The final week of May saw the beginning of a new and exciting phase of the Stélida Naxos Archaeological Project [SNAP], as having spent 2013-14 surveying the site, we began our three-year excavation, this time in collaboration with Dr. Demetrios Athanassoulis, director of the Cycladic Ephorate of antiquities. Over the past two years we had mapped and collected stone tools across the chert source that we argued – based on parallels from excavated sites – to be of early prehistoric date, specifically Lower-Palaeolithic to Mesolithic, i.e. 250,000 (minimum) to 7000 BC. Such a claim was not unproblematic however, as until quite recently the received wisdom was that the Mediterranean islands remained uninhabited until migrant farmers peoples settled them in the Neolithic, no longer than 9000 years ago. While this late colonisation model has since been challenged it remained that virtually all the claimed early (Palaeolithic) material on the Aegean islands was in the form of surface finds; only at Plakias in south-west Crete do we have stone tools dated to at least 110,000 years ago, but here this material was in a secondary geological stratum, not a primary archaeological context. By the end of two years of surveying on Stélida we realised that we had hit an interpretative glass ceiling. In essence, those who were sympathetic to the discovery of such early finds in the islands would continue to believe our claims, while those who had issue with such claims – which could alter how we view the peopling of Europe and the capabilities of our pre-Homo sapiens ancestors – would never be satisfied with anything other than absolute dates. Thus while we could have spent a season or more completing the survey of Stélida hill and its immediate surroundings, we turned our energies to excavation, with our the aim of the 2015 season being to locate undisturbed, stratified archaeological deposits whose contents could be scientifically dated.
Our team was relatively small, never more than 20 of us in the field and museum, comprised of an international group of scholars, doctoral students and undergrads, coming from various universities, including: McMaster (seven of us), Aix-en-Marseille, Athens, Belgrade, Boston, and Calgary. Many of us had already participated on the 2013-14 survey, but the project is also designed to enable junior scholars – not least from Canada and Greece – to join the team anew each season. For some of the young Canadians this represented their first visit to Greece, and for Shannon Crewson their first time outside of Canada, using her CIG membership and museum pass to maximise her cultural time in Athens en route to Naxos.
Initially our work focused on an upslope area, adjacent to the chert outcrops where there was clear evidence for stone tool manufacture. In truth the hillside is littered with such production debris, but in many instances it is clear that the material is in secondary context and/or resting directly on bedrock. With a relatively steep incline and limited deep-root vegetation, the hillsides of Stélida are very dynamic landscapes, with gravity, strong-winds, and winter rains serving to move soil and artefacts downslope, often leaving little more than natural and cultural scree upon the exposed natural rock. The area we chose to excavate had been selected by our geo-archaeological colleagues Panagiotis (‘Takis’) Karkanas and Daniel Contreras, who believed that a natural exposed lip of bedrock would have acted as a natural terrace and thus retained some of the upslope soils, including – we hoped – deposits containing early prehistoric archaeology.
Three 2m² trenches were established to test this hypothesis, sondages that paid almost immediate dividends after a day of bush-whacking and the removal of only a few centimetres of modern roots and top soil. Trenches 2 and 3 soon revealed a relatively compact grey-brown stratum that contained what our lithics specialist (Danica Mihailović) claimed to be unmixed assemblages of Palaeolithic date. Trench 1 initially fared less well, for while it generated hundreds of stone tools and flakes from the outset, we soon came to appreciate that it lay at the base of a gully that over time had funnelled large quantities of artefacts from the uppermost part of the hill, providing us with a mixed bag of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic finds that were all obviously in secondary context. Trench 2 then crashed and burned due to an enormous boulder of chert blocking any further progress, a day spent smacking it with a sledgehammer failing to solve the problem. Trench 3 was a roaring success, with some 1.5 metres of Pleistocene cultural deposit excavated by the end of the season, and bedrock yet to be reached! Indeed by the end of the six weeks three sondages in this upper area were still going strong, and have been backfilled with sandbags in preparation for resuming our work here in 2016.
While a number of different contexts (loci/units) were recorded by the archaeologists excavating these trenches, another of our geologically trained team-members (Justin Holcomb) has interpreted the stratigraphy of these upper slope trenches as representing two main periods of activity. The uppermost – represented in all of the trenches - comprises the aforementioned artefact-rich grey-brown soil whose material culture currently appears to be of later Palaeolithic date. Beneath this layer was a red and incredibly hard-packed sandy layer (very slow-going to dig), again filled with stone tools, but this time of a markedly earlier date within the Palaeolithic, quite distinct to the finds from the upper stratum. Both layers appear to represent colluvial (hill-wash) event, presumably the product of glacial periods when there would have been only low scrubby plant growth making the hillsides susceptible to downslope erosion - whereas in warmer periods denser vegetation would have helped to anchor the soil. In this area we certainly seem to be missing periods of activity – as represented by our surfaces finds elsewhere – material that may have been removed during these glacial erosional periods. The next step is to get absolute scientific dates for these strata; to that end we have taken soil samples for Optically Stimulated Luminescence [OSL] dating (geological materials from archaeological strata), work that we hope will be undertaken by our colleagues in Bordeaux.
