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Adriatic sailors and stone knappers: Palagruza in the 3rd millennium BC.


Interactional phenomena, both local and long-distance, are often implicated in explanations of social change, and this is the case in Mediterranean archaeology (e.g. Renfrew 1972; Patton 1996). Despite interest in contact phenomena, little attention is paid to those figures who achieved such contacts, the Mediterranean's ancient mariners and their passengers. One problem is the lack of sites which document such contact. In this paper we seek to comprehend the archaeology of one such likely place, a small island group in the Adriatic Sea.

Palagruza and Mala Palagruza are islets in the centre of the Adriatic (16 [degrees] 15[minutes]E, 42 [degrees] 23[minutes]N), at the mid-point in a chain of islands stretching from Italy to mainland Dalmatia [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. From Palagruza, one can see Italy to the south and the large islands hugging the Dalmatian coast to the north. The prevailing currents and winds around Palagruza help rather than hinder maritime traffic during the sailing season, and for an ancient navigator, Palagruza enjoyed a key position within the Adriatic (Kaiser & Kirigin 1994: 65-6).

Palagruza is 1390 m long and 270 m wide. The main topographical features are a peak at the west end of the island and an east-running ridge indented by two small plateaux. The north slope of the island is steep, descending at 2530 [degrees] from Palagruza's spine to the water, whereas the south coast is a forbidding line of cliffs rising 50-70 m above the sea. Palagruza has no source of fresh water, but modest amounts of rain at all seasons are sufficient to support life there.

So far, our surface, subsurface and underwater investigations of Palagruza and Mala Palagruza have located six archaeological localities, including Early Neolithic, Late Copper Age/Early Bronze Age, Classical and Hellenistic Greek, and Roman remains (Kaiser & Kirigin 1994; Forenbaher et al. 1994). Below we consider some Copper/Bronze Age questions raised by finds on Palagruza.

Late Copper Age/Early Bronze Age finds on

Palagruza From the late 3rd millennium BC, Palagruza was visited repeatedly by Late Copper Age/Early Bronze Age sailors, who left their most visible traces on and below the island's central plateau. These consist of a small, disturbed complex (Palagruza 1) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The plateau is the island's largest expanse of level ground and it is not surprising that it has been used at other times, including the 6th to the 4th century BC by Classical and Hellenistic Greeks, and later by the Romans. All prehistoric archaeological material is of Late Copper Age/Early Bronze Age date. The Italian archaeologist Carlo de Marchesetti and the English adventurer Richard Burton visited the island together in 1873 and reported that, among other finds, bones, stone tools and pottery had been encountered during modern quarrying (Marchesetti 1876: 287-9; Burton 1879: 179).

No pre-medieval architectural features survive on the central plateau (Kirigin & Cace 1998). The late 3rd-millennium BC occupation is a 6000-sq. m area below the plateau containing abundant artefactual remains in secondary contexts. Survey of this downslope area retrieved a decorated stone wristguard; a variety of projectile points and lunates; retouched blades and bladelets; core fragments; and pottery of the Cetina culture. Systematic sampling included a series of test trenches (11.5 sq. m total) excavated on the slope. These units revealed a uniform stratigraphy, where Cetina pottery and lithics were found in a 10-25-cm humus layer with occasional Greek and Roman material. No other prehistoric material was found, nor were any organic materials associated with these artefacts. Beneath this layer were sterile clayey colluvial sediments 30-50 cm thick lying upon scree and bedrock.

Dating Palagruza 1

Since Palagruza 1 did not yield any materials suitable for absolute dating, all our chronological considerations are restricted to cross-dating based upon formal stylistic criteria. Lithic artefacts are of little use for these purposes, since stone tools have not been systematically studied for post-Pleistocene periods in the Eastern Adriatic. This leaves us with pottery. The ceramics of Palagruza 1 clearly belong to what is known in the local literature as the Cetina culture.

The Cetina culture corresponds roughly to the Late Copper Age-Early Bronze Age transition. Primarily defined by a pottery assemblage which appears along much of the eastern Adriatic, it is best known from the cairn cemeteries around the source of the Cetina river in the central Dalmatian hinterland (Marovic & Covic 1983; Marovic 1991). A few examples of stylistically similar vessels also have been reported from the Italian side of the Adriatic, from Laterza and Rodi (Marovic 1975: 245, plate 65; Covic 1980: 16-17; Nava 1985: 312-15; 1990: 5612). based largely on the stylistic characteristics of its pottery assemblage, the Cetina culture has been divided into three chronological phases (Marovic & Covic 1983: 194-201). This sequence is supported by finds from a few stratified caves, as well as by the (alleged) association of pottery with metal artefacts in cemeteries. In brief, Cetina I is characterized by the presence of rocker- or roulette-decorated pottery of so-called Ljubljana type; Cetina 2 is typified by vessels decorated with elaborate geometric incised and impressed designs; and Cetina 3 by the appearance of high strap handles, shoulder channelling, and other formal characteristics diagnostic of the later Bronze Age.

