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Archaeomalacological Research in Greece October 4, 2008

Filed under: Environmental Archaeology — Argy @ 10:33 pm


The discipline of archaeology seeks to investigate and to illuminate aspects of human activity in the past, to locate and to elucidate man’s achievements, to reconstruct the natural environment and to determinate the relations of interdependence between man and his environment. 

For studying the past, modern archaeological research is concerned with the total of remains brought to light in excavations, that is the artifacts and the biological remains. Man’s presence and activity in a particular place is that which makes it a subject of study for the environmental archaeologist. Of considerable significance, among remains, that at first glance go unnoticed, are molluscs. Archaeologists investigate the archaeological importance of this particular order of the animal kingdom, which appear as both ecofacts (remains of natural organisms) and artifacts. The main aim of studying malacological material is to elucidate problems concerning man’s way of life and his adaptation to the environment. Molluscs provide valuable information on various aspects of human life: diet, economy, technology, social organisation, trade, contacts and transactions between popular groups, transmission and diffusion of traditions and culture. Molluscs also inform archaeologists of various environmental issues because the existence of each land species depends on factors such as climate, air temperature, humidity and soil type whereas the existence of each seashell depends on the morphology of the seabed, sea depth, temperature of waters, currents, tides, composition of waters etc. Moreover, molluscs can be used as material for radiocarbon dating.

Information on shells is obtained from the study of those found in excavations, from references in texts, from representations (artistic representations on seals, vessels, fresco and various objects), from evidence of trade and wider relations between sites and populations, and lastly from laboratory examination of remains such as pottery or purple dye (porphyra). Shells found in excavations are cleaned and identified. After counting the number of each species, malacologists estimate the MNI in each level and search for their provenance and use. Malacologists examine shells and shell objects to detect use or work traces in order to find working methods and possible the tools used, the degree of specialization that may be and their use. They also extract environmental information in order to reconstruct past environments.

Malacologists working on molluscs from Aegean sites face many problems. First of all, there are no complete guides of seashells of the Aegean, although biologists and geologists have published some studies of seashells of Greek seas. For land molluscs there are practically nothing, except from few studies of regional populations and snail breeding. Specialized bibliography is also rare and there are many problems related to collecting methods, terminology, shell names and classifications that confuse not only non-specialized but also the few specialized archaeologists resulting in confusion and misunderstandings (Shackleton, 1988). Moreover, there are limited studies including NISP/MNI estimates, analysis of growing lines, microscopic analysis, oxygen isotopes analysis (O 16/ O 18), radio carbon (C 14), fossils/geological data and shells collected when the mollusc still alive or shells weathered from the beach. Finally, there are not enough and complete comparative collections at Greek universities.  All these often result in problematic studies of the material, problematic interpretations and generalization. In general, confusion!

Taking into serious consideration these problems and their results, it is necessary for Greek malacologists to introduce more specialized courses on archaeomalacology in Greek universities, to establish modern laboratories, to create complete comparative collections of Greek species and to study and publish malacological material from all prehistoric sites. Of course, co-operation among specialists and archaeologists is absolutely crucial.

The first scientific information on molluscs is found in the work of ancient Greek writers such as Aristotle’s. In Roman times Pliny’s work (Natural History) provides inter alias important information on the world of the sea and molluscs. Molluscs concerned latter scholars – not Greek – from the standpoint of biology, anatomy, systematic taxonomy and scientific onomatology. Linnaeus (1707-1778) is generally acclaimed as the founding father of classification. Earlier archaeological studies on molluscs and their shells are mainly of ethnographic content and concern population groups living in distant lands. In the study of Aegean prehistory, evidence on the palaeoenvironment and on mollusc remains in particular, is to be found in the work of C. Tsountas on the Cyclades. The first catalogues of mollusc species found in excavations were prepared by N. G. Gejvall (Gejvall, 1969). The foundations for the study of molluscs as archaeological remains per se were laid by N. J. Shackleton (Shackleton, 1968a˙ Shackleton 1968b). The first comprehensive review of the malacological material in the prehistoric Aegean was presented in the author’s doctoral thesis (Karali, 1979). Today, specialist scholars such as D. Reese, N. J. Shackleton, H. Chevalier, L. Karali and J. Powell, are systematically studying the mollusc remains found in excavations in Greece, from prehistoric to later times[1]. Through dissertations, articles and monographs on this material, a rich data bank of archaeological importance is being compiled, essential for the conspectus of the past.

