Alepotrypa Cave & Ksagounaki, Greece; A burial complex and Megaliths from the Neolithic Age

In this post we present information on the exciting discoveries from Alepotrypa Cave & Ksagounaki, Greece. The interest is not only Archeological, but Cultural and Anthropological, too.


Research by The Diros Project, has uncovered the remains of an ancient town and burial complex that date to the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

In addition to a Neolithic ‘spooning’ couple, the archaeological team also uncovered several other burials and the remains of an ancient village that suggest the bay was an important center in ancient times. Located outside the entrance to Alepotrypa Cave, the site of Ksagounaki yielded Neolithic buildings and adult and infant burials that indicate the sites together were part of one huge ritual and settlement complex.

Although Alepotrypa Cave was used for domestic and ritual uses throughout the Neolithic period (ca. 6300-3000 BC), radiocarbon dates indicate that the site of Ksagounaki was used during the Final Neolithic period, 4200-3800 BC.

The Field Museum’s Dr. William Parkinson explains that perhaps the most surprising discovery was a Mycenaean-period burial structure, filled with the disarticulated bones of dozens of individuals accompanied by Late Bronze Age painted pottery, exotic stone beads, ivory, and a Mycenaean dagger made of bronze. Parkinson and his team have suggested that the megalithic buildings at Ksagounaki, constructed during the Neolithic Age*¹, may have attracted the attention of Mycenaeans over 2,000 years after they were abandoned.

An international team of archaeologists including Dr. Anastasia Papathanasiou (Studies and Ephoreia of Spleology and Paleoanthropology), Dr. William Parkinson (The Field Museum), Dr. Michael Galaty (Mississippi State University), Dr. Daniel Pullen (Florida State University), and Dr. Panagiotis Karkanas (American School of Classical Studies at Athens completed the five-year project.

The Diros Project was coordinated by the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology of the Ministry of Culture, under the direction of Dr. Giorgos Papathanassopoulos (Honorary Ephor of Antiquities). The project focused on the publication of finds from Alepotrypa Cave, the survey of the surrounding area, and excavations at Ksagounaki. In 2011, following a season of archaeological survey, the site was further investigated. Excavations began at the site in 2012 and concluded in 2014.



About the Diros Project

The Diros Project is an international, multi-disciplinary, Greek-American research project that explores human social dynamics on the Mani Peninsula of southern Greece. The project is co-directed by Drs. Giorgos Papathanassopoulos and Anastasia Papathanasiou of the Greek Ministry of Culture, William Parkinson of the Field Museum, and Michael Galaty of Millsaps College.

The primary goal of the project is to examine the role of Alepotrypa Cave in the Mani Peninsula within long-term processes of cultural change associated with the European Neolithic, when agriculture lifestyles were introduced and people gathered together into larger, more complex settlements. The project seeks to discover how the Mani’s unique cultural trajectory and remote geographic location influenced its integration into different social, political, and economic interaction spheres at different points in time. During the Neolithic, the Mani Peninsula occupied an intriguing role in interactions between the Greek mainland, the Greek islands, and the greater Mediterranean region, but the nature of these interactions has not been examined from an anthropological, as opposed to a historical, perspective.

Team members began conducting intensive survey in Diros Bay in the summer of 2011. After identifying a concentration of Neolithic artifacts on a promontory just above the cave, they began excavations to understand how the Neolithic occupants of the bay utilized the landscape surrounding Alepotrypa. Survey, geophysical prospection, and excavations are ongoing.



You can read a very informative Interview of Michael Galaty* about the Diros Project and its various findings at the following link:

Interview: Michael Galaty

*Michael Galaty is Professor and Department Head of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures (AMEC) and Interim Director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University. In 2013 he and Dr. Anastasia Papathanasiou of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture received an International Collaborative Research Grant to aid ‘The Diros Project: Greek-American Collaborative Archaeological Research & Training At Neolithic Alepotrypa Cave’



Introduction Mortuary behaviour and human skeletal remains constitute some of the most important data for archaeologists attempting to draw conclusions concerning social, cultural and biological conditions in the past. On the one hand, a number of studies have documented the relationships between variations in mortuary behaviour, and social status and political complexity. On the other hand, osteological material represents a cumulative record of past events and activity patterns for both the individual and the population. When a representative sample of individuals is available, skeletal morphology, pathology and chemistry can provide estimates of community health and disease, as well as information on general social behaviour and on human adaptation to the environment.

