Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.21

Ernestine S. Elster, Colin Renfrew, Prehistoric Sitagroi: Excavations in Northeast Greece, 1968-1970. Volume 2: The Final Report. Monumenta Archaeologia, 20.   Los Angeles:  Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, 2003.  Pp. 519.  ISBN 1-931745-03-X.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by J. D. Muhly, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (
Word count: 3142 words

The site of Sitagroi, a prehistoric mound in eastern Macedonia on the Drama plain, was excavated during the years 1968-1970 as a joint Anglo-American project whose co-directors were Marija Gimbutas (then of UCLA, now deceased) and Colin Renfrew (then of Sheffield University and now at Cambridge). A more unlikely pair of co-directors could hardly be imagined. Gimbutas, an East European refugee during the Second World War, was educated in Germany after the war and eventually ended up in the United States, first at Harvard and then in California. She became well-known for her concept of "Old Europe", a peaceful, matriarchal, agricultural society of "Mother Goddess" worshippers that was overwhelmed, in the late 4th millennium BC, by patriarchal, Indo-European speaking warriors who worshipped a Sky-God. As a professor at UCLA Gimbutas gathered about herself a devoted band of disciples.

Nothing could be further removed from such ideas than Renfrew's own conception of European prehistory. As a dedicated follower of David Clarke and the so-called "New Archaeology" (better anthropological or social archaeology), Renfrew was determined to show that traditional concepts such as migration and diffusion could not provide convincing explanations for cultural change. His own methodology, rooted in anthropology, the social sciences and even mathematics, was the very antithesis of the attempts by Gimbutas to reconstruct Neolithic society through the iconography and symbolic meaning of female figurines. Somehow this unlikely pair seems to have managed to run a most successful excavation project. Actually Gimbutas does not seem to have spent much time at Sitagroi, as she was also involved in other projects at the time, excavating at Obre, in Bosnia (1967-1968) and at Anza in Yugoslavia (1969-1971).

Sitagroi proved to be a very productive excavation site, occupied for more than 3,000 years, from Middle Neolithic into the Early Bronze Age, ca. 5500-2200 BC. Within this period five major cultural phases were identified, designated Sitagroi I-V. Sitagroi I, edited by Colin Renfrew, Marija Gimbutas and Ernestine Elster, appeared in 1986. It described the main excavated areas of the site, with detailed reports on chronology and radiocarbon dates, vegetational history and faunal remains, geomorphology, pottery and figurines. Such a volume involves the collective work of many different scholars from a variety of academic disciplines. Pulling everything together, and obtaining manuscripts from all authors, is a daunting, often frustrating exercise that, in part, explains the long delay between volumes 1 and 2.

Volume 2, edited by Ernestine Elster and Colin Renfrew (and the change in the sequence of names is certainly significant), contains detailed reports on all aspects of the use of stone at the site, on the evidence for the crafts of spinning, weaving and mat-making and the use of bone tools, on the botanical evidence from the site, the grains, seeds and fruits, and on the technologies involved in working with clay and metal. It is the evidence for the early use of metal, for the very beginnings of copper metallurgy in the Aegean world, that soon made Sitagroi a very famous archaeological site. It was the combination of early metallurgy and radiocarbon dating, especially during the period known as Sitagroi III, that brought this site to the attention of the scholarly world. In the 1970's the site of Sitagroi became one of the most famous sites in European prehistory. Thanks to the promotional efforts of its co-excavator, Colin Renfrew, Sitagroi played a fundamental role in the paradigm shift that was then in the process of transforming our understanding of European prehistory. The force driving this shift was the introduction of scientific dating techniques, especially the use of radioactive carbon or Carbon-14. Renfrew saw, sooner than most of his colleagues, the enormous significance of what was taking place and was able to present to a general audience the implications of "The Radiocarbon Revolution", to quote the sub-title of his 1973 book on this subject.

