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Spondylus shell ornaments from late Neolithic Dimini, Greece: specialized manufacture or unequal accumulation?

Rings and buttons and beads cut from the marine shell, Spondylus gaederopus, are among the most distinctive exchange items of Neolithic Europe. From sources on the coast of the Mediterranean, these highly valued objects were widely distributed across central Europe. A re-examination of the nature and contexts of shell objects and manufacturing waste at Dimini, a key late Neolithic site on the coast of northern Greece, explores their social role within a Spondylus-working community.

Dimini and its society

The status of Dimini as a chronological typesite for the Greek Neolithic has diminished in recent years: the 'Classic Dimini' ceramic assemblage, probably dating to the early 5th millennium BC (Theochares 1973: 119; Weisshaar 1989: 139), now defines only the last of four or five subdivisions of the Late Neolithic of eastern Thessaly. Dimini provides a unique insight into late Neolithic society, however, because of the extensive scale of excavation at the site. Excavation at the beginning of the century revealed a late Neolithic settlement covering c. 1 hectare and consisting of a series of concentric circuit walls around a 'central court' (Tsountas 1908). Re-excavation in the 1970s demonstrated that the circuit walls (previously interpreted as defensive) divide the settlement into 'domestic areas', each containing a few buildings and a range of storage and cooking facilities (Hourmouziadis 1979). The central court is dominated by a three-roomed 'megaron', which has more or less close counterparts at other late Neolithic settlements in eastern Thessaly. These central megaron buildings suggest the emergence of an institutionalized elite during the Late Neolithic (Theochares 1973; Halstead 1989), prompting the search for evidence of unequal access to resources within the settlement at Dimini.

It has been argued that tools and food refuse are widely distributed at Dimini, reflecting the ready availability of necessary raw materials prior to the adoption of metal for essential equipment (Hourmouziadis 1979; 1980; 1981). Faunal evidence likewise suggests that each domestic area (including the central court) pursued a broadly similar strategy of animal exploitation, or at any rate consumed broadly similar animal products (Halstead 1992a). These studies perhaps imply that late Neolithic Dimini was a 'rank' society (Fried 1967), with the megaron elite having privileged access to high status, but not to basic resources. In such societies, 'no conspicuous specialization of craftsmanship' is expected (Fried 1967: 115), but Tsuneki (1989) has claimed that particular domestic areas at Dimini specialized in the production of shell ornaments for export. Tsuneki's evidence is here reviewed and reinterpreted.

Spondylus at Dimini

Dimini is situated in the small coastal plain of Volos (FIGURE 1), close to the late Neolithic coastline (Zangger 1991). The marine shell assemblage from the recent excavations by Hourmouziadis contains c. 500 worked items, of which almost half are of Spondylus gaederopus (Tsuneki 1989: 4, figure 3). Spondylus was evidently prized as a raw material: c. 60% of Spondylus finds were worked, compared with c. 4--7% for other common species (Tsuneki 1989: 5, figure 4). The thinner and more easily worked left valve of Spondylus was strongly preferred for the manufacture of shell rings and the thick right valve for small objects such as buttons and cylinder beads (Tsuneki 1989: 12, figure 8). The working of Spondylus was far more elaborate than that of other species and Tsuneki was able to distinguish waste from the production of shell rings and smaller objects (1989: 7--12).


Finds of apparently finished Spondylus shell objects are heavily concentrated in two different parts of the settlement (FIGURE 2). Of 74 ring fragments of known provenance, 45 (61%) come from House N in Domestic Area A and a further five from an adjacent yard. Of 143 buttons, 122 (85%) come from a probable yard area in the middle of Domestic Area C, as do six of the eight cylinder beads found (Tsuneki 1989: 8, table 1). Although the scale of recent excavation has been very uneven across the settlement, the relatively ubiquitous distribution of worked and unworked specimens of other types of marine shell (Tsuneki 1989: 6, figure 5) shows that these concentrations of Spondylus rings and buttons/cylinder beads are not simply the result of sampling bias. Tsuneki concludes that Spondylus rings were chiefly made in House N of Domestic Area A and Spondylus buttons and cylinder beads in the yard in Domestic Area C (Tsuneki 1989: 13), in contrast to the more widespread and simple shell objects made from other species which were produced 'on a personal and occasional level' (Tsuneki 1989: 7).