Cetina sites from mainland Dalmatia remain undated by radiocarbon, so combined with a paucity of good stratigraphic information, there is much chronological uncertainty, and a variety of chronological schemes. Traditionally oriented authors place almost the entire Cetina sequence within the Early Bronze Age (Marovic & Covic 1983: 197-200; Milosevic & Govedarica 1986: 68-9; Govedarica 1989a: 409; 1989b: 200). Others argue for a higher chronology, placing it partially, or even fully, within the Copper Age (Marijanovic 1981: 52-3; 1991: 240-42; Della Casa 1995: 573; 1996: 127-35; Chapman et al. 1996: 7).

The diagnostic part of the Cetina 1 ceramic inventory consists of conical bowls with fiat, internally thickened rims and globular jars with cylindrical necks. Both are often decorated with geometric patterns (bands, hatching, triangles) made by rocker, roulette or cord impressions (Milosevic & Govedarica 1986: 59-63). This kind of pottery is loosely related to the Bell Beaker horizon, especially its supposed equivalent in the southeastern Alps, the Ljubljana culture (Dimitrijevic 1967; 1979: 317-29). The Ljubljana culture is considered to have two variants, one inland and the other coastal. The immediate predecessor of the inland type is the late Vucedol horizon which dates to c. 2500 BC (Durman & Obelic 1989: 1004-5). The absolute dating of the Ljubljana horizon on the Adriatic coast is more problematic. From caves in the Triestine karst there are two radiocarbon determinations, possibly associated with Ljubljana pottery: Grotta dei Ciclami (4160 [+ or -] 50 BP; 2883-2622 cal BC, 1[Sigma] range) and Grotta del Mitreo (3720 [+ or -] 50 BP; 2269-2035 cal BC, 16 range) (Skeates 1994: 209-10). To this can now be added two dates from our recent excavations at Grapceva Spilja, a cave site on the island of Hvar. From two contexts associated with Ljubljana pottery we obtained dates of 3880[+ or -]120 BP, 2485-2145 cal BC, 1[Sigma] range, and 4190[+ or -]50 BP, 2885-2855 and 2820-2665 cal BC, 1[sigma] range.

The Cetina 2 ceramic inventory, considered 'classic' Cetina, is characterized by a greater variety of vessel shapes, including the archetypal pedestalled jars. The most diagnostic decorative technique is a combination of incision outlining a geometric design and regularly spaced triangular or circular impressions filling the design (for illustrations cf. Marovic & Covic 1983: plates 28-32; Govedarica 1989b).

Cetina 2 ceramics are sometimes said to be associated with diagnostic Reinecke Br.A2 bronze daggers of the developed Early Bronze Age (EBA) (Marovic & Covic 1983: 198, plate 35), i.e., the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BC (Forenbaher 1993: 252-3). The finds from most of the burial cairns come from insecure contexts, since many cemeteries were used over extended periods of time and were often heavily disturbed. A large number of the more characteristic Cetina finds were recovered from cairn fills or from the humus underneath, and cannot be directly linked to any particular burial. Consequently, the association of the characteristic, and presumably chronologically sensitive, EBA metalwork from cairn burials with Cetina pottery is suspect. Della Casa (1995: 574), using the site of Mala Glavica near Podvrsje, argues that in fact no such association exists. He maintains that classic Cetina pottery is associated instead with stone axes, wristguards and flint arrowheads, not with metalwork. Instead, he equates the Cetina group with the Middle Danube Bell Beaker horizon and with the Aegean Early Helladic III period (Della Casa 1996: 12735). In view of all this, it is interesting that our excavations at Grapceva Spilja yielded radiocarbon dates for two superimposed Cetina layers, the younger dated to 3480[+ or -]50 BP, 1880-1730 cal BC, 1[Sigma] range and the older to 3970[+ or -]50 BP, 2555-2535 and 2495-2450 cal BC, 1[Sigma] range. Presently available evidence suggests that the first two phases of Cetina pottery belong to the period between c. 2500 and c. 1800 BC. Cetina 1 probably spans the third quarter of the 3rd millennium BC, and is followed by Cetina 2 in the last quarter of the 3rd millennium and the first quarter of the 2nd millennium BC.

