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Finding the early Neolithic in Aegean Thrace: the use of cores.


The region of north-eastern Greece known as Aegean Thrace is one of the last missing pieces on Europe's early Neolithic map. By the end of the twentieth century, there were reports in the literature on several mound sites of middle Neolithic age in the region (Bakalakis & Sakellariou 1981; Andreou et al. 1996; Efstratiou et al. 1998; see also Hellstrom 1987). However, there was still no settlement that could be securely dated back to the early Neolithic: that is, to around 6000 cal BC. Given the position of Aegean Thrace--bounded as it is by Turkish Thrace on the east (with Anatolia located behind it), by Bulgaria on the north and by the Aegean world to the south--the region clearly represents a lacuna of some importance for the study of the Neolithic transition (Figure 1). Indeed, it is fair to say that Aegean Thrace currently holds the key to a better understanding of the collage of material cultures that make up the early Neolithic in this part of Europe (e.g. Perles 2001; 2005). The aim of this preliminary report is to present some of the results of work that we have recently undertaken at two mound sites in the region, Krovili and Lafrouda, in an attempt to dose this gap. The emphasis here will be on the new and less invasive approach that we have taken to the initial phase of the sites' investigation and on the radiocarbon dates that have just become available for the two sites.


Before we turn to the new evidence, it is useful to introduce some background on what is known about the start of the Neolithic in neighbouring regions and to say a few words about our previous research in Aegean Thrace. In the case of Turkish Thrace, there is the excavation of the mound site called Hoca Cesme (Ozdogan 1999; 2001). Located near the Evros River just to the east of the Greek border (see Figure 1), its earliest Neolithic levels (phase IV) have produced four [sup.14]C dates that fall in the time range between 6500 and 6000 cal BC (Bln-4609, Hd-16725-119145, GrN-19355, GrN-19779). The pottery recovered from this phase is held to have affinities with the ceramics found at coeval sites in Anatolia. Turning next to Bulgaria, where white-on-red painted pottery is the hallmark of the Karonovo culture, a number of early Neolithic sites have produced radiocarbon dates that go back to around 6000 cal BC and perhaps even a century or two older in some cases (the dates and references for sites such as Slatina, Galabnik, Hesnica, Tell Azmak and Tell Karanovo are given on the website The Bulgarian site located nearest to Aegean Thrace is that of Kovacevo, and it has produced several radiocarbon dates close to 6000 cal BC (Demoule & Lichardus-Itten 1994; its oldest date is now Ly-1437 7180 [+ or -] 45BP).

Within Greece, the region with the best evidence for the early Neolithic is, of course, the Plain of Thessaly where the ceramics are well known and differ from what is found both at sites in Bulgaria and at the site of Hoca Cesme. By boat, the distance between Aegean Thrace and Thessaly is not much more than 200km. In terms of absolute chronology, the earliest occupation at mound sites in Thessaly goes back at least to about 6400 cal BC (e.g. Perles 2001: Table 6.1; Thissen 2005: Figure 5). Finally, in the area of Eastern Macedonia that is located just to the west of Aegean Thrace, there are three Neolithic sites--Sitagroi, Dikili Tash and Limenaria--that should be mentioned here. While each site has produced a number of radiocarbon dates, it is still not clear whether any of them offers a fully convincing case for occupation as early as 6000 cal BC. The well-known site of Sitagroi was excavated some years ago; its oldest radiocarbon determinations, when they are calibrated, date to the middle of the sixth millennium BC (Renfrew et al. 1986: 173; see also Elster & Renfrew 2003). Dikili-Tash now has eight radiocarbon determinations but the problem here is that two of the oldest ones (Gifo-1426 6800 [+ or -] 150BP and Gif-2630 6720 [+ or -] 160BP) have large errors associated with them (Treuil 1992; 2004). This means that there is still some uncertainty about whether or not the earliest levels at the site, which have not been carbon-dated so far, do go back all of the way to 6000 cal BC. On the south coast of the island of Thasos, there is a mound known as Limenaria where recent excavations have brought to light levels dating to the middle Neolithic period (Maniatis & Fakorellis in press). Four of the radiocarbon dates that are currently available for this site fall in the middle part of the sixth millennium cal BC. A fifth date (DEM-564 7073 [+ or -] 165BP) is older, but there is again the problem that the determination has a high error value, and it need not have ah age older than say about 5750 cal BC. In summary, while there is good evidence for Neolithic occupation in Turkish Thrace, Bulgaria, Thessaly and also western Macedonia (see the [sup.14]C dates for Nea Nikomedea in Perles 2001; on the slightly younger site of Stavroupoli near Thessaloniki, see Grammenos and Kotsos 2002) starting already by 6000 cal BC, the question is still an open one when it comes to the eastern part of Macedonia.

