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Prehistoric Sitagroi: Excavations in Northeast Greece, 1968-1970. Volume 2: The Final Report edited by ERNESTINE E. ELSTER and COLIN RENFREW
Monumenta Archaeologica 20. 2003. 519 pages, 235 line drawings, 184 photographs, 4 maps and 104 tables. ISBN 1-931745-02-1. (c. $65)

The title of the series under whose imprint Sitagroi volume 2 appears sums up the volume – this excavation report is indeed a monument to the monument (the tell), to the investigators and, most importantly, to Greek and Balkan prehistory. For Sitagroi faces both North and South – that is one of the two reasons why Colin Renfrew and Maria Gimbutas decided to excavate there in the first place. In the late 1960s, Renfrew was exploring the effects of radiocarbon calibration and he proposed a Radiocarbon Fault line, separating those parts of the Aegean in direct contact with historically-dated societies from those Balkan prehistoric communities whose dating require(d) scientific dating. Located on the faultline, Sitagroi was meant, inter alia, to solve once and for all the vexed relations between the Balkan Neolithic and Copper Age and the Early Bronze Age of Greece and Anatolia and the question of independent Balkan copper metallurgy. As it turns out, the Sitagroi excavations accomplished much more than that in seeking to fulfil the other prime aim – the investigation of the Sitagroi environment and material culture to explain the richness and diversity of the remains on the tell.

In the preface, and for those prehistorians who, unaccountably, do not have volume 1 to hand (Renfrew et al. 1986: reviewed for PPS by Chapman 1988), the editors summarize the project aims, the stratigraphic sequence, volume of excavated earth and radiocarbon chronology. A synopsis of the chapters in volume 2 follows but a synthesis of prehistoric North Greece and the Southern Balkans is deferred till a later date, with tantalizing hints at future research questions. The second volume contains 14 chapters, most of them combining a specialist finds report with a detailed finds catalogue. Since the volume is profusely illustrated, the reader can gain an extremely good impression of the findings. If there are questions not answered in the commentary, readers can often find out the answer for themselves. This is extremely valuable, since, to this reviewer’s knowledge, there are no other tell excavations published in this way in Greece or the Balkans. And there certainly will be questions concerning Sitagroi that readers will find unanswered, even in this magnificent volume.

The specialist reports begin with Jane Renfrew’s study of the botanical remains, based upon 232 stratified samples, with representative coverage of each of the five phases. All of the main cereal species, crop weeds, pulses and fruit remains are discussed in detail, with an important discussion of the eventual domestication of the grape, identified through both pips and stalks, in Phase IV, though not as early as in the nearby tell of Dikili Tash. An extraordinary find from a Phase IV house is a large storage jar full of unthreshed barley and acorns – interpreted as the ingredients of Latest Copper Age gruel. Fortunately, much venison and river fish were also available in this period. The only criticism to make of Renfrew’s study is that she pays little attention to the ecology of the crop weeds, which Amy Bogaard has recently used to telling effect to identify the areas where Linear Bandkeramik cereals were grown.

Over 600 bone and antler tools are ably analysed by Ernie Elster in probably the most comprehensive review in this part of Europe, excepting the landmark research of Alice Choyke. While, in absolute numbers, the tools are made mostly from the bones of domesticated species, there is a proportional emphasis on tools made on wild animal bones, since the bone is stronger and the capture of the specimen can be more heroic. There is a bias towards bone & antler tools in Phases I – III, especially with antler, which declines in IV and V.

The chipped stone report by Ruth Tringham is supplemented by attempts at sourcing the lithic raw materials by Sarantis Dimitriadis and Katerina Skourtopoulou. Tringham’s work emphasises the importance of Sebastian Payne’s water-sieving recovery technique, which produced 75% of the sample (mostly from Phases II & III). She cross-correlates raw materials, tool usage and morphology in a revealing way. However, Tringham confuses the Bulgarian lithic sources – the Sredna Gora is not in N.E. but in C. Bulgaria and mistakes the Hungarian Zemplén source of obsidian for the Bükk (as did Gordon Childe before her!)(cf. on p. 492, Renfrew is incorrect in terming honey flint ‘Madara flint’ – there are now over 50 known sources). Tringham also confuses readers with diachronic changes in the percentages of honey flint, which reaches a peak in Phase II and declines consistently till Phase V. But the report on lithic raw material sourcing is very disappointing, with not even a correlation between the thin-section groupings and the samples analysed! The suggestion of a source for honey flint in the Rhodopes or N.E. Thrace will certainly surprise Bulgarian specialists and requires urgent investigation. I sympathise with the problem of lithic raw material exploration in border areas: clearly, an international effort is required to solve this problem.

John Dixon’s petrological analyses of the ground and polished stone is more effective but, even here, the results are rather general, with the only divisions made between local and non-local rocks. It is striking that the peak of non-local axe discard is in Phase III – the phase with the highest absolute numbers of honey flint. Ernie Elster repeats her successful bone tool study with the ground and polished stone tools. Martin Biskowski adds an intriguing appendix on ground stone production, in which he claims that, because of the long-lasting (?30-year) use of most grindstones, each full-time specialist could produce sufficient grindstones for almost 20,000 consumers.

