Upper Palaeolithic cave art in Crete, Greece

This post is a summary of information on the discovery of Upper Palaeolithic art in the Ashpendou cave, Crete, Greece.


The earliest known Greek art has been identified in a cave on the island of Crete. Depicting extinct animals, it has been found to date to the last Ice Age.

This is the first palaeolithic art ever found in Greece”, says Dr Thomas Strasser of Providence College, Rhode Island. “It’s significant because it deepens the history of art there by many thousands of years, and is like an eyewitness account of Ice Age Crete. Archaeological and palaeontological information, as well as new technologies unavailable to earlier scholars, offer evidence to confirm a palaeolithic date for the earliest carvings”.

The Asphendou Cave, in the mountainous Sphakia region of western Crete, has been known for several decades, as have the petroglyphs, described by Strasser as “a confusing jumble of engravings that had eluded dating”. The confusion was caused by several layers of engraving superimposed on one another in the calcite flowstone of the cave floor, over an area of 1.15m by 0.8m (3.8ft by 2.6ft). When first noticed the animal depictions were thought to be of feral goats and possibly as late as the Bronze Age.

The oldest of these layers can now be shown to depict a species of recently identified fossil dwarf deer named Candiacervus ropalophorus, which became extinct more than 11,000 years ago. The species has unusually long antlers with short lateral tines, and specimens found not far north of Asphendou in caves on the north coast of Crete date to between 21,500 and 11,000 years ago, the period of upper palaeolithic cave art across Europe.

Art such as that known widely from France and Spain, from sites such as Chauvet Cave, Lascaux and Altamira, dating from 16,000 to more than 30,000 years ago, has been found on Mediterranean islands such as Levanzo, west of Sicily, but has hitherto remained unknown in Greece (despite Hammond Innes’s 1971 novel, Levkas Man, in which such art was found on the Ionian island).

“This is at least partly because suitable caves are rare in this seismically active region,” says Professor Curtis Runnels of Boston University. Known Greek palaeolithic art consists of portable objects — notched bones from the Klithi Cave in Epirus, and pierced marine shells from Klithi and the Franchthi Cave near Nafplio, he says.

Photogrammetry was used to record and then extract the individual quadrupeds, and the images compared with those made from excavated Candiacervus remains.

The 37 deer engravings identified at Asphendou are tiny — about 5cm long — and the engravings shallow. They represent “a palaeolithic animal herd without ground line or background”. Another palaeolithic artistic convention includes showing both antlers as though in three-quarter view, while the body is in profile, Strasser’s team report in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The last occurrence of the Cretan dwarf deer Candiacervus confirms the Asphendou rock carvings as the oldest figural art found in Greece”, they wrote. “Palaeolithic artists represented what they knew, in this case a prevalent species which became extinct in the upper palaeolithic”.

The Asphendou petroglyphs further our burgeoning understanding of Ice Age occupation on the Aegean islands, and add symbolic behaviour to our understanding of these people’s skills, Strasser notes.

Asphendou is important for the teasing out of the different layers of art on the flowstone, showing that the animal representations belong to the earliest layer, and thus as the best candidate for palaeolithic cave art in Greece and the southernmost example of European-style cave art”, Runnels says. It also emphasises the early human presence on Crete, which has been an island for at least five million years, and thus needed some form of boat for it to be reached throughout prehistory.

(Source: https://www.bu.edu/archaeology/2018/04/17/professor-curtis-runnels-asphendou-cave-crete-times-interview/)


The earliest known figural art from Greece was once thought to be from the Neolithic (8,500 to 5,000 years ago). New research on old data has pushed that date back to over 11,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic (Late Pleistocene).

Isolated from the mainland for over 5 million years, Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and it’s where the Asphendou cave is situated, specifically in the White Mountains in the western portion of the island.

Within this cave is a set of rock art inscribed as petroglyphs on a speleothem–a sort of stone found in caves, created when calcite or calcium carbonate minerals precipitate from flowing or dripping water.