This paper focuses on Alepotrypa Cave, one of the richest Neolithic sites in Greece, which contains both habitation debris and very well preserved human osteological material, as well as an unusual variety of mortuary loci that can potentially reveal social and political differences within this society, and suggest increased attention to and concern for the dead.


The site and the material Based on ceramic typological data, the cave was occupied from approximately 5000 to 3200 BC, which corresponds to the Late Neolithic (LN) and Final Neolithic (FN) periods.

The pottery is typical of the southern Greek LN and FN periods with similarities to the later Early Helladic (EH) period. Other Neolithic artefacts include obsidian and flint lithic tools (including blades, arrow and spear points), polished stone axes, grindstones used for food preparation, four copper daggers, unworked copper nuggets and copper slag. Bone needles, clay spindle whorls, shell and stone beads, silver jewellery, bracelets made from imported Spondylus gaederopus shell as well as marble and clay figurines have been found. Features include hearths, deep storage pits and round clay ovens. Economic data are also abundant. A large number of animal bones from domesticated species, including sheep, goat, cattle and pig, have been recovered. Deer, shellfish and marine fish bone indicate that wild resources continued to be harvested.

Geological indications suggest that life at Alepotrypa Cave was disrupted by earthquake activity, which sealed the original entrance of the cave and cut off access to the lake.

The present sample of 161 individuals, the entire population of Alepotrypa Cave excavated up to the present, which are not all contemporary but represent remains from different chronological contexts of the LN and FN periods, provided a robust database from which I am able to determine the demographic and pathological characteristics of the population, the stresses to which it was subjected and the interaction between culture, health and environment. Bone preservation ranges from good to excellent due to the high humidity, the constant temperature of 18ºC (64ºF) of the cave microenvironment and the mineral consistency of the soil. Some bones are complete, but most are fragmentary.


Dietary reconstruction The analysis suggests that the cave and the surrounding area were occupied by an agricultural group (or groups) with a land-based economy and subsistence, which gave their diet a larger terrestrial component than the faunal remains from the cave midden might imply.

(Source: “Mortuary behaviour in the Alepotrypa Cave: assessments from the study of the human osteological material”, by Anastasia Papathanasiou)


Abstract During the Neolithic, human health and lifestyle changed following the adoption of domesticated plants and animals and sedentism. This paper presents a study on human osteological remains from Alepotrypa Cave, an important and very well-preserved Late and Final Greek Neolithic site occupied from 5000-3200 BC. The Alepotrypa sample comes from primary and secondary burials as well as scattered bone, and consists of a minimum number of 161 individuals. It includes equal proportions of adults and subadults and males and females, is characterized by high child mortality, and falls within the range of other Neolithic sites in terms of age profiles and stature. The most frequent pathological conditions observed in this population are:

1) anemic conditions (cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis), mild or healed in manifestation, most probably of nutritional origin, resulting from a poor diet focused on terrestrial resources such as domesticated cereals;

2) osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal stress markers, indicative of increased physical activity and heavy workloads; and

3) elevated prevalence of healed, depressed cranial fractures, serving as evidence of violent, nonlethal confrontations. Teeth exhibit a low prevalence of dental carries and linear enamel hypoplasia. The overall demographic, pathological, and behavioral results are consistent with observations of Neolithic populations elsewhere in Greece and the Mediterranean.

(Source: “Health status of the Neolithic population of Alepotrypa Cave, Greece”, by Anastasia Papathanasiou)


Alepotrypa Cave, located in Diros, Lakonia, is a massive karstic formation of several chambers ending at a deep freshwater lake. It was used for more than 3000 years as a residential area, a storage space, a burial site, and a locus of ritual activity. This is suggested by a rich archaeological record that includes a variety of features, such as hearths, clay ovens, clay floors, and primary and secondary burials. Also, large quantities of food refuse, such as domesticated and wild animal remains, fish bones, marine shells, and botanical material have been found as well as a diverse inventory of artifacts comprised of large storage vessels, a massive concentration of deliberately broken decorated pots, chipped and ground stone tools, bone tools, weaving equipment, figurines, copper artifacts, and shell, bone, and stone ornaments.