In their Preface to Sitagroi 2 the editors present the reasons for selecting the site of Sitagroi for excavation (p. xxv), quoting from the text of Sitagroi 1 p. 477). There were two objectives: the first involved the need to investigate the environment and the material culture of the area. The second is what concerns us here. It was: "... to resolve, on the basis of a firm stratigraphy, the critical dispute over Balkan chronology, which was calling into question the entire development of the European early Bronze Age. Sitagroi was selected for excavation because of its key position at the northern limit of the Aegean basin and its contacts with the cultures of Balkan Europe, as surface finds initially indicated. The problem also involved the validity of applying radiocarbon dating to the prehistoric cultures of the Aegean and the rest of Europe." And it was the resolution of that problem that was to change forever our understanding of European prehistory.

Since the 19th century, and the work of the great Scandinavian prehistorians Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865) and Oscar Montelius (1843-1921), European prehistorians have been able to work out a very detailed relative chronology for all of Europe, basing their arguments upon typology and material culture (Stone, Bronze and Iron) and upon the stratigraphic sequence uncovered at major tell sites in the Balkans, especially Vinca and Gumelnitsa. Relative chronology could be studied in great detail and regional cultural sequences soon were established, each with its own ceramic typology and terminology. The masters of European archaeology then became those scholars most adept at fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle in order to produce the grand synthesis of European prehistory. In the English-speaking world the most successful player of this game was V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957), whose great work The Dawn of European Civilization, was first published in 1925 and appeared in a 6th edition in 1957. But it was in the Germanic world that these regional archaeological cultures reached their greatest level of specificity and complexity, and the master of all these local cultures was Vladimir Milojcic, who turned Heidelberg University into the most important center for the study of European Prehistory.

All well and good, so long as one stayed within Europe. But it was only natural to ask not only how but also when (and even why). What was going on in Europe at the time of the pyramids of Egypt or the Shaft Graves at Mycenae? What was the absolute chronology of this European sequence? Would it ever be possible to assign absolute dates to all of these regional cultures? To put it simply, European prehistorians found solace at Troy. The archaeological sequence at Troy, established by Heinrich Schliemann and Wilhelm Doerpfeld, between 1870 and 1904, became the basis for the absolute chronology of prehistoric Europe. Admittedly the dates at Troy were not all that absolute, but working backwards and forwards from the time of the Trojan War, set at ca. 1200 BC and associated with Troy VI or VIIa, a chronological sequence for the different 'cities' at Troy was established, with Troy I beginning ca. 2500 BC and therefore contemporary with the pyramids of Old Kingdom Egypt.

It then became necessary to tie together the sequences at Vinca and Gumelnitsa with that of Troy. But fundamental to this whole framework was the basic assumption that nothing in any European sequence could be earlier than its (assumed) counterpart at Troy. This, in turn, led to the operational methodology of Ex oriente lux, the basic drift or diffusion of culture from east to west, from Mesopotamia to the British Isles. This served as the paradigm for the study of European prehistory prior to ca. 1970 and is most closely associated with the writings of V. Gordon Childe. But for Europe itself the 'Bible' enshrining this approach was published by Milojcic in 1949. Entitled Chronologie der jüngeren Steinzeit Mittel- und Südosteuropas this massively-detailed study was put out by the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. As luck would have it, 1949 proved to be a fateful date for the appearance of such a monograph, for that very year saw the appearance of the first archaeological dates by the new radiocarbon technique, established by the physicist Willard Libby. It is not surprising that Milojcic remained, to the day of his death, a fierce opponent of radiocarbon dating. But, being a great scholar, Milojcic was not simply an obstructionist. He mounted a serious, comprehensive defense of the traditional archaeological chronology, pointing out all the problems and pitfalls of the scientific technique that was, it has to be admitted, often employed in an arrogant fashion (quite unjustified, at least at first, as soon became clear) by scholars who did not feel it necessary to learn anything about archaeology or about prehistory. By the late 1960's the battle lines had been clearly drawn.

Colin Renfrew saw that the existing impasse could only be broken by new evidence. What was needed was a prehistoric site with ties to the Balkans, the Aegean and Anatolia, and containing a series of well stratified levels of occupation with meaningful archaeological assemblages. And these levels must contain organic remains suitable for radiocarbon dating. A tall order but, as luck would have it, Sitagroi fit the bill. The excavation of Sitagroi was to make Renfrew world famous, for he had found what he was looking for and he knew how to exploit what fortune had granted him, but it did not make him all that popular with his colleagues. There is always a danger in being too successful.

