Tag Archives: Franchthi cave

Mesolithic mortuary ritual at Franchthi Cave, Greece

Mesolithic mortuary ritual at Franchthi Cave, Greece

Franchthi is a oddly important site as it seems to document an expansion from Southern Anatolia in the Mesolithic into SE Greece. What isn’t mentioned below is that lentils, bitter vetch, almond and pistachio appear rather suddenly at 13,500 BP, not seen before that date, which strongly suggests (to me) that they are being grown there, not native prior to that point. Oats appear later, by about 500 years.

The Mesolithic inhabitants of the cave based their livelihood on a wide spectrum of resources, hunting red deer, pigs, and a range of smaller prey, fishing, and collecting nuts, land-snails, shellfish, fruits, legumes, and, for the first time, cereals. Hansen (1991: 119) reports ‘a dramatic increase in the quantity and variety’ of recovered plant remains at this time. An enormous leap in the number of seeds recovered from Franchthi – from 697 seeds representing 19 species at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic to almost 28,000 seeds from 27 species in the Lower Mesolithic – suggests not only a diverse subsistence base but also considerable activity during this phase of use of the cave

Having read through the papers I have, I know that a swap from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a farming one results in a decrease in marine protein and an uptake in terestrial animals, as well as a large increase in the amount of vegetable matter consumed. The main subject of the papers is the cremations, and remarks on the cultural similarities to Grotta dell’ Uzzo in Italy, which is something I’ll have to look up.

Inhabited for 17,000 years. Franchthi cave, Greece.

A cut-and-paste for-the-record, frankenblog entry.

Franchthi Cave is on the very Southern part of Greece, easily accessible from Anatolia (sea levels were a lot lower about 11,000 years ago). From another source, I’ve found out the lentil seeds found at Franchthi are slightly larger than the wild kind, indicating an early stage of domestication. One of the Y chromosome studies I have on file suggests that an early population movement from Turkey to Greece, and I think that this place is a good possible site for their arrival. The caves suddenly gain four of the Neolithic founder crops simultaneously, and I think this is a giveaway for some kind of major cultural change.

Franchthi Cave is located in south eastern Argolid, across a small bay from the modern Greek village of Koilada. It is by far the longest recorded continuous occupational sequence from any one site in Greece. It is unique for having unbroken series of deposits spanning the period from ca. 20,000 B.C. down to ca. 3000 B.C. Excavation at the site began in 1967 and ended in 1976. The dates for the various phases of occupation in the cave are from radiocarbon analysis of a total of over fifty samples, the largest number of radiocarbon samples from any prehistoric site in Greece. The earliest radiocarbon date is ca. 20,000 B.C. for the Upper Paleolithic, the latest near 3000 B.C. for the Final Neolithic.

In the Paleolithic Period (ca. 20,000 � 8300 B.C.) inhabitants of the cave were probably seasonal hunter-gatherers. There is no definite evidence of plant gathering before ca. 11,000 B.C., although large numbers of seeds of the Boraginaceae family were found which may have come from plants gathered to furnish soft “bedding” or for dye, which their roots may have supplied. First appearing at ca. 11,000 B.C. are lentils, vetch, pistachios and almonds. Then ca. 10,500 B.C. and still well within the Upper Paleolithic Period appear a few very rare seeds of wild oats and wild barley. Neither becomes common until ca. 7000 B.C.At this time there is no evidence for habitation of the cave during the winter. The typical tool of this time is the backed bladelet, a tiny multi-purpose-cutting tool, but small end-scrapers (for removing the flesh from hides) are also common. There is no pottery or architecture at this time and also no burials have been found.

In the Mesolithic Period: (ca. 8300 � 6000 B.C.) the plant remains are much the same as in the preceding Paleolithic Period, with the exceptions that wild pears and a few peas begin to appear ca. 7300 B.C. and that wild oats and barley become common after 7000 B.C. The disappearance of the equid and caprine bones from the faunal assemblage, as well as an increase in the number of pistachios, all taking place ca. 8000 B.C. suggest a change of environment to open forests. There is also the possibility, however, that the change in the animal bones represents a change in the hunting preferences or practices of the cave�s inhabitants.

