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Neolithic Alepotrypa Cave in the Mani, Greece: In Honor of George Papathanassopoulos

Neolithic Alepotrypa Cave in the Mani, Greece: In Honor of George Papathanassopoulos

By Anastasia Papathanasiou, William A. Parkinson, Daniel J. Pullen, Michael L. Galaty, and Panagiotis Karkanas. Pp. xviii + 435, figs. 294, tables 80. Oxbow, Oxford 2018. £70. ISBN 978-1-78570-648-6 (cloth).

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While study of historic periods continues to dominate much of the literature on the archaeology of Greece, work on the Neolithic period has advanced along many fronts in terms of the number of sites investigated, the depth of analysis, and the range of interdisciplinary activities, bringing the prehistoric landscape into clearer focus. The contributors to this volume on Alepotrypa Cave provide a comprehensive view of activities in the cave over a number of millennia, with evidence particularly abundant for the Late and Final Neolithic phases. Since the entrance to the cave was sealed by a roof collapse at the end of the Neolithic, no cultural material was subsequently deposited, adding to the site’s importance for discussions of the process of Neolithization in the Balkans.

Work at the site was undertaken in a series of campaigns over a period of more than 40 years. After its discovery in 1958, construction efforts in the 1960s to make the cave accessible to tourists led to the retrieval of bones and artifacts but damaged some parts of the site. George Papathanassopoulos assumed direction of the archaeological investigation for the Greek Ministry of Culture in 1970 and began systematic excavation, followed by intermittent work over the next four decades. While scholars published a number of articles and several monographs on various aspects of these investigations, the present volume constitutes a major addition to that literature, as it incorporates the results of the detailed studies on the material retrieved from the earlier phases of work as well as a more recent 2012–2016 campaign. In addition, this compendium includes analyses utilizing techniques not available to earlier research (e.g., strontium isotope analysis of bone, the study of phytoliths, wood charcoal, and speleothems).

The book contains a short introduction by Papathanassopoulos and 23 chapters that provide detailed analyses of artifacts, human skeletal material, faunal and floral remains, stratigraphy, and a survey conducted in the vicinity of the cave. Among the features in the cave are clay floors, pits, hearths, and primary and secondary burials distributed among the seven chambers that cover 250 m in length and end in a freshwater pond. The 34 radiocarbon dates from various loci provide a chronology for the human occupation from 6000 to 3200 B.C.E. The most extensive excavation occurred in Trench B1, which reached a depth of 4.8 m and provided the basis for work on microstratigraphy and site formation processes (Karkanas), ceramic sequences (Katsipanou-Margeli; Valvis; Pentedeka), flaked stone (Kourtessi-Philippakis), macrolithics/ground stone (Stroulia), human osteology (Papathanasiou), animal remains (Giblin; Papayianni and Cucchi; Theodoropoulou and plant remains (Tsartsidou). Other important deposits include substantial ceramics as well as human bones from Ossuary 1 in Chamber A and Ossuary 2 in Chamber D. Katsarou argues that the placement of broken pottery with bones in the ossuaries was intentional, marking a mortuary ritual that, based on the diagnostic ceramics, may have persisted over several millennia. Several other contributors support the notion of this cave as a “centralised social arena” (116), reflecting a more general rethinking of the role of such sites in the Greek Neolithic that is currently underway. A number of the contributors argue that only the area near the entrance would have been a habitation area because of the dark, damp, nature of most interior chambers. Psimogiannou describes the burned dung and pottery in niches in Chamber Z as evidence of both the conspicuous consumption of “highly stylized” ceramics (e.g., Urfirnis and Matt Painted) and unused obsidian blades, followed by their conspicuous destruction (152). She and several other authors see a pattern of fragmentation (represented by secondary burials and purposeful “killing” of pottery), movement, and redeposition of material as characteristic of intensive rituals that helped define social identity and claims to territory. The various chapters that analyze ceramics place the material in clear stratigraphic contexts, aided by the numerous illustrations and tables, including innovative figures showing images of pottery vertically aligned with depth notations (esp. Katsipanou-Margeli, ch. 4). The authors also draw careful parallels with other Greek Neolithic sites, such as Franchthi Cave. This use of comparanda adds significantly to the value of the volume as a major reference for future studies.  