Recent survey in conjunction with geophysical analyses at the Diros Bay area has also located the adjacent open-air settlement. New evidence from radiocarbon dating of human burials and charcoal, both inside and outside the cave, place it with confidence in the Middle to Final Neolithic. Additional microstratigraphic analysis confirms multiple successive habitation layers inside the cave as well as hiatuses of occupation. Furthermore, a series of more specialized analyses are applied to the Alepotrypa Cave material such as carbon, nitrogen, strontium, and sulfur isotopes, phytolithic, biodistance, archaeobotanical, petrographic, and XRF of obsidian, in order to maximize the extracted information. Finally, the large quantities of artifacts that have been found since the 1970’s are now plotted and spatially situated on a detailed map using GIS to systematically correlate the material culture and refine the context of Alepotrypa Cave and incorporate this marginal site within the contemporary Neolithic cosmos.



Abstract The study presents the combined results of wood charcoal and phytolith analysis at Alepotrypa Cave, southern Peloponnese, Greece. The cave preserves rich cultural remains (hearth and floor constructions, pits and platforms, human bone scatters, massive quantities of fine pottery, lithic artefacts and ornaments) spanning the late Early to the Final Neolithic. The studied macro and micro-remains come from two distinct areas of the cave, the anterior chamber (close to the entrance of the cave) and the interior chambers (including a small fresh water lake), which, as has been suggested by several lines of evidence (analyses of cultural remains, human bones and micromorphology), were used for domestic and ritualistic purposes respectively. The aim of this study is two-fold: a) to investigate the local vegetation, and woodland management, b) to understand the use of plants and use of space along the habitation history of the cave exploring the possibility of a domestic setting for the anterior chamber and a ritualistic one for the interior. Wood charcoal and phytolith analyses support the two modes of usage; different fuel types in the hearths of the interior and anterior chambers of the cave along with different activities are documented. The anterior preserves well prepared clay floors and platforms with some cereal remains indicating light processing or consumption. The hearths in this area were fed with leafy branches from the open vegetation of the surrounding rocky slopes that included various scrub plants and scattered drought-resistant trees. Τhrough time and probably as a response to increased demand due to more frequent and longer-lasting use of the cave, neolithic people expanded their fuel-procurement activities to nearby evergreen woodland and deciduous oak thickets. By contrast the interior preserves evidence of ritualistic activities supported by the use of selected types of fuel, i.e. composted sheep dung along with firewood from scrub vegetation and small diameter wood of Fabaceae, Cistus sp. and Phillyrea/Rhamnus alaternus. The excellent burning qualities of composted dung and the ease of transportation of such material as well as of the small size firewood would explain their preferential use in the interior chambers where access was exceptionally difficult. Nevertheless, the slow-burning glow and smell of dung under the light of Pinus nigra resinous wood torches may have enhanced the powerfully evocative atmosphere of the interior chambers serving ritual purposes.

(Source: “Domestic and ritual use of plants and fuels in the neolithic cave of Alepotrypa, southern Peloponnese, Greece: The wood charcoal and phytolith evidence”, by Maria Ntinou, Georgia Tsartsidou)


Summary During the Final Neolithic (4500-3200 BCE) there appears to have been a major restructuring in the regional settlement networks of southern Greece. This included a general shift in activity from the north to the south with a significant increase in the number of of small, short lived sites in southern Greece, particularly in coastal locations. Trade and exchange also appears to have intensified, with exotic materials moved further and more frequently than in previous periods. Alepotrypa Cave, and its associated open-air site of Ksagounaki, reflect these processes, being ideally situated in Diros Bay and with the recovery of notable imported raw material and finished goods.

In this paper, I examine Alepotrypa in its regional and historic context in order to explain the relationship between the local processes that occurred in Diros Bay with the larger regional processes that changed the social landscape of southern Greece. I also explore the structure and function of the regional interaction networks that developed in the Aegean and how they related to changes throughout the macro-region during the 4th millennium.

(Source: “Alepotrypa Cave and Regional Networks of Southern Greece”, by William Ridge)


The man was placed behind the woman with his arms around her body, and their legs were intertwined. They were buried spooning around 3800 B.C. in a village on the small Greek peninsula known as Ksagounaki along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

The international team that discovered the intertwined corpses has dozens of questions, says member Michael Galaty, a Mississippi State University archaeologist.

Adjacent to Ksagounaki is Alepotrypa Cave, one of the largest ancient settlements discovered in southern Europe. Galaty, head of MSU’s Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures department, says the cave was occupied during the late portion of the Neolithic Age, approximately 5000-3000 B.C.

Alepotrypa Cave was first explored and excavated by Giorgos Papathanassopoulos beginning in the 1950s. However, Galaty’s team identified the Ksagounaki site in 2011 after surveying the land around the cave. The intertwined corpses were excavated in 2012 and 2013.

