Mediterranean polyculture revisited: new insights into the prehistory of Crete

Figure 1. Part of the environmental team at the flotation station

2021 started with the publication of the third paper of the bioarchaeology-palaeoenvironment-landscape team of the PALAP research project (Palaikastro Phase 4. Urbanisation in Bronze Age Crete: between palace and landscape at Palaikastro). The project (2012-5) involved:

  • Excavation of part of the Bronze Age (Minoan) town at the site of Roussolakkos, near the modern village of Palaikastro in East Crete.
  • Landscape survey and mapping, which covered an area of 32 km2 around the town. This work, instead of following standard practices to locate sites, focused on the identification of Minoan farmsteads and the examination of the economic organization of the inland territory of the town. The resulting paper can be found here.
  • Multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental analysis of two cores covering the Late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age, which provided important data on the environmental setting of the town and, indirectly, on its economy. More information on this work can be found on the published paper here (paywalled) and its open access post-print version here.

After the publication of the landscape and the palaeoenvironmental results, we brought together all bioarchaeological (seed, charcoal, animal and fish bone and shell) data recovered during the PALAP excavation. Combined with new palaeoenvironmental data for the Middle Minoan period and the landscape survey results, this unique multidisciplinary assemblage of excavation and survey data, still uncommon in Crete, led to new exciting insights into Crete’s prehistoric past. In particular, comparison and thorough analysis of these diverse datasets resulted in a detailed discussion of agriculture, farming, diet and resource management at the Bronze Age town at Palaikastro and its territory (Fig. 1). 

Figure 2. The bays of Kouremenos and Chiona divided by ‘Kastri’. Palaikastro, East Crete

This work has been the result of very close collaboration, often under challenging conditions (Figs 2), of the whole team (Fig. 3 and 4) that worked together from the design stage of the project to the final interpretation of the results. This uniquely holistic approach allowed us to shed new light into the debates on the emergence of social complexity in Minoan Crete. We also delineated the scale of various activities taking place in the east of Crete and identified the ‘roots’ of the Bronze Age system into the Neolithic, whereby the east of Crete appears to be an early area of large-scale olive management, directly related to pastoral activities and landscape management. Our work questioned the need of specialization alone as a trigger for the emergence of hierarchical societies and highlighted the importance of adopting multidisciplinary integrated approaches to local economies. Importantly, our work showcases how the study of organic remains can open new windows into the past, stepping out of the appendices of publications and occupying a prominent place in leading archaeological research.

Figure 3. Work at the laboratory facilities at Agios Antonios often under challenging circumstances (from left to right A. Livarda, H. Orengo and V. Tzevelekidi with family)
Figure 4. Lab work at Agios Antonios: Alexandra Kriti studying seeds under a stereoscope, Mihalis Trivizas and other members of the team sorting heavy residue, Llorenç Picornell-Gelabert can be seen at the very back checking his charcoal

Read our fascinating results here:

Livarda, A., Orengo, H.A., Cañellas-Boltà, N., Riera-Mora, S., Picornell-Gelabert, Ll., Tzevelekidi, V., Veropoulidou, R., Marlasca Martín, R. and Krahtopoulou, A. 2021. Mediterranean polyculture revisited: olive, grape and subsistence strategies at Palaikastro, East Crete, between the Late Neolithic and Late Bronze Age. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 61. 

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