The ceramics from Palagruza 1 exhibit features common to Late Copper Age/Early Bronze Age pottery of the Eastern Adriatic. Palagruza's modest 1330-sherd ceramic assemblage contains elements of both early and classic Cetina phases. The Cetina I pottery includes bowls with thickened, bevelled rims as well as such diagnostic decoration as cord impressions, hatched triangles and punctate checkerboards [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3a-e OMITTED]. The Cetina 2 pottery includes fragments of pedestalled jars and stamped decorations [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3f-g OMITTED]. Overall, there is more early Cetina material than classic Cetina material in the assemblage. Also pointing to an earlier date, the closest parallels to the decorated stone wristguard [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED] found on Palagruza are with Late Copper Age wristguards of Italy.


Compared to other sites of the same period, lithic artefacts are unusually abundant at Palagruza 1: some 1500 pieces, weighing over 2 kg, were recovered. Apart from two obsidian bladelets, the raw material is chert. This abundance is partially explained by the existence of a chert source on neighbouring Mala Palagruza.

A craggy islet separated from the main island by a 200-m wide channel, Mala Palagruza consists of two roughly parallel ridges of brecciated limestone, with eroding marly strata between them. Along the contact between marl and limestone are numerous nodules of micro- and cryptocrystalline radiolarian chert of Jurassic age (P. von Bitter pers. comm.). A series of round and subrounded holes around the island mark places where chert was removed by quarrying. On and above the beach are many loose nodules which constitute yet another easily exploitable source of chert. Clearly this was the source of the stone used by Palagruza flint knappers. The raw material physical characteristics (colour, grain size, inclusions, microfossils, etc.) are identical to those of the lithic artefacts from the site of Palagruza 1.

Primary reduction most likely took place at the Mala Palagruza quarry. The large quantity of fine lithic debris which is strewn across the surface of the only flat space on the islet might be the waste produced by that activity. Evidence of production on the Palagruza 1 site, however, is scarce. There are only a handful of cores and core preparation elements. Cortical elements are rare, and discarded half-products such as core or tool preforms are absent.

Debitage, which constitutes the largest part of the assemblage, is split evenly between flakes and blades/bladelets. We do not distinguish between blades and bladelets since their widths, thicknesses and lengths show unimodal distributions [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED]. Tools make up 10.7% of all lithics. The most common tools (39%) are retouched blades/bladelets and their segments [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED]. Next most frequent are bifacially worked projectile points (22%), which exhibit considerable formal variety. There are notched, tanged, barbed, barbed and tanged, hollow base and triangular points [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED]. Projectile points are followed by lunates (18%), which also are generally considered to have been used as arrowheads or armatures. The rest (14%) are ad hoc small flake tools - irregularly retouched or denticulate flakes.

This typological variability could perhaps be seen to reflect protracted lithic deposition; on typological grounds only, such deposition might have taken place over a period beginning not earlier than the middle Neolithic and ending not later than the EBA. However, as discussed above, there is no corresponding temporal variability in the prehistoric pottery associated with the lithics of Palagruza 1; what is more, our extensive survey of the island as a whole failed to locate any traces of middle Neolithic, late Neolithic or Early Copper Age visits. This suggests that even though trans-Adriatic voyagers are known elsewhere from these pre-Cetina periods, they do not appear to have been responsible for the lithic production seen at Palagruza 1. On the positive side, lithics very similar to those found at Palagruza I do appear in late Copper Age and EBA contexts, e.g., Cetina contexts at Skarin Samograd (Marovic & Covic 1983: 205-6), Otisic (Milosevic & Govedarica 1986: 59) and Podvrsje (Batovic & Kukoc 1987: 63, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]), as well as at the Istrian hillforts of Picugi, Beram and Brijuni (Petric 1978: 449, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]). In light of this negative and positive evidence, we find no reasonable basis for supposing that the production of projectile points took place over a very long period of time.

The character of the lithic assemblage prompts the question of whether Palagruza's flint knappers were craft specialists, since the repertoire is remarkably narrow. Ad hoc flake tools, which are usually presumed to be produced at the household level, and should therefore constitute the bulk of a tool assemblage in a generalized residential site, are relatively scarce. Instead, prismatic blade technology aimed at producing blade/bladelet segments is dominant, judging from both the high blade index and the high frequency of blade tools. The next most frequently produced items are the bifacial projectile points. Such a narrow range of production is not typical of domestic contexts.

