Obsidian artifacts in Albania; evidence for prehistoric Trade with Italy and Greece

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “pXRF analysis of obsidian artifacts from Albania: Crossroads or cul-de-sac?“, by Rudenc Ruka et al.)


Archaeologists first identified obsidian artifacts in Albania in the early 20th century, however their numbers were few and the contexts of their recovery were insecure. Their source was never determined and it remained unclear why, given the large numbers of obsidian artifacts recovered in regions to the south and north, in areas like central and southern Greece and Croatia, more obsidian artifacts were not found in Albania. To address these problems in Albanian prehistoric archaeology, we analyzed eight obsidian artifacts from six sites – out of a total of only 16 known from the entire country, many of which are now lost – using portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (pXRF). One of these, from the Putanja site, is from Lipari, Italy. The other seven are from Melos, Greece. All eight appear to date from the Middle/Late Neolithic to Late Bronze Age (5500–1050/25 BCE).

In this article we review the archaeology of obsidian in Albania, present the results of pXRF analysis, and discuss the reasons why Albania was not better integrated into widespread, prehistoric obsidian interaction spheres centered on Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the Carpathians. The absence of obsidian in Albania is most certainly not the result of poor archaeological sampling; several, recent intensive surface surveys and systematic excavations in south and north Albania produced no obsidian. Rather, it appears likely that obsidian was not imported to prehistoric Albania due to the presence, particularly in the southwest of the country, of abundant, accessible, very fine flint sources (Ruka et al., 2014: 102; Perhoč and Ruka, 2017). Prehistoric inhabitants of Albania were out of the loop or otherwise uninterested in obsidian during those periods of Mediterranean prehistory, such as the Late Neolithic to the Bronze Age, when it was traded most extensively.


Mediterranean obsidian sources Most Eastern Mediterranean obsidian derives from four primary source zones in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Carpathians. Chemical sourcing of Mediterranean lithic materials began with research on Melian obsidian in the 1960’s by Cann and Renfrew (1964), acting as a catalyst for the analysis of other, known sources in other parts of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Consequently, we now understand relatively well where and how Mediterranean obsidian was acquired and subsequently traded.

Greece In Greece, there are two main island sources of obsidian, Giali in the Dodecanese and Melos in the Cyclades. Some exploitation may have also occurred on the island of Antiparos, but the material is considered to be of lower quality (Renfrew et al., 1965: 232; Williams-Thorpe, 1995: 231). Melos is the best-studied obsidian source in the Mediterranean, and has been exploited since early prehistoric times. Melian obsidian artifacts were recovered, for example, from Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic levels at Franchthi Cave in the Argolid, demonstrating the existence of early marine exchange networks (Perlès, 1987, 1990; Perlès et al., 2011). Obsidian trade in the Aegean continued through the Neolithic and climaxed during the Bronze Age. Though the other sources were known and occasionally used, the majority of obsidian found at sites in Greece comes from Melos and access to the quarries might have been open, not restricted (Torrence, 1986).

Melian obsidian artifacts are found throughout Greece, from Thrace and Greek Macedonia in the north to the Peloponnese and the Ionian islands in the south, and at many sites in western Anatolia (Kourtessi-Philippakis, 2014; Milić, 2014: 288, fig. 2; Sørenson, 2010: 158, fig. 1). Generally speaking, numbers fall off with distance (Sørenson, 2010: 171, table 1), however, and as recent field research (Middle Kalamas Archaeology Project in Thesprotia, Sidari excavations, etc.) has demonstrated, there is clearly less Melian obsidian in northwestern Greece and the Adriatic as compared to northern Greece and Asia Minor (Kourtessi-Philippakis, 2009a, 2009b). To the best of our knowledge, Melian obsidian has not been identified along the east Adriatic coast north of southern Albania and in Italy, with the exception of Grotta del Leone near Pisa (Tykot, 1996: 54). Melian obsidian accounts for approximately 10% of the total from the prehistoric site of Salamandrija on the island of Palagruža, while the rest is from Lipari (Forenbaher, 2013: 94; Tykot, 2011, 2014).

