University of the Aegean
The Kopais lake, which once spread over a large area, was situated at an altitude of 100m in the Kopaic basin of the Boeotian prefecture of Central Greece. The lake, now drained, occupied the deeper part of the basin in the southern part of the valleys of Chaeronea and Orchomenos and was formed by the water flowing down from Mount Chlomos in Locris, Mount Parnassus and Mount Helicon and was fed by the Cephissus, Melas, Ercyna rivers as well as other smaller rivulets. The Cephissus river runs through a large, fertile plain consisting of three smaller basins (Davlia, Amphiclea and Elatea) before ending in the southern part of the Copaic basin; and the Melas river runs eastward in the northern section of the basin. The lake, with a maximum depth of some 3m, covered an area of approximately 62,500 acres at its greatest, shrinking to some 37,500 acres during periods of drought.
The Kopais basin was permanently drained in 1931 and converted into the well-irrigated plain which is now one of central Greece's most fertile agricultural areas. From epigraphic evidence, it is known that drainage programs were undertaken in this area in Classical Greek and Roman times as well. The modern of the Kopais has also revealed that the basin was drained in Late Mycenaean times (14th century BC), a project that is believed to have been carried out by the Minyans, the people of Orchomenos. It is possible that the first drainage works had taken place in the early 2nd millennium BC, with the aim of converting a portion of the lake into arable land.
The Sarakenos Cave and the Palaeoenvironment in the Kopais Basin
Kopais is a natural basin in the northeast part of Boeotia created by tectonic activity some 10 million years ago. The area around the basin is a highly karstic landscape. Until the recent past, a big lake, differentiated from time to time by size, was covering the actual plain. Because of its importance as a natural karstic basin, Kopais has been the subject of extensive palaeoenvironmental studies since the 1970s. During the Late Upper Palaeolithic the Kopais had a vegetation typical of an open steppe and a dry and cold climate (Artemisia, Graminae and Chenopods). The Pleistocene- Holocene transition is recorded in the diagrams with the forest expansion (Quercus, Juniperus, Pistacia, Ephedra). At layers that correspond to 4000-3000 BC quercus drops, possibly due to deforestation.
Analysis of the grain of the coring samples suggests that there was fluctuation in the lake levels during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene. There are also indications that the lake level dropped after 4000 and until 2500 BC. The first drainage works are possible to have taken place in the early 2nd millennium BC, under the aim to convert a big area of the lake into arable land.
Since 1994 in the Kopais area we started a project with the aim to survey systematically the karstic formations all around the rocky boundaries of the basin. During this project we have located, recorded and mapped almost all the caves and rock shelters in the basin.
After having graded our priorities for excavation, we decided that the most suitable cave for excavation was the cave of Sarakenos. This is the biggest karstic formation in the area found today much higher than the level of the plain and the road. The three excavation trenches has revealed Middle, Early Helladic and Neolithic layers. The last layer above the bedrock yielded lithic finds and animal bones that are dated to the Upper Palaeolithic (Aurignacian period).
Soil and charcoal samples as well as charred seeds from the cave offered us information about the palaeoenvironment in the Kopais basin from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Bronze Age. The palynological assemblages that have been studied from the Sarakenos deposit show presence of Pine and Quercus and an increase of Leguminosae during the transition from Late Neolithic I to LN II (second half of the 5th mill. BC). The same species are present with small fluctuations during the Late Neolithic II and the EH II. In general from the second half of the 5th mill. and until the 2nd mill. BC the plant species recorded in the cave pollen diagrams show the clear impact of the humans on the environment of the Kopais basin.
The formation of the lake was the outcome of tectonic movement that took place during the Pliocene and Pleistocene eras, and the dissolution of the calcareous rock caused by underground waters. From a geological point of view, the most prevalent rock is limestone, dating from the Mesozoic era. In the past, the water from the lake would be canalized towards the sea by means of an underground network of canals through the calcareous rock. Due to the progress of sedimentation, the lake was becoming very shallow and dry durin the summer season, conveying a sense of seasonal differentiation between a lake and a swamp.
Due to its importance as a natural karstic basin, the Kopais has been the subject of extensive palaeoenvironmental studies since the 1970s, e.g. Greig and Turner, who have published detailed pollen diagrams. In 1983, two new cores were made that offered information on the vegetation from the Late Upper Palaeolithic onwards. During the Late Upper Palaeolithic period, the Kopais had vegetation typical of an open steppe and a dry and cold climate (Artemisia, Graminae and Chenopods). The Pleistocene-Holocene transition is recorded in the diagrams with the forest expansion (Quercus, Juniperus, Pistacia, Ephedra). At layers that correspond to 4000-3000 BC, the quercus disappears, possibly due to deforestation. Analysis of the grain of the coring samples suggest that there was also fluctuation in the lake levels during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene eras. There are also indications that the lake level dropped between 4000 BC and 2500 BC.
