The Aegean prehistory (particularly the Bronze Age period and more specifically the prehistory of the 2nd millennium BC) is an extremely fascinating research and science subject. The archaeological data of the Aegean islands provide insight into ancient times past.
Aegean island history researchers are tasked with studying and understanding them, not because these islands are distinct places, which by deduction will lead to particular analysis of cultural development and social process, but because they are part of a broader ecosystem, which we have to decipher.
The need to study these environments that were considered marginal, not only because of their extreme isolation conditions, but also because no one actually spent time and energy on them, has led to the emergence of island archaeology. Island/Aegean archaeology mainly focuses on determining when the human species first appeared on the Aegean islands and studying the biological, social and cultural processes that followed.
Renfrew emphasises on the economic and social processes taking place on the islands, in his work “The emergence of civilization. The Cyclades and the Aegean in the 3rd millennium BC” (1972, Renfrew Colin). He analyzes data regarding population, survival rates, metallurgy, technology, social organization and trade, as well as the cognitive systems of that period, construes the appearance of a complex cultural system and concludes that the emerging features of the first Aegean civilization can be considered endogenous to a great extent (due to processes occurring within the Aegean Sea region) and not exogenous (influences coming from the East).
The Project of the Programme of Milos (issued under the title “An island polity” C. Renfrew & M. Wagstaff, 1982) showed that even though the islands are excellent study cases of the social changes during prehistory, they should not be studied separately, but rather as part of broader political and economic systems.
The Aegean is, indeed, a unique insular and cultural system that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a place where the European and the Asian-African bio-geographical history and evolution intersect.
The archaeological findings that occasionally come to light are impressive. There are dozens of archaeological sites of the Neolithic, prehistoric and historic periods. Ancient farmhouses, pens, roads, settlements, necropolises, sanctuaries, quarries, water supply systems, city-states have been discovered throughout the Aegean area.
Priceless archaeological treasures lie hidden among the islands’ landscapes. Unknown Neolithic settlements stand proudly on windswept mountainous capes. Greek-Roman settlements are stuck on slopes. The increasing number of new data that the research on the islands has brought to light over the past 20 years changed the previous image of “… generally poor material”.
Researchers are convinced that the Aegean Sea had an “international character” in the 2nd millennium BC and that it went through a “common phase” (Renfrew Colin) during the same period. During this phase the archipelago, whose settlements stretched from the Dardanelles to the Cyclades and from Skyros to Smyrna, “is culturally unified with links between the settlements of Asia Minor and those of the northeastern Aegean islands” (Christos Doumas). The Cyclades served as a communication bridge connecting the northern Aegean Sea and Asia Minor to the central and southern Greek mainland. The Cyclades are in fact the largest island group of the Aegean Sea. It is a complex and peculiar group of islands with minerals, indented coastlines and hospitable bays. The islands are scattered over a sea area of 8,000km2.
The sea is relatively calm and suitable for sailing, especially between April and October.
Another advantage, which facilitates shipping in the Aegean basin, is the direct visual contact with a coast, whether it is another island, or a costal land area.
Findings attest to human presence on the Cyclades already since the 7th millennium BC.
However, permanent settlement on Aegean islands, such as Andros, Naxos, Antiparos, Amorgos and Santorini, began in the Late Neolithic period (c. 5000 BC). Ever since that period, the number of new sites in the southern Aegean increases significantly.
It should be noted that the islanders of that time had already started visiting Milos during the Upper Palaeolithic Period in order to supply themselves with obsidian. These visits continued throughout the Neolithic Period, as well.
Evidence of the Middle and Late Neolithic Period has been found in many Aegean archaeological sites, whose geographical location made them important for maritime communications. The Neolithic topography of the Aegean includes many settlements. There were many settlements on hills or capes of the Aegean islands during the Neolithic period (see Saliagos, Ftelia, Strofilas, Kefala, Grotta and even Maroulas, which was a preneolithic settlement) (Broodbank 2000, 86-87). The appearance of these new settlements which were located in peripheral rural areas (hills or coasts) attests to the intensification of production and entails changes to the distribution of productive activities in the area. Although the topographic characteristics of the settlements (altitude, distance from the sea and surface they extended over) vary, all Neolithic populations preferred an environment that offered adequate productive resources, proximity to the sea, safety and view.
