Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.21

Adamantios Sampson, The Cave of the Cyclops: Mesolithic and Neolithic Networks in the Northern Aegean, Greece. Vol. 1, Intra-site Analysis, Local Industries, and Regional Site Distribution. Prehistory Monographs; 21.   Philadelphia:  Institute for Aegean Prehistory Academic Press, 2006.  Pp. xxii, 255+.  ISBN 9781931534208.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Seth Button, University of Michigan (
Word count: 3212 words

Our understanding of Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic activity in the Aegean has changed with astonishing rapidity over the past two decades. This pace of development has been due in part to energetic synthesis and theory-building, in part to the reams of new data generated by fieldwork. In the latter category, one of the most important developments was the discovery and excavation of the Cave of the Cyclops on Youra in the Northern Sporades, an important site which spans the Mesolithic to Late Neolithic. It was excavated in the early 1990's by Adamantios Sampson and his colleagues, who made many of their findings available in useful and timely preliminary reports. This most recent publication, part of a commendable effort on the part of the INSTAP Academic Press to bring excavation data to print in a timely manner, represents the first installment of a complete final report on the Cave of the Cyclops; a second volume is forthcoming. Volume I consists of twelve chapters (full titles and authors' names are listed at the end of the review). Some are more detailed than others; many will be of interest primarily to specialists, while others may find a wider audience, especially among students of island archaeology. While not without problems, these chapters generally present excavation data in an intelligible way, and some of the authors also contribute to ongoing debates over island colonization, neolithization and the nature of post-Pleistocene maritime activity in the Aegean.

Sampson sets the scene in Chapter 1, describing the physical setting of the cave, its stratigraphy, and the excavation of the six trenches, A through F. Briefly, in the Mesolithic, an area near the entrance of the cave was used or occupied at least seasonally. Both goat and pig are present throughout the Mesolithic levels, but fishing, attested by fish bone and by artifacts interpreted as fishhooks, was economically important, while other animals, from red deer to birds, were also hunted. Early Neolithic activity, perhaps intermittent visitation, was initially restricted to the entrance to the cave, though towards the end of the period it may have intensified, as attested by several hearths near the cave entrance. In the Middle Neolithic, an area deep within the cave, a shallow pool surrounded by stalagmite and stalactite columns, became a focus of activity: it was from this area that most of the remarkable Middle Neolithic painted pottery derives, though material plausibly interpreted as domestic waste is absent from this location, which is therefore suggested to have something to do with symbolic or ritual behavior. There is an apparent hiatus of almost a millennium before the Late Neolithic occupation of the cave, attested by floors, hearths, and storage vessels near the entrance, and by more pottery deposited near the pool.

A selective catalog and typology of some of the Neolithic pottery occupies Chapter 2, by Sampson, while other wares are discussed separately in the following chapters. Most of the Early and Middle Neolithic pottery is strongly local in character, though early painted ware (red on white), transitional Early- to Middle- Neolithic in date, is suggestive of connections with Thessaly. Late Neolithic ceramics, in contrast, find parallels throughout the Aegean and may derive from clay sources in Thessaly, Euboea, and the southern Aegean (the results of petrographic analysis are forthcoming). Later forms include storage jars, which along with the hearths and floors belonging to that phase, suggest a more intensive occupation on Youra. Such occupation may still have been seasonal, as in historical periods, when small groups of herdsmen would bring their flocks to the island for several months at a time, a fact which should surely inform our modeling of island utilization and contact in the northern Aegean.

The Middle Neolithic painted wares are treated in detail in Chapter 3, by Stella Katsarou-Tzeveleki. Most (80%) of this material derives from the area adjacent to the pool in the interior of the cave. The decoration of these pots involved the painting of a rectilinear net of fine lines over some part of the vessel, which Katsarou-Tzeveleki calls "canvas." Spaces between intersecting lines were filled or left empty to create complex patterns akin to weaving. These decorative schemes are apparently unique, with little apparent connection to contemporary ceramic traditions in Thessaly, Thrace, or Anatolia.

After cataloging the relevant ceramic material and advancing a typology for decoration, Katsarou-Tzeveleki considers these painted ceramics in no fewer than eleven different capacities: as reflecting membership in cultural group, as economic objects, as products of (so Katsarou-Tzeveleki) specialization, as "a product of know-how," in the context of "practical use," as "a structural construction," as "symbol and message of identity," as "a product of society," "a product of men or women" (she concludes that weaving and pottery were both female crafts), in relation to other symbolic behavior, as "historical objects," and finally, as a "unity."