Neolithic Thrace

In an attempt to find the missing early Neolithic sites in the region, Efstratiou and Ammerman began to do reconnaissance work on the landscape there in the 1990s. One of the important and unexpected discoveries produced by the fieldwork was the identification of Petrota, a massive outcrop of silicified rock of volcanic origin well suited for making chipped stone tools, and the recovery of one of the few bifaces of middle Palaeolithic age in Greece (Ammerman et al. 1999). In short, there was now the first good evidence for the Palaeolithic in the region. On the other hand, the search for early Neolithic sites on the landscape was initially less productive, and, without going into the details here (see Efstratiou & Ammerman 2004), the gap remained an open one.

In 1997, we used a boat on what today is called Lake Vistonis--an area that would have been dry land some 8000 years ago--to conduct a trial survey based on the method known as sub-bottom profiling. Again the results of the work were inconclusive. But this survey did lead to a heightened awareness of the possibility that early Neolithic sites that once occurred on the fertile coastal plain near the sea may not have survived in the present-day terrestrial archaeological record because of the marine transgression that took place at the end of the last ice age and continued through the middle Holocene (Lambeck & Chappell 2001; Peltier 2002; Lambeck et al. 2004).

Moreover, in looking back on the reconnaissance study, there is now the realisation that some of the expectations that we brought to the search for the early Neolithic sites may have been off the mark. There has long been the idea that the pottery belonging to the early Neolithic in a given place should somehow be different from the pottery associated with the middle Neolithic there (e.g. Theocharis 1971). Traditionally, differences in ceramics have been used to define the phases of the Neolithic in various regions of Greece. As we shall see below, there may be more in the way of continuity between the two periods when it comes to the pottery of Aegean Thrace than most scholars have previously thought.

In any event, what we eventually decided to do in 2004 was to take a new approach to the problem. Our thinking ran along the following lines. The best place to look for evidence of early Neolithic occupation was perhaps not on the modern land surface but at the base of known Neolithic mounds in the region. The challenge, of course, was that of coming up with a way to reach the lowest archaeological levels at a mound without having to make a deep excavation. Here the experience of the first author in making percussion-driven cores in Rome and Venice (as a way of working below the modern water table at deeply buried sites) came into play. By using high-quality methods of coring in combination with the AMS method of dating, which now makes it possible to date samples of very small size, there would be the chance to investigate the deeply buried levels of occupation at the base of a mound without having to conduct an excavation. This new approach to the investigation of a Neolithic mound is in many ways analogous to the use of endoscopic methods in modern medicine: that is, the initial stage in the examination of a patient attempts to be both non-invasive and economical in nature. Once the diagnosis is made, one can turn to surgery in the case of medicine or excavation in the case of archaeology.