Discovered in the 1960s and first documented in the 1970s, it was debated whether the rock art should be dated to the Paleolithic (over 11,000 years ago) or to the Bronze Age (5,000 to 3,000 years ago).

The problem was how do you date an inscription on a rock. Sometimes you can do this relatively by identifying certain elements within the rock art itself. For instance, if bows are depicted instead of spears or atlatls, an earliest date can be determined. But in the case of the Asphendou petroglyphs, no readily identifiable motif that could be dated was obvious.


Also, there wasn’t a datable patina present that could be tested, which is sometimes possible. And, being a petroglyph, no pigments were used that could be tested or relatively dated by knowing when such pigments were popular. So, for decades, the when question of the rock art in the Asphendou cave went unanswered.

Perhaps until now. In recent years, new archaeological and palaeontological information has come available. As have new technologies and methods of analyses. Together, these lines of evidence are discussed in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (Strasser, Murray, van der Geer, Kolb, and Ruprecht, 2018) and the authors conclude that the petroglyphs were carved on that cave wall in the Late Pleistocene, or Upper Paleolithic.

About Asphendou Cave

The cave itself is small, just a few meters deep and about half a meter high. It’s situated near Sphakia in western Crete and at about 720 meters above sea level in the White Mountains. The floor is comprised of the speleothem where the petroglyhs are carved, covering an area roughly a meter in diameter. When it was used in the Paleolithic, the cave was probably larger based on the piles of rock spalled from the roof. By most archaeological standards, this would be considered a rock shelter rather than a cave, but the authors note their continued use of the term to avoid confusion since previous documentation of the site refers to it as a cave.

Extinct Deer

Since the cave was first discovered and published in the 1970s, several extinct species of deer were discovered on Crete, along with a peculiar and distinguishing feature. The deer exhibited an elongated antler, perhaps twice the length of their own body. Specifically, this extinct genus of deer are called Candiacervus.

Within the rock art happens to be a quadraped with that same distinctive antler.


Enter the Technology

Using a method that is fast becoming popular in archaeological research, the research team took what was probably hundreds of individual photographs using a Nikon D800E DSLR and a 25mm prime lens. They then processed these images using AgiSoft Photoscan Pro, which creates a 3-dimensional image known as an orthophoto (an image that is geospatially corrected so the scale is uniform). The whole process is known as Structure From Motion, or Photogrammetry. From this 3D orthophoto, they were able to create sketches and maps and perform detailed analyses without being confined to the cave and it’s lighting.

In the 1970s, when the rock art was first documented, the thought was that the incisions were done in a single event. The resulting sketch was, compared to the new data collected with photogrammetry, a jumbled mess.


The more recent research team were able to tease out the subtle differences between several artistic events in the past by taking note of differences in depth and style of the incisions. They were able to identify at least 3 different levels of the rock art, created over time, and one overlapping an earlier event, much like a palimpsest.

And it is the oldest layer, the layer with the quadraped that is likely to represent Candiacervus, was dated to the Palaeolithic period. Which makes this the oldest figural art in Crete and in Greece.

(Source: http://ahotcupofjoe.net/2018/02/earliest-figurative-art-crete-greece/)


Abstract The earliest figural art known from Greece is dated to the Neolithic period (ca. 8,5 to 5 thousand years ago). A recent study of the petroglyphs at Asphendou Cave on the island of Crete, however, suggests that such art has a much longer history in the Aegean basin. First published over forty years ago, the debate concerning the petroglyphs’ age has lain dormant for decades. In light of technological advances in digital imaging and recent archaeological and palaeontological discoveries on the island we re-assess the dating of the petroglyphs and prove that some were made in the Late Pleistocene, or Upper Palaeolithic. Comparison of the iconography to fossil data demonstrates that an extinct endemic deer (Candiacervus) is represented at Asphendou Cave. This is the earliest figural art yet discovered in Greece.