Prior Research in the Area
Since the beginning of the century, two important Neolithic sites in the Cephissus river valley have been discovered and excavated, namely Elateia and Chaeronea. Due to its morphology it has been assumed that, during the Pleistocene, this valley must have been a place of aggregation for animals and perhaps an area of palaeolithic occupation. In 1980 research conducted by a Canadian team in two caves near Davlia and Amphiclea yielded a few surface finds of possible Palaeolithic date. Larger quantities of chopped flint were also discovered in another two caves located in the northwest part of the Kopais basin on the north side of the Lebadeia-Chaeronea road.
During the war, German archaeologists excavated the cave of Seidi in the southern part of the Kopais near Aliartus and reported Upper Palaeolithic finds. Since the research in the cave was rather hasty and conducted using old-fashioned methods of recovery, no evidence regarding the fauna, vegetation and palaeoeconomy has been reported. In the same area, the Canadian team located a rock shelter (today used as a pen) around which was found chopped flint.
In the 1960s, surface research conducted around the Kopais basin yielded some Neolithic and Early Helladic sites; in addition rescue excavations in two caves in the area were undertaken, the results of which, however, are unknown.
The Kopais Archaeological Project
Since 1994, we have been working on a project in the Kopais area with the aim of systematically surveying the karstic formations in the rocky basins of the entire basin. During this project we have located, recorded and mapped a large number of caves and rock shelters. A large obstacle to our research has been the present-day use of some of these as sheep-pens. In these cases it is literally impossible to discover any surface finds.
The larger concentration of caves is observed in the limestone boundaries in the eastern section of the basin. In the area between Acraiphnion and Aliartus we have explored and mapped some 23 caves, most of which are of a low elevation, near the level of what once was the lakeshore. Neolithic pottery has been discovered in a cave and in two nearby open air locations. In the south and west part of the basin, there are a few caves. In some of the rock shelters a few surface chipped flints dating probably to the Palaeolithic age have been found, and five Neolithic settlements have been located in the eastern part of the valley.
In the area to the west of Acraiphnion, the cave of Sarakenos and another 15 smaller caves have been recorded at a low elevation. In the area to the south of Glas, we have recorded 10 caves and rock shelters, but without evidence of prehistoric occupation. We have noticed that the presence or absence of prehistoric finds more often relates to the presence of, and changing levels of the water. If we take into account that during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene the lake was quite deep, we must assume that those caves found today at a low elevation right where the level of the present-day plain is, must have been either unsuitable for occupation or used only occasionally during low lake levels.
In the northern part of the basin there are many rock shelters as well as a number of important Neolithic sites such as Kastro and Stroviki. In Baroutospilia and in another small cave nearby, we have recovered obsidian and flint flakes.
After having established the excavation priorities, the archaeologists decided that the most suitable cave for excavation was Sarakenos. It is located at the higher levels of the former lake and is the largest karstic formation in the area, found today much higher than the level of the plain and above the road. The cave has a wide entrance, which provides good light in the chamber and an excellent view toward the lake. Like other sites in the area, the cave was used as a sheep-pen in the recent past, hence significant amounts of dung cover the floor. Archaeological investigation of this cave began in the early 1970s under the direction of Spyropoulos, and it had yielded finds of different chronological periods, but the publication of this material, however, never was realized.
The systematic excavation of this site was a part of the Kopais Project, initiated in 1994, and was to establish a chronological sequence for the development of the cave and the acknowledgement of economic models in diverse periods; this program, which still continues, comprises not only research at the Sarakenos cave but also survey expeditions to numerous other caves in the region.
An assemblage of excellent stratigraphic data inside the cave has offered a succession of distinct cultural phases, dating from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Middle Helladic, when the cave was abandoned for as yet unknown reasons (Sampson 2000). It is probable that the drainage of the lake, which may have been started at the end of the Middle Helladic period, was the reason for the abandonment of the cave.
