The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Albania; the Kryegjata B (Fier) excavation

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Albania: Survey and Excavation at the Site of Kryegjata B (Fier District)“, by Curtis Runnels et al.


Abstract In the Balkans archaeologists until recently have neglected Pleistocene and early Holocene remains in open-air contexts in favor of excavations in caves. As a consequence, they have reconstructed patterns of settlement and land use that in many areas are misleading. The authors of this paper suggest that a systematic examination of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic open-air sites through intensive surface survey has the potential to transform entirely our understanding of early Balkan prehistory. We demonstrate this by presenting in detail the results of our own fieldwork in central Albania in the region of Mallakastra, in particular a description of surface archaeological investigations and test excavations at the site of Kryegjata B that have yielded Middle Palaeolithic, Early Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic finds.


Introduction The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods have been poorly known in Albania (Korkuti 1995; Korkuti and Petruso 1993). In part, this situation reflects a lack of systematic searching for such remains in open-air contexts. Here we argue that the application of the techniques of intensive surface survey has the ability to alter radically our picture of early prehistory in the Balkans by identifying large numbers of previously unknown open-air sites. Indeed, precisely this has happened in central Albania where, since 1998, members of the Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project (MRAP) have been successful in identifying for the first time Palaeolithic and Mesolithic remains in a great many such findspots. MRAP is an interdisciplinary, international, and diachronic, regional studies project sponsored by the Instituti i Arkeologjisë in Tirana, and the University of Cincinnati. About 35 sq km have been surveyed intensively by the project in the hinterlands of the Greek colony of Apollonia (founded in the late seventh or early sixth century BC) and of the Illyrian hillfort of Margëlliç.

Systematic surface collection, test excava-tions, and geological investigations have in combination allowed us to sketch a picture of regional settlement and land use in central Albania that contrasts dramatically with that which was apparent prior to our research. The areas we have explored were well-known to the people of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. They were not empty of human populations as had seemed to be the case prior to survey. Therefore, detailed regional data of the sort that MRAP is producing for Albania seem vital in linking the prehistory of the south-eastern part of the continent to that of central and western Europe.


The Topographical Setting of Kryegjata B Intensive surveys conducted by MRAP in five field seasons (1998–2002) established that early prehistoric artifacts are strewn across much of the Mallakastra region in varying degrees of density (e.g. at Peshtan, Kraps and Rusinja, respectively 8.7, 9.3 and 17.2 km to the southeast of the site of Kryegjata B; see also Davis 2004). Kryegjata B is one of four artifact scatters in the valley of Kryegjata, immediately east of Apollonia, designated as ‘sites’ because they represent concentrations of lithics that are rich and well-bounded in comparison with average artifact densities in their vicinity.

The sites in the Kryegjata valley were all identified in areas disturbed by field roads, or in eroded gullies. It seemed possible that intact and buried multi-component horizons, only hinted at by surface survey, existed at these sites. Kryegjata B is the only one of these from which artifacts on the surface have been systematically surface collected according to a grid and which has been tested by excavation.

Surface Collection and Excavation In 1999 artifacts in the road-bed at Kryegjata B were systematically collected in order to determine if their distribution was patterned in any meaningful way. There were 849 artifacts from 78 units, each c. 9 sq m in area. Analysis of these finds did not reveal any differences in the locations where Palaeolithic and Mesolithic artifacts were recovered, nor were tools of various functional types or from distinct stages in the lithic reduction sequence spatially segregated. The surface collections did indicate, however, that artifacts were more heavily concentrated on the eastern side of the road in the northern part of the site, and it was there that we placed our test trenches.


The Lithic Artifacts An assemblage of 1,110 lithics from the survey (N=970) and excavations (N=140) at Kryegjata B was examined and classified according to formal technological type.

The collection procedures employed by the survey and excavation teams ensured that lithics of all sizes and descriptions were recovered. The wide range of artifact sizes, from large cobbles down to worked flakes less than 1 cm in maximum dimension, is evidence that few lithics of any description were overlooked. The artifacts were almost all made from local raw materials (flint, radiolarite and other varieties of quartz, quartzite and cherty limestone), all referred to here as ‘flint’. The local raw materials are available in the form of cobbles in gravels, streambeds and ravines in the vicinity of the site. Cortical flakes struck from cobbles are common in the assemblage and many cobbles have had one or more flakes removed to test for quality (‘tested pieces’ as opposed to true cores). Two varieties of local flint were most commonly used: a dark reddish-brown, opaque, lustrous material, and a fossiliferous material of light brown color.