Results of the fieldwork

The Cobra equipment that we used at the mounds of Krovili and Lafrouda in October of 2004 can reach a depth of 5m in the ground. A given core is taken in a series of entries or 'cuts' down to the natural soil at the base of a mound. Each entry goes down 100cm in depth at a time, and the soil is recovered inside a plastic tube of the same length. The use of plastic tubing is the key to high-quality coring and the recovery of the soil in an undisturbed form. The plastic tubes (4.6cm in diameter) are placed inside a long metal bit that is driven into the ground by a hand-held percussion device. There is a system for jacking the bit out after each entry. The plastic tube is then removed from the bit, capped and stored for later study. In the laboratory, each tube is cut open lengthwise and studied in the form of a micro-excavation. For instance, each piece of pottery, daub, chipped stone, bone, shell and charcoal recovered in a given entry is drawn in place on a form at a scale of 1:10, which also gives the position of the respective stratigraphic boundaries. In order to obtain broad spatial coverage of a given mound, the cores are made at a number of different places. At Krovili, for example, a series of four cores was made on a line across the site, and two more cores were made on each side of this line (Figure 2). It is perhaps worth adding here that this is the first time that high-quality coring of this kind has been undertaken at Neolithic mound sites in Greece.


The Krovili mound is located in the interior at a distance of some 12km from the coast (as the crow flies), where it stands in the middle of ah old planation surface at ah elevation of 72m. The mapping of the site and area just around it, which was done on the basis of differential GPS by Gabrielli (Figure 2), shows that the mound covers an area of about l ha, and there is a narrow valley with a stream that passes on its south side. From the mound, one has a good view of the surrounding landscape to the east and north. In addition, the outcrop of rock known as Petrota, mentioned before, can be seen in the distance to the south-east. All of the cores at Krovili were taken down into the natural soil at the base of the mound. In each case, we found a well-developed paleosol (technically known as an Alfisol, a high base status soil with argillic horizons) whose formation goes back to the end of the Pleistocene. The surface of the mound is covered with sherds that belong to the middle Neolithic period. There are no ceramics dating to more recent times, which was one of the reasons for selecting the site for investigation. The cores made in the central part of the site indicate that the Neolithic sequence there has a depth of almost 4m, and, as one would expect, the archaeological deposit becomes thinner as one moves out toward the edges of the mound. The anthropic sediments that have accumulated to form the mound come to a volume of more than 10 000[m.sup.3]. The cores have brought to light a wide range of structural remains at Krovili--floors, ash pits, collapsed walls, fill deposits and even the remains of a human burial. Without going into the details here, structural remains and features of this kind all have parallels in the excavations at Makri.


Pottery, animal bones and fragments of charcoal are regularly found in the cores taken at the Krovili mound. Almost all of the faunal remains examined involve domesticated animals of the so-called Neolithic package (that is, pigs, cattle and sheep or goats). An initial series of AMS dates has been run at Oxford and Lecce on five samples of charcoal; their calibrated ages fall in the sixth millennium BC as shown in Figure 3. The youngest date (LTL-801A) comes from the upper part of the mound. The next two determinations (LTL-799A and OxA-14796) give dates in the range between about 5400 and 5650 cal BC. Of special interest here are the two oldest dates: one (OxA-14795) dates to the time between 5620 and 5730 cal BC (at the 95.4 per cent probability level) and the other (OxA-14353) goes back to the time from 5726 to 5987 cal BC (at the same probability level). The latter sample, which comes from core 2 on the east side of the site, occurs in a position at 40cm above the natural land surface there. In other words, there are lower and probably earlier archaeologicai levels in this part of the mound. So there is a good chance that the earliest phase of occupation at Krovili dates to a time that is somewhat older than this. In any event, one is finally closing in on a date of around 6000 cal BC in Aegean Thrace. In terms of pottery, the sherds recovered from the lower part of the mound come from small bowls with open shapes that are burnished and have a dark brown or black colour. There is no evidence for painted Neolithic pottery in any of the cores: either the white-on-red Karonovo tradition in Bulgaria or the red-on-white Sesklo tradition in Greece. And there are none of the decorated vessels of larger size that one finds in Anatolia or in the lowest levels at Hoca Cesme. Instead, the pottery recovered in the Krovili cores turns out to be quite similar to what is found in the lowest levels (phase I) at Makri, where the ceramic tradition is considered by the director to be a local one.


