Aegean Thrace: Early Neolithic sites that once may have existed on the coastal plain either rest on the seabed today or they have been lost to the sea

In this post we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “Finding the early Neolithic in Aegean Thrace: the use of cores“, by Albert J. Ammerman et al. (2007).

“The region of north-eastern Greece known as Aegean Thrace is one of the last missing pieces on Europe’s early Neolithic map. By the end of the twentieth century, there were reports in the literature on several mound sites of middle Neolithic age in the region (Bakalakis & Sakellariou 1981; Andreou et al. 1996; Efstratiou et al. 1998; see also Hellstrom 1987). However, there was still no settlement that could be securely dated back to the early Neolithic: that is, to around 6000 cal BC. Given the position of Aegean Thrace – bounded as it is by Turkish Thrace on the east (with Anatolia located behind it), by Bulgaria on the north and by the Aegean world to the south – the region clearly represents a lacuna of some importance for the study of the Neolithic transition.”

“In an attempt to find the missing early Neolithic sites in the region, Efstratiou and Ammerman began to do reconnaissance work on the landscape there in the 1990s. One of the important and unexpected discoveries produced by the fieldwork was the identification of Petrota, a massive outcrop of silicified rock of volcanic origin well suited for making chipped stone tools, and the recovery of one of the few bifaces of middle Palaeolithic age in Greece (Ammerman et al. 1999). In short, there was now the first good evidence for the Palaeolithic in the region. On the other hand, the search for early Neolithic sites on the landscape was initially less productive”

Map giving the locations of Neolithic mounds in Aegean Thrace and in areas adjacent to the region. The sites shown
are: (1) Kovacevo, (2) Sitagroi, (3) Dikili Tash, (4) Limenaria, (5) Lafrouda, (6) Krovili, (7) Makri and (8) Hoca Cesme.

“In 1997, we used a boat on what today is called Lake Vistonis – an area that would have been dry land some 8000 years ago – to conduct a trial survey based on the method known as sub-bottom profiling. Again the results of the work were inconclusive. But this survey did lead to a heightened awareness of the possibility that early Neolithic sites that once occurred on the fertile coastal plain near the sea may not have survived in the present-day terrestrial archaeological record because of the marine transgression that took place at the end of the last ice age and continued through the middle Holocene (Lambeck & Chappell 2001; Peltier 2002; Lambeck et al. 2004).”

“The Cobra equipment that we used at the mounds of Krovili and Lafrouda in October of 2004 can reach a depth of 5m in the ground. A given core is taken in a series of entries or ‘cuts’ down to the natural soil at the base of a mound. Each entry goes down 100cm in depth at a time, and the soil is recovered inside a plastic tube of the same length. The use of plastic tubing is the key to high-quality coring and the recovery of the soil in an undisturbed form. The plastic tubes (4.6cm in diameter) are placed inside a long metal bit that is driven into the ground by a hand-held percussion device. There is a system for jacking the bit out after each entry. The plastic tube is then removed from the bit, capped and stored for later study. In the laboratory, each tube is cut open lengthwise and studied in the form of a micro-excavation. For instance, each piece of pottery, daub, chipped stone, bone, shell and
charcoal recovered in a given entry is drawn in place on a form at a scale of 1:10, which also gives the position of the respective stratigraphic boundaries. In order to obtain broad spatial coverage of a given mound, the cores are made at a number of different places. At Krovili, for example, a series of four cores was made on a line across the site, and two more cores were made on each side of this line. It is perhaps worth adding here that this is the first time that high-quality coring of this kind has been undertaken at Neolithic mound sites in Greece.”

“The Krovili mound is located in the interior at a distance of some 12km from the coast (as the crow flies), where it stands in the middle of an old planation surface at an elevation of 72m.”

“All of the cores at Krovili were taken down into the natural soil at the base of the mound. In each case, we found a well-developed paleosol whose formation goes back to the end of the Pleistocene. The surface of the mound is covered with sherds that belong to the middle Neolithic period. There are no ceramics dating to more recent times, which was one of the reasons for selecting the site for investigation. The cores made in the central part of the site indicate that the Neolithic sequence there has a depth of almost 4m, and, as one would expect, the archaeological deposit becomes thinner as one moves out toward the edges of the mound. The anthropic sediments that have accumulated to form the mound come to a volume of more than 10,000m³. The cores have brought to light a wide range of structural remains at Krovili – floors, ash pits, collapsed walls, fill deposits and even the remains of a human burial (…)

Pottery, animal bones and fragments of charcoal are regularly found in the cores taken at the Krovili mound. Almost all of the faunal remains examined involve domesticated animals of the so-called Neolithic package (that is, pigs, cattle and sheep or goats). An initial series of AMS dates has been run at Oxford and Lecce on five samples of charcoal; their calibrated ages fall in the sixth millennium BC (…)

Of special interest here are the two oldest dates: one (OxA-14795) dates to the time between 5620 and 5730 cal BC (at the 95.4 per cent probability level) and the other (OxA-14353) goes back to the time from 5726 to 5987 cal BC (at the same probability level) (…)

there are lower and probably earlier archaeological levels in this part of the mound. So there is a good chance that the earliest phase of occupation at Krovili dates to a time that is somewhat older than this. In any event, one is finally closing in on a date of around 6000 cal BC in Aegean Thrace.”