In many excavations in the Aegean have been found molluscs. Seashells were transferred there by man to consume them or to use them as raw material to form various objects. Land molluscs was transferred by man or remained in archaeological deposits after having died in their natural environment. From the Palaeolithic to the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean molluscs were consumed and the shells of some species were used as raw material, sometimes after having been consumed the living organism. From shells were formed tools and vessels such as spoons, spatulas, polishers, lamps, mace heads, trumpets and spools and ornaments such as bracelets, pendants, discs, rings and beads. Molluscs were also used as building material (sediments, ingredients, insulation), to produce purple dye, to make Cardial ceramic (they use Cardium shell to make incisions on the external surface of ceramics). Shells or shell products were often trading goods (Karali, 1999).

The archaeological evidence on molluscs in the diet of prehistoric man in Greece is incomplete, because there are few full studies of the malacological material from sites. From the Palaeolithic Age limited data come from Klissoura and Franchthi in the Argolid (Shackleton, 1988˙ Koumouzelis et al. 2001a˙ Koumouzelis et al. 2001b). However, only the malacological material from Franchthi cave has been systematically studied and published. This shows that there was a preference for the genera Patella and Monodonta. Equally limited is the information for the Mesolithic. Terrestrial and marine molluscs have been recovered from few sites. Terrestrial molluscs seem to prevail in quantities in Mesolithic deposits. In the Cyclop’s Cave on Youra in the Sporades, at Maroula on Kythnos and at Franchthi in the Argolid large quantities of land snails were consumed.  In the Neolithic Age, despite the development of stock – rising, molluscs were evidently an important dietary supplement, as borne out by the large quantities in which they are found. Moreover, there are more studies and publications on malacological material from neolithic sites all over Greece. Molluscs remains are reported from neolithic sites of Pyrasos, Argisa, Soufli Magoula, Aghia Sophia, Dimini (Thessaly), Nea Makri (Attica), Nea Nikomedia, Dimitra, Dikili Tash, Sitagroi, Olynthos, Stauroupoli (Macedonia), Kitsos Cave (Attica), Franchthi, Corinth, Lerna, Alepotrypa Cave (Peloponnese), Cyclop’s Cave (Sporades), Tharrounia (Euboea), Aspri Petra Cave (Kos, Dodecanese), Knossos (Crete) and Saliagos (Cyclades). The most numerous sea species and genera consumed are Patella, Cerastoderma glaucum, Cerithium vulgatum, Monodonta, Ostrea edulis, Spondylus gaederopus, Mytilus galloprovincialis, Glycimeris glycimeris and Pinna nobilis. Terrestrial molluscs continued to be consumed throughout the Neolithic Age. At Nea Makri land snails were found on a LN hearth. At settlements situated near a river or lake freshwater molluscs were consumed (Unio in Macedonia and Thessaly). During the transitional phase from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age at Rachmani (Thessaly) are encountered as a stable source of food specimens of genera Patella, Pecten, Ostrea and Mytilus and at Kephala (Kea) Patella. During the Bronze Age there is a fall off in the consumption of molluscs throughout the Aegean. This is probably due to economic changes and the change in dietary preferences. Molluscs remains are reported from Pentapolis (Macedonia), Aghios Kosmas (Attica), Myrtos, Malia, Kommos, Symi Viannou, Knossos, Phaistos, Tylissos, Palaikastro (Crete), Koukounaries (Cyclades), Chalandriani (Syros, Cyclades), Korphi t’ Aroniou (Naxos, Cyclades), Akrotiri (Thera, Cyclades), Phylakopi (Kea, Cyclades), Aghios Stephanos (Peloponnese), Skala Sotiros (Thasos), Thermi (Lesbos) and Kaloyerovrisi (Euboea). Dominant genera are Cardium, Mytilus, Cerithium, Ostrea, Patella and Spondylus. The land snail Helix is encountered in small percentages (Reese, 1995˙ Reese, 1998˙ Karali, 1999˙ Karali, 2001˙ Karali, 2002˙ Karali, 2005).