Although local materials predominate, a small number of artifacts from the surface collection was manufactured from high quality flint that resembles the light, translucent brown flint (or chalcedony) called ‘honey flint’ in the archaeological literature (e.g. Perlès 1990b), and may have been brought from another part of Albania or even farther afield, perhaps Bulgaria, where similar flint was widely used in prehistoric times. Only finished artifacts of this ‘honey flint’ were found, and the lack of cores, core fragments or other débitage is evidence that it was not procured and worked locally. One artifact is Mesolithic, but other pieces could be later in date and are perhaps Neolithic. Only one small piece of obsidian (of Mesolithic type) was recognized. Obsidian sources are found in Hungary, Italy and Greece, but certainly not in Albania, and no other obsidian artifacts of any period have been found anywhere in the vicinity of Apollonia by MRAP.

Most finds may be grouped into three assemblages of specific dates: Middle Palaeolithic (MP), Early Upper Palaeolithic (EUP) and Mesolithic. It is not permissible, of course, to assume that there was a continuous human presence at the site, and the evident differences in the ages of the assemblages may mean that there were long periods of time when the site was not occupied. Evidence for use of the site in other periods is uncertain. Many artifacts from the collections (N=221) are fundamentally undiagnostic, and could date to the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, or later periods. These include cores (17), flakes (125), a few blades (4), a small number of retouched tools (36 notches, denticulates and retouched pieces), and miscel-laneous débitage (39).


Middle Palaeolithic The MP sample consists of 17 artifacts, all from surface collections: typical and atypical Levallois flakes, plain flakes, sidescrapers, denticulates, a naturally backed knife, and one bifacial foliate of Szeletian type that was shaped with soft-hammer percussion. The artifacts were manufactured from both of the most common varieties of local flint and are distinguished from artifacts of other periods by technique of manufacture, the typology of the retouched tools, and the relatively larger size of the artifacts.

The sample is too small to allow definite conclusions, but the Kryegjata B assemblage seems similar to MP assemblages that date from the last interglacial, Oxygen Isotope Stage (OIS) 5 (c. 135–115 kya) and the mid-glacial, OIS 3 (c. 60–30 kya; cf. Huxtable et al. 1992; Korkuti 1983; Kozlowski 1992; Runnels 2001; Zhou et al. 2000). The Levallois technique was rarely used at Kryegjata B. The retouched tools were manufactured on flakes, which implies that the typical reduction strategy was focused on the flaking of cobbles to produce large flat cortical pieces and wedge-shaped (‘orange slice’) flakes.

Technological characteristics and the distinctive forms of the retouched tool types are most similar to those of the Pontinian of Italy (Kuhn 1995), the variant facies of the MP found around the Adriatic, and the MP industry found to the south of Albania in Greek Epirus (Runnels and van Andel 2003). The MP Kryegjata B assemblage cannot be classified or dated with certainty, but the bifacial foliate of Szeletian type recalls examples in those MP assemblages found throughout eastern Europe that are sometimes interpreted as transitional industries overlapping the Middle Palaeolithic–Early Upper Palaeolithic boundary both chronologically and culturally (Allsworth-Jones 1986; Kozlowski 1992; Runnels 1988; 2001).


Early Upper Palaeolithic The Upper Palaeolithic assemblage at Kryegjata B (N=33) is larger and includes cores, flakes, backed blades, burins, end scrapers and perçoirs. The artifacts were made typically on flakes rather than blades.

The typical features of the assemblage at Kryegjata B are the small size of the flake blanks, the style of the retouch, and the presence of certain formal tool types, especially retouched blades, backed blades, carinated and nosed endscrapers, and steep scrapers on blocks of flint (rabots). The Kryegjata B EUP assemblage lacks small backed bladelets of Gravettian or Epigravettian type, a typical component of Late Upper Palaeolithic assemblages in neigh- boring regions (Kozlowski 1999b; Bietti 1990; Bailey 1997; Bailey et al. 1999). It is possible, therefore, that the EUP occupation of Kryegjata B was followed by an interruption in the occupation of the region during the last glacial maximum, c. 26–13 kya, at the time when such industries were widespread in the Balkans (Kozlowski 1999b).

