Friday, August 17, 2018

Digging Deeper: The 2018 season of the Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project

The summer of 2018 saw the Stelida Naxos Archaeological Project [SNAP] begin to segue from excavation to study mode, with a far smaller number of active trenches, and a greater emphasis placed on documentation, sampling and analyses of the finds. This was the fourth season of our digging at this important early prehistoric stone tool manufacturing site and chert source on the island’s northwest coast, the project co-directed by Dr. Tristan Carter (Associate Professor, McMaster University), and Dr. Demetris Athanasoulis (Director, Cycladic Ephorate of Antiquities). The team was also slightly smaller than before, never exceeding 33 at any one time, a mix of long-term senior members, graduate students, visiting specialists and a swathe of bright-eyed and bushy tailed undergraduates. Indeed, we pride ourselves on making space for students and junior scholars, including 16 from Canadian academic institutions, plus a handful from Athens University (Figure 1: The 2018 SNAP team, including 16 Canadian students from McMaster, Toronto, Western and Winnipeg universities (Anjelica Bellavia / SNAP 2018)). As before, our team remains steadfastly international, with scholars, students and professional archaeologists alike from not only Canada and Greece, but also Cyprus, France, Serbia, Turkey, the UK and US.

The early part of the season saw a lot of on-site activity above and beyond work in the trenches, particularly with regard to mapping and geological studies. The past couple of seasons have seen us putting a lot of effort into producing a detailed topographic map of the site, working with a Naxian specialist in drone photography who took overlapping images that covered the extent of the hill, and our original (2013-14) survey area. Using photogrammetry it has then been possible to generate a composite image of the entire site which this season we then geo-referenced using differential GPS technology (thanks to Doug Faulmann of INSTAP-EC, and Dr. Joe Boyce of McMaster University) that will ultimately allow MA student Yorgan Pitt to produce a digital elevation model of 8cm resolution! This map will allow us to not only locate our excavation trenches with greater accuracy, but also – more importantly – enable us to consider how the hill’s micro-topography has shaped the archaeological record. We have long appreciated that Stelida is a dynamic landscape that underwent significant changes throughout the ≥250,000 years that the site was used, much of which likely related to the major climatic fluctuations of the last Ice Age and subsequent warmer periods which would have impacted levels of precipitation, types of vegetation and soil stability, winds and downslope erosion. Almost everything we have excavated over the past four years we appreciate to be in secondary context, hillwash deposits that likely mark periods of climate change. Thus when we excavate an artefact-rich stratum we are not investigating the in situ remains of prehistoric tool-makers, but the displaced residue of these ancient stone workers. Our digital elevation model will help us understand where these artefacts would have originated based on local slope angle, erosional gullies, vegetation and the like. A wonderful side-benefit of this drone activity is that we now have some terrific aerial photographs (Figure 2: Aerial photograph of the upper western flanks of Stelida (plots AK and DG-A) taken by a drone (Doug Faulmann / INSTAP-EC, 2017)), and video footage (
We also undertook a more geologically-focused mapping project to detail Stelida’ chert outcrops. While only last year we published a paper on the hill’s geology and the raw material’s character (Skarpelis et al. JASR 12, 819-833), we soon thereafter believed that a more nuanced intra-source analysis was required, as it had become increasingly apparent to team member Dr. Dora Moutsiou (Figure 3: Dr. Tim Kinnaird (University of St. Andrews) and Dr. Dora Moutsiou (University of Cyprus) discuss raw material types in the field (Anjelica Bellavia / SNAP 2018)) that our stone tools were made from raw materials of varying colours, textures and knapping quality. Dora’s research focuses on human behaviour through time which at Stelida we can best think about through a combination of asking (a) what tools did they make, (b) how did they make them, and (c) which specific raw materials did they choose? Her preliminary studies have suggested that there were differences in raw material selection through time, with a more glossy white chert preferentially selected during the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (Homo sapiens), while Middle and Lower Palaeolithic (Neanderthals and earlier humans) tools seem to be made mainly using a coarser grey-brown chert. Our aim this year, working with geologists Anna Klein (MSc candidate) and Dr. Tim Kinnaird from the University of St. Andrews, was to see if these raw materials occurred in discrete parts of the site.
The excavations themselves were limited primarily to a few already established trenches that we were keen to complete so that we could publish full stratigraphic sequences, and formally backfill them (the sondages being temporarily filled with sandbags and wooden pallets during the off-season). Of greatest importance were trenches DG-A/003 and DG-A/021 on the upper western flanks, together with SH/024 and SH/026 on the north-eastern slopes (Figure 4: Plan of Stelida’s upper slopes, including active trenches in 2018 (Yorgan Pitt)). These excavation units were seen as particularly important because of their depth of deposits, and the nature of the lithic assemblages contained within them. Both DG-A/021 and SH/024 were successfully completed this year; in excess of 3m deep, they produced significant quantities of lithics produced by the distinctive Levallois technology, a tool-making tradition that we associate with Neanderthal populations of the Middle Palaeolithic. In contrast, DG-A/003 and SH/026 continue to fight another day. The former was just over 4m deep after two weeks when we decided to halt proceedings for reasons of health and safety; the rest of the season was spent expanding the area of the sondage whereby in 2019 we can more safely continue digging deeper. SH/026 was over 3.5m deep by the end of the season, and similarly need to be finished in 2019, providing us with a quite different sequence of depositional history and artefacts to those witnessed on the west of Stelida.