Elster’s third contribution, with Adavasio and Illingworth, is an analysis of the spinning, weaving and mat-making tools and impressions. A single impression of a good-quality faced linen weave survives from Phase I, making this the earliest such textile in prehistoric Europe. The use of wool is supported using Bökönyi’s caprine kill-off patterns, strongest in Phases III and V.

Elizabeth Gardner contributes a short report on pottery technology and firing temperature, unfortunately unrevised from 25 years ago. She discovers a cumulative pattern in firing temperature, with few wares fired at higher than 1000oC in Phases I – III, but almost all analysed wares in Phases IV and V fired above that temperature. The Phase III exceptions were incised and white incrusted wares, black burnished wares and graphite painted wares. No convincing link, however, could be made between pottery and metallurgical technologies.

Elizabeth Slater’s thorough report on the analysis of 130 samples for traces of metal – both objects and ceramics – indicates that Phase III was the only period with evidence for on-site copper melting or smelting, while one tin bronze pin was found in Phase V. Slater and Renfrew, who adds a detailed review of Aegeo-Balkan metallurgy, curiously infer the melting of copper from the crucible evidence, overlooking the fact that some copper smelting does not produce slag and that, even if it did, it would probably have occurred off-tell. Nonetheless, the discovery of Karanovo VI-dated crucibles is a rare enough event on a tell to make this a very important finding. The re-evaluation of the lead isotopes results by Zosia Anna Stos suggests that Phase III metal is consistent with a derivation from the Burgas area on the Bulgarian coast and maybe even from the Taurus Mountains, while Phase V metal may have originated from Burgas and the Southern Aegean.

One of the outstanding chapters in volume 2 concerns the report on ornaments by Marianna Nikolaidou, in conjunction with Nick Shackleton and Michele Miller. Anyone with an interest in Spondylus/Glycymeris ornament production must read this chapter, with Miller providing an excellent account of the chaîne opératoire of a Spondylus ring and Nikolaidou’s analysis of diachronic changes in rings, beads and pendants. Almost all of Miller’s production stages are represented at Sitagroi, indicating local production after shell-collection from the sea 25 km distant, possibly with an eye to exporting completed ornaments to the Balkans.

After minor chapters by Colin Renfrew and Ernie Elster/Nikolaidou (on things forgotten in volume 1: a nice Greek word for this is “Paralipómena”!), what should have been a key chapter in the book – the contextual discussion of key contexts with their associated finds – falls rather flat, since the scale of excavation of the Phase I – III deposits was insufficient to recognise the nature of the deposits, beyond general terms such as ‘Hearth’ and ‘Debris’ levels. This stands in marked contrast to the complete houses of Phases IV and V, where Nikolaidou and Elster accomplish miracles (after 30 years!) of data retrieval and synthesis. The volume concludes with publication of the finds made on field survey and a masterly envoi by Colin Renfrew and, inevitably, Elster, closing the first phase of the Sitagroi project and setting up others for a second phase of excavation.

Since the Sitagroi project was conceived on a European scale, we are entitled to enquire about its contributions to European prehistory in the AD 21st century. In three senses, Sitagroi is a child of its time, which has now grown into less fractious middle age. First, few prehistorians now doubt the reliability, accuracy and precision of calibrated radiocarbon dates. Secondly, a slightly larger group – but, in total numbers, still vanishing small – doubts the independence of Balkan copper metallurgy. Thirdly, a sadly larger group of practicing excavators doubts the vital importance of wet-sieving and froth flotation for the recovery of small finds and ecofacts. None of these claims was secure at the time of the Sitagroi excavations and we should not forget the role of the Sitagroi project in winning over hearts and minds. So what else is new?

One of the most significant aspects of the Sitagroi sequence is its length, enabling us to assess long-term trends in a way that few sites can do. Despite all of the problems of non-comparability of the different phases (and it is especially hard to compare I – III with IV and V), glimpses can be seen of a very striking continuity over 3,000 years. Jane Renfrew shows us that, with a very few exceptions (eg domesticated grape from Phase IV), the same range of domesticated cereals were the mainstays in all phases: einkorn more than emmer wheat more than hulled six-row barley (the sole reversal dates to Phase IV, where hulled barley predominates). Aspects of lithic production show remarkable continuity – all of the cores are worked out in every phase and Tringham notes a relative uniformity of tool use in all phases. However, there are marked diachronic variations in the preference for local vs. exotic lithics. Most ground and polished stone tool types occur throughout the sequence, with similar distributions of tool sizes; the same is true for spindle-whorls but not for loom-weights (almost all in Phase III). Interestingly, the trend towards gradual, cumulative change through time is most marked in pottery and metal technologies. This is completely absent, however, in ornament production, which reaches a peak in Phases II and III. However, small quantities of similar shell ornaments do occur in Phase IV, amidst the general decline in ostentatiously symbolic objects.