Italy Italian obsidian comes from sources on four islands: Lipari, Palmarola, Pantelleria, and Sardinia. Of these four, Lipari obsidian is the most widely distributed, with substantial amounts found throughout Italy and in Croatia, near the coast in Istria and in central Dalmatia (e.g., Danilo, n=54), and inland as well, at a few sites in north Croatia (Bass, 1998; Kaiser and Forenbaher, 1999; Tykot, 2011, 2014, 2017a; Tykot et al., 2013). Obsidian from the other Italian sources has not been identified in the Adriatic, with the exception of two pieces of Palmarola obsidian from Sušac (versus 56 from Lipari; Tykot, 2014: 178), one each at two mainland sites in Croatia (Tykot, 2017b), and Sardinian obsidian at Brindisi in the heel of Italy (De Francesco et al., 2011). One Albanian obsidian artifact from the Putanja site is from Lipari.

Turkey There are many sources of obsidian known in Turkey, primarily located inland in central Turkey (Carter, 2006; Carter and Shackley, 2007; Chataigner et al., 1998). Small numbers of central Anatolian obsidian artifacts are found in western Anatolia and in Crete and the Cyclades (Milić, 2014: 287, 288, fig. 2). No Anatolian obsidian has been identified in Albania.

The Carpathians As is the case in the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe has a limited number of obsidian sources from which materials could be obtained in prehistoric times (Biro, 1984, 1998a, 1998b). The obsidian sources are located in several locations within the Tokaj-Eperjes Mountains in northwestern Hungary and in southeastern Slovakia. To date, relatively few compositional studies have been carried out on Eastern European obsidian materials (Biagi et al., 2007; Biagi and Starnini, 2013; Constantinescu et al., 2002; Riebe, 2016; Williams-Thorpe and Nandris, 1977; Williams-Thorpe, 1978; Williams-Thorpe et al., 1984). Small numbers of Carpathian obsidian artifacts are found as far south as Greek Macedonia, e.g., from the sites of Dispilio and Mandalo (Kilikoglou et al., 1996; Milić, 2014: 288, fig. 2), and in northern Italy (Kilikoglou et al., 1996: 347). Carpathian obsidian has been recovered from Neolithic archaeological sites in northern, continental Croatia and Bosnia (Tykot, 2011), as well as recently from the Dalmatian coast (D. Riebe, personal communication). No Carpathian obsidian has been identified in Albania, but there are several pieces from the site of Žitkovac, Kosovo (Tripković and Milić, 2008: 80 citing Chapman, 1981: 302–303, fig. 98).


Obsidian in Albania The list of obsidian artifacts discovered in Albania is short and confined to twelve sites in southern Albania: 16 total artifacts, of which eight are certainly obsidian (as determined by pXRF analysis), one may be obsidian (visually inspected, but not available for pXRF analysis), and six were probably obsidian (not visually inspected by the authors or subjected to pXRF analysis), but are now lost. One reported obsidian axe, now lost, was almost certainly not obsidian. Of the 16, six are blades or blade fragments, three are “scrapers,” three are flakes, and two are chips/chunks. Of the three flakes, one may indicate rejuvenation of a core, and of the blades, one preserves a secondary crest, indicating that prepared cores were occasionally imported to Albania. Of those artifacts that could be dated, by form and/or context, the majority date to the Neolithic-Bronze Age, with most of those probably dating from the Late Neolithic to Bronze Age (5500–1050/25 BCE).

Albanian obsidian artifacts subjected to pXRF analysis Recently, an obsidian piece from Maliq was identified in the Institute of Archaeology store rooms in Tirana. The site is located in the Korça basin in southeast Albania, on the north side of the current bed of the Devolli River, in close proximity to the town of Maliqi. The settlement, discovered in 1948 during drainage work at Maliq Lake (Ceka and Adam, 1949: 95), was excavated from 1961 to 1966 and 1973 to 1974 (Andrea, 1983–1984: 114, 1991–1992: 84–85; Prendi, 1966, 1974), revealing Late Neolithic, Eneolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age phases. The piece was originally excavated in 1966, bears the inventory number 5869, square K13, spit 20, and is described as a blade fragment, bilaterally retouched on black flint belonging chronologically to the Late Neolithic. PXRF analysis of the artifact indicated instead that it is Melian obsidian.