Lithics, lithics and even more lithics…one of the long-term problems we have faced digging at Stelida is the fact that the archaeological record is overwhelmingly biased towards lithics, primarily stone tools and their associated manufacturing debris, plus the occasional emery, quartzite and granite hammerstone. Given that this is a Palaeolithic quarry and workshop this is perhaps unsurprising, however the problem for us is that the soil’s alkalinity means that organics rarely if ever survive, making environmental and climatic reconstructions extremely difficult. The one area with good preservation – detailed in last year’s blog – is Trench AK/18, where we found the remains of numerous superimposed fireplaces in front of a small rock-shelter. These deposits have produced a quantity of carbonised plant remains which are being studied by our archaeobotanist Charlotte Diffey (DPhil candidate, University of Oxford) who established and has supervised our wet sieving system for the past three years (Figure 5: Charlotte Diffey (right), DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford’s School of Archaeology) water sieving one of the soil samples we systematically collect from each archaeological context in an attempt to retrieve prehistoric plant remains). These precious plant remains will hopefully tell us not just about the fuel used in the fires, and the plants being eaten by early Homo sapiens, but also something about the landscape and climate at that time, as we know that many forms of vegetation can only grow in certain environments (upland .v. coastal / cold .v. warm etc.). Further energies were invested into the study of the Stelida plant materials this summer through the work of Dr. Georgia Tsartsidou (Ephoreia of Speleology and Palaeanthropology) an expert in phytolith analyses, i.e. the microscopic structures of silica left behind after a plant has decayed. We were delighted to have Dr. Tsartsidou join the Stelida team this year, with her time on site spent sampling a number of important contexts, not only the hearths of AK/18, but also deposits from our important DG-A/001 and DG-A/003 stratigraphic sequences.
Further work on the environment of Palaeolithic Stelida has been conducted by Justin Holcomb (PhD candidate, Boston University) and Dr. Panagiotis Karkanas (Director of the American School’s Weiner Laboratory) whose micromorphological analyses documented tiny pieces of bone from the AK/018 hearth deposits (Figure 6: Justin Holcomb, PhD candidate at Boston University and Weiner Laboratory for Archaeological Science Predoctoral Fellows, undertakes micromorphological analyses of slides made from samples taken from the stratigraphic sections of the Stelida sondages). Alas this faunal material is simply too small and fragmentary for us to know which animals (or humans) they came from. This is where another scientific technique comes to bear. In 2018 we were joined by Tyler Murchie, a McMaster PhD candidate whose speciality is the new field of extracting ancient DNA not from bones, but from soil (Figure 7: Tyler Murchie, PhD candidate at McMaster’s Department of Anthropology, samples the Upper Palaeolithic hearths in trench AK/018 for ancient DNA analysis (Anjelica Bellavia / SNAP 2018). The premise is that genetic traces of plants and animals can be preserved in a site’s soils (everything else having long rotted away), a new form of aDNA analysis that has shown spectacularly successful results in certain Eurasian Palaeolithic cave sites, detailing not only the prehistoric animals whose remains were once deposited in these sites, but also the early humans (including Neanderthals and Denisovans) who once occupied them (Slon et al. Science 356, 605-608, 2017). That said, these sites seem to have been particularly well suited for the preservation of aDNA; indeed many of them also preserved the physical remains of animals and humans, whereas another study with a poor faunal record produced precious little aDNA, and none that could be related to a particular species (Slon et al. Quaternary International 398, 210218, 2016). Our collaboration with Tyler and his well-known supervisor Prof. Hendrik Poinar ( is thus something of an experiment – and a rather expensive one at that – with no guarantee of success, but to us represents one of the best shots we have of breathing a bit more life into the archaeology of Stelida.
Last and not least, we continued our public outreach work (see Carter JEMAHS 5, 311-333, 2017), sharing the aims, methods and results of our work with various audiences via an array of outlets. Arguably the greatest success came through our exhibition (Neanderthals on Naxos!) that we hosted in Chora from April through until early July, a project that was first suggested by the Mayor of Naxos Mr. Manolis Margaritis in 2015. The opening night involved a major public lecture with not insignificant press coverage, while in the summer weeks we were able to provide tours of the exhibit to students from a number of local schools (Figure 8: Dr. Vagia Mastrogiannopoulou (Project Manager) giving a tour of our exhibition to local schoolchildren at the Cultural Centre in Chora, Naxos (Anjelica Bellavia / SNAP 2018)), while our ethnographers interviewed some of the visitors to gain critical feedback on our work. While the exhibition has now closed, we have used the opportunity to completely revamp and relaunch our website based on this project, whereby all our public outreach is now fully bilingual (, enjoy!
Tristan Carter
Associate Professor, McMaster University; co-director, Stélida Naxos Archaeological Project

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