Apart from food, molluscs were used as raw material for forming vessels, tools and ornaments. The archaeological evidence for shell tools comes from different parts of Greece, although the actual number of objects is small, perhaps because of their fragility. The most important class includes shells of different types and sizes that were probably used as spoons. These objects were found at Franchthi, at Saliagos, in the Cyclop’s Cave, at Paradeisos, at Nea Nikomedia, at Tharrounia, in Kitsos Cave and at Alepotrypa. They were formed from shells of Patella, Mytilus and Spondylus and are common in neolithic deposits. Few worked shells from Saliagos, Dikili Tash (LN) and Dimitra made out of Mytilus have been described as spatulas. Some shells found at Lithares (EN, Boetia) have been identified as burnishers, but such tools are very difficult to be recognised. An equally rare use of shell is to fashion an offensive weapon (mace). Only four such objects have been found. The earliest comes from Dikili Tash (LN). A small mace is known from Syros (Kastri, EC II-III) and two maces from Poliochni (Lemnos). One of Poliocnhi’s mace has probably been made out of Spondylus.   Spools, through rare, are characteristic of the Early Bronze Age, particularly in Southern Greece. Such objects have been found at Lerna (EH II), Franchthi, Zygouries, Ayia Irini Kea (EC III) and in the Trapeza Cave Lasithi (EM I – MMI). Triangular objects of Mytilus shell, and unknown use, smoothed on two sides, were found at both Late Neolithic Paradeisos and Sitagroi (Karali, 1999).

Tritons were sometimes used to form vessels or even trumpets (Fig.1). Most of the tritons found in excavations bear no traces of working. Their use and significance can only be understood from their context. Triton vases were used for everyday tasks as scoops for skimming oil and other products and in ritual activities as libation vessels. Worked or not tritons were found at sites from Neolithic to Late Bronze Age, at Knossos, Myrtos, Chalandriani, Malia, Pseira, Zakros, Gypsades cemetary, Phylakopi, Akrotiri, Peristeria, Traganas (Pylos) and Poros (Heraklion). Tritons are suggested to be used as trumpets. According to many archaeologists a representation on a Minoan seal shows a female holding a Triton in front of her mouth in order to blow (Reese 1995˙ Karali, 1999).

Shells were primarily used as raw material to fashion ornaments: pendants, beads, bracelets and rings (Karali – Yannacopoulos, 1991-1992˙ Miller, 1990).

