BMCR 2020.12.15

Dikili Tash, village préhistorique de Macédoine orientale I

, Dikili Tash, village préhistorique de Macédoine orientale I. Fouilles de Jean Deshayes (1961-1975), volume 3. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, Supplément 61. Athènes: École française d’Athènes, 2019. 199 p.. ISBN 9782869583108 €45,00.

The École française d’Athènes (ÉfA) first set spade at Dikili Tash in 1920–1922. Four decades later, in 1961, the ÉfA returned to the mound of Dikili and, under the direction of Jean Deshayes, until 1975 exposed 300 m2 of Neolithic and Bronze Age deposits. A Greek team led by Dimitrios Theocharis excavated another 340 m2 in the 1960s. Neither team reached the bottom of the anthropogenic accumulation, but with 640 m2 of excavated deposits, by 1980 Dikili Tash was among the most extensively explored prehistoric settlements in north Greece. Sponsored by the ÉfA, field research and specialized studies by Franco-Ηellenic teams have continued into the 2010s with important results. Since the 1990s the ÉfA has also been publishing book-length reports on Deshayes’s excavations at Dikili. On the centenary of the first excavation, in 2020 the work of the ÉfA at the site was awarded the Grand Prix for archaeology of the Institut de France.[1]

The volume under review is devoted to the Bronze Age pottery and to the figurines, clay models and miniature pots from all phases of Dikili explored by Deshayes. It also includes a concise, highly informative chapter on the history of research in Dikili Tash (co-authored by René Treuil and Dimitra Malamidou).

Chapter 1, by Malamidou, is a detailed study of the Bronze Age pottery from Deshayes’s 1961–1975 trenches, focused primarily on pot shapes and decoration.[2] The bulk of the material belongs to Early Bronze Age (EBA), divided into two main phases, the second of which, EBA 2, is further divided into three sub-phases. What of absolute chronology? The author indicates a range for the EBA at Dikili between 3300/3100 and 2700/2350 BC, and that is as good an estimate as any.[3] The lack of precise chronology is compensated for by the existence of records that assign each excavation unit to a specific phase or sub-phase on stratigraphic grounds. Thanks to those records, Malamidou was able to trace the development of pottery shapes and decorative motives and arrangements from EBA 1 to EBA 2c. The relevant evidence indicates continuity from the beginning to the end of the period. Still, EBA 2 pottery exhibits more complex decorative patterns (incised, impressed, excised, in relief) executed with much greater care for regularity than before and often extending to a greater portion of the pot’s surface. The evidence also shows the use of new devices, such as rollers, for impressing patterns on pot surfaces.

All these features had disappeared by the time Late Bronze Age (LBA) deposits began accumulating at Dikili, at least in the areas excavated by Deshayes. The LBA accumulation began about the middle of the second millennium BC or soon after, as indicated by several 14C dates.[4] A temporal hiatus, greater than five hundred years, intervened therefore between EBA 2 and the LBA, but that does not necessarily imply that Dikili was deserted during that period. Be that as it may, the LBA deposits form a thin (20–30 cm) mantle over the top of the Dikili mound and are, as expected, disturbed by later activities and surface processes. Their pottery content is small yet by no means uninformative. Bowls of various sizes and profiles predominate. A concentration of sherds from large vessels and utensils is associated with the ruins of an elongated apsidal building. The author plausibly suggests that the building could have served as storage of foodstuffs intended for consumption beyond the individual household. Decoration is noticeably simpler and more limited in patterns than in EBA 2. Novel is the use of a graphite solution applied to a pot’s exterior, thereby giving the pot a metallic shine. Another novelty is the application of relief bands with fingertip impressions. The use of a white or colored paste that fills incised and impressed patterns, first encountered in EBA 2, is a feature the LBA pottery as well.

Typological analyses are not the cutting edge of today’s pottery studies. But let us be realistic for a moment. When working with material excavated and recorded 45–60 years ago, with the standards that were current in the 1960s and 1970s, typological analysis may be the one kind of study one can still hope to conduct with a reasonable degree of rigor. Consider: quantification of the changing frequency of pot types through time would be desirable, but in the case of Dikili the result could not be relied upon: an unknown amount of potsherds was discarded long before reaching the analyst’s bench. For another example, examination of wear marks and, even, of organic residues from the interior of the pots would strengthen (or weaken) the claims about their presumed uses; but that presupposes that the material had been cleaned by gentle means. However, no information about cleaning procedures at the site is available. Notwithstanding such limitations, Malamidou’s typological study is to my mind highly useful, on a par with the study of the EBA pottery from Sitagroi,[5] but encompassing a longer period (the Dikili LBA material as well), it provides a carefully documented guide to the development of Bronze Age pottery in northeast Greece. Especially valuable for future researchers will be the hundreds of illustrations of pot profiles and patterns of decoration accompanying the text.

In Chapter 2 Christina Marangou presents the 243 clay figurines, models and miniature pots from all phases of Dikili explored by Deshayes. The chapter’s essential part is the catalog of those objects, divided into four parts: anthropomorphic figurines, zoomorphic figurines, models of household furnishings (from ovens to stools) and miniature pots. Most objects are illustrated. Each part of the catalog is further divided according to the Dikili periodization established in the 1970s: Middle Neolithic, Late Neolithic, EBA and LBA. Within each of these chronological divisions, objects are further subdivided into classes according to morphological criteria (“naturalistic” anthropomorphic figurines, for example, are treated separately from “schematic”, or plank-like, ones) and, in the case of models of household furnishings, according to the kind of object the model arguably depicts. The overwhelming majority of all objects are dated on stratigraphic grounds to the Late Neolithic. Most of the anthropomorphic figurines depict females.

