More tools from Crete

After last weekend’s post about Thomas Strasser’s work on Crete (“Crete: Pleistocene port of call?”), I’ve heard from a reader who forwarded some earlier reports about Lower or Middle Paleolithic artifacts on Crete and the nearby island of Gavdos. These are in the “Project Gallery” area of Antiquity – papers in ths section are short descriptions of ongoing field projects and are freely accessible online.

Peder Mortensen (2008) reports on a surface find of artifacts near Loutró, on the south coast of Crete. There’s essentially no possibility of dating except on the basis of typology, which is pretty weak. But the article does give a good discussion of why the artifacts are genuine and not natural geofacts. Also, a short review:

During the last 50 years a number of Middle Palaeolithic sites have been found and excavated on the Greek mainland, but Lower Palaeolithic ?nds are still sparsely represented (Bailey et al. 1999). From the Greek islands a chopping tool made of a strongly patinated beige flint, possibly associated with a palaeomagnetic date of 750 ka was reported from Corfu by G. Kourtessi-Philippakis (1999: 283-4, Figure 25.2), and from Nea Skala on Cephalonia a collection of ?akes and blades found together with flint pebbles were thought to be of a Lower Palaeolithic date (Cubuk 1976: 175 ff.). Previously, several Middle Palaeolithic ?nds were reported from the islands of Corfu, Cephalonia and Zakyntos (see Darlas 1994: 308-14; Kourtessi-Philippakis 1999: 283 ff.), and recent research on Cephalonia has revealed several Palaeolithic surface ?nds, including two sites with ?akes, choppers, chopping tools, and a single handaxe (Foss 2002/I: 61ff. & plates. AII: 13-16 & AIII: 1-16). With reference to ?nds from Epirus, and in particular to the inventory of the open-air site at Kokkinopilos, a Middle Palaeolithic date is suggested by Foss for the Palaeolithic industries found on Cephalonia, including the lithics found by Cubuk at Nea Skala (Foss 2002/II: 94-102).

Meanwhile, Katerina Kopaka and Christos Matzanas (2009) discuss the archaeology of the island of Gavdos, off the south coast of Crete. The later record is interesting, but the Lower and Middle Paleolithic occurrences are mainly limited to the site of Ayios Pavlos. These are classified typologically, which is not especially convincing for the few supposed Lower Paleolithic artifacts. Concerning the early Middle Paleolithic, they write:

Material from Ayios Pavlos Group 3 is also found at Vatsiana and Kavos, and includes scrapers, denticulates, Levallois flakes (Figure 5b) and blades or blade-like dbitage (cf. Darlas 1994a: 312, 314) of an Early Mousterian (proto-Mousterian) industry compared to the typical Greek Mousterian. These artefacts have a yellowish-white patina. They can be dated to c. 120-75 kyr, i.e. Marine Isotope Stage [MIS] 5a-d, usually attributed to Wrm I (Gamble 1986: 76, 86). Although the preferred raw material is (and was to remain) the local black flint, some pieces are made of flints from as yet unidenti?ed sources - possibly from Crete, obtained during cold phases of the Wrm whencommunication with neighbouring coasts would have been less treacherous.

These are enough to say that there are several sites with archaeology consistent with Neandertal-era or earlier occupation on Crete. Julien Riel-Salvatore discusses the issue in some more detail (“Lower-Middle Paleolithic island living?”). If it’s true, an early occupation of Crete would require watercraft. People seem to keep talking about Africans coming north in boats more than 120,000 years ago, but I see no reason to assume this. I suppose they might have washed out of the Nile delta on a log raft. But I think the faunal turnover before 300,000 years ago would be the logical time to infer presence of a new carnivorous species, and it’s probably simpler to derive the boat-builders from Europe, particularly given the potential of small island stepping stones in the Aegean.

All speculation until we see some more solid archaeological context; something better than typology.


Kopaka K, Matzanas C. 2009. Palaeolithic industries from the island of Gavdos, near neighbor to Crete in Greece. Antiquity 83: Online.

Mortensen P. 2008. Lower to Middle Paleolithic artefacts from Loutró on the south coast of Crete. Antiquity 82: Online.