Shells were perhaps preferred to form pendants because of their lustrous nacre, the variety of natural shapes and colors as well as the ease of collecting and working them. Shell pendants include unworked perforated shells and shells with perforations and interventions to their form and shape. They are characterized by a stability and homogeneity of form, because of the limitations of raw material. Shell pendants were perforated by direct percussion or by drilling. Evidence of ornaments from perforated unworked shells during the Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic Age is few. A few ornaments of Dentalium and Cyclope are mentioned from Palaeolithic deposits at Kleidi. Pierced shells of the genera Patella and Cerithium have been found at Franchthi in Mesolithic deposits. In the Neolithic Age pendants of pierced unworked shells are numerous. They are particularly frequent in the Middle and the Late Neolithic. Shell pendants from unworked shell are mentioned from Sesklo (Early Neolithic), Argisa Magoula (Early Neolithic), Tsangli, Franchthi, Knossos, Saliagos (Late Neolithic), Servia (Late Neolithic), Olynthos (Late Neolithic), Dikili Tash (Late Neolithic), Nea Nikomedia, Sitagroi (Late Neolithic), Cave of Pan in Attica (Late Neolithic) and Kitsos Cave (Late Neolithic). Small and medium size shells were used, such as the species and genera Nassa, Columbella, Cardium, Cypraea, Glycimeris, Donax trunculus and Patella. In Bronze Age deposits are found pendants made of Pinna nobilis, Cerastoderma glaucum, Cypraea, Conus, Littorina and Patella (Fig.2,3.). In general, the perforations are more carefully executed. In the Middle and Late Bronze Age unworked shell ornaments were combined with other materials. Unworked shell pendants have been collected from Poliochni (EB II), Malthi (MH), Kirra (MH), Perati (Late Helladic), Vrysses Kydonia, Tylissos (LM) and Prosymna (LH III). In the graves at Mycenae and Perati there is a distinct preference for Conus, Cypraea and Cerastoderma shells, the last being more frequently associated with female and child burials. Fully worked shell pendants occur far less freqently in excavations than unworked ones, due to the difficulty in working. There are schematic and zoomorphic pendants. Known types of schematic pendants of the Late Neolithic period are horn – shaped, triangular and oval, fashioned from Spondylus gaederopus or Glycimeris glycimeris. Such objects come from Dikili Tash and Sitagroi (phase III). Other known types of Knossos (MM IB, inlays from Room of the Basins), Phaistos, Dimitra (LN), Salonica (MN) and Rodochori. Schematic pendants have geometrical scheme and holes and could have been sewn onto garments or affixed to furniture or other objects, a use known from later periods. Button shaped shell pendants mainly occur in north and central Greece (Salonica, Dimitra, Rhodochori). A few zoomorphic pendants fashioned from Spondylus shells have been found. A schematic bear has been discovered in the Kitsos Cave (LN). The parts of the animal are clearly distinguished and there is a suspension hole. A goose has been discovered at Ayia Irini on Kea (EC III). In general, work shell pendants, primarily of Spondylus, enjoyed a wide distribution during Middle and Late Neolithic periods (Reese, 1987˙ Miller, 1990˙ Reese 1995˙Karali, 1999: 33-36).