Lafrouda is a mound that today is situated on the edge of a small, artificial lagoon used as a fish farm by a local cooperative. The place has had several quite different environmental settings over the years. At the time of its first occupation some 7500 years ago, the mound was located in an area of the coastal plain with well-developed soils, and it then stood at a certain distance from the sea. Some 3000 years ago, as we shall see below, a marine transgression lapped directly against the southern side of the mound. Today there is a distance of 800m between the site and the barrier beach on the coastline. The spatial distribution of the cores taken at Lafrouda is given in Figure 4. The first nine cores were made in October of 2004 with the Cobra equipment, while cores 10 and 11 were added in October of 2005 (when a Dutch soil auger was used). Again, the goal was to take each core down to the natural soil at the base of the mound. The one case where this did not happen was in core 7, which was blocked at a shallow depth by a large rock.

More than 40 years ago, a small test excavation was made by Rhomiopoulou (1965) in the upper part of the mound; it led to the recovery of pottery that she interpreted to be of late Neolithic age on typological grounds. Several of the sections of the excavation are still standing on the north side of the site, and they show a series of white midden layers in the top 2m of the mound. We find the same shell-rich layers in the upper part of core 2. In order to study the shell species involved, Thomas and Mannino visited the site in October 2005, when one of the old excavation sections (next to core 10) was cleaned, and they took a series of bulk samples from the various midden layers. The species recovered are almost all marine shellfish; the only species typically found in lagoons is the cockle called Cerastoderma glaucum (Poiret), which was formerly known as either Cardium edule or C. lamarcki in the literature. The other species that make their appearance in the top part of the mound are: Trunculariopsis trunculus, Cyclope neritea, Arca noae, Pinna nobilis, Tapes decussatus and Solen marginatus. In point of fact, more than 90 per cent of the shells found in any given sample from the upper 2m of the mound are of Gerastoderma glaucum. On the other hand, the situation is different in the lower part of the mound where shells representing a wider variety of marine species are encountered and where well-defined layers of Cerastoderma are not observed. In short, there is an active interest in the exploitation of marine resources throughout the life of the mound but the emphasis shifts over time to a concentration on lagoonal Gerastoderma. Whether this reflects a change in the local coastal environment or a shift in food preference is, as yet, uncertain.

The highest part of the Lafrouda mound, as seen in core 2, is approximately 5.5m tall. At the base of the mound, one finds a mosaic of well-developed paleosols whose formation took place on the coastal plain in the early Holocene. The pottery recovered from the lower part of the mound is much the same as the ceramics found at the sites of Makri and Krovili. In terms of absolute chronology, the dates that are currently available for the Neolithic levels at Lafrouda are all younger than 5500 cal BC (Figure 5). The two oldest dates (OXA-14531 and GrA-27084), which come from the base of the mound, fall in the range between 5200 and 5500 cal BC. In other words, the occupation of the site does not go back to the early Neolithic period in Aegean Thrace. Nevertheless, the cores at Lafrouda do throw important new light on the shortage of early Neolithic sites in the region, since the lowest archaeological levels at the mound stand in a position of c. 2.5m below sea level today. In effect, the only practical way to explore the lowest part of the mound is by means of coring. There is, in addition, good evidence for one or more marine transgressions reaching the seaward side of the mound in the time after its abandonment. This evidence takes the form of heavily rolled sherds and thick layers of shell hash in the upper part of core 6. As shown in Figure 4, a marine transgression is also responsible for the shape and spacing of the lowest contour lines on the south-west side of the mound. In order to obtain a detailed picture of the morphology of the mound today, Gabrielli used differential GPS equipment to generate this contour map, which is based on a total of 12 000 data points. It is worth adding that the original motivation for taking core 8 was to make an off-site core at the eastern end of the line of cores across the site. What we found here turned out to be another surprise. The Neolithic occupation at the base of the mound had managed to survive in this place below the marine transgression and produced a charcoal sample at an elevation of 2.49m below modern sea level that dates to around 5000 cal BC (LTL-1415 and LTL-1415b in Figure 5). Higher up in the same core at 0.67m below modern sea level, a piece of driftwood was recovered in the context of the marine transgression itself; it has a more recent age of around 900 cal BC (GrN-30493 2770[+ or -]-30 BP). In other words, the whole upper part of the mound has been washed away by the action of the sea here. Lafrouda now provides tangible support for the occurrence of a Neolithic mound on the coastal plain in a position below sea level today. This is no longer just an idea or an abstract possibility in the literature (e.g. the summary of a panel discussion on the coastal question in Ammerman & Biagi 2003: 339-40). Moreover, there is at Lafrouda good evidence that the south side of the original mound has not survived in the archaeological record because of the force of the sea. The wider implication of all of this is that early Neolithic sites that once may have existed on the coastal plain in places at lower elevations than Lafrouda either rest on the seabed today or else they have been lost to the sea.