The Palaeolithic layer in trench B is thin and only covers the bedrock, belonging to the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic (Aurignacian period). The occurrence in this stratum as stone debris fallen from the roof attests to cold climatic phases corresponding to the Upper Palaeolithic period. The lowest stratum resting on the solid rock should be dated to the beginning of the Upper or the end of the Middle Palaeolithic period, judging from the stone industry that comprises blade-type implements of the Aurignacian and the Mousterian period. Small charcoal particles originating from the upper part of the Palaeolithic deposit have been dated by a Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at a laboratory in Oxford and yielded an age fixed to 12345+/-70 BP (13100-12150 BC).
A sterile layer above contains only microfauna showing a long period of abandonment of the site, while it contains a huge concentration of ash and burnings. The presence of man at some chronological moment is certain, nevertheless without the presence of any specific finds. The layers of burnt material are evident of man's entrance into the cave towards the end of the Palaeolithic or the beginning of the Mesolithic Age, as proven by three absolute dates provided by charcoal samples from this stratum (DEM-1206, 9233+/-30 BP or 8530-8340 BC; DEM-1209, 9177+/-31 BP or 8450-8290 BC; and DEM-1210, 9230+/-30 BP or 8530-9340 BC). The first and third examples come from the same hearth, with a characteristic absolute precision. The second example comes from another hearth and is slightly more recent. These ages are contemporaneous to the earliest Mesolithic phase of the Cyclops Cave (Sampson 1998). A sample of the burnt material from the same hearth dated with the method of Optical Thermoluminescence offered an analogous age of 10110+/- 750 BP.
The earliest phase of Neolithic occupation should be roughly put in the second half of the 7th millennium BC (Early Neolithic). From this phase comes fine painted ware with red on white patterns, reminding us of a similar pattern from Youra and Ayios Petros in the Northern Sporades (Sampson 1998) with geometric motifs on a canvas-like background. The stratum of MN revealed a large amount of pottery, especially the red on white variety, which is very similar to the contemporary pottery from Elateia and Chaeronea (being prepared for publication by H. Tzavella-Evjen) as well as the Middle Neolithic ware from Euboea (Sampson 1996-1998).
There is normal sequence to the next phase, called Late Neolithic Ia (5300-4800 BC), characterized by a dark and gray monochrome pottery of very high quality. This pottery is very similar to the Tsangli-Arapi ware (Milojcic & Hauptmann 1969), which shows an advanced ceramic technology, mainly in the firing technique. There is also in abundance painted pottery spread all over Greece in Late Neolithic Ia-Ib.
The Late Neolithic Ia phase is characterized by more intensive occupation: an extended floor that bore the holes of piles, possibly shows that partitions were built inside the cave as spatial arrangement for diverse functions.
The next phase (Late Neolithic Ib, 4800-4200 BC) indicates an intense occupation in the cave as well as in others such as Tharrounia in Euboea (Sampson 1993), Kastria in Kalavryta (Sampson 1997), Ayia Triada in Karystos, the Cave of Cyclops at Youra (Sampson 1998, 2005), etc. The pottery bears similarities to other wares of Central Greece, Euboea (Sampson 1981), and the Aegean. From this horizon comes an amount of clay and marble figurines, which have parallels in LN of Euboea and the Ftelia on Mykonos in the Cyclades (Sampson 2002). The last Neolithic phase (Late Neolithic II, 4200-3300 BC) is well represented in Sarakenos, especially the latter part, which is not frequent in caves (Sampson et al. 1998). In the beginning of this phase an amount of excellent painted pottery has its origin in the Gonia area in the Northern Peloponnese (Blegen 1931). A grave of this period with intact vases was found in the vicinity of the cave and means that a permanent settlement existed at the site. From the Neolithic layers a large amount of stone and bone artifacts, as well as clay and marble figurines, has been unearthed.
Many intact vases were found in the stratum of the Early Helladic II period, which shows a short interval of occupation. Two different phases of Middle Helladic occupation have been discovered with intense storing activities in pithoid vases and in pits covered with clay, which were dug into the Early Helladic and Neolithic strata.
