Antiquity Vol 82 Issue 317 September 2008
Location and circumstances of discovery
The small village of Loutró is situated on the south coast of Crete, a few kilometres west of Sphakia. Along the coast are sediments characterised by cemented conglomerates with pebbles and with many cavities and small caves dug out by the sea. Right behind Loutró the limestone mountains are cut by a narrow gorge east of which a zigzag path ascends through a gully towards the village of Anopolis on top of the mountain (Figure 1). Staying at Loutró in 2003, as I walked one day up to Anapolis, I happened to find a few stone artefacts within the area indicated by the circle on Figure1, at a height of between c. 150–220m above sea level. They were picked up from the surface, which consisted of grey to reddish-brown soil, possibly washed down from terraces deposited earlier on top of the gully. Most of the material visible on the surface consisted of boulders, small stones and pebbles of limestone and of badly broken and in most cases recently crushed fragments of silica. I brought 17 stone artefacts from Loutró to the Archaeological Museum in Chania in July 2003. Later in July the site was inspected by Yannis Christodoulakos and Efthymia Kataki from the Ephorate in Chania. On this occasion five more artefacts were picked up. A year later, in June 2004, I visited the site with a group of six archaeologists from Chania, Athens and Volos, to whom I express my gratitude in the acknowledgements.
‘Geofacts’ or artefacts?
For more than a century stone objects found in Africa and Europe out of a secure geological or archaeological context have been discussed and often discarded as ‘eoliths’ or ‘geofacts’ of non-human manufacture. For a summary of these discussions, some of which also relate to Crete, see for example Runnels (1995: 708) and Gamble (1999:116 ff.). Since Palaeolithic artefacts have not previously been discovered in Crete, and since in this case we are dealing with unstratified stone objects picked up from the surface of secondarily deposited sediments, the question must inevitably be posed: are these stone objects man-made, or could the flaking and retouching have been produced by trampling or accidental impact?
During my work as an archaeologist in Scandinavia and the Near East for more than 50 years I have often been faced with ‘geofacts’ and doubtful ‘artefacts’ picked up by amateurs and non-specialists from beaches, ancient shorelines and gravel deposits. In such cases, stones with unifacial retouch or flaking, as shown here in Figures 2b, 3b-c and 4a, are extremely rare. Retouching accidentally produced along edges as a result of erosion, rolling or by application of other mechanical forces is hardly ever restricted to one side of the edge, but affects the edge along both sides where it has been exposed to abrasion, crushing or trampling. Furthermore, the crushing marks from hammering within restricted areas of the edges of chopping tools, which were previously prepared by retouching (see for example Figure 2a-b), the bulbs of percussion seen in Figures 2d, 3c and 4b, and the probable use of a prepared platform technique (Figure 3c) clearly seem to indicate that the stones picked up at Loutró were not ‘geofacts’ but artefacts shaped by humans.
Tabular flint of a good quality is unknown from this part of Crete. The local raw material available for prehistoric humans when they first arrived at Loutró was therefore of very low quality, a fact reflected in the stone tools they produced. This may be one of several reasons why early human artefacts were not previously identified in Crete. The artefacts from Loutró are all made of flakes or nodules of a coarse white to reddish-brown chert or — in a few cases — of limestone. Cortex is often partially preserved and the surfaces of most of the objects, having been exposed to water and erosion, are heavily patinated and worn — in contrast to the recently broken fragments of silica, mentioned above. The result of this wear is that some surfaces appear blurred in such a way that it may be difficult in a few cases to distinguish between intentional flaking and the natural structure of the stone, as exemplified for instance by the upper part of handaxe no. 1 (Figure 2a). The 22 objects brought to the Archaeological Museum in Chania in July 2003 are briefly described here:
During the last 50 years a number of Middle Palaeolithic sites have been found and excavated on the Greek mainland, but Lower Palaeolithic finds are still sparsely represented (Bailey et al. 1999). From the Greek islands a chopping tool made of a strongly patinated beige flint, possibly associated with a palaeomagnetic date of 750 ka was reported from Corfu by G. Kourtessi-Philippakis (1999: 283-4, Figure 25.2), and from Nea Skala on Cephalonia a collection of flakes and blades found together with flint pebbles were thought to be of a Lower Palaeolithic date (Cubuk 1976: 175 ff.). Previously, several Middle Palaeolithic finds were reported from the islands of Corfu, Cephalonia and Zakyntos (see Darlas 1994: 308-14; Kourtessi-Philippakis 1999: 283 ff.), and recent research on Cephalonia has revealed several Palaeolithic surface finds, including two sites with flakes, choppers, chopping tools, and a single handaxe (Foss 2002/I: 61ff. & plates. AII: 13-16 & AIII: 1-16). With reference to finds from Epirus, and in particular to the inventory of the open-air site at Kokkinopilos, a Middle Palaeolithic date is suggested by Foss for the Palaeolithic industries found on Cephalonia, including the lithics found by Cubuk at Nea Skala (Foss 2002/II: 94-102).
By its tool composition (handaxe, chopping-tools, triangular pick, and a flake probably made on a prepared platform) the small collection of artefacts from Loutró relates typologically to late Lower Palaeolithic and early Middle Palaeolithic assemblages from northern Africa, southern Spain, Italy, and south-eastern Europe.
The discovery of a few Palaeolithic artefacts from the south coast of Crete might suggest that the first humans reached the island across the sea from Libya. That an early contact between northern Africa and southern Europe existed already during the Palaeolithic periods is a hypothesis now supported by most scholars. In this context it is important to note that in 2006 Palaeolithic artefacts were also reported from several locations at the island of Gavdos c. 60km south of Crete (see International Cretological Congress forthcoming). The surface collections from Gavdos seem to contain artefacts from several periods within the Palaeolitic, including a handaxe and other tools which may possibly be contemporary with the artefacts from Loutró.
The first artefacts from Loutró were collected in less than an hour within an area visible from the zigzag path leading up to Anopolis. Obviously, an intensive survey of the gully and a detailed geological study of the red-soil formations from which the artefacts were washed out are needed to provide a more extensive range of artefacts and a geological date for the find.
I should like to express my gratitude to Dr. Maria Vlasaki, Director of the Archaeological Museum in Chania, to Vanna Niniou-Kindeli of the Ephorate of Antiquities in Chania, to Dr. Antikleia Moundrea-Agrafioti, Associate Professor of Prehistory at the University of Thessaly, Volos, and to Dr. Andreas Darlas of the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Spelaeology in Athens. They all made valuable observations and contributions towards the question of the function and possible date of the artefacts. Furthermore, I should like to thank Professor Katerina Kopaka and Dr. Nena Galanidou of the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Crete in Rethymno and Dr. Christos Matzanas for stimulating discussions and for showing me some of their recent discoveries at Gavdos. Finally, I am especially grateful to Professor Ofer Bar-Yosef, Harvard University, for his kind suggestions and comments regarding the present note.