Finally, there should be mentioned one small group of artifacts (N = 31), which includes cores, flakes, scrapers, a burin, a naturally backed knife, notches and retouched pieces. These artifacts may be Palaeolithic, if judged by their large size and degree of patination, but they are essentially undiagnostic of date.

In conclusion, Kryegjata B was first used in the Middle Palaeolithic, possibly beginning as early as the last interglacial. The earliest artifacts are typically Mousterian of a kind found throughout southeastern Europe and the Balkans. A single leaf-point may connect the Kryegjata B assemblage with late MP indus-tries elsewhere in the Balkans. The length of time the site was occupied or the extent to which MP occupation there was continuous cannot be determined from the available evidence. Kryegjata B was again used by people with artifacts of EUP type that resemble the Bachokirian. There is no evidence for human activity at the site in the late Upper Palaeolithic after c. 26 kya when industries of Gravettian or Epigravettian type made their appearance in the Balkans. Occupation of the site did not occur again until the beginning of the Holocene.


The Mesolithic The majority of the lithics from the survey and excavation at Kryegjata B belong to the Mesolithic (N = 839). These artifacts could be distinguished from the MP and EUP artifacts found at the site on the basis of their raw material, technique of manufacture and formal typological characteristics. There were 702 Mesolithic artifacts found on the surface and 137 in the excavations; in excavations they were the only artifacts encountered apart from one backed blade and two large patinated flakes that may be Palaeolithic. All but two of the Mesolithic artifacts were manufactured from flint that appears to be of local origin. An obsidian microlith from the excavations (SF 1629), a rectangle 0.9 cm in length, is a unique find, as is a notched flake manufactured from ‘honey flint’. The Mesolithic flint artifacts are unpatinated, unlike those of the Palaeolithic.

The surface collection is similar to that found in the excavation but with larger numbers of typical tools (and one microburin). Perlès (2001: 31-35) noted the rare occurrence of microburins in the Lower Mesolithic at Franchthi Cave, which she suspects may be ‘kick-ups’ from the underlying Upper Palaeolithic. She concluded that the Franchthi Mesolithic microliths were not made with the microburin technique and the 11 microliths from the Kryegjata B surface collection are certainly not. They were instead manufactured by retouching one or more edges of flakes or flake fragments to produce irregular geometric shapes, typically trapezes, triangles and rectangles, often with sinuous edges and sometimes with no clear cutting edge. The same technique (i.e. non-microburin) is seen at Sidari in Corfu (Sordinas 1970).

The most diagnostic artifacts from Kryegjata B are endscrapers, burins, perçoirs, trunca-tions, notches and denticulates.

The Mesolithic retouch at Kryegjata B is like that described by Perlès at Franchthi—namely, small, nibbling, discontinuous edge-retouch of a very delicate kind (Perlès 2001: 31-35). It is not uncommon to find many retouched edges on the same flake. Such ‘combination’ tools (N = 6; this is a minimum count as others were classified according to their dominant tool type) are a common feature at Mesolithic sites (e.g. Runnels 1996).

It is evident that the site of Kryegjata B was used differently in the Mesolithic period than in the Palaeolithic. The large number of cores (52), flakes (361), blades (11) and pieces of débitage (64) is typical of active flintknapping, and one flint hammerstone with percussive wear patterns may belong to the Mesolithic component, since it is made of the same kind of flint as the other artifacts. The retouched tool types suggest a wide range of activities at the site. The scrapers, burins and perçoirs were perhaps used to work hide, wood or bone, and the truncations, notches, denticulates and retouched pieces may have been used to fashion plant fibers, wood, antler and bone. The microliths were probably used as arrowheads or were parts of some kind of composite projectile (Clark 1980). As well as the variety of the tool types represented in the assemblage, the size of the collection points to the presence of a base camp at Kryegjata B, or at the very least, a seasonal camp occupied for long periods of time, a place where people made and repaired hunting equipment, treated perishable materials, and more generally carried out the many functions one associates with foragers.

In its general outlines the Mesolithic assemblage from Kryegjata B resembles the Lower Mesolithic from Franchthi Cave, although the presence of microliths may indicate an Upper Mesolithic component as well. Microliths are, however, rare at Kryegjata B and, together with backed bladelets, make up less than 5% of the Mesolithic industry.

