Mesolithic Mortuary Ritual at Franchthi Cave, Greece

By Cullen, Tracey | Antiquity, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Mesolithic Mortuary Ritual at Franchthi Cave, Greece


Cullen, Tracey, Antiquity


Franchthi Cave, on the east shore of the Gulf of Argos in southern Greece, is a key site for European prehistory. The cave's complex stratigraphic sequence spans at least 25,000 years, from the Upper Palaeolithic through the Neolithic, with indications of possibly earlier occupation. The Mesolithic(1) sequence at Franchthi is of special interest because very few Mesolithic sites have been discovered in the Aegean. The earliest secure evidence for mortuary ritual in Greece is found in Lower Mesolithic levels at Franchthi, dating to the 10th millennium b.p., when a cluster of eight burials, including two cremations, was placed near the mouth of the cave. Another, more fragmentary burial can be attributed to the following millennium, the Upper Mesolithic period, and 48 human bone fragments and teeth were found scattered and mixed with cultural debris in both Lower and Upper Mesolithic contexts. This small sample, our only insight into Mesolithic burial practices in Greece, supports an intriguing image of emerging social complexity and collective ritual in the early Holocene, particularly when viewed against the wider backdrop of Mesolithic Europe and the Near East.

History of research at Franchthi Cave

The site of Franchthi Cave occupies a rocky limestone headland on the southern coast of the Argive peninsula [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. A horizontal cavern some 150 m long offering secure shelter from predators and the extremes of climate, it has been used intermittently from the Upper Palaeolithic to the present. The most intensive occupation of the cave dates from c. 30,000(?) to 5000 b.p., the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods, producing a long sequence punctuated by several hiatuses. Massive rockfalls from the roof and brow have sent a cascade of boulders into the cave interior, opening two windows to the sky and limiting the area of excavation [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The area outside the present cave entrance(2) and along the modern shore (Paralia) has yielded only Neolithic and later material. Formal burials and extensive human bone scatter have been found in all parts of the site (Jacobsen & Cullen 1981), but the Mesolithic sample is limited to soundings within the cave.

Excavations at Franchthi were directed by Thomas W. Jacobsen of Indiana University, over eight field seasons between 1967 and 1979. The exceptional standards of the Franchthi fieldwork have come to serve as a model for prehistoric excavation in Greece. Virtually all of the artefactual remains were saved, and close attention was given to cultural and environmental classes of material alike.(3) A rigorous system of water-sieving was implemented in 1971, whereby sediment from four trenches in the cave, FAN, FAS, H1A, and H1B, and selected samples from Paralia were water-sieved (Diamant 1979). Field recording methods improved with each season at Franchthi. Trench G1, located beside the cave wall near the present entrance and excavated early on (1968), suffered particularly from excavators' inexperience. Strata were cross-cut, and none of the sediment was water-sieved, although it was passed through horizontal screens of graduated size. In the early seasons, Greek workmen did 'most of the excavating, sieving and heavy labor', and kerosene lamps were replaced in the deep trenches by electric lights only in 1969 (Jacobsen 1969: 350, n. 14; 1973a: 57, n. 28).

These details of evolving field methodology are of more than academic interest when one considers the nature of the funerary sample from Franchthi. The Mesolithic burials were located in Trench G1, and, unfortunately, only one was recognized during excavation. As problems associated with the excavation of G1 have discouraged the project's specialists (for lithics, shell, etc.) from incorporating the G1 material in their studies, the immediate context of the Mesolithic burials is not well defined.

The late J. Lawrence Angel of the Smithsonian Institution was initially responsible for studying and publishing the human remains from Franchthi (Angel 1969; 1973). …

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