A number of the chapters contribute to an important body of data concerning the subsistence practices of the cave’s residents and, by extension, for other Neolithic people of southern Greece and the Aegean. Strontium isotope analysis of human bones (Giblin) indicates that the population ate mostly grains, with some meat and possibly dairy products. In addition, the strontium levels are quite variable and suggest that the residents may have come from a variety of areas around the Aegean; Giblin suggests that additional work may clarify the degree to which this was true. This argument is supported by the archaeobotanical remains that include cereals (emmer, einkorn, spelt, free-threshing wheat, hulled barley), pulses (vetch, lentils, peas), and nuts and fruits (almond, fig) (Margaritis), although Tsartsidou suggests that the relatively low counts of phytoliths compared to Neolithic tell sites elsewhere in Greece indicate both that cereals were not stored in the cave and that the site was not as intensively used as open-air locations. Tsartsidou argues that the inhabitants relied more on pastoralism than extensive agriculture for subsistence, and while this line of argument does not align with the evidence from the strontium isotope analysis, several contributors state that they sampled only limited areas of the cave for botanical and other remains, and this may account for the discrepancy. Ovicaprids dominate the macrofaunal remains, peaking at 70% of the assemblage by the Late Neolithic, followed by pigs and some cattle; the low quantity of bones from red deer, hare, fox, and a few other wild animals suggests hunting supplemented exploitation of domesticated animals. Hadjikoumis states that the large number of neonatal remains of sheep and goats indicates reliance on milk and meat and that the period between early winter and late summer was the focus of pastoral activities. Animal bone was used to produce various implements, including pointed tools (primarily awls) and needles to process and prepare other materials (Stratouli).

Another important theme in the volume is the manner in which the residents of the cave were connected to the region. Petrological analysis of ceramics indicates that the clay used in pottery production is largely local in origin (Pentedeka). Stroulia notes that the macrolithics were made of water-rolled stones that could be collected in nearby streams and beaches, not from quarried material. The fish bones and shells came from the neighboring sea (Theodoropoulou). On the other hand, the obsidian that forms the majority of the flaked stone inventory comes from Melos, with a distinct preference (74%) for the Sta Nychia quarry. The suite of domesticated plants and animals that formed the subsistence base were Near Eastern imports. Through the detailed individual analyses, Alepotrypa Cave thus provides abundant evidence for the complex mix of internal and external factors that formed the core of Neolithic life in the Aegean. While this interplay of the local and the regional is discussed in various chapters, it could have been more thoroughly integrated into the volume as a whole.

A survey conducted in a relatively small area adjacent to the cave yielded evidence of six sites in addition to Alepotrypa (Pullen et al.). The two open-air Final Neolithic sites almost certainly were occupied by the same people who used the cave; if the cave served a significant ritual role, these locations may have been the primary residential zones. Other sites date to Classical-Hellenistic, Roman, and Medieval periods, but there is little evidence of Bronze Age occupation. It would have been helpful if the results of excavation at one of the sites (Ksagounaki) had been included at least in summary form here. What the authors call “boom-and-bust demographic patterns” (424) in the area suggest similarities to the dispersed-nucleated continuum noted in other surveys.

The editors and contributors are to be commended for compiling an impressive array of specialized studies that highlight the significance of Alepotrypa Cave as both a major Neolithic site and an example of a fruitful collaboration between Greek and American scholars. While the ritual status of the site may be overemphasized in some instances, the detailed presentation of data on a wide range of artifacts and biological and geological materials, often using state-of the art techniques, is a major contribution to clarifying our understanding of the Neolithic period in Greece.    

P. Nick Kardulias
Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Program in Archaeology
College of Wooster

Book Review of Neolithic Alepotrypa Cave in the Mani, Greece: In Honor of George Papathanassopoulos , by Anastasia Papathanasiou, William A. Parkinson, Daniel J. Pullen, Michael L. Galaty, and Panagiotis Karkanas

Reviewed by P. Nick Kardulias

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.Kardulias

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