As Sitagroi 1 and 2 were in production Renfrew published a series of articles dealing with Sitagroi and European Prehistory, especially in the journal Antiquity. By the time Sitagroi 1 appeared, in 1986, it could be said that the chronological battles were over. Radiocarbon had won and European prehistory came to be accepted as something far older than Troy, although other sites in Anatolia soon proved to be still older, on radiocarbon evidence, than anything from Europe. And this brings us to Renfrew's most fundamental mistake and the reason why Sitagroi 2 is still such a controversial publication.

In 1970 Renfrew published an article on "The Tree-Ring Calibration of Radiocarbon: An Archaeological Evaluation." With his customary acuity Renfrew recognized that radiocarbon dating was no simple matter, that fundamental scientific assumptions made in the 1950's were fallible and that the evidence of dendrochronology could be used to 'calibrate' the radiocarbon dates that mounting evidence saw as being consistently too low. Over 30 years later such research is still in progress and has now reached a level of astounding complexity. In the 1970 article Renfrew published a map depicting the impact of radiocarbon dating upon Old World Prehistory. This much-reprinted map presented a fault line, separating Europe from the Aegean, Anatolia and the Near East. On the eastern side of this fault line radiocarbon dates were presented as having little impact upon traditional chronology; on the European side of the line the change was transformational. This was the Radiocarbon Revolution. Renfrew made it clear that, for lands to the east of his line, he was referring only to archaeological dates after ca. 3000 BC. This caveat has tended to be ignored by many scholars, myself included, for the simple reason that, prior to ca. 1980, available radiocarbon dates for European cultures were prehistoric dates whereas those from the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East came from historic cultures that, in terms of their own written records, dated to after ca. 3000 BC. What this oft-reprinted map created was the feeling that radiocarbon dates were crucial for the revision of European prehistory but were of little significance for the proper understanding of chronology in lands with long-standing historical traditions of their own.

Renfrew himself exploited this perspective in a very influential article on "The Autonomy of the South-East European Copper Age", published in 1969. Renfrew argues in this article that copper metallurgy was so well developed in the Balkans, going back into the 5th millennium BC, on the basis of radiocarbon dating, that it could not possibly have been introduced into Europe from Anatolia or the Near East. This is the position still argued by Renfrew in Sitagroi 2. The 1969 article presented the massive shaft-hole axes and flat axes, dating to the second half of the 5th millennium BC (or Karanovo VI in terms of the traditional terminology), as the products of a metal technology far in advance of anything known from the eastern Mediterranean or the Near East prior to the 2nd millennium BC.

Metallurgy in the Balkans was autonomous, because it was far in advance of anything known from any other part of the world. Already in 1969 Renfrew saw that new excavations underway at early Neolithic sites in Anatolia and the Near East contained the seeds that had the potential for growing into a major threat to his basic position of local autonomy. In 1969 he felt that: "The find of beads and simple objects of copper at Ali Kosh [in Iran] or Cayönü (SE Anatolia), possibly worked by hammering alone, is in fact less remarkable than finds of neatly perforated beads of stone at these sites."

In other words, at these Near Eastern sites early metallurgy was but a novelty in basically stone-working contexts. Early examples of copper artefacts were seen as but isolated finds at individual sites, having little or nothing to do with any of the true metal-using cultures of the Balkans. Renfrew accepted the fact that, in Anatolia and the Near East, the use of copper went back into the 7th millennium BC, much earlier than anything known from the Balkans. He could only conclude that: "... it is always theoretically impossible to disprove the diffusion of a trait which occurs in two places. One can merely indicate that there are no sound arguments to support it."

Perhaps not in 1970, but 2003 is quite a different matter. Within the past 30 years there has been a dramatic transformation of our evidence for early metallurgy in Anatolia and the Near East. Sitagroi 2 takes no account of these developments, and this is the great tragedy of the publication. A great deal of time, effort and money has gone into the publication of a most impressive looking volume that, in its crucial chapters on early metallurgy, is at least 20 years out of date.