The actual scale of production is, naturally, difficult to assess. Nevertheless, the quantity of blade segments and projectile points is extraordinary. The excavation of 11.5 sq. m yielded over 550 blade/bladelet segments, 35 bifacial points and 29 lunates. Assuming that this represents average distribution across the site (an area of some 6000 sq. m as indicated by the surface scatter), the total numbers of these items would be of the order of 287,000 blade segments, 18,000 bifacial points and 15,000 lunates.

What accounts for this profusion? Palagruza I can hardly be thought of as a regional centre: the site itself is small, and its surrounding territory is limited to the tiny island. It does not seem likely that the thousands of arrowheads there mark some episode of warfare. Nor can the numerous blade segments and arrowheads be explained by some local demand for harvesting tools or hunting weapons since the agricultural potential and the wildlife resources of the island are negligible. Instead, it seems clear that blades and projectile points were produced on Palagruza in quantities that far exceeded any reasonable estimate of local needs. Instead, we suggest that these products were created in order to be exchanged and that they were made by craft specialists (Clark & Parry 1990: 297-8; Costin 1991: 4; Brumfiel & Earle 1987a: 5).

The degree to which Palagruza's flint knappers were specialized, however, is open to question. These knappers were clearly good at their craft: their competence is attested by the quality and regularity with which knapping operations were executed. However, there is considerable variability within the two basic lithic products. There are at least half a dozen different formal types of projectile points, as well as little sign of standardization among the blade/bladelets. Coefficients of variation were calculated [Mathematical Expression Omitted] for width and thickness of over 500 Palagruza blade/bladelet segments, in order to permit a cross-cultural comparison of standardization within this class of artefacts; the choice of sites is limited by the absence of geographically closer points of comparison.
 width thickness

Palagruza 33.6 37.0
Phylakopi 28.4 55.9
Knossos 22.7 36.4
Teotihuacan 18.1 28.6

The values obtained for Palagruza are much higher than those produced by the Teotihuacan specialists. They compare somewhat more favourably to blades from Bronze Age contexts from Knossos and Phylakopi, but it is not clear whether these Minoan products were made by specialists (Torrence 1986: 159-60).

Why go to Palagruza?

The evidence presently available is suggestive of what people were doing on Palagruza at some time(s) in the second half of the 3rd millennium BC. First, they were travellers. Connections between Palagruza, Dalmatia, Apulia and the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea have been demonstrated. This evidence includes

a the closely parallel finds of Cetina pottery on Palagruza and the Apulian coast,

b finds of possible Palagruza chart on the Dalmatian islands of Vis and Hvar, and

c bladelets of obsidian, imported from Lipari

(R. Tykot pers. comm.), found on Palagruza. Second, these voyagers were clearly mining chert and churning out blades and archery equipment. They were probably part-time residents. Palagruza has little arable land - in medieval times up to 7 ha on the island's north slope may have been terraced for the cultivation of grain (Kovacic 1987) but still there were no permanent residents. What is more, the island is so small and craggy that even in prehistoric times its fuel resources would soon have been depleted. Prehistoric visits to Palagruza probably took place from April to October, the Adriatic's traditional sailing season. But why were they on Palagruza in the first place?

Palagruza was not unknown before its Cetina occupation. Finds of Early Neolithic Impresso pottery at Palagruza 2 are our best evidence of the earliest deep water navigation of some sort in the Adriatic (Kaiser & Kirigin 1994: 68-9). Middle and Late Neolithic connections across the Adriatic are seen in the form of Danilo and Hvar pottery finds in Italy and possible Lipari obsidian and Serra d'Alto sherds in Dalmatia (Batovic 1979: 626; Chapman 1988: 12; Skeates 1993: 15). While it is perhaps possible that voyagers of the 5th and 4th millennia BC also made Palagruza a port of call, our extensive survey of the island and the surrounding waters has found no traces of them.

The reasons for prehistoric and ancient mariners' interest in Palagruza are doubtless related to problems of navigation in the Adriatic. Ancient Mediterranean sailors preferred not to stray too far from land, moving instead from headland to headland, island to island, as wind and currents permitted (Casson 1995). Palagruza makes excellent navigational sense from these points of view. First, a pair of prevailing summertime currents sweep past each other at Palagruza, one from Italy and the southwest, the other from Dalmatia to the northeast. Second, Palagruza is the central island in the chain Tremiti-Pianosa-Palagruza-Susac-Vis. This chain is a unique bridge across the Adriatic. Indeed, on clear days one can see Palagruza from Monte Gargano in Italy or from Sv. Duh on Vis. By stopping at Palagruza, therefore, prehistoric sailors could cross the Adriatic in safe stages of a day's length or less.