“There’ve only been a couple of prehistoric examples of this behavior around the world, but even when couples are buried together, they’re beside each other and not typically touching,” said Galaty, who also serves as the interim director of MSU’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology. “This couple was actually spooning. We assume they were partners of some kind and because of DNA analysis, we do know they are male and female.”

While the archaeological team is unsure of whether the man or the woman died first, the group is sure the times of death were close together, Galaty says.


“This is unique in Greece, and we’re analyzing the skeletons and bones to find out more about what went on, how they died and why they were placed there,” he explains.

“Usually, archaeologists can look at bone trauma to figure out what happened and infer cause of death. We may also be able to analyze the couple’s diets, as well as determine whether they had any diseases or genetic abnormalities.

“If the couple is related, we’ll be able to tell how closely or distantly they’re related, and that will help us to interpret more about them, the way they died and perhaps why they were interred this way.”

The bodies were discovered at Ksagounaki near a Neolithic house that was dated to the same time as the couple’s death around 3800 B.C.

The Neolithic buildings discovered on Ksagounaki feature megalithic walls made of huge stones.*¹

You don’t typically see this until the Bronze Age around the time of the Mycenaeans,” Galaty explains. “At first, we thought they were part of the bedrock, but then we realized they were put there by human beings. This is a very early example of people building on a large scale, and it adds to the sense that this was a really important place.



In the paper titled “Emergent Networks and Sociocultural Change in Final Neolithic Southern Greece“, by David Michael Smith, we read:

“Excavation of the double-faced, rubble-filled Wall 31 at Geraki (Crouwel 2012;
MacVeagh Thorne 2012) positions Laconia and the Peloponnese within a monumental FN architectural tradition that has its clearest expression in central and southern Attica and at Strofilas on Andros (Televantou 2008); the monumental terrace wall at Ksagounaki*¹ (Parkinson et al.) may represent a second monumental tradition in the same region.”

“The southern Greek mortuary record is rather sparse, and recent additions from Kolonna Stadt I (Touchais 1999:671) and Ksagounaki (Smith 2013:25; Parkinson et al.) are published only in the most preliminary form.”



From a lecture announcement (of Dr. Michael Galaty, Professor and Department Head of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures and Interim Director of Cobb Institute of Archaeology, Mississippi State University titled “Mycenaean Memories: Results of the 2014 Excavations at Ksagounaki, Mani, Greece“) we read:

“The Diros Project was designed to complete analysis of 1000s of artifacts from the Neolithic site of Alepotrypa Cave, located in the western Mani, Greece, and to place the site into a regional archaeological context through intensive survey of Diros Bay. Survey identified a large open-air Final Neolithic settlement outside the cave, named Ksagounaki, which was excavated 2010-2014. 2014 excavations revealed evidence for the village’s monumental construction using megalithic boulders*¹, an enigmatic double burial, and an unexpected, later Mycenaean ossuary.”



Summary This paper summarizes the results of multidisplinary research conducted by The Diros Project in Diros Bay on the western Mani Peninsula of the southern Peloponnesos. The project centers around Aleptorypa Cave, a massive cave that was used for burials and other ritual and domestic activities throughout the entire Neolithic period (ca. 6,000-4,000 BC). Under the direction of Dr. Giorgos Papathanassopoulos (Honorary Ephor of Antiquities), The Diros Project was established by a team of international researchers in 2010 to catalog and publish the materials that had been excavated from Alepotrypa Cave and to survey Diros Bay in an attempt to place the cave site into a regional context. Excavations also were conducted at the open-air settlement of Ksagounaki Promontory, located adjacent to Alepotrypa Cave, where the team discovered evidence of an extensive settlement and burials that date exclusively to the Final Neolithic period. A rock-built Mycenaean ossuary also was discovered on the promontory, suggesting the locale had retained a special importance into the Bronze Age.

(Source: “The Diros Project: Multidisciplinary Investigations at Alepotrypa Cave and Ksagounaki Promontory, 2010-2015”, by William Parkinson, Anastasia Papathanasiou, Michael Galaty, Daniel Pullen, Giorgos Papathanassopoulos)


Summary The southern Greek Final Neolithic period extends for over 1500 years, ca. 4700 – 3200 cal BC, but has resisted satisfactory subdivision in largely due to the lack of stratified excavations. Nevertheless most scholars follow Phelps’ 1975 division into an earlier and a later phase, each with distinct ceramic features, but this division combines data from many different regions, and finds from surface surveys or from poorly dated contexts.

