certain of them. The debate is on the ‘complete replacement of the previous populations’ issue.

Another interesting thing we notice is the need of humans over time to express themselves artistically, here by creating little statues -figurines- and painted vases.

Chert and obsidian were being mined by the Neolithic people. Chert’s discovery in Sesklo does not surpise us. But the discovery of obsidian leads us to some very interesting logical conclusions.

Obsidian in Greece exists only* in the island of Melos. This means that anyone who would like to acquire obsidian should travel by sea. So, the direct conclusion is that people in Neolithic Greece performed sea-trade from the mainlands to the islands -at least- as early as the Neolithic era. Indeed, this is supported by various finds, e.g. from the Franchthi Cave.

There are even indications of sea-faring in the Aegean as early as the Lower Paleolithic (https://novoscriptorium.com/2019/06/26/strong-evidence-for-the-earliest-known-seafaring-no-later-than-ca-130000-b-p-in-the-mediterranean-found-in-crete-greece/)

The reasonable thing to say is that there has been evolution of the practice in the same region by the same local people through the millenia.

We also notice in Sesklo the existence of various types of buildings-houses; some are richer, others are poor, some bigger and others smaller. We may rightly assume the existence of social classes and their discrimination through wealth. Economy appears to be a very crucial social factor in this primitive polity.

The wall built around the settlement and forms of weaponry that have been found, indicate that war must have been a highly expected event for those people, so that they were more or less always prepared for it.

As the official text says: “During the Late Neolithic, a ‘megaron’ was built at the highest point of the hill, in the middle of the new settlement, surrounded by a system of circular stone enclosures‘. Well, this is an indication of the Greek practice, from some point in time and onwards in History, to build a fortified acropolis on the top of each settlement. The beggining, therefore, of this practice is traced at least back during the Late Neolithic period. Most likely this begun as a necessity against continuous wars/raids or, sometimes, due to climatic reasons, i.e. to avoid flooding.

*There is also another source of, lower quality, obsidian from the Aegean in the small island of Gyali or Yali (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyali). The main source of obsidian findings in the Aegean-Greek peninsula area was, by far and almost exclusively, Melos and this has been confirmed through various modern scientific analyses.

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Abstract Cross-cultural archaeological and ethnographic evidence for warfare in farming societies invites us to reconsider the traditional picture of the Greek Neolithic (ca. 7000-3400 B.C.) as a period of peaceful coexistence among subsistence farmers. Archaeological correlates of intercommunal conflict in the prehistoric American Southwest and the widespread evidence for warfare in Neolithic Europe suggest that warfare is also likely to have taken place in Neolithic Greece. The well-known Neolithic record for Thessaly reveals evidence for warfare in defensive structures, weapons, and settlement patterns. Competition for resources such as arable land, grazing rights, and water may have contributed to the causes of Greek Neolithic warfare.

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Until recently, it was thought that warfare was negligible in prehistoric times, but new research on prehistoric warfare, along with warfare among contemporary foragers and farmers around the world, challenges this view. An ever increasing number of case studies have created a consensus that prehistoric warfare was widespread in the Old World in general, and specifically in Neolithic Europe.

Our review of the literature suggests that archaeologists in the 20th century continued to regard Neolithic Thessaly as uncomplicated and peace ful, at least as far as internal affairs were concerned. Thus, any evidence for warfare such as weapons, fortifications, or burned settlements that turned up in the course of excavation could be attributed to invaders or immigrants. The tendency to explain cultural change through invasions and migrations – which was certainly justified by historical events such as the folk migrations of the Huns or Visigoths in antiquity, and by apparently abrupt changes in the archaeological record – persisted throughout the 20th century, and was especially popular in southeast Europe.

Although invasions and migrations are indeed sources of cultural change at times, the abrupt changes in material culture evident to Tsountas, Wace, and Thompson in Neolithic Thessaly reflect the incomplete nature of the archaeological record and the paucity of research. Gaps in the archaeological record were taken to indicate abrupt and rapid cultural change because new forms of decorated ceramics or domestic architecture appeared suddenly, without antecedent forms.

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Τhe division of the Neolithic into four cultural phases was supported by the expansion of Neolithic chronology by radiocarbon dating. While Tsountas had difficulty pushing the beginning of the Neolithic as far back as 3000 B.C., radiocarbon dating has now shown that the Neolithic in Thessaly began close to 7000 B.C. This expanded chronology made it possible to distinguish long-term patterns of development in architecture, pottery, fictile art, and mortuary customs, in line with the concept favored by the New Archaeology that there was no need to invoke abrupt cultural breaks between phases. Now there was adequate time in the course of the long Neolithic period for the working out of local cultural processes to produce the changes we observe in the material record.

We believe that the time has come to revisit the question of violence in Greek Neolithic culture. Strong material correlates in the archaeological record for the presence of warfare include walls and ditches, particularly those with gates suitable for controlling passage into and within a site; skeletal remains with indications of violence; the presence of weapons; and the separation of groups of sites by unoccupied territories, or no-man’s-lands.

Although Neolithic walls and ditches may have served many functions, from mundane domestic tasks such as controlling the movement of animals to symbolic uses as representations of boundaries, many archaeologists, anthropologists, and military historians strongly associate them with military defense.

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Enclosures, whether ditches, palisades, walls, or some combination of these, are certain to be of military significance when they have complex gate or opening arrangements such as offsets, doglegs, or screens, all of which are identified by military historians and archaeologists alike as “classic defensive features at numerous sites stretching across thousands of years of history.”