Research conducted in recent years, along with two excavations in caves of Rhodes and two excavations at open sites, have added plenty of material about that time to the one already gathered and made researchers see the prehistory of the Dodecanese under a new light. After a systematic research from 1976 to 1980 on most islands of the Dodecanese and a series of excavations in three sites (Gyali, Leros and Alimnia), it was evidenced that a fairly dense population, with similarities to the ones living in Anatolia and the central Aegean region during the Late Neolithic Period, lived on these islands (Sampson 1987).
Koumelo is a special site located at Archangelos of Rhodes. The cave is situated at a steep location, not far from the sea, but the area around it is arid and hence not suitable for cultivation. An excavation was carried out in 1979 revealing evidence of habitation dating back to the last two phases of the Late Aegean Neolithic Period (c. 4200, 3800 BC). The hearths and pottery found indicate a rather casual and not an intense use. More caves with Neolithic pottery, as well as an outdoor archaeological site have been identified nearby. This region appears to have been inhabited by stockmen who came from a settlement that has yet to be found in the Archangelos valley.
The cave of Agios Georgios, near the village of Kalithies, is next to a fertile cultivated area only 5km away from the sea. The cave, whose embankments were thicker, used to be densely populated. Pottery and other objects (bone tools) dating from the beginning of the Late Neolithic Period of the Aegean to phase 3 (5300 -3300 BC) were discovered in the cave’s layers. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the findings of the earliest phase of the Late Neolithic Period of the Aegean date from 5600 to 5300BC. This period is considered almost contemporary with the Late Neolithic Period I of mainland Greece. A few sherds with inscriptions in red and white decoration have been found in the deeper layers of the cave. They date from an earlier habitation phase, traces of which have not been discovered anywhere else on the island to date.
Overall, 20 Neolithic sites have been identified on Rhodes.
In conclusion, despite the fact that archaeological research in the Dodecanese has been relatively limited, several sites have been identified by surface scans, especially on Rhodes. Three sites have also been identified on Simi and one on Astypalea, Kalymnos, Tilos, as well as at Kastri of Alimnia and Partheni of Leros. Apart from that, systematic excavations were carried out at a number of sites on the small island of Gyali.
The settlements have generally similar traits with most settlements of Crete:
They are small and several of them are located along the coast, while others a bit further inland. They were built on hills or steep cliffs that dominate the surrounding landscape, but also near capes and coastal plains.
Various sites have been identified in the Cyclades and the Dodecanese, some of which are worth mentioning:
The settlement of Saliangos near Paros dates back to the end of the Middle and the beginning of the Late Neolithic Period. The rectangular buildings of the settlement were built using stones. A stone-built enceinte that might have included a circular bastion was also discovered. In the centre of the settlement, there are buildings with complex floor plans, like the ones of the same period that are located at Knossos, Kefala and at house D in Emporio of Chios.
The ruins of a settlement of the Late Neolithic Period that were found at Ftelia of Mykonos are also important. The site is located at the innermost point of the Panormos cove, north of the road leading to the village of Ano Mera. The site faces north, which was quite common, as Neolithic settlements with similar orientation have been found on other islands of the Cyclades, such as on Kea (Kefala), Antiparos (Saliangos), Naxos (Grotta) and Kythnos (several sites).
Ruins of buildings from a large prehistoric settlement started coming to light since the beginning of the research. The biggest part of a manor-shaped building with 1.5m high walls, two circular 1.8m high buildings that were possibly used as granaries and other arched buildings have been discovered. Buildings of this height are not common in Neolithic period settlements. In fact, they are the only ones that have been discovered so far in the Aegean area. Geomorphological surveys have shown that there used to be a settlement at Ftelia, extending over a surface of 0.7 to 0.8 acres. It prospered during the Late Neolithic Period I and was contemporary to the famous Neolithic settlement of Saliangos on Antiparos. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that the area was inhabited from 5100 to approximately 4500BC.
