Boeotia in the Palaeolithic Period

1. Research until the 1980s

The Palaeolithic period in Boeotia remains today rather obscure, with the only evidence for habitation coming from caves. Outdoor settlements have not been identified yet due to the extensive deposit layers that have covered the Copais area and other river valleys, as well as because of the limited field surveys undertaken so far.

The earliest research on the Palaeolithic period was an excavation conducted by German archaeologists in the Seidi cave, in the south-western part of Copais (Stampfuss, 1942). Stampfuss’s excavation, carried out before WW II, yielded stone tools of the Upper Palaeolithic; this excavation was conducted, however, in a rather hurried manner and employing outdated methods, thus depriving modern scholars of many pieces of information on the area’s flora, fauna and palaeoeconomy during that period. Two decades later, Schmidt (1965) continued this excavation. The stone finds are quite fascinating as the typology of the tools allows a dating to the Aurignacian period. There is, however, a problem pertaining to the location of the cave. According to reliable information, this is not the cave situated under the medieval tower close to the entrance to Aliartos, which does not appear to have contained the deposit layers mentioned in earlier publications. This appears to be rather a rock shelter, and not a proper cave, which is identified in an area overlooking the motorway approximately two kilometres outside of Aliartos.

In the same area, Canadian archaeologists (Roland et al. 1981) identified another rock shelter measuring 30 Χ 30 m, at an altitude of 200 m, and have collected flint fragments. Although the site is intensely used by a local stock farmer nowadays, it is still possible to collect a number of flint, suggesting human habitation during the Palaeolithic era. More rock shelters have been identified in the same area, yielding inconclusive surface remains.

The research of the Canadian archaeologists in 1980 (Roland et al. 1981) identified possible sites of prehistoric settlements in these basins of Boeotia and Phocis, but did not proceed any further. The northernmost basin to have been studied is that of Amphicleia, situated at an altitude of 400 m, and flanked by mountains featuring very few caves. In a small cave in the Amphicleia region, close to the village of Mariolata, firestone fragments of a possible Palaeolithic date have been identified. Most karstic formations are found in the lower basin of Elateia. The southern and rather lower basin of Davleia is more restricted and lies at an altitude of approximately 150 m.

Since the beginning of the century, both these basins have yielded significant Early Neolithic sites (Elateia, Chaeronea). Therefore, this valley would have been a habitat of abundant wild game, making it an ideal hunting ground for Palaeolithic hunters. What would have been small hunters’ settlements must have been buried under the valley’s deposits or corroded away given that they were situated on mountain slopes. The terra rossa sediments that have formed by the corrosion of limestone during the Ice Ages should be investigated systematically, for these often contain Palaeolithic remains.

On the north side of the valley of Davleia a tall, burren limestone bulge soars, forming a karstic cavity at an altitude of 400 m. The small cave is today used as a sheep’s pen and contains thick recent deposit layers, rendering surface surveys impossible. Close to the entrance of the cave few worn Neolithic sherds and obsidian fragments have been collected (Roland et al.1980). The location of the cave, however, would have made it an ideal dwelling for Pro-Neolithic people, although its distance from the valley is great. The area contains more karstic formations, but no signs of prehistoric occupation have been found there.

A greater abundance of flint has been detected in two other caves, situated in the NE part of Copais, left of the road leading to Chaeronea. One of these measures 3 Χ 6 m and contains thin deposit layers and undateable flint artefacts. The second one is situated nearby, and its exterior has yielded flint finds.

2. The Palaeolithic period in Copais

The area of Copais is a rare, naturally occurring basin in central Greece formed by tectonic forces. This basin collects the waters of the rivers Cephissus and Melanus whose springs are found at the mountains of central Greece. The greatest concentration of caves is found at its eastern side, where massive karstification of low limestone formations of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods has occurred. In the context of the ‘Kopais project’, which commenced in 1994, the Sarakenos Cave was excavated and a surface survey of the Copais caves was carried out. An area from Akraiphnio to Aliartos was surveyed and 23 caves among dozens more were mapped out, most of which stand low, close to the level of the now dried up lake (Sampson 2008, 2008α). Some of these functioned as sink-holes, channelling water from the lake to other, lower basins or the sea. Nowadays they are used as sheep’s pens, and this precludes any thoughts of surface surveys. The presence or absence of prehistoric deposit layers is always dependant on the existence of the lake, and its level in various periods. Considering that in Palaeolithic times the lake was rather deep, stretching to the fringes of the valley, caves situated at low levels, where the modern valley stands, were used only sporadically, depending on the water level, or were wholly unsuitable as dwellings and for other uses.