Katsarou-Tzeveleki emphasizes connections between early Greek Neolithic ceramics and other forms of craft as diverse as basketry, wood carving, or (so Katsarou-Tzeveleki) metalwork (101-102). She apparently believes that weavers worked with wool obtained from woolly sheep, citing Trantalidou's forthcoming chapter on the faunal material, but not Sherratt's seminal paper (Sherratt 1981) or other more recent literature on the Secondary Products Revolution, an omission which contrasts with her bibliographical grab bag of structuralist theory, semiotics, and psychology. Some of Katsarou-Tzeveleki's arguments are thought-provoking, while other assertions and assumptions --for example, that "cooking was invented in the Mesolithic"--will elicit skepticism. Arguments about the symbolic function of painted pottery and its relevance to identity formation and articulation could have been made more concise and condensed into fewer sections.

Chapter 4, by Fanis Mavridis, is a more straightforward catalog and discussion of Late Neolithic burnished and painted ceramics from the Cave of the Cyclops. These represent a small fraction of the total ceramic material and come mostly from disturbed contexts. Mavridis argues that this pottery reflects membership in a Late Neolithic Aegean koine, in contrast to other periods in which ceramic style reflects connections with Thessaly (112).

In addition to the Neolithic ceramics, the excavations recovered a few handfuls of Early, Middle, and Late Helladic sherds and four possible Geometric sherds: these are covered by Sampson in Chapter 5. Overall, the cave appears to have been used only sporadically over the millennia represented by these artifacts. Classical and Hellenistic black-glazed material is more abundant and allows the reconstruction of a number of kylikes and kotyles. Most of the Hellenistic material was recovered from a niche inside the interior of the cave. Its presence may suggest some sort of ritual connected with the cave, as at cave sites elsewhere in the Mediterranean, at Nakovana cave in central Dalmatia, for example, and prefigures Roman ritual activity at the Cave of the Cyclops.

Such activity is primarily attested on Youra by an unusual quantity of Roman lamps, addressed by Georgios Koutsouflakis in Chapter 6. Koutsouflakis argues that at this time the Cave of the Cyclops was a cult place, perhaps visited by ships stopping to water at the island. In addition to the lamps, the discovery of a thymaterion, or incense-burner, is consistent with the hypothesis of cult activity. For the most part, the lamps themselves fall into two major categories, the first Attic or Attic-style and the second those deriving from Asia Minor, suggesting something about the position of the Northern Sporades in maritime routes of the 1st through 4th centuries CE.

Other artifact classes--ground stone, other stone objects, and small finds--are collected in Chapter 7, by Sampson and Orphanidis. The ground stone assemblage includes a variety of grinders from both Mesolithic and Neolithic levels, though unlike other Neolithic sites in the Aegean, including cave sites, the Cave of the Cyclops produced few millstones. Among the small finds are a Late Neolithic violin type figurine, spindle whorls, sling bullets or tokens, and a cupreous metal needle which Sampson describes as bronze (it is approximately 75% copper, 1.9% arsenic and .4% tin). The presence in Lower Mesolithic levels of two grooved stones, conventionally described as "shaft straighteners," is noted: this class of artifact is well represented in the Epipaleolithic and early Neolithic of the Upper Euphrates valley and now on Cyprus, at the site of Agia Varvara-Asprokremnos (McCartney et al. 2007). The well-known fishhooks from the Cave of the Cyclops are not discussed here; rather, they are the subject of a forthcoming chapter in the second volume.

The chipped stone assemblage is discussed by Malgorzata Kaczanowska and Janusz Kozlowski in Chapter 8. The Mesolithic assemblage is primarily flake-based, and local silaceous stone the primary material, with reduction on site. However, this straightforward tradition apparently existed alongside an unprecedented tradition of Mesolithic obsidian microliths, distinctly different from those on mainland Greece. The authors consider the possibility that these artifacts are intrusive, but argue against it. As in many other places, the transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic saw an increase in blade production and change in raw material procurement strategies, with obsidian becoming the material of choice. However, the Neolithic component of the assemblage includes not only standard obsidian blades, but crescents and geometric microliths. The persistence of this microlithic tradition in the Northern Sporades into the Late Neolithic is an unusual feature, to say the least, but research is making clear the extent to which chipped stone industries across the Mediterranean are the product of long-lived traditions and multiple and diverse influences.

In Chapter 9, Sampson reports on survey and limited excavation on other remote islands of the Northern Sporades. The methodology of this survey is nowhere discussed, but it seems to have been simple extensive reconnaissance at the discretion of the investigators. The general picture is of an ephemeral and intermittent human presence on these islands from at least the Late Neolithic, and perhaps earlier; finds from Psathoura and Youra are attributed by Sampson to the Middle Paleolithic (184). Ostensibly Paleolithic material not only in the Sporades but elsewhere in the Aegean has often been treated with skepticism (Cherry 1990) but is becoming increasingly convincing (Broodbank 2006).