The location and structure of the settlement, the pottery and tool types and the economy make Koukounaries of Paros a typical example of an insular Neolithic settlement. The naturally fortified rocky hill that dominates the coast offers security and a view over an extensive territory both towards the island and towards the sea all the way to Naxos. As a result, its residents were able to control the region. The hill also offers access to a rich ecosystem: a river that supplied the settlement with water and had a biotope at its delta, a fertile valley, land suitable for cultivation and livestock farming on the slopes of the surrounding hills and, of course, the sea with all the advantages it had to offer as a food source and a channel of communication.
The excavations of the last decade have shown that the remarkable settlement of Strofilas on Andros, which dates from the Final Neolithic Period, extended over a surface of about 2 acres. The settlement was protected by a strong wall and it had large buildings and a shrine. The extensive indented or engraved rock paintings that were discovered are a finding of particular interest. They decorate the walls and floor of the shrine and parts of the rock along the wall with naturalistic representations (animals, fish and more than 60 ships) and symbolic representations (spirals and whorls in the shape of Neolithic figurines). Strofilas, just like its contemporary large settlement in Agios Georgios of Falatados on Tinos, attests that organized societies had developed in the northeastern Cyclades as early as the 4th millennium BC. They were the precursors of the early Cycladic societies of the 3rd millennium BC.
Strofilas reveals a new aspect of the Aegean islands ‘civilizations and more specifically of the Cycladic ones during the Final Neolithic Period, expanding the horizons of Cycladic prehistory and iconography. Strofilas makes evident that ever since that period a high-level civilization organized in big naval societies and settlements with pre-urban structures had been formed in the Cyclades creating the basis for the subsequent cultural evolution of the region in the Middle and Late Bronze Age.
The transition from the Neolithic Age to the Bronze Age is marked by great changes in the fields of civilization and society organization in the Aegean. The Bronze Age in the Aegean Sea starts around the middle of the 4th millennium BC. Several researchers regard the period from 3700 to 3300 BC as a transitional phase between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age.
The Bronze Age is conventionally called the period of the two millennia, during which the use of metals began and gradually increased. Metallurgy first appeared in the area stretching from Asia Minor to Mesopotamia and Egypt. The metal trade was of vital importance at that time. Crete, in particular, relied on maritime communications in order to have access to metals that were scarce on the island, yet necessary for its growing palatial economy. Copper, silver and lead were probably imported from the Cyclades and Lavrio, while gold and tin were, perhaps, the main products of Cretan trade with the Near East.
There were significant copper and silver deposits in the Cyclades (on Kythnos and Serifos & Sifnos respectively). Evidence of silver mining during the Early Bronze Age was discovered in Agios Sostis and Kapsalo of Sifnos. Metalworking became very important in the Cyclades and shared a typological affinity with that of Anatolia and mainland Greece. This new technology spread at an impressive speed influencing exchanges. As a result, commercial activities increased creating a space of interaction that helped the “Cycladic civilization” grow.
The term “Cycladic civilization” was first used in the late 19th century by the archaeologist Christos Tsountas to describe the “image of the ancient insular civilization” that developed in the Cyclades. The development of the Cycladic civilization is divided into three periods: a) the Early Cycladic period (3200 – 2000 BC), characterized by the development of metallurgy, navigation and Cycladic art, b) the Middle Cycladic period (2000 – 1600 BC), characterized by the development of important settlements, such as Phylakopi on Milos, Agia Irini on Kea and Akrotiri on Santorini and c ) the Late Cycladic period (1600 – 1100 BC), characterized by strong Minoan and later Mycenaean influences (1400 – 1100 BC).
Research on the Cycladic civilization is based largely on the study of settlements and cemeteries of that period (3rd millennium BC). The residents of the Cyclades during the Early Bronze Age left behind no written evidence and the data collected by Cycladic settlement excavations is currently limited.
Findings on sites on both Crete and the Cyclades attest to the relations between them at the end of the Early Minoan Period I / Early Cycladic Period I. There is also no evidence that these relations were interrupted during the next period.
On the contrary, the similarities in almost all forms of artistic production, which are evident in Cycladic figurines, stone vases, bronze daggers and many ceramic shapes prove that these relations continued during the Early Minoan Period II / Early Cycladic Period II. All the aforementioned similarities between the two civilizations have a fairly convincing explanation within the framework of communication, trade exchanges and the cultural interaction that comes along with them. That is how the conditions for the prevalence of an “international spirit” in the Aegean Sea area were formed.