While most of the Spondylus buttons and cylinder beads from Dimini are complete, all but one of the c. 100 rings are broken (Tsuneki 1989: 8). As most of these rings were found 'in the manufacturing context' (i.e. in House N), Tsuneki argues that they were broken in the very final stages of manufacture and so represent (presumably rare) mishaps from production on a large scale of shell rings 'too numerous for consumption within the settlement' (1989: 15). He suggests that the community at Dimini exported both finished rings and unworked shells to inland settlements and indeed that the strategic location of Dimini for the procurement, transportation and working of Spondylus could have been one of the reasons for the establishment of the late Neolithic settlement (Tsuneki 1989: 16).

Craft specialization and production for export

The suggestion that late Neolithic Dimini was exporting shell ornaments is far from implausible. At this time, Spondylus ornaments, particularly rings, were widely distributed among the Chalcolithic (e.g. Vinca, Gumelnitsa) groups of the Balkans and early agricultural (Bandkeramik) communities of central Europe (Willms 1985; Bogucki 1988: 125, figure 5.10) from sources in the Mediterranean, presumably on the coasts of the Adriatic and/or Aegean (Shackleton & Renfrew 1970; Shackleton & Elderfield 1990). Although there is evidence for some local manufacture on unworked shell in central Europe (Willms 1985: 336--7), finished objects too may well have been exchanged (as perhaps at Hirsova in Rumania, where a cache of Spondylus ring fragments was used as raw material for making beads (Comsa 1973)). The abundance of Spondylus rings at the north Greek sites of Dimini and Sitagroi, and their relative scarcity in southern Greece (Shackleton & Renfrew 1970; Tsuneki 1989: 17; Shackleton 1988), suggests that the north Aegean was indeed one source.

Tsuneki's argument for craft specialization within the settlement of Dimini, however, must be questioned. While finds of shell rings are highly concentrated in one house and buttons/cylinder beads in one yard area, manufacturing waste (including unfinished pieces) from the production of both rings and the smaller objects is far more widely and evenly dispersed (FIGURE 2) within the recently excavated area. Spondylus manufacture was not specialized, therefore, but took place in every domestic area. Tsuneki's circular argument that most shell rings (i.e. those from House N) were broken in the final stages of production, because they were found 'in the manufacturing context', is thus spurious and there is no reason to doubt that most of the shell ring fragments found at Dimini are from finished objects. The implication is that the uneven distribution of Spondylus rings and buttons/cylinder beads reflects the concentration of such objects after manufacture.

Why are finished Spondylus shell objects so unevenly distributed within the settlement at Dimini? There is no evidence that the settlement was suddenly abandoned, so the objects studied by Tsuneki do not represent all the Spondylus artefacts held by each domestic group at a single point in time. They probably result from cumulative deposition over a period of several decades (long enough for repeated rebuilding of some structures (Hourmouziadis 1979)) and recent excavations may well have recovered a very variable fraction of the deposited shell artefacts from different parts of the settlement. Nonetheless, for both rings and buttons/cylinder beads of Spondylus, the relative quantities of finished objects and manufacturing waste in each domestic area are remarkably uniform, apart from the concentration of rings in Domestic Area A and of buttons/cylinder beads in Domestic Area C (TABLE 1). It might be argued that individual domestic groups exercised exclusive control over ceremonies involving the deposition of particular categories of craft goods, but Spondylus rings were widely deposited in small numbers outside Domestic Area A and the second largest concentration of rings (eight) was associated with the cache of buttons/cylinder beads in Domestic Area C (Tsuneki 1989: 8, table 1).


Thus the concentration of shell rings in Domestic Area A and buttons/cylinder beads in Domestic Area C arguably does not result from sampling bias, from differential manufacturing activity or from cultural restrictions on deposition. Instead, there seems to have been marked (though not necessarily permanent) inequality between domestic groups in the ability to accumulate, or alternatively to dispose of, shell ornaments through exchange.

Exchange and discard of Spondylus in context

The distance over which Spondylus travelled to reach central Europe, the frequent disposal of Spondylus objects in burials in that region and evidence of repairs to many such objects suggest exchange as a 'prestige good' (Shackleton & Renfrew 1970; Willms 1985: 336). Spondylus may not have been used in the same way, however, in northern Greece, where most finds come from settlements rather than burials. In early and middle Neolithic 'village' settlements in Thessaly, cooking facilities were located in the open spaces between houses, thus encouraging the sharing of cooked food, while elaborately decorated eating and drinking vessels underline the social significance of hospitality (Halstead 1989). During the Late Neolithic, colonization of agriculturally marginal areas will have favoured greater reliance on regional-scale exchange in the event of food shortage. At the same time, the segregation of village settlements, such as Dimini, into separate domestic areas and the proliferation of small 'hamlet' settlements suggest constraints on sharing within the community (Halstead 1989). In these circumstances, valued items, such as shell rings, may well have been used as exchangeable tokens in 'social storage' (cf. O'Shea 1981).