Near the end of the Copper Age, seafarers began to make longer stays on Palagruza. Presumably this change was linked to the island's own particular attractions in addition to its location, features which seem to have been important at some times and not others. Of these, the longest appreciated has been its fishery. The island is the centre of the richest traditional fishing ground in the Adriatic (Zupanovic 1993). Deep-water harvesting is a capital intensive activity and so is unlikely to have been pursued before the Early Bronze Age (cf. Gilman 1981: 7). In Dalmatia, prior to the Cetina cairn burials no local groups show any signs consistent with the ability to engage in capital intensive pursuits (Chapman et al. 1996: 283-6). It is interesting, then, that the first serious occupation of Palagruza begins with the Cetina culture.

Palagruza's other notable resource, its chert, clearly attracted attention from the Neolithic onward. For whom would the Palagruza chert source have been important? The only period during which there is demonstrably heavy use of the Palagruza source is the Late Copper Age/Early Bronze Age, when an important focus of Cetina flint knapping on the island was the production of archery equipment. On the Dalmatian mainland, finds of such equipment tend to occur in a minority of Cetina cairn burials. This is entirely consistent with a more general Mediterranean pattern of the 3rd millennium B in which finely chipped arrowheads and archers' bracers are often found in high-status contexts (principally burials prominent by virtue of the effort devoted to their construction and/or furnishing). Elite consumption of at least some of Palagruza's chert products therefore seems probable.


It is clear that at certain times Palagruza played an important role in systems of Adriatic maritime communication; in particular, it is clear that in the late 3rd millennium BC the island occupied a nodal position in the Cetina long-distance network. On the present evidence, that network had at least three major components. First, Cetina communities maintained a seemingly dense network of interaction within the central Adriatic, which linked both the Dalmatian and the Italian coasts as well as the islands in between. Second, there were longer-distance connections to the west, which enabled at least small amounts of material to be brought from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Finally, the Cetina exchange network involved, for some members of the community at least, links to the eastern Alps and/or Bosnia - the sources of rare metal.

Considered in this way, the Cetina group, with its maritime and transmontane connections, shows features that are reminiscent of the localized structures of social complexity which emerged in most of the Mediterranean world in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC (Stoddart et al. 1993: 6-9; Patton 1996: 139-91; Chapman et al. 1996: 283-6). Here, in what Sherratt (1993) calls a 'margin' of the Bronze Age world system, people developed miniature, attenuated versions of core/periphery systems, with raw materials and labour flowing inward, and finished goods (laden with evocations of status) radiating outward.

These mini-systems are associated with the emergence of local elites, whose attempts to parlay wealth into prestige and power are notoriously unstable (Gilman 1987: 22). In such societies, exchange plays a key role. Social power within communities develops and is exercised through an elite's control of certain circulating items, exotica deemed necessary for socially significant transactions. The possibilities for such control are heightened in a maritime setting, where guarding navigational knowledge, or restricting access to boats and crews, provides elites with potentially greater social leverage.

In Dalmatia, the first good evidence for the appearance of anything resembling the operation of hereditary elites comes with the Cetina cairn cemeteries. Whilst earlier Adriatic societies may have been internally differentiated, they do not show such steep gradients of power and prestige reflected in the funerary treatment of certain individuals (Chapman et al. 1996: 283-4). In the end, however, the Cetina experience was short. As with all such wealth-financed systems, a cyclical dynamic asserted itself. After Cetina, the next good evidence for the cycle's return, the re-emergence of marked social difference, comes after a lapse of several centuries, in the Late Bronze Age (Batovic 1983: 323,352-3; Chapman et al. 1996: 283ff).

The episodic nature of interest in Palagruza seems to have been due to the changing orientation of elite interests in and around the Adriatic. When those interests shifted decisively toward the use of bronze, Palagruza's importance shifted, too. It reverted to its role as a strategic anchorage, a haven for the mariners who continued to extend the Mediterranean world system.

Acknowledgements. Work on Palagruza was undertaken as a part of the Adriatic Islands Project, a collaboration between the Royal Ontario Museum, the Archaeological Museum of Split, the Centre for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of the Island of Hvar, the University of Birmingham and the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts. The 1993 season on Palagruza was funded by the Royal Ontario Museum. We thank P. von Bitter, J. Siggers, J. Stemp and R. Tykot for their help with some of the lithic analyses reported in this paper. FIGURES 4, 6 and 7 were drawn by E. Huston. We would also like to acknowledge a particular debt of gratitude to the lighthouse-keepers of Palagruza for their hospitality and assistance.


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Author:Kaiser, Timothy; Forenbaher, Staso
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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