Relations between the Dodecanese and the Cyclades have existed since the Early Bronze Age. Bird-shaped bags made in the Cyclades have been discovered on Rhodes, Kos and Kalymnos. Bronze weapons and a silver vase that were found on Kos and date from the Early Bronze Age are similar to their counterparts on Amorgos. Apart from that, evidence of contact with the Cyclades (obsidian from Milos) has been found on Leros, Nisyros, Tilos, Symi, Halki and Alimnia. Evidence of communication and trade between Rhodes and Crete has also been found in the northeastern part of the island (Triandas), while the entire northern part of Rhodes was probably inhabited by the Achaeans during the Mycenaean period. This assumption is also supported by several place names on the island (e.g. the acropolis of Ialyssos was called Achaia up until the Classical period).
Various sites of the Bronze Age have been identified throughout the Aegean. Some of them are worth mentioning:
Recent excavations have brought to light Skarkos (on Ios), which is the largest known settlement of the heyday of the Cycladic civilization so far (Early Bronze Age II, mid 3rd millennium BC). It extends over a territory of about 1.1 acres and it was discovered in an excellent condition. The settlement had pericentral urban planning with a drainage system for rainwater and impressive two-storey buildings, whose door openings, stairways, cabinets, built-in chests and, in some cases, paved floors still exist today.
Seals and many sealed objects, which indicate that the Cycladic societies had complex socio-economic structures, were discovered, as well.
The Cycladic settlement in Plakalona of Serifos is probably contemporary to Skarkos. The settlement at Akrotiraki of Sifnos that existed from the Late Neolithic to the end of the Early Cycladic Period is of particular interest as well, mainly because of the great number of bottle-shaped litharge parts found there attesting to silver production through cupellation.
Important Cycladic civilization traces (2700-2200BC) have been identified at the sites of Chalandriani and Kastri.
The violent destruction of the fortified settlements in Kastri of Syros and Panormos of Naxos and the abandonment of sites, such as Skarkos on Ios, at the end of the Early Cycladic Period II have been considered evidence of population decline. There is no doubt that the turbulence at the end of the Early Cycladic Period II had some kind of negative impact on the habitation of the islands. However, there is clear, yet limited, evidence that a number of settlements, which were important ports during the Middle and Late Bronze Age, such as Akrotiri on Thera, Agia Irini on Kea and Grotta on Naxos, were still inhabited during the Early Cycladic Period III. Therefore, it is possible that the changes of this period were due to the residents’ tendency to gather in larger coastal settlements which facilitated commerce.
Kastri of Syros is one of the most typical examples of an organized and populous Cycladic settlement. The settlement was protected by man-made and natural fortification. The acropolis dominated the area and protected the residents and their livelihoods from enemy attacks. Handicrafts and trade transactions were carried out within the acropolis. Findings indicate that pottery was also produced and that the settlement had metallurgical workshops, where copper, silver and lead were processed.
The study of the organization and dispersion of Cycladic necropolises is of particular interest and importance for the Aegean archaeology, as the information they provide helps researchers understand the way Cycladic societies were organized and learn more about the beliefs of their residents. The variety of grave goods, both in quality and in quantity, reflects significant differences in the distribution of wealth. The very existence of grave goods probably implies certain beliefs about the afterlife. Recent excavations in Early Cycladic cemeteries and other relevant sites make evident that the burial customs of that time need to be reviewed in the light of modern research.
Chalandriani of Syros [Early Cycladic Period II (2800-2300BC)] and the tombs with the corbelled walls are a special case. These tombs were honeycomb-shaped with a nearly circular floor plan and walls that inclined inwards, while their roofs were covered by a stone slate. Even though the tombs of Chalandriani had a side entrance that was closed by a dry stone wall, only one dead person was placed in each one of them. More than 600 tombs were discovered in this cemetery. They were organized in clusters and differed in terms of the quantity and quality of their grave goods. A new cluster of 32 undisturbed tombs was found at the same cemetery of the Early Cycladic Period II in Chalandriani of Syros.
