Obsidian findings from Cyprus suggest the existence of Neolithic (land and sea) trade networks

In this post we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “A Compositional Study (pXRF) of Early Holocene Obsidian Assemblages from Cyprus, Eastern Mediterranean“, by Theodora Moutsiou


Abstract This paper presents the results of the geochemical characterisation of complete obsidian assemblages dating to the Early Aceramic Neolithic (8200–6900 Cal BC) and located in Cyprus, eastern Mediterranean. Obsidian artefacts have over the years been recovered from a number of Early Holocene archaeological sites on the island of Cyprus. As there are no obsidian sources on Cyprus, the presence of obsidian island-wide indicates long-distance sea transport/distribution, central Anatolia usually considered as the main supplying region. Portable XRF technology (X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry) was applied to determine numbers of obsidian sources represented in complete archaeological assemblages and address research questions concerning the social landscape Cyprus was part of during the Early Holocene, a time of significant change in the broader eastern Mediterranean region.


The earliest known Cypriot obsidian examples (three blades) date to the Initial Aceramic Neolithic period (ca. 10,000–9500 Cal BC) and derive from Ayios Tychonas Klimonas, on the southern coast of the island (Vigne, Briois, Zazzo, Carrère, Daujat, & Guilaine, 2011).

The absence of good obsidian outcrops on Cyprus indicates that the raw material reached the island via sea transport since Cyprus was never connected to any mainland (Sondaar, 2000).

Earlier analyses on Cypriot obsidian from this period have invariably pointed to a central Anatolian (Cappadocia) provenance for the Cypriot obsidian artefacts.

Previous studies on eastern Mediterranean obsidians (e.g. Cann & Renfrew, 1964; Carter & Shackley, 2007; Binder, Gratuze, Mouralis, & Balkan-Atli, 2011; Milić, 2014) have shown the elements Zr, Sr, Rb, Y and Nb are important geochemical markers for obsidian provenancing. Similarly, the analysed Cypriot obsidians can be reliably distinguished into geochemical groupings based on the values for Zr and Sr, following Carter, Grant, Kartal, Coşkun, & Özkaya, 2013.

The new pXRF data support the results of earlier work (e.g. Briois et al., 1997; Gratuze, 1999; Peltenburg, 2003), which identified central Anatolia as the sole region supplying obsidian to Cyprus. Indeed, the geochemical composition of the majority of the obsidian artefacts points towards the Göllüdağ complex (Binder et al., 2011). However, there still remain a number of unsourced artefacts whose elemental composition is beyond the expected ranges for Göllüdağ or the other main central Anatolian sources that need to be addressed.


Discussion Although at this stage it is not possible to securely provenance all of the analysed artefacts, the work presented in this paper demonstrates that at least three different obsidian sources are represented in the Early Aceramic Neolithic assemblages of Cyprus. The new data is important in gaining a better understanding regarding the social behaviour of the island’s early occupants. The documentation of multiple obsidian sources on Cyprus suggests that the arrival of obsidian on the island was not the result of a single journey or a single network. Rather multiple interaction networks between the island and the mainland are most likely reflected in the distribution of obsidian on Cyprus. Typically such interaction is seen as Cypriots seeking to gain access to resources not available in their ‘impoverished environment’ (Horwitz, Tchernov, & Hongo, 2004; Watkins, 2004) rather than as evidence for active involvement in a continued two-way interaction (Finlayson, 2004; McCartney et al., 2010). Eastern Mediterranean maritime networks (e.g. Horejs, Miliç, Ostmann, Thanheiser, Weninger, & Galik, 2015) are already established during the Epipalaeolithic/Mesolithic or earlier as attested in archaeological sites, such as Ouriakos (Lemnos) and Maroulas (Kythnos) or Stelida (Naxos) in the Aegean (Efstratiou, Biagi, & Starnini, 2014; Sampson, Kozłowski, Kaczanowska, & Giannouli, 2002; Carter, Contreras, Doyle, Mihailoviç, Moutsiou, & Skarpelis, 2014). Mammalian remains from Aceramic Neolithic Cyprus indicate the occurrence of introduced species, such as wild boar, which was managed and hunted on the island (Vigne, Carrère, Briois, & Guilaine, 2011). Aside from the introduction of domesticated fauna to Cyprus, material culture parallels, such as shaftstraighteners and lozenge points, and obsidian from multiple sources, suggest that the early communities inhabiting Cyprus had an active role in the broader Eastern Mediterranean social landscape.

Different lines of evidence suggest that the earliest occupants of Cyprus in the Early Holocene had detailed knowledge of the island’s varied local resources and how best to exploit them. These resources include fresh water, in fact Cyprus boasts some of the oldest wells in the world (Colledge & Conolly, 2007), a varied biomass as well as ochre, picrolite and excellent quality chert for stone tool-making (Peltenburg, 2003; McCartney et al., 2010). The Early Aceramic Neolithic inhabitants of Cyprus were also actively involved in the circulation of obsidian on an island-wide scale that ranges from 30 to 220 km. More importantly, the acquisition of obsidian from sources outside the island, as the geochemical data indicates, required long-distance movement (a 300–400 km linear distance from the nearest central Anatolian sources) and it was only possible via costly (in terms of time and energy) sea transport.

Obsidian provides tangible evidence that the people occupying Cyprus during the Early Holocene maintained multiple and multi-directional active networks (alliances or kin ties) with the mainland, irrespectively of distance or presumed sea barriers. These active maritime interactions as evinced by obsidian help disperse earlier ideas of island marginality (e.g. Bar-Yosef, 2014; Cherry, 1981). While maintaining (or developing) elements of a distinct material culture, Cyprus in the Early Aceramic Neolithic was not a marginal region, isolated in the periphery of the eastern Mediterranean world but rather an integral part of it (Watkins, 2004; McCartney, 2010).


Conclusion The dual objectives of this study were to elementally characterise complete obsidian assemblages from a number of Early Aceramic Neolithic archaeological sites located on the island of Cyprus and, then, use primary and published geological data to infer their provenance as a means of addressing the social interactions between the island and its neighbouring mainland at a time when substantial changes occur in the broader eastern Mediterranean region. The analysis was able to geochemically characterise all 577 obsidian artefacts and accurately fingerprint most of them to their geological sources. The results reported in this study support previous research, showing that central Anatolia supplied the majority of obsidian found in Cyprus. However, the documentation of several obsidian artefacts that cannot be provenanced to central Anatolia suggests that additional obsidian sources, most likely also Anatolian, located further afield may also have reached the island. The new obsidian data require us to reconsider Cyprus within a far wider eastern Mediterranean social landscape than previously envisaged.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: