Obsidian dating provides proof for Naval Trade in the Aegean during the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene (13-10,000 yBP)

In this post we present evidence of Naval Trade in the Aegean already since the Late Pleistocene.

Franchthi Cave

From the excellent paper titled: “Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene seafaring in the Aegean: new obsidian hydration dates with the SIMS-SS method“, by N. Laskaris, A. Sampson, F. Mavridis, I. Liritzis (2011), we read:

“Seafaring before the Neolithic (c.7th millennium B.C.) constitutes a controversial issue in Aegean Archaeology and generally in the Mediterranean (Cherry, 1990, 1992; Broodbank, 2006; Mavridis, 2003, 2007; Sampson, 2008; Sampson et al., 2010). However, current evidence from systematic research in different parts of the Aegean started gradually changing this picture and opened up new dynamics for understanding the character of exploitation and the importance of early coastal and island environments, see the example of Crete (Kopaka and Matzanas, 2009; Strasser et al., 2010), the new site of Ouriakos on the island of Lemnos (dated according to preliminary evidence to the end of the Pleistocene and possibly to the beginning of the Holocene c.12 000 B.P., N. Eustratiou), and the new Middle Palaeolithic (∼80 000-35 000 BP) site in Agios Eustratios Island (A. Sampson). Our contribution sheds new light on the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene (ca.12th millennium BP) exploitation of obsidian sources on the island of Melos in the Cyclades.

The main source of information for these early visits on the island of Melos comes from Franchthi cave in the Argolid (Perlès, 1987, 1990). Provenance studies of the material from this site indicated its Melian origin (Renfrew et al., 1965; Renfrew and Aspinall, 1990, 269), but obsidian hydration dating was not applied to the artifacts recovered. In the case of Franchthi cave, obsidian finds consisted of a few pieces (Perlès, 1987, 142-145, Renfrew and Aspinall, 1990), dating to the end of the Upper Palaeolithic (ca.35 000-11 000 B.P), while the use of obsidian continues during the Mesolithic (∼9600-6800 B.C), rising to 3% of the lithics in Upper Palaeolithic levels (Runnels, 1995, 720, Perlès, 1999, 314, Broodbank, 2006, 208). Regarding the presence of obsidian at Franchthi, two routes have been considered as possible: a direct one of c. 120 km with islets in between and another one through Attica that included crossings of c. 15-20 km between islands (Sampson, 2002, 2010; Broodbank, 2006, 209). The presence of obsidian in mainland and island sites indicates that these exploitations included successful return journeys.

The new obsidian hydration dates employing the novel SIMS-SS method, offer a new reliable source of absolute dating. Since the archaeological evidence of the presence of obsidian in levels that antedate the food production stage could have been the result of trade or the intrusion of younger age obsidian artifacts from the overlying Neolithic layers that exist in all sites discussed here, the novel SIMS-SS method was employed to confirm excavation data (Sampson, 2010a).”

“It is suggested that the exploitation of the obsidian sources on the island of Melos could have been an even earlier phenomenon in relation to what was known so far from Franchthi cave.”

“The SIMS-SS dates from the site of Kerame in Ikaria (Sampson, 2006, 2010; Sampson et al., 2008), Youra cave in Sporades (Sampson, 2008a) and Maroulas on Kythnos (Sampson et al., 2002, 2010) manifest that during the Mesolithic a rather well established system of obsidian exploitation and circulation existed, a phenomenon that has its roots even earlier, as the SIMS-SS dates from sites such as the Schisto cave in Attica (Mavridis and Kormazopoulou, 2009) indicate. Furthermore obsidian artifacts have recently been found in two other Mesolithic sites in Greece, one in the island of Naxos and the other one in the small island of Halki, Dodecanese (Sampson). As pointed out by Perlès (1995, 186) “the economy of the Late Pleistocene and especially at the end of it presents many characteristics of a Mesolithic economy” (c. 13th millennium – end of 10th millennium B.P.). Exchange systems therefore brought obsidian in the eastern (Ikaria) and the northwest Aegean (Cyclops cave in Sporades), while it even reached coastal inland sites of mainland Greece such as Attica (Schisto cave) though not yet found in mainland sites. Possibly through sites in this latter region obsidian was also brought to the Peloponnese.”


NovoScriptorium: We recommend here a reading of our previous relative posts 1, 2, 3, 4.

There is already abundant Archaeological evidence of a long ‘Sea-faring Evolution‘ in the Aegean. Naval Trade (even in primitive form) in the Aegean is also documented already since the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene. It comes as no surprise that the naval capabilities of the Aegeans were unsurpassed for literally millennia. Also, the various Greek Myths that describe Naval Expeditions towards ‘every corner of the horizon’, in our opinion, should be taken now more seriously, as probable “poetic descriptions” of actual events that took place somewhere deep in the Past (like these, for example). 

We talk about “Naval Trade” because there are sufficient indications for this. If you prefer, we could alternatively describe the phenomenon more generally as ‘intentional and organized sea-crossings‘.

Research-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides 

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