The significance of the Spondylus shell objects from Dimini may be clarified by considering the circumstances in which they were deposited. Most of the Spondylus rings are not only broken, but are also burnt (Tsuneki 1989: 15), as are most of the Spondylus buttons and beads (Rondiri pers. comm.). This contrasts with the unburnt state both of the marine shell assemblage as a whole and of most of the mammal bones discarded within the settlement. Indeed, one cache of burnt ring fragments from House N was associated with unburnt animal bone refuse (Halstead 1992a: 36). (These 19 ring fragments were stored with the animal bone from the recent excavation and so may not have been seen by Tsuneki. TABLE 1 and FIGURE 2 may, therefore, underestimate the concentration of Spondylus rings in Domestic Area A.) It seems that these Spondylus objects were not simply burnt with other discarded items in the course of normal refuse disposal, but were deliberately destroyed by fire. By contrast, of 12 finished rings from the inland late Neolithic settlement of Ayia Sofia, also in eastern Thessaly (FIGURE 1), only one was burnt while two exhibited signs of repair (Tsuneki 1987: 6--11).

The deliberate destruction of valuable craft goods is well attested both ethnographically (e.g. Mauss 1970; Gregory 1982) and archaeologically (e.g. Bradley 1984: 96--127; 1990) and may serve to restrict the supply of valuables used in bridewealth payments (Meillassoux 1981: 71--2), in 'social storage' exchanges (O'Shea 1981) or in competitive gift-giving (Gregory 1982: 59--61). In each case (pace Bradley 1984: 101--4), destruction has a 'deflationary' effect which may help to account for the apparent contrast between the careful conservation of shell rings at inland Ayia Sofia and their deliberate destruction at Dimini, located on the coast with ready access to unworked Spondylus.

At a more local level, Spondylus ornaments appear to have been subject to unequal accumulation by individual domestic groups within the settlement at Dimini. Spondylus may have been exchanged for staple grain, livestock, mates or labour services, all of which are subject to significant variation in availability at the level of the individual domestic group (e.g. Halstead 1992b) and so may favour unequal accumulation of 'valuables'. The competitive destruction of shell rings may have served both to counter the inflationary tendency inherent in such unequal accumulation and to allow successful domestic groups to convert accumulations of wealth into status.

In the ensuing Final Neolithic and Bronze Age, Thessalian settlements may have housed stratified communities, with sharing replaced by elite-centred redistribution: cooking facilities are now placed in indoor 'kitchens' or closed yards and plain table-ware suggests limited significance accorded to hospitality. Exotic metals, more amenable to elite control, may have displaced Spondylus ornaments in exchanges of valuable items (Halstead 1989).

The architectural layout of the late Neolithic settlement at Dimini suggests the existence of an institutionalized elite, residing in a central 'megaron', but faunal evidence does not reveal any significant divergence between this emergent elite and other domestic groups in strategies of animal exploitation or in access to animal produce. The unequal accumulation and competitive destruction of Spondylus objects at Dimini hints at one possible basis for emerging social inequality in late Neolithic Thessaly. In this case, the suggested competition for status was taking place between non-elite domestic groups within the settlement. Conversely, the similarity in form, orientation and position between the megaron at Dimini and its counterparts at east Thessalian Sesklo and Ayia Sofia suggests that the authority of the emergent elite was integrally linked to its connections with peer groups in other settlements. The absence of any concentration of Spondylus objects in the central court at Dimini may, therefore, reflect the superior ability of the megaron elite to dispose of such objects through exchange on a regional scale.

Acknowledgements. I am indebted to Glynis Jones, Judith Shackleton and Alasdair Whittle for critical comments on earlier drafts of this paper, to Pat Phillips and Georgia Stratouli for drawing to my attention the work of Willms and Tsuneki respectively, and to Vasso Rondiri for information on the Spondylus ornaments from Dimini. The figures have been drawn by Dave Schofield.


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Title Annotation:uneven distribution of the popular commodity
Author:Halstead, Paul
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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