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Antiquity Vol 82 Issue 317 September 2008

Lower to Middle Palaeolithic artefacts from Loutró on the south coast of Crete

Peder Mortensen

Figure 1
Figure 1. The gully east of Loutró with the zigzag path ascending towards the village of Anopolis on top of the mountain. The artefacts were collected within the area indicated by the circle.
Click to enlarge.

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?

Figure 2
Figure 2. Handaxe (a); triangular pick (b); small pick (c); chopping-tool (d).
Click to enlarge.

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.

The artefacts

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:

Figure 3
Figure 3. Chopping-tools (a-b); flake made on a prepared platform (?) (c); scraper (d).
Click to enlarge.
  1. Handaxe made from a core, the lower part of which consists of a thick lump of limestone. The upper part is of chert that has been bifacially modified by flaking. At the point there are traces of use-retouch. Length 129mm; width 58mm; thickness 28mm (Figure 2a).

  2. Triangular pick made on a thick natural flake modified by unifacial flaking at the proximal end and towards the point. L. 130mm; w. 85mm; th. 41mm (Figure 2b).

  3. Small triangular pick made from a lump of chert slightly modified by flaking and with cortex partially preserved at the proximal end. L. 81mm; w. 52mm; th. 26mm.

  4. Small pick made from a natural core with cortex partially preserved. The lower, thick part is modified by irregular flaking. The chisel-shaped point has been produced by flaking from the distal end where traces of use-retouch are visible. L. 100mm; w. 90mm; th. 65mm (Figure 2c).

  5. Chopping-tool made from a flake with a large bulb of percussion visible on the ventral face. The dorsal face is covered by cortex except for a slightly concave edge formed by flaking at the distal end. The sides of the flake have been modified by an irregular retouch. L. 75mm; w. 57mm; th. 21mm (Figure 2d).

  6. Chopping-tool made from a flake. The bulb of percussion is visible on the ventral face. The dorsal side is covered by cortex except for the edge which has been prepared by unifacial flaking. L. 93mm; w. 83mm; th. 32mm.

  7. Chopping-tool made from a thick natural flake with cortex partially preserved on the dorsal face. At the distal end a slightly convex edge has been produced by irregular, unifacial flaking. L. 105mm; w. 80mm; th. 53mm.
  8. Figure 4
    Figure 4. Scraper (a); points made on flakes (b-c).
    Click to enlarge.

  9. Chopping-tool made from a thick natural flake with flecks of limestone and cortex partially preserved on the dorsal face. At the distal end an irregular convex edge has been prepared by flaking. Crushing marks are visible on top of the edge. L. 79mm; w. 98mm; th. 54mm.

  10. Chopping-tool made from a thick natural flake with cortex partially preserved on the ventral face. Unifacial flaking along one side of the ventral face and crushing marks at the central part of the edge. L. 101mm; w. 77mm; th. 40mm.

  11. Chopping tool made from a core with cortex preserved on most of the surface. At the distal end a concavo-convex edge has been prepared by flaking. Crushing marks as a result of use are visible along the edge. L. 95mm; w. 115mm; th. 49mm (Figure 3a).

  12. Chopping-tool made from a small core with irregular scars from flaking on both sides. The edge has been prepared by bifacial flaking, heavily worn by use-retouch. L. 69mm; w. 55mm; th. 37mm.

  13. Chopping-tool made from a natural flake. Unifacial retouch along the distal edge, the central part of which has crushing marks from hammering. L. 82mm; w. 125mm; th. 29mm (Figure 3b).

  14. Flake made on what seems to be a prepared platform. Cortex is partially preserved, and at the dorsal face a negative scar from flaking is visible. At the distal end of the ventral face a short cutting edge has been produced by retouch. L. 67mm; w. 55mm; th. 19mm (Figure 3c).

  15. Scraper made on a natural flake with a crust of limestone (‘Rillenkarst’) still preserved on the ventral face. At the distal end an edge has been produced by alternating retouch from the dorsal and the ventral faces. L. 69mm; w. 58mm; th. 28mm (Figure 3d).

  16. Scraper made from a core with cortex preserved on most of the surface. On the ventral face, however, a flake has been removed in preparation for a short convex scraper edge, produced by a steep, unifacial retouch at the distal end of the dorsal face. L. 74mm; w. 67mm; th. 45mm (Figure 4a).

  17. Point made on a flake with a large bulb of percussion on the ventral face and with traces of cortex still preserved on the dorsal face. The point has been produced by flaking and retouch along both edges. L. 90mm; w. 51mm; th. 27mm (Figure 4b).

  18. Point made from a natural flake with a fragmentary crust of limestone and cortex partially preserved. The point has been produced by irregular bifacial flaking along both sides. L. 88mm; w. 65mm; th. 30mm (Figure 4c).

  19. Point made on a natural flake. The point has been produced by unifacial retouch along both edges on the dorsal face of the flake. L. 80mm; w. 62mm; th. 19mm.

  20. Point made on a natural core with cortex partially preserved on both faces. At the distal end a short transversal edge has been produced by taking off flakes from the distal point of the core. L. 93mm; w. 31mm; th. 22mm.

  21. Point made from a flake. A negative scar from flaking is seen on the ventral side and remains of cortex are visible along one of the lateral sides. A small (broken?) point has been produced by retouch at the distal end of the flake. L. 74mm; w. 31mm; th. 17mm.

  22. A small triangular flake with cortex preserved on the dorsal side. The distal end is modified by irregular retouch. L. 37mm; w. 38mm; th. 10mm.

  23. A small flake with a bulb of percussion on the ventral face and with various scars from flaking on the dorsal face. L. 50mm; w. 38mm; th. 10mm.

Chronological implications

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.


  • BAILEY, G.N., E. ADAM, E. PANAGOPOULOU, C. PERLÈS & K. ZACHOS (ed.). 1999. The Palaeolithic archaeology of Greece and adjacent areas (British School at Athens Studies 3). London: British School at Athens.
  • CUBUK, G.A. 1976. Altpaläolitische Funde von den Mittelmeerterrassen bei Nea Skala auf Kephallinia. Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 6: 175-81.
  • DARLAS, A. 1994. Le Paléolithique inférieur et moyen de Grèce. L’Anthropologie 98(2-3): 305-28.
  • FOSS, P. 2002. I. The lithic small finds in detail. II.The lithics, in Klaus Randsborg (ed.) Kephallénia: archaeology and history: the ancient Greek cities (Acta Archaeologica 73(1-2)): I: 61-75; II: 77-147. Copenhagen: Blackwell Munksgaard.
  • GAMBLE, C. 1999. The Palaeolithic societies of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • INTERNATIONAL CRETOLOGICAL CONGRESS. Forthcoming. Proceedings of 10th International Cretological Congress, Chania, September 2006.
  • KOURTESSI-PHILIPPAKIS, G. 1999. The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in the Ionian Islands, in G.N. Bailey, E. Adam, E. Panagopoulou, C. Perlès & K. Zachos (ed.) The Palaeolithic archaeology of Greece and adjacent areas (British School at Athens Studies 3): 282-7. London: British School at Athens.
  • RUNNELS, C. 1995. Review of Aegean prehistory IV: the Stone Age of Greece from the Palaeolithic to the advent of the Neolithic. American Journal of Archaeology 99: 699-728.


  • Peder Mortensen University of Copenhagen, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, Carsten Niebuhr Section, Snorresgade 17-19, DK-2300 Copenhagen, Denmark (Email: pmortensen@hum.ku.dk)

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