Apart from pendants, from shells were formed beads as well. The bibliography on worked shell beads is remarkably scant. This is probably due to two factors: the smallness of shell beads and the erroneous identification of the material. Many of them may well have disappeared from ancient deposits leaving no traces. Beads are made of shells of various shapes and sizes by simple perforation and/or shaping. The degree of intervention varies. Unworked shell beads were made with a simple percussion. They were preferred the shell of Cerastoderma edule, Dentalium, Venerupis decussata, Glycimeris glycimeris, Conus, Columbella, Patella, Monodonta turbinata, Spondylus gaederopus, Natica, Fasciolaria, Nassa and Murex. Unworked shell beads have been found at Nea Nikomedia (LN), Dimitra, Knossos (Neolithic), Saliagos, Sitagroi, Dikili Tash (LN), Vassilika, Achilleion (phase III), Kitsos Cave, Alepotrypa (LN),  Spendos on Naxos (EC I – II), Phylakopi, Pyrgos cemetary on Paros (EC I-II), in EC II graves on Syros, at Kastri (EC III) on Syros, at Malia (MM II), Kommos (MM III), Symi Viannou (MM III – LM I), Assiros (LH), Pylos (LH I), Knossos (LM III C), Mycenae (LH), Nichoria (LH I – III A), Aghios Stephanos (LH II – LH III A), Kastri on Thasos (LH III B), Lefkandi on Euboea (LH III C) and Thebes (LH). In the Neolithic Age unworked beads of Cerastoderma glaucum, Glycimeris glycimeris and Dentalium predominate. The last species was also used throughout the Bronze Age, along with Conus and Monodonta. Worked shell beads nave various geometric schemes. Annular beads (disc ornaments) are fashioned from shells with a smooth, slightly convex surface. Their shape and size vary according to the species of shell. Common choices are Cerastoderma, Unio and Spondylus. The ornament is first given a roughly circular shape. Then the interior and the exterior surface are abraded. Perforation is following and, after that, is given the final shape. The perforation is executed from the inside to the outside or from both sides. In most cases the hole is exactly at the center of the bead. Dimensions vary. Such disc ornaments mainly occur in Thessaly and Macedonia in Neolithic levels. Shell disc ornaments are widely distributed throughout the Aegean during the Neolithic Age. They are known from Knossos (Neolithic levels), Cyclope Cave (Aceramic and Late Neolithic), Dimitra (LN) and Poliochni (EB I). Ring beads are the most frequent in the Neolithic Age. They are of small dimensions, average diameter 0,4 cm and have a biconical hole. Ring beads were made of Spondylus, Cerastoderma, Dentalium and Unio (in Macedonian sites). Ring beads are known from Knossos, the Kitsos Cave, the Franchthi Cave, Nea Nikomedia, Dikili Tash and Dimitra, mainly in Late Neolithic levels. Elongated olive shaped beads bear biconical perforations and since the natural ridges of the shell are clearly visible the species is easily identifiable. Very few beads of this kind are known. At Dimitra (LN) and at Sitagroi (EBA) have discovered such beads from Spondylus gaederopus. Cylindrical beads are quite common. Some examples are known from the Kitsos Cave (LN), Franchthi, Dikili Tash (LN), Sitagroi (EBA), Paros (EBA) and Dimitra (LN). One stellar bead is known from Sitagroi (LN). It has a central hole. One trefoil bead has been found at Dimitra (LN). The periphery is polygonal and the hole central. It seems that most of the worked shell beads were fashioned from Spondylus gaederopus (Reese, 1987˙ Miller,1990 ˙Miller, 1996 ˙Karali, 1999: 36-39).  

Shell bracelets were common during the Middle and Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age in the Aegean and they were widely distributed throughout Greece, especially in Macedonia (Nea Nikomedia, Dikili Tash, Dimitra, Sitagroi, Vasilika, Paradeisos, Olynthos). Bracelets are also known from earlier phases of the Neolithic Thessaly (Sesklo, Halai in Boetia), from Middle Neolithic at Tsangli, from LN Dimini and from Aghia Sophia. They also have been found in the Kitsos Cave (LN), Alepotrypa Cave, Franchthi, Cyclop’s Cave, Saliagos (MN – LN), Chalandriani (cemetary, EC II) and Myrtos (EM II). Sites such as Nea Nikomedia, Dikili Tash, Sitagroi, Servia and Dimitra appear to have been places of production. Shell bracelets were in most cases made from shell of the mollusc Spondylus gaederopus. Less often bracelets were made of Glycimeris glycimeris. The size and thickness varied according to the type of shell used as raw material. The making of these bracelets involved different techniques. First the exterior of the valve was abraded. Then, the central cone was removed and the periphery of the ring thus formed was smoothed until it acquired a polished surface. On the white surface of bracelets sometimes remained traces of the natural red surface color of the mollusc. Bracelets are of average internal diameter 6,5 cm and external 9 cm. Although these object are known as bracelets, their specific use, particularly those of small diameter is unknown. In all probability they were exchange commodities used in transactions with the Danubian lands and Central Europe (Reese, 1987, 127˙ Miller, 1990 ˙Karali, 1999: 30-31, 39-40) (Fig. 4,5.).

No true finger rings of shell have been found in the Aegean. Although shells of Monodonta found at some Neolithic and Late Bronze Age sites (Chania, Kommos, Mycenae, Koukounaries, Aghios Stephanos) have been considered to be rings, neither the archaeological context nor the typological study provide sufficient information for recognizing rings in Greece. These shells have their central cone missing. Their diameter range from 1,3 cm to 4,5 cm. Given the durability of the material and the size of their diameter (very small or very large), it is unlikely that these objects were worn as finger rings. None has been found in association with human remains (Karali, 1999: 40).