Two purported obsidian artifacts were found at the large (8 ha) Middle (5400–5200 BCE)–Late Neolithic (4800–4500 BCE) lakeside settlement of Kallamas, located on the northern shore of Greater Prespa Lake in the Korça district of southeast Albania. The site represents a particularly large specialized workshop for the production of polished stone implements. It was first identified by an Albanian-French team in 2007. Systematic test excavations followed (2008–2011) in order to determine the extent and the chronology of the site. Each season surface finds were collected, producing a relatively large sample of lithic artifacts, including two possible obsidian pieces (Lera and Touchais, 2008, 897–900; Lera et al., 2009; Mulliez, 2009, 969–970; Lera et al., 2010, 618–626, 647; Lera et al., 2011, 661–675; Lera et al., 2012; Oberweiler et al., 2014, 83–89). The first is a blade fragment found in 2009 (“Rapport Sur La Campagne de 2009”, 2009: 8, 10, 37). It was analyzed by pXRF and is made from black flint, not obsidian. The other is a small chip found in 2011. The pXRF analysis indicated a Melian origin.

Another obsidian find derives from the site of Bishti i Pallës, discovered during survey and rescue excavations from 2002 to 2005 at Archaic sanctuaries in the territory of the ancient Corinthian colony of Epidamnos. The site is situated north of the modern city of Durrës, on the southern part of the Bishti i Pallës peninsula, and is being eroded by wave abrasion. Initially, the very large number of lithics made exclusively from honey-brown flint suggested a Paleolithic or Mesolithic age (Gjipali, 2006: 37). But later work, including trial excavations in 2007, revealed at least two major chronological phases: the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Unfortunately, the sea water level did not allow for additional deeper excavations at what once might have been an island, leaving room for further interpretation as regards date and site function (Pojani et al., 2013: 133–134; Gjipali, 2012: 231, 2014: 61; Ruka et al., 2014: 103). Mixed in with the particularly large quantities of surface-collected honey-brown flint finds was a single obsidian flake, possibly a core tablet. The piece is rather worn due to wave action but remnants of flake scars can still be detected on the dorsal side, which might suggest the presence of at least one obsidian core, the platform of which was maintained by detaching core tablets. The flake was analyzed by pXRF and it is from Melos, the northernmost example of Melian obsidian discovered to date along the eastern Adriatic coast.


The sites of Putanja and Dalani i Vogël were discovered in 2010 by local amateur lithic collectors and are situated north of the city of Vlora, on the bay, at the far southern end of the eastern Adriatic coast (Ruka et al., 2014). Each produced one obsidian artifact. Putanja and Dalani i Vogël are two of several prehistoric archaeological sites located close to the southern extent of a sandstone and sandy hill-range molasse that extends for ca. 4.6 km northwest-southeast between the sea and Narta Lagoon. The important late prehistoric and Classical site of Treporti is also situated nearby, but until recently the overall archaeological potential of the wider region, for early prehistory in particular, had not been fully realized. The hill range is comprised of a series of depressions and peaks that are being continuously eroded by the sea on the southwest. Like Putanja and Dalani i Vogël, the rest of the sites are situated in depressions that are relatively flat. The many recently identified open-air sites along the range contain mostly different early
prehistoric components at each of the various locations.

In the assemblage of Putanja, one obsidian medial blade fragment with very regular parallel ridges and lateral margins was identified and recovered during a brief visit to the site in 2012. The pXRF analysis indicated that the obsidian is from Lipari, Italy. Given its form and the lack of pottery at the site, we initially dated the piece to the Mesolithic. However, Lipari’s obsidian sources were not formed until the late Mesolithic and exploited prior to the Neolithic period (Tykot, 2017a). They generally were not exported outside Italy after about 3000 BCE, so the artifact may well date to the Neolithic (Freund, 2017: 5–6).

The second obsidian artifact derives from the site of Dalani i Vogël and is a core bladelet fragment. The site includes finds that range from the Middle Paleolithic to perhaps the Bronze Age, with one of the most significant components being the Early Neolithic (Andoni et al., 2016: 121–123, 125; Ruka et al., 2014). The obsidian originated from Melos and the artifact is probably of Middle/Late Neolithic-Bronze Age date, given that most Melian obsidian artifacts found in the nearby Ionian Islands date to this period.

Three obsidian artifacts were discovered at the Late Neolithic- Eneolithic site of Kamnik, a hilltop settlement situated in the Kolonja district of southeast Albania. The site was first identified in 1967 and was excavated from 1968 to 1970 by a local archaeologist, Skënder Aliu (1969), in collaboration with Bep Jubani (Aliu and Jubani (1969)) and Frano Prendi (Prendi (1971) and Prendi and Aliu (1971)). The pieces were recently relocated in the store rooms at the Institute of Archaeology in Tirana and identified as obsidian. All three were excavated during the 1969 campaign from Late Neolithic contexts, with two bearing the inventory numbers 7495/5 and 7499/15, and the third without a number. Of particular interest is 7499/5, a blade which preserves a secondary crest. The other two pieces are a blade and an accidental flake fragment.

Finally, a recent systematic survey conducted in the vicinity of Apollonia, the Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project (MRAP; additional discussion below), recovered numerous early prehistoric artifacts, including a single, small obsidian piece, a rectangular microlith, from the site of Kryegjata B (Runnels et al., 2004: 13–17). Our pXRF analysis of the artifact indicates that it is not obsidian, rather it is made from black flint.


Discussion The obsidian artifact compositionally identified as Lipari may have arrived in Albania at the Putanja site as early as the Early Neolithic. The form of the blade and the lack of associated pottery at the open air site suggested a pre-Neolithic date, but the Lipari sources were not exploited until the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 6th millennium BC, that is prior during the Neolithic (Freund, 2017; Tykot, 1996, 2004, 2017a). A similar case can be made for another piece of obsidian, identified from the site of Tsarlambas along the Epirote coast in the area of Preveza. The authors of the publication suggest based on macroscopic observations that it might originate from Lipari and could perhaps date to the Mesolithic (Runnels and van Andel, 2003: 118, 121, 131, 134). The uncertainty regarding the origin and the age of this piece, however, makes the Putanja obsidian artifact the southernmost, securely-identified piece of Lipari obsidian along the eastern Adriatic-Ionian coast. The other group of Lipari finds from the eastern Adriatic is concentrated on the route connecting the islands of Palagruza, Sušac, and Korcula to various points along the middle Dalmatian coast (Tykot, 2004: 32, 2011, 2017a). Given the distances between this area of the Dalmatian coast and the area of Vlora, and the proximity of the latter to southern Italy, we can suggest direct contact between Vlora and Apulia. In which case, a number of candidate sites from the eastern coastal areas of Apulia could have served as intermediaries linking Putanja to the opposite coast and Lipari during the 6th–4th millennium BC (Freund, 2017: Supplemental Table B).

By contrast, the obsidian artifacts compositionally identified as Melian appear to have arrived in Albania beginning in the Middle/Late Neolithic and, perhaps, in the Bronze Age. It is interesting that during the Late Neolithic, when Lipari’s obsidian trade network was at its height (referred to by Freund, 2017 as Lipari’s “Golden Age”), reaching
both interior and coastal sites in Croatia and Bosnia, Albanian sites acquired small amounts of Melian obsidian instead. The inland Albanian sites of Maliq, Kamnik, and Kallamas, located in Korça in southeast Albania, probably interacted with large Neolithic settlements in Macedonia, such as Dispilio, that procured relatively large amounts of Melian obsidian (Milić, 2014: 288). Obsidian may have arrived in the Korça basin from Macedonia via down-the-line trade up the Haliakmon River from the Thermaic Gulf. The Macedonian settlements also received small amounts of Carpathian obsidian (Milić, 2014: 288–289), but it appears to have arrived via routes that accessed Kosovo and bypassed Albania, probably down the Danube and Vardar rivers from the very important tell settlement of Vinča, located in Serbia near Belgrade (Kilikoglou et al., 1996; Tripković and Milić, 2008). By comparison, coastal Albanian sites, such as Dalani i Vogël, Bishti i Pallës, and, perhaps, Konispoli, Dhiapori, Butrinti, Phoinike, and Apollonia would have acquired obsidian through coastal trade routes that ran up the eastern Adriatic shore from southwestern Greece and the Ionian Islands, largely bypassing northwest Greece and Corfu. This trade may have been facilitated by secondary distribution nodes situated at the far northern edge of the Melian distribution sphere, such as Late-Final Neolithic Pangali near Patras, from which 276 pieces of obsidian were excavated (Sørenson, 2010). Traders operating out of depots, like Pangali and others in the Ionian Islands, may have sought partners at lithic-dense Albanian sites like Dalani i Vogël and Bishti i Pallës, but were rebuffed. The nearest, concentrated assemblages of artifacts of purported Melian origin are from the Ionian islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia, Ithaka, and Zakynthos, are dated to the Late Neolithic and the various different chronological sub-periods of the Bronze Age, and are thought to have been transported via sea routes (Souyoudzoglou- Haywood, 1999: 7, 17, 25, 30, 34, 39, 45, 47, 96–97, 100, 121–122).