To these results from coring we can now add new dates from the site of Makri, situated on the coast near the town of Alexandroupolis, where Efstratiou had begun excavations in 1988. Both the pottery recovered from the Neolithic part of the mound and the radiocarbon dates published by Efstratiou and co-workers (1998) pointed initially toward a middle Neolithic attribution for Makri. The ceramic vessels from the Neolithic levels commonly take the form of small convex bowls with dark grey to black colours. Few of the vessels at Makri appear to be of any real size, and comparatively little in the way of change is observed in the ceramics over the course of the stratigraphic sequence. In a new series of radiocarbon dates, eight provide further support for placing the site in the middle Neolithic period, and cluster between 5700 and 5400 cal BC. There is one date (OxA-9362/DEM-1142 6890 + 90BP) that is somewhat older; it would push the first occupation at the site back by a few centuries but not before about 5900 cal BC. To these we can now add a new date from the basal layer at Makri of 6400-6010 cal BC (at 2 sigma) obtained by Efstratiou in 2007 (GrA-34389).


In closing this preliminary report, we would like to draw attention to four main points. The first is that we are now in a good position to close the early Neolithic gap in Aegean Thrace. The earliest date at Makri, 6400-6010 cal BC, brings the beginning of that site into line with the early Neolithic in adjacent territories. The oldest AMS dates at Krovili go back to the time just after 6000 cal BC. By conducting an excavation near core 2 on the east side of the Krovili mound, it should be possible to recover datable samples from the lowest level of occupation there, and this will permit the start of the site's habitation to be moved back several centuries, making it coeval with the start of the early Neolithic in Bulgaria and Turkish Thrace. So Aegean Thrace is a piece of the early Neolithic puzzle in Europe that is finally falling into place.

The second point is that high-quality coring in combination with AMS dating proves to be a productive research strategy. It represents a new methodology that now makes it possible to probe the depths of a Neolithic mound in a cost-effective and non-intrusive way. In all, the soil extracted by the six cores at Krovili amounts to only a fraction of a cubic metre and represents less than 0.01 per cent of the volume of the mound as a whole. The fieldwork at Krovili was completed in just over one week, and it yielded an initial diagnostic picture of the situation at the mound from the bottom up. In the case of an excavation, one is working with a top down methodology: the dig at a large mound normally becomes smaller with depth in the ground and it takes time before one gains information on the site's lowest levels. This is not to say that coring should be viewed as a substitute or replacement for excavation. On the contrary, as in the case of endoscopy in contemporary medicine, it is not meant to be an end in itself but an efficient means of investigation that contributes to the work of the archaeologist as a whole. In archaeology, one commonly does fieldwork by steps of approximation. We are just beginning to learn how to use a fuller spectrum of endoscopic methods in our discipline.