The archaeology itself, for anyone not used to early prehistory, was relatively uncomplicated beyond carefully following the stratigraphic horizons. There is no architecture, and the only material we have thus far found in these trenches is lithics, which means we must be the only CIG excavation whose conservation budget is $0! The work can be painstakingly slow, due to a lot of point-plotting individual artefacts as one of the means of reconstructing site formation processes, and the compactness of the lower red soil. As to whether our lack of bones, shell inter alia is a product of soil acidity, or the nature of the site, it is currently difficult to say. At a quarry site / stone tool manufacturing centre we certainly expected our finds to be heavily biased towards lithics, and this might indeed be all we find at the stone face, with remnant foodstuffs and other organics perhaps restricted to these early peoples’ associated campsites.
The question of where these people (conceivably and variously through time: Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens) lived during their visits to Stélida is something we are trying to answer through our second excavation area next to the modern coastline. While this would not have been a water-side location in the Pleistocene – when sea-levels were significantly lower, with Naxos and Paros part of a larger insular landmass – this area is much flatter, and less rocky, i.e. much more amenable to temporary habitation than the upslope quarry area. In the last three weeks we established a further six 1m² trenches to investigate soil depth and archaeological potential. Once again, success was almost immediate, with later Palaeolithic strata revealed directly beneath the thin modern topsoil. As to whether some of this material is actually in situ we have to wait until next season when we can expand some of these trenches to gain a broader insight, rather than the keyhole view of 2015.
Our final area of investigation involved working on the beach (tough gig!) studying the stratigraphy of some fossilized sand dunes, and searching – needle-in-haystack like – for stone tools embedded in these ancient layers. Here too we enjoyed enormous success, finding a number of artefacts in strata that are eminently dateable using the OSL technique. In sum, we seem to have achieved our major aims for the 2015 excavation season, i.e. the location of unmixed stratified early prehistoric deposits from which it was possible to take samples for scientific dating. Over the winter we hope to have these dates generated, at which point we can then turn to some of the other major issues surrounding the site. Of course one of the major issues surrounding the site is how people travelled there during the Pleistocene. Was the site only ever visited during those cold periods when the sea-level was so low as to create a landbridge from continental Greece thus allowing hominids to walk to Stélida, or do the dates suggest the quarry’s exploitation at times that would have necessitated Neanderthals (or earlier characters) making short seagoing voyages to Naxos? If the latter is true then we will need to radically reconfigure how we view the technical and cognitive capabilities of pre-Homo sapiens’ populations, with maritime travel currently conceptualised as an index of behavioural modernity, i.e. one of the things that distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them’.
While our work is focused on the early archaeology of Stélida, we are of course engaged with the neighbouring contemporary community, and the people of Naxos more generally. Stélida is a fascinating place to work, a largely marginal farming environment until the late 1960’s at which point we view the influx of a few well-educated non-local families who built at the base of the hill (one of whom has graciously allowed us to dig on their property). From the 1980’s the area underwent rapid tourist development, with a slew of hotels, and holiday homes constructed around the hill. All of these people have an interest in Stélida, not only the archaeologists, and we need to acknowledge that fact and work – as best we can – in harmony with all of the various community stakeholders, be that the Ministry of Culture, the Naxian Cultural Association, local hoteliers, or foreign landowners. To this end part of our project is dedicated to public outreach and consultation with these various groups, and involves collaboration with Stelios Lekakis and two cultural anthropology students from Athens University. Here we face a unique case of community-engaged archaeology, as unlike many such cases (as for example Çatalhöyük in Turkey), our ‘local’ community is well-educated, socio-economically powerful, heterogeneous, and transient; indeed, if you visit Stélida in the winter you will find almost no one living here, the summer residents having returned to France, Germany, Athens, Kavala or other locales in Naxos.
One of the issues that we clearly face from the outset is that Stélida may not be the best place to actually teach about / celebrate its archaeology... Firstly financial restrictions make it nigh impossible to provide a Ministry guard for the site, which means some kind of on-site display of exposed archaeology would be impossible at present. Secondly, the hill is almost entirely private property, with many landowners simply not wanting the attention or disturbance a major site might bring (though others might wistfully be thinking about the financial potentials of a ‘Hotel Neanderthal...’). Thus at present we are putting our energies into giving public talks at other venues, and in due course to generate major bilingual internet content via our project website, and to design an exhibition to be displayed on Naxos. To these ends we have already received enormous support from the Mayor of Chora/Naxos Mr. Manolis Margaritis, who visited the site in late June, and the Naxian Cultural Association via its president Mr. Yiannis Tsolakis who has also provided our project accommodation in the lovely village of Vivlos.