Location and description of the Asphendou Cave The cave is located in the region of Sphakia in west Crete (35°14′07.0″N 24°13′00.6″E), at an elevation of ca. 720 masl. Today this region serves as a fertile grazing zone for ruminants because of its elevation high in the eastern flanking foothills of the White Mountains and the associated flora. The cave is small (8.5 m × 3.5 m) with a low ceiling (0.6 m), and is formed in crystalline limestone that comprises much of the area’s geology. On its floor is a speleothem where the petroglyphs are carved over an area of ca. 1.15 m × 0.8 m. The small dimensions of the extant space of the cave suggest the term ‘rock shelter’ is a more appropriate label, but the presence of several large piles of tumbled boulders in front of the entrance suggests that the cave was larger in the past prior to the collapse of its roof. In addition, the existing scholarly literature primarily refers to it as a ‘cave’, so we maintain that label here to prevent confusion.


Medium-sized forms of the Pleistocene Cretan deer have been known since the early 20th century (Candiacervus cretensis) (Simonelli, 1908; for an overview, see van derGeer et al., 2006, 2010). In the late 1970s, after drawings of the Asphendou Cave had been published, abundant fossil material belonging to four dwarf species was discovered in coastal caves along the northern coast, including, for the first time, the ropalophorus-type antler: a characteristically elongated antler with a very short brow tine and lacking subsequent tines or palmation (de Vos, 1979, 1984). Prior to these discoveries, only proximal fragments of the ropalophoros-type antler and multi‑tined antlers had been retrieved.

The eight species of Cretan deer (Candiacervus) range from a dwarf size with withers height of about 0,4 m (C. ropalophorus) to a much larger size with withers height of up to nearly 1,65 m (C. major) (deVos, 1979, 1996). This is explained as a sympatric speciation (a new species evolving from a single ancestral species occupying the same geographic area) to occupy all possible available ecological niches (deVos and van der Geer, 2002). The largest forms are extremely rare and limited to two sites (Liko Cave, Bate Cave). By contrast, the dwarf forms were found in more than 60 coastal caves along the entire Cretan coast (Iliopoulos et al., 2010). The smallest species (C. ropalophorus,C. sp. IIa) not only have relatively short limbs (van der Geer et al., 2006), but they also possess elongated, undifferentiated antlers (de Vos, 1984).


Photogrammetry One major contribution of this field project is the production of improved visual documentation of the Apshendou Cave rock engravings. Existing photos of the engravings, mostly snapshots taken by recent visitors or the archaeologists who studied the cave in the 1970s, are not of professional quality (e.g. Faure, 1972, 409;Papoutsakis, 1972, Pls. 11–14). Most are blurry or of low resolution, and none present the entirety of the cave surface in a fashion that facilitates a thorough understanding of its layout and complexity. Therefore, one goal of our work at Asphendou was to generate modern scientific documentation of the carvings, which could serve as a professional record should any calamity befall the art, would facilitate communication with collaborators and colleagues, and will help with further analysis.We chose to document the surface primarily using Structure-from-Motion technology (commonly known as photogrammetry).

While 3D laser scanning has been effective in recording the geometry and extent of caves in archaeological contexts (Grussenmeyer et al., 2010; Lutz and Weintke, 1999; Tyree et al., 2014), the accuracy (~1 cm) and resolution of point clouds generated by scanners within the project budget would not have been adequate to record the tiny engravings in the Asphendou Cave to an appropriately high standard. Each quadruped is about 5 cm long, and many features are engraved so shallowly that they hardly have any depth at all, so we anticipated that the laser scanner would have difficulty recording them consistently, accurately and at a high resolution. Conversely, photogrammetry is relatively inexpensive, requires no special setup, can produce imagery at the same resolution as the camera used to record the scene, and can measure distances with precision up to 1 part in 50,000 (Stamatopoulos and Fraser, 2014; Sapirstein, 2016), making it the ideal solution for imaging the Asphendou Cave. We used methods, equipment and standard software that are customary in the field of archaeology (Sapirstein and Murray, 2017) and therefore require little elaboration in the current context.