The third point concerns the pottery dating to the first half of the sixth millennium cal BC that is found at the sites of Krovili and Makri. So far these two sites, as mentioned before, show little or no evidence for pottery in the tradition of either western Anatolia or Bulgaria. The ceramics appear to represent a local tradition in which the vessels are for the most part quite small and they do not exhibit much in the way of elaboration. In the case of Krovili, the pottery recovered by the cores involves, of course, only a small sample of the material occurring at the mound. Accordingly it is premature to draw anything more than working assessment ofthe situation. What is offered by the cores corresponds, in effect, to a random sample that outlines the main picture at the site. At this stage in the investigation, one cannot rule out the presence of some pottery at Krovili with wider affiliations. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that such pottery constitutes the main tradition there. When an excavation is eventually done at Krovili, it will yield a much fuller picture of the early ceramics. In terms of the development of methodology, one can then compare the working picture obtained from the cores with the one produced by the excavation. At the same time, what we do know from the excavations conducted at Makri is that ceramics providing evidence for outside connections are extremely rare. In the recent literature, there is an interest in trying to sort out whether the Neolithic package reached north-east Greece by means of a land-based route through Anatolia (and possibly through Bulgaria as well) or whether it arrived by means of a sea-based route (Perles 2005). The new evidence that is coming to light in Aegean Thrace does not appear to offer much support for the former hypothesis.

The fourth point concerns our knowledge of coastal sites in the early Neolithic period. One thing that is quite clear from the work at Lafrouda is that much of the landscape on the coastal plain some 8000 years ago is now lost to the sea. In other words, what is left for the archaeologist to study today is only a sample of the Neolithic mounds that once existed in the region. By collecting information on the bathometry of the submerged coastal plain and by working out the regional curve for the rise in relative sea level over the last 8000 years (where the elevations and the dates of the marine transgressions at Lafrouda would provide the needed local control), it may be possible to estimate how much of the early Neolithic landscape has now been lost to the archaeologist's purview.


We would like to thank the Ephorate of Komotini for the permission to carry out the fieldwork in Thrace and Ms. N.J. Kokkotaki for providing us with the facilities of the Museum of Avdera for work and accommodation. Support for the research has been provided by the University of Thessaloniki, the Institute for Aegean Prehistory and the Wiener Laboratory of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. We are grateful to Silas Michalakas and Kostas Zaxopoulos for their work in making the cores. We would also like to thank Jay Noller of Oregon State University for the examination of the soils at the base of the Krovili mound and Thanos Webb at the Wiener Laboratory in Athens for the identification of the faunal remains found at Krovili and Lafrouda. Our appreciation goes to Ivan Gatsov for his helpful comments on the early Neolithic sites in Bulgaria and on the series of radiocarbon dates at Hoca Cesme.

Received: 11 December 2006; Accepted: 8 March 2007; Revised: 23 March 2007


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Albert J. Ammerman, (1) Nikos Efstratiou, (2) Maria Ntinou, (3) Kosmas Pavlopoulos, (4) Roberto Gabrielli, (5) Kenneth D. Thomas (6) & Marcello A. Mannino (6)

(1) Department of the Classics, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York 13346, USA (Email:

(2) Department of Archaeology, University of Thessaloniki, 540 06 Thessaloniki, Greece (Email:

(3) Department of Management of Cultural Heritage and Technologies, Ioannina University, Greece (Email:

(4) Faculty of Geography, Harokopio University, 70 El. Venizelou Street, 17671 Athens, Greece (Email:

(5) Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, ITABC, PO Box 10, 00016 Monterotondo Stazione (Rome), Italy (Email:

(6) Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H OPY, UK (Email:
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Title Annotation:Method
Author:Ammerman, Albert J.; Efstratiou, Nikos; Ntinou, Maria; Pavlopoulos, Kosmas; Gabrielli, Roberto; Thom
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Date:Mar 1, 2008
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