What went wrong? In 1971, at the VIIIth International Congress of Pre-and Protohistory, held in Belgrade, Renfrew gave a paper on "Sitagroi and the Independent Invention of Metallurgy in Europe". The metal and slag samples from Sitagroi were published by Elizabeth Slater as Appendix 1 of her Cambridge University doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1972. Now, in Sitagroi 2, published in 2003, we have a long discussion of Sitagroi and Early Aegean Metallurgy that does not go beyond what the authors of this section of the final report, Renfrew and Slater, had published over 30 years ago. This is a great pity, for the site of Sitagroi, especially Sitagroi III, has long been recognized as the most important site we have for understanding the early phases in the development of Aegean metal technology. But it has also long been recognized that the samples taken for metal analysis in the early 1970's were very unsatisfactory. This was a period when archaeometallurgy was in its infancy. The Greek museum authorities were very apprehensive about allowing samples to be taken from excavated metal artefacts and what Slater was given to work with was often little more than corrosion product. And, as Slater admits in Sitagroi 2 (p. 302) the equipment used in the late 1960's "had neither the levels of precision nor the sensitivity that current systems provide". The question that has to be answered is: does this justify attempting to recycle the same unsatisfactory analytical evidence some 30 years later?

The same questions can be raised regarding slag and crucible analyses. There is very sophisticated work that can now be done on both bodies of material, but such work is not to be found in Sitagroi 2. Here we are still left with ambiguity. Are the fragments of pottery with slag incrustations really crucibles? Were copper ores being smelted at the site of Sitagroi or were the local metalworkers only melting metallic copper? It is not possible to answer these basic questions using the information provided in Sitagroi 2. The confused nature of Renfrew's final "Discussion" (pp. 303-309) does not help matters by failing to make clear distinctions between smelting, melting and casting. He states that "There are suggestions that casting can be carried out in open hearths" (p. 308), but what can an open hearth have to do with a process that involved pouring molten metal from a crucible into a mold? Sitagroi has long been seen as the site that had the best opportunity for providing answers to basic questions concerning the transition from metal usage to metal production. Since the early 1970's Level III at Sitagroi has been seen as providing the crucial evidence for our understanding of this transition. I would hate to conclude that the appearance of Sitagroi 2 means that we are not going to be in a position to answer these questions for many years to come.

It also has to be recognized that the absolute dating of the crucial Level III phase at Sitagroi remains unresolved. Although Sitagroi did produce stratified organic material for an excellent series of radiocarbon dates, first discussed by Renfrew in his 1971 article on "Sitagroi, Radiocarbon and the Prehistory of South-East Europe," the one period not covered by any dates was the latter part of Phase III. This led to the supposition that there was an hiatus in the occupational history of Sitagroi, between Levels III and IV, an interpretation championed by Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford). Renfrew did not agree, and it is certainly not accidental that, although Sherratt was a contributor to Sitagroi 1, he is conspicuously absent from volume 2.

It is always easy for a reviewer to find fault with a publication on the scale of Sitagroi 2. Aegean archaeology is a contentious field and the sad fact is that many excavators are not willing to take the risk of putting out a final publication. With the appearance of Sitagroi 2 we now have something of a landmark in Neolithic archaeology: a small prehistoric site in northeastern Greece published in two volumes that, taken together, represent some 1200 pages of solid archaeological documentation. There is material here for many, many years of scholarly discussion and debate. In spite of my own reservations, that really concern only one part of volume 2, I want to emphasize that Ernestine Elster and Colin Renfrew have done a magnificent job of publishing Sitagroi in such a splendid fashion. And all students of Aegean archaeology should thank the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA for making possible publications of such scope and quality.1


1.   I have not given full bibliographical references for all the publications mentioned in this review. They are included in the bibliographies contained in both Sitagroi volumes, and many of Renfrew's articles have been reprinted in the collection entitled Problems in European Prehistory (Edinburgh UP, 1979).

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