The section of Copais west of Akraiphnio contains, besides the Sarakenos cave, a number of small caves on the level of the valley. Recent excavations and coring in two of them revealed that the deposits are made up of layers of sand, remains of ancient lake shores, while the archaeological finds date to the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.

At the north side of the Copais, between the villages of Kastro and Pavlo, we find a number of low limestone formations containing small caves in their lower sections. Most interesting is the Baroutospilia, measuring 27 Χ 8 m and situated just 10 m above the plain level (Fig. 1). This cave is being used as a sheep’s pen too, rendering problematic any attempt to investigate its interior. The deposit layers are either covered up by dung or have corroded away. An excavation was reportedly carried out by Spyropoulos in 1973, but its results remain unknown. The deposit layers in front of the cave’s entrance appear more interesting, where flint and obsidian fragments have been discovered. Some of the flint fragments are probably of a Pre-Neolithic date.

Palaeolithic presence has also been detected inside the Copais basin, where coring has recently yielded chronologies for the end of the period (12520±150 and 12300±150 ΒΡ). During this period, vegetation was low and the climate was cold and dry. In a layer somewhat higher than the one that providing an age of 9900± 110 ΒΡ (depth: 9-7 m) we can observe a climatic change, apparently the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene (Greig and Turner 1974; Allen 1997).

3. Palaeolithic strata in the Sarakenos Cave

The excavations in the Sarakenos Cave have yielded stratigraphic Palaeolithic finds. In trench Β, the lower stratum, which rests on the bedrock, should be dated to the start of the Upper Palaeolithic or the late Middle Palaeolithic, if we are to judge by the stone artefacts which include blade-like tools of the Aurignacian period, as well as types associated with the Musterian technique (Sampson 2006, 2008) (Fig. 2). The upper part of the Palaeolithic deposits yielded a much later age (12345±70 ΒP or 13100-12150 BC) falling within the end of the Palaeolithic.

In trench Α, the Upper Palaeolithic layer, at a depth of 5.10 m, yielded characteristic small flint blades and a chronology of 11910±60 BP.The excavation stopped at a depth of 6 m, in order to examine the trench and study more extensively the Palaeolithic strata; it is therefore likely that older strata will come to light, for the excavation is ongoing (Fig. 3). An occupation gap of almost 2000 years apparently occurs between the Final Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic. This, however, might change as excavations continue (Sampson et al. 2009). Taking into account that the Final Palaeolithic at Frangthi (phase VI) terminates in c. 10.2 Κyr ΒΡ (Kyr=thousand years), the time distance from the earliest Mesolithic at the Sarakenos Cave (10.1 Kyr BP) becomes inconsequential. The 2011 excavation in trench D revealed the bedrock, on which an extended hearth was found (Fig. 4); its date is yet to be determined.

4. Conclusions

The excavations and surveys conducted so far provide us with a rather fragmentary picture of the Palaeolithic period in the area of the Copais and in eastern central Greece in general. Two caves, Seidi and Sarakenos, certainly contain remains dating to the Upper Palaeolithic, while the latter was occupied during the Middle Palaeolithic as well. One of the main issues, however, is the overall scant presence of Palaeolithic habitation sites in Central Greece. Even caves, normally dwellings of choice during this era, are occupied only in few instances, and then rather sparsely. It appears there are special reasons behind the rarity of Palaeolithic remains, yet these remain obscure for now. There would have certainly been outdoor occupation sites, but as usual, these leave a few traces.

The rarity of Middle Palaeolithic remains in the caves of Central Greece is telling, yet it is also possible that Middle Palaeolithic sites were mainly outdoor settlements, and therefore have left no traces. In general, the scarsity of Palaeolithic remains could be attributed to the geomorphology and palaeogeography of the area (for instance the corrosion of deposit layers and the natural evolution of the landscape), as well as to changes of preferences in terms of food sources. On the contrary, in neighbouring Euboea, as in many other areas of Greece, the Middle Palaeolithic Musterian stone industry is quite common in mountainous (Σάμψων 1996) and coastal or riverside sites (Runnels 1994), although during this phase habitation in caves and rock shelters is also rather sparse.