A series of stratified radiocarbon dates from Ksagounaki, in both mortuary and domestic contexts, now allows us to construct a ceramic sequence for the middle four centuries of the FN period, ca. 4200-3800 cal BC, in which we can measure temporal variability of ceramic features. What is clear is that ceramic features formerly used to subdivide the FN in fact extend throughout the period.

As the occupation of Ksagounaki corresponds to one of the most intense periods of use of Alepotrypa Cave, our next step will be to correlate the two sequences to see whether we can detect variability in ceramic change based on the different contexts of open air and cave.

(Source: “Measuring Ceramic Change and Variability at Final Neolithic Diros”, by Daniel Pullen)


Strange and surprising findings have been reported from ongoing excavations at Alepotrypa Cave, a site in the Peloponnesus that one archaeologist called “a Neolithic Pompeii,” the Greek Ministry of Culture, Education, and Religious Affairs announced.

The most striking discovery was a burial from roughly 5,800 years ago containing two well-preserved adult human skeletons, one male and one female, with arms and legs interlocked in an embrace.

Archaeologists also found bones from two other Neolithic double burials, as well as a roughly 3,300-year-old Mycenaean ossuary holding bone fragments from dozens of individuals and numerous expensive grave goods, including a bronze dagger, agate beads, and ivory likely sourced from Lebanon.

The Alepotrypa—or “foxhole”—Cave represents one of the largest Neolithic burial sites known in all of Europe. Its enormous interior chambers reach more than half a kilometer into a mountain above Diros Bay, and burials in the cave span the entire Neolithic period in Greece, from 6000 to 3200 B.C. There are bones from at least 170 individuals inside the cave.

Though it’s currently impossible to prove, the burial tradition at Alepotrypa may have survived in cultural memory, eventually becoming associated with Tainaron by the Classical period. The Mycenaean ossuary is a suggestive link that could indicate a tradition persisting from Neolithic to Classical Greece. “There’s no direct evidence, but we can’t rule out that possibility,” Papathanasiou said.



William Parkinson is the associate curator of Eurasian anthropology at the Field Museum. He is on a research team, called The Diros Project, made up of two Greek and two American archaeologists (both Chicago natives).

They are excavating Alepotrypa Cave, which is nearly four football fields long. The researchers compare the most striking room in the cave to a Cathedral.

“It’s a very awesome place, in the literal sense of the word,” Parkinson said. “I can only think that, several thousand years ago, when it was lit by torches, not by electric lamps like it is now, it would have been all that more striking.”

They have unearthed tools and pottery that remain from a Neolithic (Stone Age) community between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. Under the dripping stalactites, skeletons dating as far back as 8,000 years rest under layers of sediment.

“It’s the closest thing we have to something like a Neolithic Pompeii in the Mediterranean,” Parkinson said.

Alepotrypa was not resettled by later civilizations, so the authenticity is extraordinary, Parkinson said.

The settlers used the cave as a shelter, a cemetery and a sacred worship place. The population expanded outside of the cave and bloomed into an early urban center.

The pottery and “ancient people’s garbage” the settlers left behind are the strongest evidence of a densely populated village, Parkinson said. A two-by-two meter unit revealed more than 30 pounds of pottery. The archaeologists unearthed materials and pottery styles from different regions, which indicate economic activity and a mingling of cultures.

“If you’re in an area where there is more trade more interaction, there’s more variety in not just in food, but in life and the people you meet,” Parkinson said. People may have gravitated toward Alepotrypa just for the sake of “wanting to live together.”

But Parkinson said all life in Alepotrypa abruptly ended, around 5,000 years ago, when the cave’s population was most dense and dynamic. The cave entrance collapsed, possibly due to an earthquake. The cave’s occupants were buried alive.

“It’s sealed,” Parkinson said. “And it’s not opened again until the 1950s.”

After the collapse, settlers outside the cave fled the peninsula. Even today, the area surrounding the cave is scarcely populated.

“The area is geographically marginal, you have to want to get there,” Parkinson said.



NovoScriptorium: What we have here is a record of megalithic structures surprisingly dating  from the Neolithic Age. Frustratingly, we haven’t managed to find any directly related publication nor photographs. In any case, this discovery apparently places Greece among the countries with the oldest megalithic structures in Europe.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium by: Philaretus Homerides



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