We analyzed fossil Candiacervus antlers from the Liko and Gerani Caves. All studied antler material is housed at the Museum of Paleontology and Geology of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. Comparative analysis of these antlers, excavated after the publication of the Asphendou Cave petroglyphs, and the petroglyphs themselves provides a far more detailed understanding of the iconography, and eliminates any confusion concerning the genus of the quadrupeds depicted. Fossil antlers were scanned with a Next Engine HD laser scanner and processed with Blender 3D software for correct positioning on the skull in order to obtain a virtual model that could be rotated in any direction for comparison with the depictions at the cave.


Art historical argument Stylistically, there are two points that compare well with other Palaeolithic illustrations of quadrupeds. The first is the very common practice of depicting an animal notionally intended to be in lateral profile, but showing a pair of antlers and/or horns as if the image werea three-quarter view. A strict profile illustration should, of course, only show one antler, but it seems that the Palaeolithic convention was to include the pair of antlers to facilitate the identification of the species. Secondly, the lack of a ground-line in the rendering of the herd is more common in Palaeolithic art than in the Bronze Age Minoan depictions of agrimia (Capra aegagrus cretica), which were a frequent artistic subject. It is unclear how or why a Bronze Age artist intending to engrave sequential images of agrimia would depict all of them with cranial appendages bearing such a close resemblance to Pleistocene Candiacervus antlers and not at all suggestive of agrimia horns. Candiacervus had been extinct for at least 6 thousand years by the Bronze Age, so such an artist could never have seen this species. Greater interpretive license is required to construe these Asphendou Cave quadrupeds as Holocene agrimia rather than as Pleistocene dwarf deer. It is simply implausible that these are Bronze Age distortions explained by random artistic license, rather than Ice Age depictions of what we now know was the dominant Cretan fauna in the Late Pleistocene.


Discussion Given that the quadrupeds depicted in the oldest layer of the Asphendou Cave rock carving are likely to represent Candiacervus, this art should be dated to the Palaeolithic period, making it the earliest figural art not only on Crete, but also in Greece.

In light of the recent discovery of Palaeolithic artifacts near caves in southwest Crete (Strasser et al., 2010, 2011), it is not surprising that cave art would be found in the area. Since the publication of Palaeolithic stone tools on the southwest coast of Crete in 2010 and the nearby island of Gavdos (Kopaka and Matzanas, 2009), several new Palaeolithic sites have been discovered throughout theAegean basin (Carter et al., 2014; Çilingiroğlu et al., 2016; Galanidouet al., 2016). Upper Palaeolithic tools were discovered on Gavdos, while the other sites have turned up primarily Lower-Middle Palaeolithic and Mesolithic finds. Despite the paucity of Upper Palaeolithic sites on the island, it is important to emphasize that the discovery of Pre-Neolithic sites on Aegean islands is just beginning, and subsequent surveys are almost certain to document more Upper Palaeolithic material.

While it has long been dismissed because of the previous scholarly consensus dating the earliest presence of humans on Crete to the Neolithic period, there is direct evidence that humans arrived on the island in the Palaeolithic period and this evidence further supports our conclusions about the Asphendou Cave petroglyphs.


Conclusion The last occurrence of the Cretan dwarf deer Candiacervus sometime after 21,500 years ago provides a terminus ante quem for the earliest layer of the Asphendou Cave rock carvings and confirms them as the oldest figural art found in Greece. Unsurprisingly, Palaeolithic artists represented what they knew, in this case a prevalent species of Cretandwarf deer (Candiacervus), which became extinct in the Upper Palaeolithic. Comparable early artistic expressions are not known from the Aegean basin. Our study of the Asphendou petroglyphs therefore deepens scholarly understanding of early hominins’ capacities for imaginative projection and confirms the precocity of Palaeolithic sea-farers in the Mediterranean. With this new evidence of an interface between hominins and extinct insular fauna, paleontologists and archaeologists can now address issues of resource exploitation, environmental impact and symbolic behavior on Crete.

(Source: “Palaeolithic cave art from Crete, Greece”, by Thomas F. Strasser, Sarah C. Murray, Alexandra van der Geer, Christina Kolb, Louis A. Ruprecht Jr.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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