Spondylus Shell Ornaments from Late Neolithic Dimini, Greece: Specialized Manufacture or Unequal Accumulation?

Article excerpt

Rings and buttons and beads cut from the marine shell, Spondylus gaederopus, are among the most distinctive exchange items of Neolithic Europe. From sources on the coast of the Mediterranean, these highly valued objects were widely distributed across central Europe. A re-examination of the nature and contexts of shell objects and manufacturing waste at Dimini, a key late Neolithic site on the coast of northern Greece, explores their social role within a Spondylus-working community.

Dimini and its society

The status of Dimini as a chronological typesite for the Greek Neolithic has diminished in recent years: the 'Classic Dimini' ceramic assemblage, probably dating to the early 5th millennium BC (Theochares 1973: 119; Weisshaar 1989: 139), now defines only the last of four or five subdivisions of the Late Neolithic of eastern Thessaly. Dimini provides a unique insight into late Neolithic society, however, because of the extensive scale of excavation at the site. Excavation at the beginning of the century revealed a late Neolithic settlement covering c. 1 hectare and consisting of a series of concentric circuit walls around a 'central court' (Tsountas 1908). Re-excavation in the 1970s demonstrated that the circuit walls (previously interpreted as defensive) divide the settlement into 'domestic areas', each containing a few buildings and a range of storage and cooking facilities (Hourmouziadis 1979). The central court is dominated by a three-roomed 'megaron', which has more or less close counterparts at other late Neolithic settlements in eastern Thessaly. These central megaron buildings suggest the emergence of an institutionalized elite during the Late Neolithic (Theochares 1973; Halstead 1989), prompting the search for evidence of unequal access to resources within the settlement at Dimini.

It has been argued that tools and food refuse are widely distributed at Dimini, reflecting the ready availability of necessary raw materials prior to the adoption of metal for essential equipment (Hourmouziadis 1979; 1980; 1981). Faunal evidence likewise suggests that each domestic area (including the central court) pursued a broadly similar strategy of animal exploitation, or at any rate consumed broadly similar animal products (Halstead 1992a). These studies perhaps imply that late Neolithic Dimini was a 'rank' society (Fried 1967), with the megaron elite having privileged access to high status, but not to basic resources. In such societies, 'no conspicuous specialization of craftsmanship' is expected (Fried 1967: 115), but Tsuneki (1989) has claimed that particular domestic areas at Dimini specialized in the production of shell ornaments for export. Tsuneki's evidence is here reviewed and reinterpreted.

Spondylus at Dimini

Dimini is situated in the small coastal plain of Volos (FIGURE 1), close to the late Neolithic coastline (Zangger 1991). The marine shell assemblage from the recent excavations by Hourmouziadis contains c. 500 worked items, of which almost half are of Spondylus gaederopus (Tsuneki 1989: 4, figure 3). Spondylus was evidently prized as a raw material: c. 60% of Spondylus finds were worked, compared with c. 4--7% for other common species (Tsuneki 1989: 5, figure 4). The thinner and more easily worked left valve of Spondylus was strongly preferred for the manufacture of shell rings and the thick right valve for small objects such as buttons and cylinder beads (Tsuneki 1989: 12, figure 8). The working of Spondylus was far more elaborate than that of other species and Tsuneki was able to distinguish waste from the production of shell rings and smaller objects (1989: 7--12).


Finds of apparently finished Spondylus shell objects are heavily concentrated in two different parts of the settlement (FIGURE 2). Of 74 ring fragments of known provenance, 45 (61%) come from House N in Domestic Area A and a further five from an adjacent yard. Of 143 buttons, 122 (85%) come from a probable yard area in the middle of Domestic Area C, as do six of the eight cylinder beads found (Tsuneki 1989: 8, table 1). …