Neolithic settlements of Greece

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Early Neolithic house from Nea Nikomedeia (left) and Middle Neolithic house from Sesklo acropolis (right). D. R. Theochares, Neolithikos politismos. Suntomi episkopisi tis neolithikis ston helladiko choro. Athens 1993, Figures 19 and 48.

Reconstruction of the Upper Town at Sesklo. D. R. Theochares, Neolithikos politismos. Suntomi episkopisi tis neolithikis ston helladiko choro. Athens 1993, Figure 43.

The known Neolithic settlements of Greece are dominated by the nucleated tell-village, with dispersed farms and hamlets of non-tell type clearly in a minority. Yet new research suggests that the balance requires significant adjustment. Tells are highly visible and hence became an early focus for archaeologists, whilst "flat sites" require more intensive surface survey, a methodology of recent application and one so far used in just a few Greek landscapes. Site survey is also revealing a greater density of Neolithic settlements outside of the well-known concentrations in Thessaly, Macedonia, and Thrace. Such methods, combined with rescue and research excavations by Greek archaeologists, have now identified flat sites amidst the tell landscapes themselves, including Thessaly. In South-Central Greece, around ancient Tanagra city (Bintliff et al. 2006), a complex, probably pre-plough non-tell Neolithic settlement pattern can be reconstructed, composed of nucleated hamlets or villages based on the most fertile expanses of high water table soils, around which a series of small rural sites line the river valley soils up to several kilometers away. The fact that such nucleated settlements in Southern Greece are rarely tells, probably reflects a much lower use of mudbrick and a more mobile settlement network than in the Northern plain tell societies, rather than indicating a less long-lived occupation of such landscapes.

General characteristics of tells
These artificial mounds represent villages with prolonged occupation and the dominance of mudbrick architecture, where over centuries or even millennia new houses are built upon the remains of older and accumulated domestic debris, constantly elevating the village mound. The plains of East Central and Northeast Greece have revealed through extensive survey remarkable numbers of such early farming settlements. The density of such small villages is unusual in Europe and high productivity was needed to sustain them, whilst social conflicts were clearly avoided. How these special landscapes were managed for high, sustainable productivity can be modeled, but more problematic is how such community packing avoided destructive inter-settlement warfare. The fixity of the tell domestic base, creating a radial zone of exploitation of the surrounding countryside in the direction of neighboring villages, and a vertical build-up of successive settlements on top of the original foundation, is contrasted to another form of settlement, commoner outside of the tell landscapes, where flat settlements may have been occupied over shorter periods as a result of regular relocation of the houses and fields of a community. One might expect that the confined tell territory led to a scarcity of building space in the village, whilst the larger occupation area and more extensive land use of flat sites might display open village plans with more scope for gardens, working areas, and stock enclosures.

Tells and their settlement plan
Interestingly, tells in Neolithic Greece and related cultures of the North Balkans share many features as regards village layout. Since in the Near East tells were a regular aspect of early farming societies, this form of village life and its associated worldview were also already present in ancestral communities. The striking feature is the ordered nature of living space, a design reinforced by generational replacement of houses on top of, or close to, earlier houses (Chapman 1994). Houses, and structures for storage, workshops or ritual, were separated by narrow lanes, often sharing the same orientation. Seemingly due to the high value of land around the village for subsistence, tells did not expand outwards to allow open space for that variety of inter-house activities which we are familiar with from Early Modern European village-plans: large open areas for communal gatherings of a social, political or ritual nature, household gardens, and stock enclosures.

Chapman argues convincingly that the tell is a powerful ancestral space, a social landmark with a cumulative place-value achieved through long-term community participation, a "habitus" (or traditional way of life, following Bourdieu) of stability. Replacing houses or even whole village-plans on the literal lines of older structures enforced conservatism, and perhaps an atmosphere of unchanging or cyclical time for tell societies. The increasing elevation of tells, usually set against flat plains, over time, emphasized the continuity between people and place. Elites seem normally absent within these small settlements (for exceptions see below), suggesting that the social structure was organized around families and larger kin-groups (lineages). The visual focus in tells is the individual domestic house, generally on a scale suitable for a large nuclear family. Appropriately, excavated tell houses, generally rectangular, rarely show differences from house to house or complex internal spaces. Contrasts the simple, organic construction huts of Early Neolithic Nea Nikomedeia with a more elaborate Middle Neolithic house from the Sesklo acropolis; the latter highlights the rare exceptions to this rule.

Halstead (1999b) stresses that the tell is focused on the individual household, usually discretely placed from its neighbors, with a general (but not complete) absence of community spaces (perhaps most village level social and ritual events took place outside the tell). In stark contrast to Chapman's communal model of the tell, Halstead prefers a small-scale society composed of competing households.

Halstead's viewpoint (modified more recently, see below) has the distinct advantage in offering a potential origin for the postulated, if very localised, development in mature to later Neolithic times of higher status individuals or families. And yet Chapman's emphasis on these communities as consciously nucleated societies cannot be neglected. If competitive households were central, a more efficient settlement pattern would have dispersed family farms across the tell's territory, which was small enough for most farms to have been intervisible and to enable social gatherings to occur with little effort at some central point, while offering ideal least-effort access to the family estate.

This is the appropriate moment to introduce a set of linked models, offering fundamental insights into Neolithic Greek societies, but also into later prehistoric and historic societies in Greece. Their suitability is so striking that at the time of my own application of these ideas in the late 1990s for both early farming societies and also for later periods (Bintliff 1999a), some of the same concepts were being explored for Neolithic Greece by Paul Halstead and Catherine Perles.

Greek Neolithic villages appear to fit our predictions for face-to-face societies with a broadly egalitarian ethos, with very few (but important) exceptions. Thus for our best-researched landscape, the tell villages in Thessaly, Halstead (1994, 1999b) suggests that small tells probably housed 40-80 people, large ones 120-240. On the other hand, Nea Nikomedeia in Macedonia, a tell where extensive excavation has taken place, is claimed by Pyke and Yiouni (1996) to have had even in EN times a population of 500-700 inhabitants. However just 12 percent of the site was dug, and Halstead (1981) downscales this estimation for the 2.4 ha tell site by arguing that many of the houses were not contemporary, and also that only a 56 early farming communities: Neolithic Greece minority of the site was built over, leading to a recalculation of 120-240 inhabitants. Perles (1999, 2001) has her own formula for relating settlement size to population, but still concludes for Thessalian tells that 100-300 occupants suits all but a few sites.

This analysis favors a position on tell social organization intermediate between Chapman and Halstead: the typical village was normally an effective, small-scale community based on interfamilial cooperation, but households remained independent and distinct units.


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