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Akrotiri, Thera: The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age According to the Pottery

Akrotiri, Thera: The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age According to the Pottery

By Panayiotas I. Soterakopoulou. Pp. 512, figs. 77, pls. 353, tables 13. Archaeological Society of Athens, Athens 1999. ISSN 1105-7785; ISBN 960-7036-94-8 (paper).

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The first excavations at Akrotiri, on Thera, under the direction of Spyridon Marinatos and Christos Doumas have already shown that use of the site goes back beyond the town of the late Middle Cycladic (MC) and the volcanic destruction in Late Cycladic (LC) I. Between 1984 and 1985, concentrations of Early Cycladic (EC) pottery were discovered in connection with rock-cut chambers. Soterakopoulou published the pottery of the pre-Middle Cycladic use of the site as a doctoral thesis at the University of Athens in 1991, therefore the work treats no finds later than 1989. But the finds from the following 10 years have not altered the basic results of this study, and only the excavations from 1999 onward have brought to light interesting new material. Not included in the book are the nonpottery finds (Cycladic figurines, stone vessels, and metal artifacts). The most important complex of Cycladic figurines deposited close to two rock-cut chambers was published by Soterakopoulou in 1998 (“The Early Bronze Age Stone Figurines from Akrotiri on Thera and their Significance for the Early Cycladic Settlement,” BSA 93 [1998] 107–65) and should be read complementary to this book.

The main part of this work is an in-depth analysis of the ceramic material (followed by a catalogue and detailed summary in English, making it suitable for readers with little knowledge of modern Greek). The main topics concern the location of the EC settlement, its chronological sequence, and its position within the EC culture. With the exception of two closed but unstratified complexes, all material was found distributed in the LC destruction levels, a result of its reuse as building material. It was therefore only possible to locate the center of the EC site by plotting the sherds and studying their distribution. Soterakopoulou’s analysis determined that the center of the EC settlement must have been situated in the southwestern part of the excavated area.

A few sherds with white-painted decoration comparable to the Cycladic Saliagos culture indicate that the site was settled during the Late Neolithic period. Final Neolithic pottery of the Attica-Kephala culture type is missing, but since the type of white-painted ware from Saliagos (near Antiparos) has a longer continuity of production (especially in the central and eastern Aegean), Soterakopoulou argues that Akrotiri was settled continuously, beginning in a later Late Neolithic phase. Pottery sharing characteristics with the Attica-Kephala culture has been found on nearby islands (C. Broodbank, An Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades [Cambridge 2000] 122, fig. 34), so it is possible that Akrotiri (or at least the excavated settlement) was not used during the Final Neolithic period. This would not be astonishing, since one of the main traits of the Late and Final Neolithic periods is frequent change of habitation areas.

Sherds belonging to both the EC I phase and the Kampos Group (Soterakopoulou positions the latter in early EC II) suggest the site was settled in EC II, during the time of the Kastri Group and Phylakopi I-ii. According to their distribution around Xeste 3, as well as their low number, it is likely that this area (or even the unexcavated area farther west) marked the settlement from the Late Neolithic onward.

Here, Soterakopoulou follows the results from the excavations at Ayia Irini on Kea (D.E. Wilson, Keos 9: Ayia Irini: Periods I–III: The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Settlements. Pt. 1, The Pottery and Small Finds [Mainz 1999]), in which the Kastri Group is chronologically equated with Ayia Irini Phase III and at least partly with the last phases of Lerna III, and therefore must overlap with later EH II. Thus, Soterakopoulou determines the starting point of the Kastri Group to be late EC II. However, like R.N.L. Barber and J.A. MacGillivray (“The Early Cycladic Period: Matters of Definition and Terminology,” AJA 84 [1980] 141–57), she also postulates a continuity into EC IIIA (EH III on the mainland). The picture now emerging of a smooth transition between EC II (a time of international spirit) and the period of the Kastri Group is interpreted by Soterakopoulou to be the result of intense mercantile activity and close contact between the Cyclades and the eastern Aegean. This view fits excellently within the general picture of the EC culture that has recently emerged (e.g. Broodbank, above; J. Maran, Kulturwandel auf dem griechischen Festland und den Kykladen im späten 3. Jahrtausend v. Chr. [Bonn 1998]; J. Rambach, Kykladen 1 and 2: Die frühe Bronzezeit [Bonn 2000]).

Of special importance is the presence of pottery comparable to Phylakopi I-ii and Kastri Group pottery found together in two closed but unfortunately unstratified contexts. It is probable then that contrary to J. Rutter’s view (“The Early Cycladic III Gap,” in J.A. MacGillivray and R.L.N. Barber, eds., The Prehistoric Cyclades [Edinburgh 1984] 95–107), there is no chronological gap between these two stages, and the Phylakopi I-ii pottery type should already date to EC III. This result corresponds with new finds at Kolonna in Aigina and Palamari in Skyros, and is confirmed by a certain stylistic continuity in the ceramic classes. However, a chronological overlap of Phylakopi I-ii with Kastri, as Soterakopoulou argues, cannot be proven by this finding. Interestingly, the Theran assemblage also contains Melian bowls, undecorated handleless cups, and white-painted pottery that is usually attributed to Phylakopi I-iii. It is, therefore, possible that these pottery classes were already being produced during Phylakopi I-ii. Soterakopoulou notes that the ceramic evidence points to a clear, smooth continuity between the Kastri Group and the Phylakopi I culture. However, this picture drawn by the ceramic evidence is in contrast with the evidence from cemeteries and settlements, as well as other items (e.g., figurines), which show a clear cultural break between the periods. On this point I would like to draw attention to the fact that, according to J. Rutter (Ceramic Change in the Aegean Early Bronze Age [Los Angeles 1979]), the mainland pottery of EH III also combines the innovations of the older traditions of EH II and the Lefkandi I/Kastri Group. Soterakopoulou’s observation of a similar synthesis of pottery styles indicates that the formation process of the Phylakopi I culture must be seen as analogous to the mainland.

Based on the pottery shapes and their decoration, Soterakopoulou argues that the site of Akrotiri was a settlement, and that the rock-cut chambers that are often interpreted as parts of a MC cemetery may have been subterranean chambers similar to MC buildings at Phtellos (M. Marthari, AAA 15 [1982] 86–101). This theory seems likely, since EC–MC cemeteries are usually separated from the settlement area.

Finally, Soterakopoulou draws a general picture of the contacts between Thera and the neighboring Cycladic islands, as evidenced by the presence of Talc Ware and typological parallels that reach as far as mainland Greece, the east and northeast Aegean, the Troad, and Crete.

This publication is an important study that helps us understand the EC Cyclades. It gives an impressive picture of the valuable role that Thera played (beginning in the Neolithic) in connecting the eastern and western Aegean, including Crete, to the central Aegean. It is not by chance that the Late Neolithic settlement of Thera correlates chronologically with the opening of Crete toward the Aegean, and the same must be argued for the time of the Kampos Group. The work clearly shows that Akrotiri was one of the few sites that survived the end of the Kastri Group, and from that time onward played an extraordinary role as an emporium.

Eva Alram-Stern
Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften
Ignaz Seipel-Platz 2
1010 Vienna

Book Review of Akrotiri, Thera: The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age According to the Pottery, by Panayiotas I. Soterakopoulou

Reviewed by Eva Alram-Stern

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1104.AlramStern

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