Shells were also used as inlays. They were carefully worked to produce shapes completely different from the original. The lustrous layers of nacre were preferred. Because of this, the identification of the species of mollusc from which the worked shell comes is very difficult (Karali, 1999: 32).

In Neolithic and Early Bronze Age figurines were made of shells as well. In the majority Spondylus gaederopus was used because of its thickness. Shell figurines have been found at Sesklo, Knossos and Aegina, all from Neolithic deposits. There are occasional references to shell figurines in the Bronze Age, from the Cyclades and from Euboea (Manika). Information on shell figurines is scant because of the small number of finds and the lack of systematic study. All figurines from shell are characterized by total abstraction (Karali, 1999: 41).

Shells of the Conus species with a smoothed ventral side and filled with lead can be considered as game – pieces. Quite often the smoothing or abrasion led to the creation of a hole. Conus shell objects of this kind were found in the Perati cemetary, where 64% of them were grave goods associated with children. Similar objects are known from the Cyclades, Mycenae, Argos, Prosymna, Olympia, Dorion, Athens, Chalkida, Thebes, Naxos, Ialyssos, Kamiros and on Kos. It has also been suggested that cone shells were used as net weights in fishing or as loom weights in weaving or as weights for dresses (Karali, 1999: 42).

The only known seal is derived from Poliochni on Lemnos (EBA), perhaps fashioned from Spondylus gaederopus. It is truncated pyramidal in shape with an irregular squarish base with engravings (Karali, 1999: 43).

Broken sea sells are often present in other materials, such as the fabric of clay vases and bricks, the beaten earth of house floors, constructing materials and in the underlying layers of wall paintings and in mortar. In clay of vases and bricks crushed shells are used as filler. The use of broken shells in the construction of floors is a rare phenomenon (Akrotiri). Neolithic Knossos and Bronze Age deposits at Kommos produced many Glycimeris. These shells seem to be naturally worn and they probably came to the site with beach pebbles as a building material according to Reese. At Akrotiri on Thera Murex trunculus is found in the underlying layers of wall paintings and in mortar (Reese, 1995: 256, 260˙ Karali, 1999: 43).

In Greece there is information on the production of purple from very early on. Four Linear tablets from Knossos mention purple dye and purple cloth. These references in conjunction with the presence of Murex shells in many sites generated the view that purple was produced in Minoan Crete. Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris shells in small quantities have been found in MM context at Zakros, at Makrygialo, at Myrtos, at Palaikastro, at Tylissos, at Youktas, at Akrotiri, at Asine (MH III), on Aegina (1650-1600 BC), at Aghios Kosmas. However, the small quantity of Murex shells, their mixture with other irrelevant species and the doubts about supposed installations for producing purple almost preclude the possibility of the extraction of purple earlier than MM/LM, as the Knossos tablets testify (Reese, 1995: 260˙ Karali, 1999: 43-46) (Fig. 6,7).

Shells or shell products were exchanged as trade goods from the Palaeolithic period. It is possible that the few shells at Kleidi and Kokkinospilia in Epirus in the Palaeolithic deposits are the result of exchange among different groups. Throughout the Neolithic Age shells do not see, to have reached remote regions of the hinterland with some exceptions. In the Middle and Late Neolithic periods there are objects made from shell, especially bracelets from Spondylus, in many inland sites. The producing centers seem to have been located at some sites of north Greece (Karali, 1999: 47-48).

There is abundant malacological material in Greece covering a broad chronological spectrum and many uses. It is necessary to study and publish such material to provide valuable information about man and his environment.


Lilian Karali-Giannakopoulou

Professor of Prehistoric and Environmental Archaeology

National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece


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[1] For bibliography for those researchers see: Karali 1999