Melian obsidian in NW Turkey – Neolithic Trade in the Aegean

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “Melian obsidian in NW Turkey: Evidence for early Neolithic trade”, by Catherine Perlès, Turan Takaoğlu and Bernard Gratuze (2011).

“The Cycladic island of Melos was the main source of obsidian in the Aegean world. This raw material was exploited and distributed throughout the region from the Final Palaeolithic period until the Bronze Age (Carter 2009; Runnels 1983; Torrence 1986). (…) In the Early and Middle Neolithic of Greece (ca. 6600–5800 CAL B.C.), obsidian trade appears to have been in the hands of itinerant specialists who were both seafarers and skilled knappers; they were responsible for the exploitation of the Melian quarries and for the production and distribution of obsidian blades and bladelets (Perlès 1990a, 2004). (…) The presence of obsidian in the Final Palaeolithic and Mesolithic deposits at Franchthi Cave, four millennia earlier, shows, however, that knowledge of both navigation techniques and the island’s resources was established well before the onset of the Neolithic (Perlès 1987, 1990b). (…) Melian obsidian artifacts have been identified at numerous Early Neolithic sites (ca. 6800–6000 CAL B.C.) on the Greek mainland and on some Aegean islands (Perlès 2001; Torrence 1986). More recently, several Early Neolithic sites in western Turkey have yielded obsidian from Melos and demonstrate that its distribution extended to the eastern side of the Aegean Sea. (…) New archaeological excavations conducted at Early Neolithic sites dated to ca. 6500 CAL B.C., such as Yeşilova, Ege Gübre, Ulucak, Araptepe, and Dedecik-Heybelitepe in the Izmir region  shed new light on the Neolithization of west-central Turkey (Çilingiroğlu and Çilingiroğlu 2007; Derin 2007; Derin et al. 2009; Sağlamtimur 2007; Lichter 2002; Lichter and Meriç 2007). Several of these sites have yielded Melian obsidian, sometimes in large quantities (Lichter and Meriç 2007).

In northwestern Turkey, some 170 km north of the Izmir region, surface investigations undertaken at the Early Neolithic coastal site of Coşkuntepe yielded 118 obsidian blades and flakes, many of which are macroscopically similar to Melian obsidian. The presence of Melian obsidian tools at Coşkuntepe is intriguing because intensive production of tools made of local flint was also seen in the surface material. (…) The results indicate that Melian obsidian actually made its way to the site. (…) how these obsidian artifacts reached a site that is, so far, the northernmost point where Melian obsidian is found during the Early Neolithic, more than 330 km away from the source.

A minority (n = 8) of the artifacts from Coşkuntepe displayed macroscopic Anatolian characters, which suggests that Melos was not the only source of obsidian for the settlers of the site.”

“Coşkuntepe has often been regarded as the westernmost Early Neolithic site in Turkey (Seeher 1990; Takaoğlu 2005). (…) The site of Coşkuntepe is dated to ca. 6200 B.C. based on stylistic comparisons of Coşkuntepe pottery with the pottery from sites which have radiocarbon dates from good stratified contexts, including Hoca Çeşme and Ulucak (Takaoğlu 2005: 421). New radiocarbon dates and comparisons with the finds from Yeşilova in the Izmir region (Derin et al. 2009: 13) also support this dating. The surface survey helped us to understand why the Neolithic inhabitants of Coşkuntepe chose to settle in rather rugged terrain near the coast, despite the fact that there was no shortage of fertile land either in the Troad or around the shallow bays along the Aegean coast. Archaeological evidence from Coşkuntepe and its immediate vicinity indicates that some Aegean Neolithic coastal societies could have supplemented their economic base with non-agricultural production strategies. (…) obsidian arrived at Coşkuntepe through exchange as preformed cores or already flaked artifacts.”

“The first archaeological evidence for the presence of Melian obsidian in western Anatolia goes back to the 1960s, when two obsidian artifacts from the site of Moralı were shown to originate from Melos on the basis of trace elements analyses (Renfrew et al. 1965: 238). (…) It is reasonable to date these two obsidian specimens to the late 7th and early 6th millennia B.C. since most of the surface pottery from Moralı displays the characteristics of this period (Takaoğlu 2004).

Archaeological excavations at the Early Neolithic site of Dedecik-Heybelitepe in 2003 and 2004 provided data concerning the introduction of Melian obsidian into western Turkey (Lichter and Meriç 2007: 386; Herling et al. 2008: 51, table 2). Dedecik-Heybelitepe is located near the mouth of the Gediz River to the north of Izmir Province and is dated to the late 7th/ early 6th millennium CAL B.C. (…) According to the excavators, obsidian was acquired as cores and flaked at the site to produce blades and bladelets (Herling et al. 2008: 55).”

“The presence of obsidian at Coşkuntepe, deriving from the two sources on the island of Melos, Demenagaki and Sta Nychia, adds new data to a growing body of evidence showing that the western Anatolian coast was fully integrated into the Melian obsidian diffusion network. (…) Trade includes not only the transfer of material goods, but also of non-material goods and services ‘‘which furnish information or confer status, rank, prestige or power’’ (Runnels and van Andel 1988: 93).

In this respect, it is worth considering again the presence of central Anatolian obsidian at Coşkuntepe. How can we explain the presence of central Anatolian obsidian artifacts on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, when the sources are, respectively, some 650 to 740 km away from Dedecik-Heybelitepe and Coşkuntepe, and when Melos is, by comparison, 300–380 km from the same settlements? As mentioned above, a few obsidian blades of presumed (at Coşkuntepe) or demonstrated (at Dedecik-Heybelitepe) central Anatolian origin have been found alongside the Melian ones. At both sites, Anatolian specimens appear to constitute a small portion of the obsidian assemblage. Unless they correspond to different chronological episodes, which does not seem to be the case at the latter site, it is even less plausible to envision that their procurement answered specific functional needs, which the Melian obsidian would have already addressed. The presence of central Anatolian obsidian in western Anatolia seems to have aroused less excitement amongst scholars than the presence of Melian obsidian, perhaps because the diffusion takes place within what is nowadays a single political state, or because it only involves inland routes and no navigation. Similarly, the presence of Melian obsidian in Thessaly is deemed ‘‘normal.’’ Yet, considering the distances and quantities involved, the diffusion of central Anatolian obsidian up the western Anatolian coast perfectly fits the model of diffusion of ‘‘prestige goods’’ (Renfrew 1984)”.

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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