Assembling and publishing a diverse corpus of objects such as that treated by Marangou is an arduous task, all the more so since the objects are often of minute dimensions and virtually all are preserved as fragments. Overcoming these difficulties, the author offers many useful observations. She describes, for instance, the techniques of figurine manufacture: the larger ones among the figurines were built around a core of clay (or, occasionally, a core from materials that did not survive the firing), limbs and heads were formed separately, then joined to the body, last the surface was smoothed and polished. She further indicates that the ‘naturalistic’ human figurines, in contrast with the animal figurines, were as rule decorated, usually with incised patterns, rarely with painted ones. One cannot tell, however, what the decorations represent; clothing, tattoos, and ornaments are all possibilities, while in some cases they appear simply to call attention to body features. Small perforations here and there (e.g., in the arms, the shoulders, the ears) probably indicate places where appendages from non-ceramic materials were tacked onto the figure. Marangou also notes that, while the animal figurines pertain in general to domestic species (especially bovines, but no pigs), the sample also includes bears and at least one monster or fictive creature (a bovine with a head at each end of the body). Noticing that the paws of the animal figurines are flat, she infers that those figurines could stand on their feet if placed on level ground. By contrast, the human figurines cannot be balanced on level ground without being propped; perhaps, then, they were meant to be portable rather than to stand in one place. Reclining figures, a type of which many examples are present, could be held in the palm, while figures in a sitting posture (none of them being attached to a chair) could perhaps have rested on one or another of the furniture models. These are keen observations and thoughtful suggestions, even though the realities they point to cannot always be verified.

Marangou devotes 25 pages to describing the models of household furnishings. Owing to the fragmentary state of the relevant material, identifications are often tentative, as the author admits. For example, about a dozen fragments demonstrably belong to models of ovens; many of them bear engraved patterns on their exposed surfaces, but only one is reasonably well preserved, though still missing its upper part.

Chapter 2 concludes with the consideration of c. 50 miniature pots (defined by Marangou as items up to nine centimeters in largest dimension). Some of these miniatures are crudely made; perhaps they were the products of novices (including children) trying their hands on the plasticity of clay. Many others, however, appear to be works of accomplished potters, capable of reproducing at a radically reduced scale actual pots and their details—pot profile, wall thickness, handles and surface finish, including decorations. The purposes of those ‘exact replicas in miniature’ escape us, but we are grateful to Marangou for bringing the matter to the discipline’s attention.

Marangou dwells at length on the contexts of the objects she treats, and does so in hopes of finding clues about the uses of those objects. I turned with great anticipation to the relevant parts in Chapter 2, yet I found the result somewhat disappointing. By ‘context’ the author means two things: first, the numbered square of the Dikili excavation grid (that is, archaeological coordinates) and, second, artifacts such as stone tools, potsherds, pieces of jewelry, sling bullets, animal bones and the like that were found along (i.e., in the same or nearby excavation units) with the objects treated. Now, having at your disposal the archaeological coordinates is surely useful if you plan to work further with the Dikili materials, but it is unavailing for a broader readership. As for the second meaning of ‘context’ sensu Marangou, a crucial clarification is needed: are the contexts she reconstructs primary (de facto refuse, i.e., items abandoned where they had been used, e.g., on house floors) or are they secondary contexts (accumulations of waste from areas of unknown extent and formed over unknown periods of time)? In the latter case, the associations of artifacts described are entirely fortuitous and reveal nothing about the uses of figurines and household furnishings. Information pertaining to the nature of the Dikili contexts is erratic, as the author acknowledges, yet by no means wholly unavailable. It is left, however, to the reader to glean that information from the most relevant publication.[6]

In sum, the volume reviewed is a publication of primary data from an excavated site with a long prehistoric sequence. Yet the significance of the publication clearly exceeds its contribution to our knowledge of the site. It also rests with the detailed treatment of scores of objects, common throughout Greece and the Balkans—classes of objects that have rarely received proper attention in the past. I therefore anticipate that the volume will serve as a point de repère for prehistorians working in a very broad area.


[1] Dikili Tash actualités.

[2] A technological study of the Bronze Age material has been published by L. Courtois as chapter 1 in Dikili Tash, village préhistorique de Macédoine orientale I. Fouilles de Jean Deshayes (1961-1975), vol. 2, 2004.

[3] The EBA 14C dates published in Dikili Tash, village préhistorique de Macédoine orientale I. Fouilles de Jean Deshayes (1961-1975), vol. 1, 1992, 33, were deemed by Treuil “unusable.” Four more dates for the site’s EBA 1 were published in Z. Tsirtsoni (ed.), The Human Face of Radiocarbon: Reassessing Chronology in Prehistoric Greece and Bulgaria, 5000–3000 Cal BC (Lyon 2016), 53, but again three of them proved widely aberrant; the fourth date (Lyon-6012) would, however, support Malamidou’s estimate for the beginning of the EBA at Dikili. Malamidou does not mention the recently published dates, for they became available after she submitted her manuscript.

[4] Source for the 14C dates: see Tsirtsoni in footnote 3 above.

[5] C. Renfrew, M. Gimbutas and E.S. Elster (eds), Excavations at Sitagroi, a Prehistoric Village in Northeast Greece, vol. 1 (Los Angeles 1986), 429–86.

[6] Chapter 3 (by Treuil) in vol. 1 of the Dikili series (see above, footnote 3).