Assemblages similar to Kryegjata B are known from the northern Argolid (Runnels 1996), Epirus (Runnels et al. 1999; Runnels and van Andel 2003), and Corfu (Sordinas 1970) in Greece, and Vlushë and Konispol (Korkuti and Petruso 1993: 707; Korkuti et al. 1996: 211-12) in Albania. The Klisoura Gorge sites (Berbati, Argolid) belong to the Lower Mesolithic and are dated to ca. 10 kya. They have an assemblage rich in small endscrapers and lacking in microliths (Koumouzelis et al. 1996; Runnels 1996). In Greek Epirus, Mesolithic sites in sand dunes near Preveza and at the mouth of the Acheron River are also dated to 10–7 kya (Zhou et al. 2000) and are characterized by two different assemblages: one dominated by small scrapers and combination tools without microliths like the Lower Mesolithic at Franchthi, and another assemblage with microliths similar to those found at Sidari (Runnels et al. 1999). The Mesolithic at Vlushë has not been published in detail, but the assemblage at Konispol Cave has microliths similar to the Upper Mesolithic at Franchthi and is dated to c. 9.5 kya (Korkuti et al. 1996; Petruso et al. 1994).

A common feature of the Albanian, Cor-fiote, and Greek Epirote Mesolithic assem- blages is that the microliths are made, as at Kryegjata B, from flakes or blade segments that were snapped into small fragments before retouching. Sometimes quite irregular pieces were made into microliths. Another common feature of the Mesolithic at Kryegjata B and related sites in Albania and Greece is the minute lateral retouch that is sometimes found on the base of very small pointed flakes (Perlès 1990a: 60, fig. 15; Runnels 1996).

The Kryegjata B Mesolithic does not closely resemble assemblages in the eastern Balkans and in northwest Turkey, which are characterized by backed bladelets and other elements that may be derived directly from the late Upper Palaeolithic industries of the region (Srejovic 1990; Gatsov 1990; Gatsov and Özdogan 1994). It is similar, however, to that of sites farther north in the Adriatic region, where the Odmut Cave in Montenegro, like Franchthi, Sidari and Konispol, has an industry dominated by endscrapers, burins, truncations, notches and trapezes on flakes (Srejovic 1990: 489-90). It is clear that there is considerable chronological and typological variation in the Balkan Mesolithic that requires further study before any chronological or regional patterns can be firmly identified.


Conclusions Use of Kryegjata B began in the Middle Palaeolithic period and its local flake-based assemblage may date from as early as the last interglacial c. 135 kya (Lower Palaeolithic materials, it should be noted, are absent at Kryegjata B, but have been identified elsewhere in the survey area, e.g. at Peshtan, Kraps and Rusinja). The site was also used in the Early Upper Palaeolithic, but the record ends before the Gravettian and Epigravettian backed-blade industries spread across the Balkans after 26 kya. A third period of activity at the site was in the early Holocene (Mesolithic), probably after 10 kya, and may have lasted for as long as 2,000 years. The explanation for the importance of Kryegjata B in both the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic is to be found in the relationship of the site to the coastline of the Adriatic: that is, it appears to have been occupied in times when the climate was warmer, the sea level was higher, and the coast was closer. Indeed, around the Mediterranean and in the Marmara and Black Sea regions (Gatsov and Özdogan 1994; Runnels and Özdogan 2001) there is a pattern of near-coastal open-air sites with two major cultural assemblages, Middle Palaeolithic and Mesolithic.

Relatively long episodes of warm climate and high sea levels would have contributed to the creation of a local environment with lagoons and marshes fed by the two major rivers that crossed the plain. These riverine and littoral areas would have been rich in plants and animals. In the absence of grazing one can be sure that there would have been shrubs in the area of the site. Very dry areas would have supported a phrygana plant community dominated by low xeromorphic shrubs and herbs. The climate would also have allowed dense forests to develop in places with bet-ter soils. The Kryegjata B ridge may itself have supported a deciduous oak forest (as did southern Mesolithic sites like Klisoura; Runnels 1996) and is likely to have abounded in acorns, deer and boar. The attractions of the site are clear.

During the Middle and Early Upper Palaeolithic, as has also been suggested above, Kryegjata B may have served as a special activity site, tied to a larger base camp located elsewhere in the area, in a system of ‘radiating mobility’.

(Source: “The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Albania: Survey and Excavation at the Site of Kryegjata B (Fier District)”, by Curtis Runnels et al.)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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