I am not trying to smooth over the gaps and the discontinuities in the Sitagroi sequence to produce an unbroken line of ancestral occupation. What I am suggesting, however, is that there are multiple reasons for accepting that certain social practices show continuities across ‘phase’ boundaries. We should, after all, not be afraid to state that the phases at Sitagroi are the investigators’ constructs – based, of course, on good stratigraphic and ceramic data but, nontheless, constructs - and therefore not totally sacrosanct. I am also not denying that Phase III is characterised by peaks in almost every aspect of material culture – the very manifestation of what we understand as the ‘Climax Copper Age’. But, despite the uncertainties about the transition from Phase III to Phase IV on the tell, there would appear to be many aspects of the habitus linking the Climax Copper Age, the latest Copper Age and the Early Bronze Age.

What is also extremely exciting about the two Sitagroi volumes is the innovations that cluster in Phase IV. This period of Balkan prehistory – broadly equated to the Baden period – is very poorly understood, not least because, off-tell, settlement deposits of this period are extremely hard to discover, even in intensive, systematic survey. At Sitagroi itself, Phase IV is the only period when hulled six-row barley predominates, when acorn collection is matched by a doubling of pork consumption and a big increase in venison and when the domestication of the vine is celebrated by the appearance of new, glossy, prestige drinking sets. To emphasise these innovations, let me turn briefly to North East Hungary, where Dr. Eniko Magyari has studied the pollen core from the Sárlo-hát marsh. In the Baden period, the most major deforestation thus far combined with high values for both agricultural and pastoral land use to suggest the most significant landscape transformation in the mid – late Holocene. In the fieldwalking of the adjacent settlement area, not a single Baden sherd was found at all, yet the human impact of that population was very important. Making a comparison of Sitagroi and Sárlo-hát makes us realise that there is something which we have not yet grasped about the early 3rd millennium cal BC.

The other major theme to which the second volume alludes is social structure. There are several levels at which comments could be made. At the level of the individual, it is surely significant that each of the decorated spindle-whorls found in Phase III bore different incised motifs - surely a sign of individuation of material culture and paralleled by the very varied motifs on Phase III fired clay figurines, as well as by the individual drinking cups, each with their own shape, found at Late Neolithic Makriyalos (Urem-Kotsou et al. 2002). If we are looking for the ‘individual in prehistory’, it is no coincidence that s/he is most visible in the Climax Copper Age.

At the level of the household, Elster has made an impressive spatial analysis of the Phase V Burnt House, with its division into three areas – the entrance, the all-purpose room and the apsidal kitchen, with a total of five working areas The gender-sensitive commentary concerned with women grinding cereal grains, salt and other foodstuffs is matched by the neat inference from the number of spindle-whorls that there were probably three spinners in the house. Another aspect is the corporate level, as exemplified by the Phase V Bin Complex – interpreted as a sign of collective storage rather than facilities controlled by a single house. The tensions played out between individuals, households and corporate groups on this, as any other, prehistoric tell could provide the framework for a social interpretation that would complement all of the other aspects of the Sitagroi project. It is clear from instances like these how much we are missing by lacking any completely excavated house contexts from the first three phases of life on the tell.

Lastly, the exchange networks connecting Sitagroi to the outer world tell us much about the climax Phase III, since this is the period of widest connections. While stone sources for the axes may well be located to the West (FYROM) or to the East (Greek Thrace), some of the Phase III copper appears to derive from the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, exactly the zone with the largest concentrations of Aegean Spondylus. For a relatively Southern location, Sitagroi III has the largest collection of Balkan honey flint known in the Copper Age/Final Neolithic. Since the source of honey flint most probably lies North of the Rhodopes (if not North of the Stara Planina), corresponding to the main zone of graphite-painted fine wares, the main components of a long-distance exchange network are clear – honey flint and copper carried South, Spondylus and Glycymeris moving North. While this may not explain the floruit of material culture in the Climax Copper Age, it locates Sitagroi as part of a primarily Balkan exchange network, which does have relevance to the emergence of copper metallurgy on the tell.

In sum, Colin Renfrew and, especially, Ernie Elster, as well as their team of authors, have completed a magnificent job in publishing the fascinating results of three seasons of excavations in such lavish volumes. The achievement of the authors is sufficient to merit the warmest of congratulations, for the two volumes of Sitagroi conjointly amount to the most extensive publication as yet of a major tell excavation in Europe. A final proposal concerns what may be termed the Sitagroi Principle of Tell Excavation: any would-be excavator of a tell should be encouraged to read the sum total of over 1,000 pages of text and almost a thousand images from six months’ fieldwork before setting spade to earth.

John Chapman
Department of Archaeology
University of Durham

Chapman, J. 1988. Review of ‘Excavations at Sitagroi Volume 1’. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 54, 341-342
Renfrew, C., Gimbutas, M. & Elster, E. (eds.) 1986. Excavations at Sitagroi, a prehistoric village in Northeast Greece, Vol. 1. Monumenta Archaeologica 13. Los Angeles: UCLA Institute of Archaeology
Urem-Kotsou, D., Kotsakis, K. & Stern, B. 2002. Defining function in Neolithic ceramics: the example of Makriyalos, Greece. Documenta Praehistorica XXIX, 109-118

Review Submitted: May 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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