What is now abundantly clear is that in all periods of prehistory, the occupants of Albania had access to excellent flint in large amounts, so much so that much later one of the world’s primary producers of gun flints was located near Vlora in south Albania (Evans, 1887; Ruka, in preparation-b). Beginning as early as the early 20th century, several authors pointed to Albania as a possible source of flint raw materials, which might have been imported to Greece during late prehistory (Perlès 2004: 158, 2012: 542; Parkinson and Cherry, 2010: 4–5; Ruka et al., 2014: 102; Tsundas, 1908: 328; Wace and Thompson, 1912: 71). More recently, work focused in northern Albania indicates that honeybrown flint, which may originate from the Vjosa River valley in the southwest of the country, was exported to the site of Blazi Cave starting at least as early as the Late Upper Paleolithic period or 18,000 cal. BP (Hauck et al., 2017c: 155–156). Similar trends have also been observed for the Mesolithic period at the nearby Neziri Cave (Hauck et al., 2016: 156; Hauck et al., 2017a: 19–20; Hauck et al., 2017b: 164, 166). The practice of collecting and transporting large amounts of honey-brown flint reached its zenith at the site of Bishti i Pallës during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, where many thousands of honey-brown flint artifacts have been recovered (Pojani et al., 2013: 133–134). In short, it may be that obsidian was not imported to Albania in significant amounts simply because it was not needed. Lithic specialists there, operating out of workshops along the coast, may have embargoed obsidian because its importation was not an economic necessity and did not positively impact their livelihood.

The obsidian “embargo” appears to have applied to both coastal and interior Albania, including Korça, the length and breadth of the country, despite the fact that other exotic goods reached Albania during the Middle/Late Neolithic, pottery in particular (Korkuti, 2001: 264, Table 3). In fact, the presence of Neolithic pottery imported to Albania from Greece strongly indicates that the volume and weight of particular goods did not dissuade inhabitants from transporting them over long distances. Moreover, the embargo held through the whole of the Bronze Age, when obsidian from Melos was traded most extensively.

So-called violin figurines made out of clay in imitation of Aegean violin figurines were often interred in Albanian Early Bronze Age graves (Govedarica, 2016).

Prehistoric Albanians practiced burial in tumuli (mounds) beginning in the Early Bronze Age and well into the historic period, much longer than in most other parts of Europe. At least 156 tumuli have been excavated to date in Albania (Bejko, 2014), and whereas lithics (and other artifacts, such as pottery sherds and daub) that range in date from the Middle Paleolithic to the Neolithic are commonly discovered in abundance in the mound and grave fill (Aprile, 2014), none of those reported lithic finds have been obsidian.

Large numbers of exotic goods such as pottery, metal objects, including weapons, amber, and carnelian beads were imported to Albania, in particular during the Late Bronze Age, and these have been recovered almost exclusively from mortuary contexts (e.g., Bejko, 1993; Touchais, 2002; Kurti, 2012; Kurti, 2017). Obsidian is completely absent.


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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