Franchthi Cave

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Franchthi Cave, located on the southern Argolid peninsula of Greece, was excavated between 1968 and 1976 under the direction of Thomas W. Jacobsen of Indiana University. Discontinuous occupation in the cave spans a period from approximately 35,000 through 5,000 years ago, covering the Upper Palaeolithic through the end of the Neolithic, from hunting and gathering to agricultural subsistence.


The Upper Palaeolithic levels, dating to 35,000–10,000 years ago, are characterized by signs of sporadic hunter-gatherer occupation. The stone tools, mostly backed bladelets and microliths fashioned from local flint, were used to process the meat of the steppe ass, the most common animal hunted at this time. Other game included red deer, wild pig, and ibex. Analysis of the sediments inside the cave has identified a major depositional hiatus between 17,000 and 13,000–12,000 years ago. When occupation resumed, plant remains indicate that wild lentils, pistachios, and almonds were collected at this time, and steppe ass continued to be hunted. Land snails also were consumed, as evidenced by two extensive deposits of charred and crushed shells in the cave. Toward the end of the Upper Palaeolithic period red deer became the dominant game animal. Obsidian also appears in small quantities. Analyses of the obsidian have identified it as coming from the island of Melos, about 150 kilometers southeast of the site, in the Aegean.


The Mesolithic period at Franchthi Cave is subdivided into two phases, the Lower Mesolithic (8700–7900 b.c.) and the Upper Mesolithic (7900–7500 b.c.), based on a change in the stone tools and fauna. In the earlier period the lithic assemblage is characterized by various tools made by retouching or microflaking part of the stone flake. When done at one end of the flake it forms an endscraper, while retouching down one edge of the flake can form a serrated edge on a denticulate tool. The fauna are dominated by red deer, but pig and small fish also are represented.

The Upper Mesolithic saw a reappearance of microliths that were present in the Upper Palaeolithic. While there is evidence of an overall decrease in large fauna, remains of red deer still predominate. At this time as well large fish, such as tuna, appeared in the deposits. The overall increase in remains of plants, animal bones, and stone tools points to intensified occupation of Franchthi Cave during the Upper Mesolithic. While this habitation still may have been primarily seasonal in nature, there is evidence from oxygen isotope analysis of marine shells and plant and animal remains that year-round occupation also occurred.

Obsidian also was more prevalent at this time, which, along with the remains of large fish, suggests more extensive seafaring. Mapping of the seafloor in Koilada Bay through sub-bottom profiling has shown the transgression of the shorelines throughout the period of occupation of the cave, thus bringing the coast closer to the cave and eroding the coastal plain. The shoreline was exploited for shellfish, as evidenced by numerous shells found in the cave deposits. It is possible that reed boats were used to travel in local seas and to Melos to procure obsidian. Use-wear analysis of some of the stone tools has shown that they were used to cut grasses, perhaps reeds or oats and barley.

Aside from a few fragments in the Upper Palaeolithic period, the first complete human burial dates to the Mesolithic. This man, about twenty-six years of age, was buried toward the front of the cave on a deposit of burned shell. Complete analysis of the bone remains from around and beneath this skeleton indicate that this area also had been used for cremation burials.


Geological studies of the deposits in Franchthi Cave indicate another depositional hiatus of about 500 years between the latest Mesolithic and the earliest Neolithic deposits. The Neolithic period (7200–3500 b.c.) saw substantial changes in subsistence practices at Franchthi Cave with the introduction of domesticated sheep and goats as well as wheat and domestic forms of barley and lentils. The first appearance of domesticates occurs in levels with few or no ceramics. The existence of an aceramic or pre-pottery phase in Greece has been debated over the years, as the earliest occupation layers of many Neolithic sites had little or no pottery. At Franchthi, the levels containing the earliest domesticated plants and animals but little or no pottery are labeled "Initial Neolithic." The sherds that are present may have dropped in from upper layers or may be in situ and represent the rare use of ceramics by these first farmers.

Structures were built on the coastal plain in front of the cave, an area known as the paralia, or
"beach," in the Early Neolithic period. Coring in the bay in front of the cave has shown that a small hamlet may have extended about 100 meters beyond the present shoreline. The sea level was about 60 meters below the present level at this time.

Analysis of the ceramics has identified five phases of production, with the earliest phase still represented by relatively few pots, which were small and probably not made for cooking. In the Middle Neolithic most of the pottery was of a ware known as Urfirnis, decorated with geometric designs. These vessels, too, were not made for cooking but may have been for ritual use or special occasions. The Late Neolithic and final Neolithic phases saw the production of coarser ware that would have been suitable for cooking over an open fire, which suggests that cooking methods and food preparation techniques changed at this time.

Beads and amulets were common during the Neolithic. An area used for the manufacture of shell beads was discovered in the paralia deposits. The finds consisted of small flint borers and cockleshells or shell fragments in all stages of bead manufacture, including bead blanks, partially drilled beads, and numerous complete beads. Many more human burials are dated to the Neolithic period, predominantly the Middle Neolithic, including numerous infant burials. Grave goods in the form of a small marble bowl and a broken ceramic vessel accompanied one such infant burial inside the cave.

Franchthi Cave was abandoned about 5,000 years ago, probably as the result of a major rock fall that blocked the front third of the cave from the back two-thirds and left a window in the roof of the cave. Limited excavation between the buildingsized boulders produced material mainly from the final period of the Neolithic.


No comparable site in Greece, with such a long span of occupation, has been excavated. Survey in the region of Franchthi Cave has uncovered few other Palaeolithic or Mesolithic sites and no Early Neolithic ones. Many of the earlier sites may have been flooded when sea levels rose, however. The Palaeolithic levels have some similarities to sites in Epirus, such as Asprochaliko, Kastritsa, and Klithi. Mesolithic deposits have been found in Thessaly at Theopetra Cave as well as several other cave sites in southern Greece. More typical Neolithic sites are the large tells (magoulas) in Thessaly, where stratified remains of villages form large mounds in the Thessalian plain.


Franchthi Cave is an extremely important site, owing to the depth of the occupation strata, which provide new data on the chronology of lithic and ceramic sequences of southern Greece. Because of the intensive water sieving that was undertaken, it is one of only two Greek sites that have plant remains from pre-Neolithic levels. Together with studies of other biological remains, such as animal bones, marine mollusks, and land snails, these analyses have provided a fairly complete picture of the subsistence systems and environment throughout the occupation of the cave. Additional studies, such as sub-bottom profiling and pollen analysis from cores taken in the bay, show shoreline transgression during the site's occupation and Holocene vegetation in the region. These studies allow one to picture the environment of the time more accurately, as well as the changes the cave's inhabitants encountered.

Franchthi Cave also provides some of the earliest evidence of the introduction of agriculture to Europe. Although wild lentils and barley were present in the Mesolithic, domesticated forms did not occur until after a 500-year hiatus in occupation, at the same time as domesticated emmer and einkorn wheat as well as sheep and goats. Together with the building of the structures on the coast and the introduction of ceramics and new lithic types, this suggests that the Neolithic inhabitants of Franchthi Cave were newcomers rather than descendents of the Mesolithic inhabitants. The southwest Asian assemblage of cereals, legumes, sheep, and goats was brought by people, most likely from western Turkey, seeking new lands or trade. A similar Near Eastern assemblage of domesticated plants and animals can be traced across Europe between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago, as plants, people, and ideas moved or were exchanged from one region to the next.

See alsoFirst Farmers of Europe (vol. 1, part 3).


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Julie M. Hansen

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