In Chapter 10, Sampson continues on from the results of the survey to present data gathered on historical land use and vegetation history and human habitation on Youra but also on other islands of the Northern Sporades, including Pappous, Koumbi, Gramiza, Piperi, Skantzoura, Psathoura, Psathonisi, Kyra-Panagia, and Alonessos. Despite its brevity this is a useful contribution to the literature on traditional agriculture and animal husbandry in the Aegean. The substantial degree of variation in both local microenvironmental conditions and in historical subsistence practice is significant. Historically, stock-keeping has been more important than fishing, with cereal agriculture, olives, nut trees, bee keeping and gardens also helping to support small communities such as the monasteries on Youra and Piperi. Water shortages were a persistent problem on those islands without perennial springs; human and animal populations often depended on water stored in cisterns (and perhaps the pool in the Cave of the Cyclops).

A Mesolithic human cranial fragment recovered in the 1995 excavation season is described by Nickos Poulianos in Chapter 11, which also touches on other human remains recovered. The cranium apparently belongs to a female of mature age, perhaps 65-70, and is slightly deformed by use of a cradle board or swaddling band. Poulianos argues that the skull's measurements suggest membership in a "Mediterranean-Aegean" group, proving "diachronic interaction between European anthropological types, as well as those of other continents" (196-7). The fact that this individual lived to an advanced age is taken as evidence of "high average life expectancy" due to diet, climate, and social conditions (198).

In Chapter 12, Sampson presents his conclusions. He rightly argues that the use and eventual colonization of Aegean islands was not necessarily resource-driven, at least not in a straightforward way. Rather, he highlights the importance of sea level changes at the end of the Pleistocene in altering local microclimates (and therefore the conditions of subsistence practice) and encouraging maritime activity. Consideration of possible maritime routes in the Mesolithic Aegean leads Sampson to suggest that from at least the Early Neolithic and possibly earlier, long open-water crossings between points not intervisible were commonplace. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the case of the Northern Sporades generally supports the use of now familiar spatial models such as target/distance ratios for understanding prehistoric maritime mobility, and also reinforces the importance of seasonal resource availability and "island nurseries" for seafaring. The increasing body of evidence for high maritime mobility in the Mesolithic Aegean fits well with recent work by Broodbank (2006) suggesting a partly maritime dispersal of populations and/or transmission of Neolithic technologies and behaviors from Southwest Asia to the Aegean and Southeast Europe, made possible by a long seafaring tradition. Many readers will wish Sampson had engaged more directly with important literature by e.g. Renfrew, Cherry and Broodbank on island archaeology in the Aegean.

The evidence from the Cave of the Cyclops bears directly on the question of neolithization, on which Sampson inclines towards an indigenist position. The facts that wild wheat (Triticum monococcum) grows in Greece, and the possibility that wild ancestors of sheep and goats might at one time have lived there, are argued to support local domestication "without foreign intervention" (226). The presence of morphologically "transitional" domestic animals, likewise cited in support of indigenous neolithization, is difficult to evaluate until Trantalidou's final report on the animal bones is published; however, it is necessarily exceedingly difficult to differentiate such "transitional" forms from feralized domestic caprines or the products of interbreeding between wild and domestic populations (see e.g. Vigne et al. 2003). The apparent absence of Early Neolithic sites in Thrace, noted by Sampson, cannot be taken as strong evidence against demic diffusion, especially if such dispersal was partly maritime in character; Holocene marine transgression is likely to have submerged many coastal sites (and see Ammerman et al. 2008 for Early Neolithic sites in Thrace).

While valuable, this book contains numerous small errors. In Figure 12.11, a map of important Early Holocene sites in the Eastern Mediterranean, the dot representing the site of Cap Andreas-Kastros on the Karpass peninsula of Cyprus is incorrectly labeled as Akrotiri-Aetokremnos, while the dot in the Argolid purporting to represent Franchthi Cave is placed at the head of the Gulf of Argos, not far from the location of Klissoura Cave (the latter two sites are correctly labeled in Figure 12.2 on the facing page). It would have been better to choose a standard English transliteration for site names: the site of Parekklisha-Shillourokambos is variously spelled as "Silourokampos" (in Table 12.1) and Sillourokampos (Fig. 12.11), while Klissoura is also spelled (as on p. 208) as Klisoura.