Akrotiri of Thera is one of the most important urban centres and one of the first settlements of the Aegean. The first settlement in the area dates back to the Late Neolithic Period (to the 4th millennium BC, at least). There was a settlement at Akrotiri during the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC).
During the Middle and Early Late Bronze Age (20th-17th century BC), the settlement expanded and became one of the most important urban centres and ports of the Aegean Sea.
The fact that the settlement extended over a large surface (about 200 acres), as well as its excellent urban planning, canalization and elaborate multi-storey buildings with the exquisite murals, furnishings and household items attest to its great development.
Various imported products that were found inside the buildings show how broad the network of external relations of Akrotiri was. It maintained close relations with Minoan Crete, but was also in contact with mainland Greece, the Dodecanese, Cyprus, Syria and Egypt. Pot painters from Thera were pioneers in figurative painting throughout the Aegean during the Middle Bronze Age. They were constantly experimenting until they were able to create representations of narrative scenes, preparing the ground for the great art of fresco. Life in the settlement came to an abrupt end in the last quarter of the 17th century BC, when strong earthquakes forced the residents to leave the island.
The eruption of the volcano of Thera, shortly after the middle of the 17th century BC, struck the Cycladic society at its heyday and marked the beginning of the Late Cycladic period. Thera was buried under thick layers of ash. But life continued on the other islands probably in a more relaxed manner, despite the obvious disarray caused by the explosion. The craftsmanship and the centuries-old experience of the residents of the Cyclades in shipbuilding, navigation and transit trade entered the service of a new rising power in the Aegean Sea: the Mycenaeans. As a result, the Cycladic islands began to gradually adapt to the Mycenaean lifestyle and relations between the Mycenaeans and the eastern Mediterranean developed rapidly. Some of the settlements that were still inhabited during the Late Cycladic Period are Phylakopi on Milos, Agia Irini on Kea and Grotta on Naxos. The notable cemetery of Grotta, where pottery of the Late Cycladic Period III was found, makes evident that the Cycladic islands continued to play an important role and were still able to maintain their insular character, even though they were part of the Mycenaean civilization. Koukounaries, a settlement with traces of early habitation on the neighbouring island of Paros, seems to have been an important centre towards the end of that period.
Agia Irini and Phylakopi were still the main urban centres of the Cyclades after the eruption of the volcano of Thera (1628 BC), but they were both influenced by the Mycenaeans, in terms of fortifications, shrines and palaces. The Mycenaean presence is noticeable in both existing and newly founded settlements on the uninhabited Thera (Monolithos settlement) and on other Cycladic islands. During the middle of the Late Cycladic Period, the existing fortifications were expanded and new settlements were founded in naturally fortified locations (Koukounaries, Agios Andreas).
Phylakopi is one of the most important cities of the prehistoric Aegean. Habitation traces extending over a period of about two millennia (3300-1100BC) were discovered there. Its third residential period was characterized by intense Minoan influences, while Mycenaean ones prevailed during the fourth.
The prehistoric settlement of Agia Irini on the northern part of the port of Agios Nikolaos on Kea was one of the most important cultural centres of the Aegean from the Late Neolithic Period (3000BC), when the first residents settled on the island, to the 15th century BC, when the settlement was destroyed by strong earthquakes while being on its heyday. The settlement of Agia Irini was built on a small cape at the northwestern bay of Kea, over a fortified settlement of the Middle Bronze Age. Several important changes occurred during the residential period V. The buildings of the settlement were rebuilt based on an integrated urban plan, which included a water supply network and a sewerage system. The damage on the fortifications of the previous period was also repaired during that time.
These findings are invaluable sources of scientific data.
Based on these and other relevant and specific conclusions, researchers can now examine the past and move on to broader questions concerning the archaeology of the Aegean islands as a whole.
The goal of this short historical outline was to show that the culture of the Aegean islands was based on production, innovation, shipping and commerce throughout the course of the Bronze Age (3200 – 1100BC). It is rather doubtful that any relations between the Aegean region and the people of the eastern Mediterranean would have developed, were it not for these islands. Egyptian sources mentioned people, who lived “in the middle of the sea” and relevant research eliminates any doubt regarding the Aegean character of the People of the Sea that were mentioned in eastern sources.
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