The Economy of the Site
Soil and charcoal samples as well as charred seeds from the cave provide us with information about the palaeoenvironment in the Kopais basin from the Palaeolithic to the Middle Bronze Age. The palynological assemblages that have been studied from the Sarakenos deposit (Sampson & Ioakeim 2002) show presence of Pine and Quercus and an increase of Leguminosae during the transition from Late Neolithic I to Late Neolithic II (second half of the 5th millennium BC). The same species are present with small fluctuations during the Late Neolithic II and Early Helladic II. In general, from the second half of the 5th millennium until the 2nd millennium BC the plant species recorded in the cave pollen diagrams show the clear impact of humans on the environment of the Kopais basin. Within the late Neolithic strata (4th millennium BC) large quantities of carbonized seeds found on the floor testify to cereal and legume cultivation in the Kopais region. This indicates that the species was stored in that place. The study presented here is the first archaeobotanical investigation of the site. The main species recovered was einkorn. Triticum monococcum is a very resistant wheat and can grow on poor soils without manure, but the basin of the Kopais Lake cannot be considered as a region with poor soils. One could say that this "specialization" in einkorn may represent a short sort of cultural traditionalism as was proposed by Sarpaki (1995) in the case of the Balomenos Toumba at Chaeronea, where substantial amounts of Triticum monococcum were also discovered. The wild ancestor of the species would be Triticum boeoticum - a native element of the Greek landscape.
Our research in the area suggests that the evidence for Palaeolithic settlement in the Kopais basin is very patchy. Two caves - Seidi and Sarakenos - contain Upper Palaeolithic finds, while some other caves and rock shelters examined in the basin and around it yielded some probable Palaeolithic remains. The issue is going to be clarified through excavations in some of these sites. The absence, however, of Middle Palaeolithic remains in this area, with the exception of the Sarakenos Cave, is striking, especially since there are several open air sites from this period in nearby Euboea. This may probably be due to palaeogeographical or palaeoclimatic reasons.
Unlike the Palaeolithic, during the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age the human occupation in the Kopais basin appears to be present both in open air and in cave sites. From this period we have ample archaeological evidence from the Sarakenos Cave (Sampson 2014) of regular exploitation of the aquatic resources (fish, shells). It is very probable that there existed in certain places around the lake, the type of lake settlements such as have been found in Kastoria (Chourmouziades 2002) and at Lake Xynias (Sampson 1980).
§ Allen, H., 1997. "The environmental conditions of the Kopais basin, Boeotia, during the post-glacial with special reference to the Mycenaean period" in J. Bintliff (ed.) Recent Developments in the History and Archaeology of Central Greece (Oxford): 39-58.
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§ Sampson, A., 1980. "A settlement of early Sesklo at Lake Xynias, Phthiotis," AAA 14: 104 (Greek edition)
§ Sampson, A., 1981. The Neolithic and Early Helladic I in Euboea (Athens, Greek edition).
§ Sampson, A., 1993. Skoteini at Tharrounia. The cave, the settlement and the cemetery (Athens, Greek edition).
§ Sampson, Α., 1996. "Palaeolithic sites in Euboea and the Northern Sporades", Archeologia 60:51-56 (Athens, Greek edition). .
§ Sampson, A. 1996-1998. "Three Early Neolithic sites in Euboea and their contribution to Aegean prehistory", AAA 29-31: 79-94 (Athens, Greek edition).
§ Sampson, A., 1997. The Cave of Lakes: A Prehistoric site in the highlands of the Peloponnese (Athens, Greek edition).
§ Sampson, A., 1998. "The Mesolithic and Neolithic Habitation in the Cave of Cyclope, Youra, Northern Sporades", BSA 93: 1-22.
§ Sampson, A., Y. Facorellis & Y. Maniatis, 1998. "New Evidence for Cave Occupation during The Late Neolithic Period in Greece", Proceedings of C14 Conference, Lyon: 279.
§ Sampson, Α., 2000. "The Sarakenos Cave and the Occupation of Caves in the Kopais Basin" Third International Conference of Boeotian Studies: 192 (Athens, Greek edition).
§ Sampson, A., 2002. The Neolithic Settlement at Ftelia, Mykonos (Univ. of the Aegean, Rhodes).
§ Sampson, A. & C. Ioakeim, 2002. "The Cave of Sarakenos in the Kopais Basin. Plant Reconstruction during the Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age", Proceedings of the Conference "Geotouristic and Geopolitismic paths": 66 (Athens, Greek edition).
§ Sampson, A., 2005. The Cave of Cyclops on the island of Youra. Mesolithic and Neolithic networks in the Northern Aegean Basin, vol 1, 2, INSTAP Monograph Series.
§ Sampson A. in print, The Neolithic and Bronze Age Occupation of the Sarakenos Cave in Boeotia. Cave Settlement Patterns and Population Movements in Central and Southern Greece, University of the Aegean.
§ Sarpaki, A., 1995. "Toumba Balomenou, Chaeronea: Plant remains from the Early and Middle Neolithic levels" H. Kroll & R. Pasternak, Res Archaeobotanica. 9th Symposium IWGP (Kiel).
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