There seems to be some confusion concerning taxonomy. On pp. 188-189, Quercus coccifera, Kermes oak, a common maquis component, is called holly. Holly oak or holm oak is Q. ilex, while hollies proper are generally placed in genus Ilex. On p. 202, while members of the genus Patella are correctly identified as limpets, the Monodonta are simply called mollusks, rather than given their common English name, topshells.

A Late Neolithic stone figurine from the site is first mentioned (p. 7) with no reference to the corresponding illustration in Figure 7.5 and Plate 7.1. In these plates, and in Chapter 7, it is given the identifying number S70, but on p. 165 the same artifact is referred to as SF 70.

For thirty years or so, the terms of investigation and debate have been defined by work on island colonization and the applicability of biogeographical models to human movement. A strong focus on colonization has tended to result in the documentation of the earliest recorded presence or apparently permanent presence on islands without requiring that much be said about the nature of that presence. With this publication, Sampson and his colleagues have helped to broaden the discussion in several ways. First is by contributing to the increasing body of evidence for the antiquity of maritime activity in the Aegean, with Paleolithic seafaring looking increasingly likely, however obscure the specifics at this point (cf. Broodbank 2006). Second, by moving away from the focus on colonization and investigating how the spatial configuration of islands and "seascapes" influence the social dynamics of mobile communities -- including changes driven by global climate change, changes in sea level, and (probably) local environmental changes in both fauna and flora (cf. Simmons 1999, 2004). Finally, the Cave of the Cyclops points to regional diversity in ceramics, subsistence practice, symbolic behavior, resource procurement, and the importance of local factors in producing variability and change in subsistence practice at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

List of Chapters and Contributors:

1. The Cave Setting and Stratigraphy, A. Sampson
2. The Pottery Analysis, A. Sampson
3. The Middle Neolithic Weavers Paint: Red Painted Patterns as Markers of the Local Group's Identity, S. Katsarou-Tzeveleki
4. The Late Neolithic Painted and Burnished Decorated Wares, F. Mavridis
5. The Lamps of the Roman Period, G. B. Koutsouflakis
6. The Ground Stone Utensils and Miscellaneous Finds, A. Sampson and L. Orphanidis
7. The Chipped Stone Artifacts, M. Kaczanowska and J.K. Kozlowski
8. The Survey in the Deserted Islands of the Northern Sporades, A. Sampson
9. The Animal-Husbandry Ethnoarchaeology of Alonnessos and the Deserted Islands in the Northern Sporades, A. Sampson
10. A Mesolithic Cranial Vault and Other Human Remains, N. Poulianos
11. Conclusions, A. Sampson.


Ammerman, A.J., N. Efstratiou, M. Ntinou, K. Pavlopoulos, R. Gabrielli, K.D. Thomas, and M.A. Mannino
2008. Finding the early Neolithic in Aegean Thrace: the use of cores. Antiquity 82.315:139-150.
Broodbank, C.
1999. Colonization and Configuration in the Insular Neolithic of the Aegean, pp. 15-41 in P. Halstead, ed., Neolithic Society in Greece [Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology 2]. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

2006. The Origins and Early Development of Mediterranean Maritime Activity. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 19.2:199-230.

Cherry, J.F.
1981. Pattern and process in the earliest colonization of the Mediterranean islands. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 47: 41-68.

1990. The first colonization of the Mediterranean islands: a review of recent research. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 3:145-221.

McCartney, C., S.W. Manning, D. Sewell and S.T. Stewart
2007. The EENC 2006 Field season: Excavations at Agia Varvara-Asprokremnos and survey of the local early Holocene landscape. Report of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus: 45-86.
Sampson, A.
1998. The Neolithic and Mesolithic occupation of the cave of Cyclope, Youra Alonessos, Greece.Annual of the British School at Athens 93:1-22.

2006a. He proistoria tou Aigaiou. Athens.

2006b. The Sarakenos Cave and the Paleoenvironment in the Copais Basin, Boeotia, Central Greece, pp. 61-75 in P.J. Smith, ed., Cults, Coins, History and Inscriptions VII: Studies in Honor of John M. Fossey. Montreal.

Sherratt, A.
1981. Plough and pastoralism: aspects of the secondary products revolution, pp 261-305 in I. Hodder, G. Isaac and N. Hammond, eds., Pattern of the Past: Studies in honour of David Clarke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Simmons, A.
1999. Faunal Extinctions in an Island Society: Pygmy Hippopotamus Hunters of Cyprus. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

2004. Bitter hippos of Cyprus: the islands first occupants and last endemic animals -- setting the stage for colonization, pp. 1-14 in E.J. Peltenburg and A. Wasse, eds., Neolithic Revolution. New Perspectives on Southwest Asia in Light of Recent Discoveries on Cyprus. Oxford: Oxbow.

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