The second phase of the Mesolithic is characterized by the appearance of large quantities of large fish bones and the appearance of substantially larger quantities of obsidian from Melos as a material in the local chipped stone industry. These two developments imply that deep-sea fishing may have been done for the first time. Small, geometrically shaped tools (microliths) now characterize the chipped stone industry. There is still no pottery or architecture.

The earliest burial found at Franchthi is of a Lower Mesolithic date: a 25-year-old male was buried in a contracted position in a shallow pit near the mouth of the cave. The pit was covered with fist-sized stones but there were no burial goods. Further examination in 1989 of the human bone found throughout the cave resulted in the realization that there were five other burials throughout the cave. The bones were of different age groups, which leads to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the cave lived there on a permanent basis.

The beginning of the Neolithic Period (6000 � 5000 B.C.) at Franchthi Cave is characterized by the appearance of domesticated forms of sheep and goat, and the appearance of domesticated forms of wheat, barley and lentil. Also there was the appearance of polished stone tools and a significant increase in the number of grinding stones (for grinding grain) and sickle elements along with other edges used for cutting plants. Pottery had finally appeared in this era. The pottery of this time was dark and monochrome and mostly consisted of hole-mouthed jars and deep bowls. Judging by the size and shape of the pottery it was not used for cooking or storage but rather for display.

During this time, occupation began outside of the cave which brought the first signs of architecture, a sort of retaining wall. Blades seem to be more popular and fishhooks appear for the first time. An infant was also found buried with a clay vase, which may signify some sort of status system.

The wild oats, barley, lentils, pears and peas disappear; emmer wheat and cultivated or domesticated forms of barley and lentil occur for the first time. It is unknown whether the new plant forms were brought from elsewhere or developed locally from wild forms.

The Middle Neolithic (ca. 5000 � 4500 B.C.) is distinguished from the proceeding period by minor changes in the pottery. Potters had learned to purify their clay more thoroughly and to fire their products at higher temperatures and in larger batches, which required the stacking of vessels during the firing process with more carefully controlled conditions. There was also the use of a finer more lustrous, reddish slip or wash on the pottery. Patterns also became more linear although, 50% to 65% of the total pottery of this time still remained solid colored. For the first time, truly coarse clay pastes were used to produce pots fired at lower temperatures than the finer wares and having less carefully finished surfaces. These “course wares” seemed to function as cookware.

The Late Neolithic Period (4500 � 400 B.C.) is also distinguished by its changes in pottery. The pottery of this period is dull when compared to the lustrous paint of the previous period. The dullness is from the manganese-based paint, which has no luster and also does not vary in color when fired whereas the iron-based paints used in the previous period did. A new class of pottery appears referred to as Fine Black-burnished Ware, which was often decorated with fugitive white paint which usually survives only as a “ghost” or “negative” on the black-burnished surface.

In the chipped stone, barbed or barbed-and-tanged arrowheads appear, but are also seen as late as the beginning of the Early Bronze Age.

The last period at Franchthi Cave is the Final Neolithic (ca. 4000 � 3000 B.C.) and is viewed by many scholars as no more than a later stage of the Late Neolithic. The pottery of this period is a variety of odd handle types and a preference for plastic, as opposed to painted, decoration. Small amounts of odd wares for example, red-on-white painted, crusted, dark slipped-and-burnished and pattern-burnished also occur during this period.

In chipped stone, large triangular arrowheads of flint, bifacially flaked, are characteristic. Obsidian now accounts for 95% of the chipped stone at Franchthi. For the first time at Franchthi, the buried population of this time consists both of adults and children and both female and male. In the earlier periods the adult burials appeared to be secondary while the child burials were primary.

A few odd bits of Bronze Age material suggest that the cave had been visited sporadically over the next two millennia. Finds of specialized votive material at the back of the cave show that it served some sort of cult purpose in Classical times, but never was of residence to anyone after that. Franchthi Cave was abandoned around 3000 B.C. because of the steady rise in sea level. The broad terrace below the cave on which both the settlement and the harvest fields of the Neolithic inhabitants existed are now buried.

There are some terracotta figurines found in Franchthi cave, some dating back to the early Neolithic. For a good page with lots of artifacts from Franchthi including stone tools, go to this page, I have shamelssly stolen photos from it.

Burials at Franchthi

Burials of a unknown individual. Burial of an infant, buried with half a clay vase and a marble dish.

 Burials of a middle aged woman and a 25 year old male.