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In Thessaly, walls, ditches, or a combination of the two encircle many sites, at least partially. Argissa, on the northern bank of the Peneios River, and Soufli Magoula, Arapi Magoula, and Otzaki, in the same general area, have concentric ditches on the outer edges of the settlements similar to those found elsewhere in Greece, for example, at Servia, Nea Nikomedeia, and Makriyalos in Macedonia.

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The best-known and most controversial fortifications in Thessaly may be the stone walls at Sesklo and Dimini. At MN Sesklo the acropolis appears to be enclosed by walls, although the site is much disturbed by later Neolithic construction. Notable is a baffle gate on the side of the site not protected by the deep, steep-sided ravine to the east. The walls were augmented in the Late Neolithic when the acropolis was remodeled and a large central megaron was constructed. The walls are up to 1.5 m thick and equally high. Tsountas, who excavated the Sesklo acropolis more than a century ago, provides few details about the construction of these walls or whether he found any evidence for substantial superstructures in the form of adobe or pise, but he was nevertheless convinced that the walls served a defensive purpose. Based on the available plans, the most noteworthy features of these walls are the baffle gate in the earlier phase and the heavier wall on the landward slope (i.e., the part of the acropolis that faced the lower town to the south, rather than the steep-sided ravine to the east), which served to separate the structures on the highest part of the site from the lower town. It is perhaps also significant that the site shows signs of extensive burning.

LN Dimini, the acropolis is ringed with walls that encircle a small domestic compound. These concentric ring walls are pierced by narrow entrances or gateways, which were negotiated by means of narrow stone-lined walkways leading to small openings that gave access into a maze of domestic compounds and intramural spaces. These openings could have been intended for defense. Particularly notable are the baffle gates that protect the openings in the walls at the northern and southern ends, and two on the west (perhaps with remains of a fifth in the south east quadrant). If attacked, these small entrances could have been easily defended; in addition, they would have confused outsiders and provided inhabitants with multiple exits.

Τhe Neolithic walls and ditches in Thessaly served at least in part for military defense. Perhaps it is safest to conclude, in the absence of further research, that to build a wall or to dig a ditch is at the very least a statement about the abilities and level of preparedness of the community to defend itself, and is also an expression of the level of trust they had in their neighbors. The walls and ditches were perhaps intended by their very existence to discourage attacks from happening in the first place, as much as they were used to ward off actual physical confrontation.

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The archaeological record of all regions of Greece suggests that Neolithic arrowheads were less common in the earliest Neolithic, but became more common in the Middle Neolithic and later. It is interesting that the production of stone arrowheads in Greece continued, with some modifi cations in form, to the end of the Bronze Age. The apparent continuity in the use of arrowheads at Bronze Age Lerna in the Argolid prompted Runnels to ask why this would be so if hunting was of limited economic importance, as indicated by the low representation of wild species among the faunal remains at that site. In Thessaly, during the Neolithic, hunting was certainly of less importance than in the Palaeolithic or Mesolithic, with bones from wild animals typically forming less than 8% of the total faunal assemblage, while at Pefkakia, the size of the largest available prey, red deer, decreased at the end of the Neolithic, suggesting a less favorable habitat for wild game. At the same time, the size and variability of projectile points increased across Greece, and we conclude that these artifacts were not specialized for hunting.

Another possible Neolithic weapon was the sling. Biconical sling bullets of both stone and clay are common on Greek Neolithic sites. Also significant is the shape of the typical Neolithic sling bullet. Neolithic bullets are biconical or ovoid, and like the biconical bullets of Clas sical times are designed for precision throwing. The preferred raw mate rial for Classical sling bullets was lead, while their Neolithic forerunners were typically made of sun-dried clay, terracotta, or stone.

We also note the occurrence on Thessalian sites of axes and daggers of cast copper with forms similar to typical Bronze Age weapons from throughout the world. Neolithic copper axes and daggers are not numerous, but Zachos lists 17 examples, including specimens from Pefkakia and Sesklo in our study area. It is probable that many others were melted down. Zachos suggests that the Aegean Bronze Age daggers developed from a Neolithic predecessor in an unbroken sequence, an argument based on the difference in shape between the Greek specimens and those known from neighboring regions.

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Conclusions It is evident that competition for territory, water, and grazing rights often led to warfare among prehistoric foragers and farmers, and that warfare or the threat of intercommunal violence may have characterized much if not all of human prehistory. A significant problem connected with the understanding of the causes of warfare in the past is that ethnographic research points to the social control of violence in many contexts where social and cultural norms dictate what resources are considered worth fighting over. If it is agreed that subsistence and economic values are at least partly culturally construed, we can avoid de terminism as an explanation for warfare or its absence.

Equally significant to the recognition of Neolithic war in Thessaly is the likelihood that warfare appears to have been present from the very be ginning of the period. We can speculate that warfare was perhaps the re sult of competition for arable land and water triggered by the 8200 cal b.p. climatic event that caused rapid emigration from Anatolia. This event, a period of much colder and arid conditions lasting for about 200 years, is thought by Weninger and his colleagues to have forced farmers to move westward from southeastern and central Turkey to seek favorable conditions for agriculture. An episode of mass emigration from Anatolia could have had a major impact by accelerating the pace of demic diffusion of Neolithic farmers from Anatolia to the Aegean, as migrants searched for reliable water sources and arable land.

(Source: “Warfare in Neolithic Thessaly”, by  Curtis N. Runnels et al.)

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Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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