“Lafrouda is a mound that today is situated on the edge of a small, artificial lagoon used as a fish farm by a local cooperative. The place has had several quite different environmental settings over the years. At the time of its first occupation some 7500 years ago, the mound was located in an area of the coastal plain with well-developed soils, and it then stood at a certain distance from the sea (…)

there is an active interest in the exploitation of marine resources throughout the life of the mound but the emphasis shifts over time to a concentration on lagoonal Cerastoderma. Whether this reflects a change in the local coastal environment or a shift in food preference is, as yet, uncertain.

The highest part of the Lafrouda mound, as seen in core 2, is approximately 5.5m tall. At the base of the mound, one finds a mosaic of well-developed paleosols whose formation took place on the coastal plain in the early Holocene. The pottery recovered from the lower part of the mound is much the same as the ceramics found at the sites of Makri and Krovili. In terms of absolute chronology, the dates that are currently available for the Neolithic levels at Lafrouda are all younger than 5500 cal BC (…) the occupation of the site does not go back to the early Neolithic period in Aegean Thrace. Nevertheless, the cores at Lafrouda do throw important new light on the shortage of early Neolithic sites in the region, since the lowest archaeological levels at the mound stand in a position of c . 2.5m below sea level today. In effect, the only practical way to explore the lowest part of the mound is by means of coring. There is, in addition, good evidence for one or more marine transgressions reaching the seaward side of the mound in the time after its abandonment (…) a marine transgression is also responsible for the shape and spacing of the lowest contour lines on the south-west side of the mound (…) The Neolithic occupation at the base of the mound had managed to survive in this place below the marine transgression and produced a charcoal sample at an elevation of 2.49m below modern sea level that dates to around 5000 cal BC (…) Lafrouda now provides tangible support for the occurrence of a Neolithic mound on the coastal plain in a position below sea level today. This is no longer just an idea or an abstract possibility in the literature. Moreover, there is at Lafrouda good evidence that the south side of the original mound has not survived in the archaeological record because of the force of the sea. The wider implication of all of this is that early Neolithic sites that once may have existed on the coastal plain in places at lower elevations than Lafrouda either rest on the seabed today or else they have been lost to the sea.”

Makri (Cyclops cave) – Alexandroupoli

“To these results from coring we can now add new dates from the site of Makri, situated on the coast near the town of Alexandroupolis (…) In a new series of radiocarbon dates, eight provide further support for placing the site in the middle Neolithic period, and cluster between 5700 and 5400 cal BC. There is one date (OxA-9362/DEM-1142 6890+−90BP) that is somewhat older; it would push the first occupation at the site back by a few centuries but not before about 5900 cal BC. To these we can now add a new date from the basal layer at Makri of 6400-6010 cal BC (at 2 sigma) obtained by Efstratiou in 2007 (GrA-34389).”

“we are now in a good position to close the early Neolithic gap in Aegean Thrace. The earliest date at Makri, 6400-6010 cal BC, brings the beginning of that site into line with the early Neolithic in adjacent territories. The oldest AMS dates at Krovili go back to the time just after 6000 cal BC. By conducting an excavation near core 2 on the east side of the Krovili mound, it should be possible to recover datable samples from the lowest level of occupation there, and this will permit the start of the site’s habitation to be moved back several centuries, making it coeval with the start of the early Neolithic in Bulgaria and Turkish Thrace. So Aegean Thrace is a piece of the early Neolithic puzzle in Europe that is finally falling into place (…) high-quality coring in combination with AMS dating proves to be a productive research strategy. It represents a new methodology that now makes it possible to probe the depths of a Neolithic mound in a cost-effective and non-intrusive way (…). So far these two sites, Krovili and Makri, show little or no evidence for pottery in the tradition of either western Anatolia or Bulgaria. The ceramics appear to represent a local tradition in which the vessels are for the most part quite small and they do not exhibit much in the way of elaboration (…) One thing that is quite clear from the work at Lafrouda is that much of the landscape on the coastal plain some 8000 years ago is now lost to the sea. In other words, what is left for the archaeologist to study today is only a sample of the Neolithic mounds that once existed in the region.”

NovoScriptorium: For a wider understanding of how important this official confirmation is, one should read this previous post.

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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