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The Cave of the Cyclops: Mesolithic and Neolithic Networks in the Northern Aegean, Greece. Vol. 2, Bone Tool Industries, Dietary Resources and the Paleoenvironment, and Archaeometrical Studies

The Cave of the Cyclops: Mesolithic and Neolithic Networks in the Northern Aegean, Greece. Vol. 2, Bone Tool Industries, Dietary Resources and the Paleoenvironment, and Archaeometrical Studies

Edited by Adamantios Sampson (Prehistory Monographs 31). Pp. xxiii + 395, figs. 104, tables 95. INSTAP Academic Press, Philadelphia 2011. $80. ISBN 978-1-931534-20-8 (cloth).

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Located along critical sea routes in the Sporades of the northern Aegean, the Cave of the Cyclops (Youra) was excavated from 1992 until 1996 under the direction of the editor, Sampson. Most importantly, the Cave of the Cyclops offers a rare glimpse into Mesolithic and Early Neolithic coastal lifeways, which, with the exception of Franchthi Cave, are poorly attested in southern Europe because of pronounced Early Holocene marine incursion in the region. Studies included in the second volume on Youra, reviewed here, thus contribute significantly to an increasingly nuanced understanding of environmental changes and the variability of human adaptation over the course of the Mesolithic.

The first volume (A. 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 2008]) outlines the cave’s setting and stratigraphy, the recovered assemblages of ceramics, chipped- and ground-stone tools, other small finds, and human remains, as well as the results of survey in the northern Sporades. Volume 2 complements the first volume with numerous specialist reports on the bone tools, fauna (birds, mammals, fish, mollusks), flora (seeds, wood, charcoal, pollen), and varied archaeometric analyses (Neolithic ceramic petrography, radiocarbon dating, clastic sediments, and stable isotope analysis of mollusk shells). Readers of the second volume will benefit from consulting the first volume, which is profusely illustrated with excavation plans and stratigraphic profiles. In general, the second volume is similarly well illustrated, with most chapters having abundant line drawings, photographs, and charts. Chapters 2–5 in this volume expand on preliminary analyses presented in The Greek Mesolithic: Problems and Perspectives (N. Galanidou and C. Perlès, eds. [Athens 2003]). In the volume under review, the allowance of sufficient space for the authors to publish raw data, including metrical indices, for consultation by other specialists is a noteworthy positive.

The volume opens with a brief interpretive overview provided by Sampson, who highlights the significance of the cave’s excellent preservation of organic materials and large assemblage of bone fishhooks. Although Sampson suggests the possibility of an autochthonous domestication of sheep and goats in the late ninth or early eighth millennium B.C.E. (xix–xx), the stratigraphic gap between the Upper Mesolithic and Early Neolithic deposits, together with variations in sampling and recovery across the site, restrict its utility for addressing questions of local domestication.

The volume is divided into three sections: “Bone Tool Industries” (pt. 1), “Dietary Resources and the Palaeoenvironment” (pt. 2), and “Archaeometrical Studies” (pt. 3). In part 1, Moundrea-Agrafioti provides morphometrical data and a thorough classification of the bone tool assemblage. Notably, she includes a welcome discussion of evidence for bone tool manufacturing techniques, focusing particular attention on hooks. Their relative abundance as compared with other sites imparts great significance not only for the Aegean but also for the broader area of the Mediterranean.

Part 2 includes results on avian and mammalian fauna, ichthyofauna, mollusks, on-site pollen, wood, and seeds. Although each of these reports is noteworthy for its attention to taphonomic issues and exemplary documentation of recovered materials, the chapters by Powell and Mylona on the fish remains, and Ntinou on wood charcoal, stand out for their high quality of analysis and writing and the authors’ thoughtful and holistic interpretation of these assemblages.

In her chapter on mammal and bird remains, Trantalidou laudably attempts to integrate all of the faunal data—despite the fragmented analysis of the assemblages necessitated by the specialized knowledge required for each—into her interpretive discussion. Although her consideration of several wide-ranging and thought-provoking ethnographic parallels for behaviors that may have happened in the cave during its prehistoric occupation is also commendable, these are in general not clearly linked to the archaeological evidence, and the discussion is often difficult to follow.

Although a collaborative combined report on both the vertebral and non-vertebral fish remains would be useful for the reader, the separate presentation of Mylona’s chapter on fish vertebrae—typically neglected in archaeological analyses—serves to highlight the strong interpretive potential of fish vertebrae as a rich source of data on fish exploitation and processing in the past. Her prose and interpretive rationale are exceptionally clear and readable. In the case of Youra, she concludes, the fish vertebra distributions suggest “the systematic processing and preservation of fish,” the waste products of which were left behind in the cave (254). Powell’s chapter on non-vertebral fish bones, with its clear photographs and metrical indices of archaeological specimens, constitutes an excellent identification reference for ichthyofauna specialists working in the region. Her brief discussion of the series of taphonomic, excavation, and postexcavation processes that selectively shape the resulting assemblage that is reported makes clear reading for excavation directors and beginning students of archaeology alike.

Among the chapters on Mesolithic and Neolithic flora, Ntinou’s exemplary chapter on wood charcoal highlights its potential contribution as a source of data on ancient human activities within the context of changing paleoenvironments, a potential that remains under­utilized in the Aegean. On the basis of approximately 3,000 fragments of wood charcoal, Ntinou deftly reconstructs vegetation change over time and the contribution of prehistoric human activity to the observed changes.

Sarpaki’s chapter on the seed remains includes a refreshingly frank appraisal of the interpretive constraints of the data set. Most notably, she does not stretch the data to address a Mesolithic to Neolithic transition or bend the data to suit a broader agenda. Instead, she clearly acknowledges the taphonomic and recovery biases of this poorly preserved assemblage. Her thorough discussion of the use and processing of Pistacea terebinthus (mastic), prevalent among the seed remains, is particularly engaging.

Among the archaeometric studies in part 3, Papakosta’s discussion of technological aspects of the Neolithic pottery, particularly concerning potters’ decisions regarding firing temperatures and temper, based primarily on her ceramic characterization analyses (scanning electron microscopy and petrography), is not only highly readable but also thoroughly researched and well contextualized within the broader literature on ceramic technology. Similarly, Facorellis’ chapter on the marine reservoir effect in radiocarbon dating provides a clear discussion of the reservoir effect and his efforts to establish for the first time its range in the northern Aegean, which he calculates as 165 ± 46 years on the basis of calibrated dates on shell and charcoal. Although the final chapters, on clastic sediments and stable isotope analysis of mollusk shells, are both pioneering applications of these techniques to Aegean sites, their conflicting results—one suggesting a cooler Lower Mesolithic and a warmer Upper Mesolithic, and the other suggesting the opposite—and the absence of direct dates for most of the sampled materials makes it difficult to reconcile these data sets with other paleoenvironmental data from the site.

Excavated at a time when the systematic integration of environmental sampling into archaeology was at an incipient phase, the inclusion of such a broad array of methodologies at Youra—despite the reported sampling and recovery problems—deserves praise for producing a rich set of assemblages that document a poorly known period in southern Europe as a whole. As a result, the volume reviewed here will long be important for our understanding of the Mesolithic of southern Europe.

Department of Anthropology
University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati, Ohio 45221-0380

Book Review of The Cave of the Cyclops: Mesolithic and Neolithic Networks in the Northern Aegean, Greece. Vol. 2, Bone Tool Industries, Dietary Resources and the Paleoenvironment, and Archaeometrical Studies, edited by Adamantios Sampson

Reviewed by Susan E. Allen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1181.Allen

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