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The Human Face of Radiocarbon

Zoï Tsirtsoni


Zoï Tsirtsoni

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1The present book deals with the chronology and evolution of human settlement during the Late Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods in two of the best-explored, archaeologically, Balkan countries: Greece and Bulgaria. It is based on recently collected evidence from more than thirty sites, roughly fifty-fifty Greek and Bulgarian.

2The data concerning chronology were collected between 2008 and 2011, in the framework of a three‑and-a-half year multidisciplinary research project, “Balkans 4000”, which I coordinated in the name of the Laboratory of Archaeology and Archaeometry of Lyon (UMR 5138) and which has been financed entirely by the French National Research Agency (ANR). The program focused on the so-called “Fourth Millennium problem”, that is, the apparently massive abandonment of settlements and the subsequent scarcity of human evidence in the Balkans between ca 4000 and 3200 cal BC, at the transition from the Chalcolithic to the Early Bronze Age. Considered by some to be the result of huge ecological changes or large-scale conflicts, this apparent desertification of much of the Balkan Peninsula for almost one thousand years has embarrassed specialists much in the last decades. Why did people leave their homes? Where did they go? Was there a pattern in their movement? Why don’t we see them? What are their relations with the later EBA inhabitants?

3In order to answer to such questions, we decided to carry out research following two complementary axes: one properly speaking archaeological, with an emphasis on the radiocarbon dating of in-site features investigated through excavation, and one palaeo-environmental, with an emphasis on the investigation of the surrounding landscape. The latter also included radiocarbon dating, but conducted in sediments from off-site drillings and thus applicable to more complex or long-term sedimentation processes. Although highly relevant to the “Fourth Millennium issue”, these processes and their implication for settlement analysis are not discussed at all here.

4The archaeological sites where samples were selected for radiocarbon dating – and which are those reported here – cover a spectrum as large and as varied as possible, both geographically and chronologically. Most of them were excavated in the years after 2000, as part of several smaller or bigger projects of either systematic or rescue character, financed by local authorities, or by national and foreign institutions. The sites also present a great diversity in their location, topography, and overall features: settlements and cemeteries, short- or long-lived, open-air or in caves, flat or elevated into tells, in lowland plains or high in the mountains, far away or close to the sea… This diversity and wide distribution was indeed one of the major analytical criteria of the project and is, ultimately, one of the major assets of the present volume, which thus provides a sort of “up-to-date panorama” of human settlement for the time and place under consideration.

5Two general trends were distinguished, however, among the available archaeological evidence: on one hand, settlements or cemeteries existed where more than one phase was represented, belonging among others to the Chalcolithic, to the Early Bronze Age, or to both; this was the majority of cases. On the other hand, we knew of a few single-layered settlements or individual tombs that could belong to the transitional, “missing” period. Dating human occupation as accurately as possible was the basis of all discussion about the possible developments either at a local (i.e. site) level, or at a regional scale.

6For the multiphase sites, an obvious task was to determine the date of the last Chalcolithic and that of the earliest Bronze Age level, in order to confirm and better circumscribe the presumed hiatus between the two. But it was clear that no possible evaluation of its significance could be made without parallel consideration of what preceded or what followed at the same site. A settlement that is abandoned after one thousand years of uninterrupted occupation and another that experiences several gaps, or another that was deserted after only a short “trial” period, should not necessarily be interpreted in the same way when it comes to explaining the causes that possibly triggered this abandonment. At a regional scale, synchronisms or discrepancies between the various acts of abandonment, and eventually between the various reoccupations, could be essential for understanding the direction of the particular event(s), or on the contrary, the specificities of each situation. That is why we decided, every time that we had settlements with long occupational sequences, to date not only the parts that bordered the 4th millennium gap, but the whole sequence.

7The result of this choice is a quite impressive series of some 200 fresh, accurate and well-contextualised 14C dates, which refer to phenomena taking place from the early 6th millennium BC until the historical times. Here we discuss only those going down to the early centuries of the 3rd millennium BC, i.e. the beginning of the Early Bronze Age in terms of relative chronology.

8The main body of the book is organised in twenty-one chapters (chapters 3 to 23), each presenting the data about human occupation in and around a site during one or more of the aforementioned periods. They are written by the excavators themselves, sometimes assisted by other archaeologists associated with the study of the unearthed material. The comments on the 14C dates produced by the program are therefore entirely theirs, as well as the comparison with older data eventually produced by other laboratories. The order of presentation is geographical – a choice which has the advantage of keeping together entities that need to be considered at a regional level.

9Three more chapters complete the volume. Chapter 1 gives the general state and the stakes of research, focusing on the rather delicate relationship between the standard archaeological discourse – largely based on material culture – and the results from absolute dating, especially radiocarbon. Chapter 2 presents in some detail the sampling, processing and measuring procedures, and delivers the full results of the newly produced radiocarbon dates. Finally, a concluding chapter at the end (chapter 24) summarises the main points of the analysis and tries to draw a broader historical picture out of the individual stories. But let the reader be prepared: if there is one thing that we learn from these reports, it is that there is no global History, but only local responses to more or less large-scale phenomena. This is what makes the overall picture so human – and therefore unpredictable, like all humans.

10I am grateful to all the archaeologists who embraced the questions put forward by the “Balkans 4000” project and agreed to participate to it by providing, in addition to samples for radiocarbon dating, valuable information about the overall context of their work, and in many cases hospitality at their sites as well. This goes of course for those who author the texts of the present volume (with a special mention for Nadezdha Todorova), but also for those who didn’t manage, for different reasons, to provide a contribution in it. I will name MM. Vencislav Gergov (Regional Historical Museum of Pleven), who entrusted to me samples from his excavations at Ezero-Sadovets; Lazar Ninov (Institute of Archaeology, Sofia), who assumed the choice of bone samples from Bezhanovo, Kosharna and Devetaki; Alexander Chohadzhiev (Historical Museum of Veliko Tarnovo), who provided the sample from Hotnitsa and helped considerably with the choice of samples from Smyadovo as well; Nedko Elenski (also from the Historical Museum of Veliko Tarnovo) who agreed to give me samples from the graves he excavated at Dzhulyunitsa; Petar Leshtakov (Institute of Archaeology, Sofia), who entrusted to me his samples from Akladi Tseïri and introduced me to the extremely interesting debate about the early metallurgical activities in the Sozopol area; Leonidas Hatziangelakis (former director of the Ephorate at Karditsa), who orchestrated the study of the sites of Prodromos and Sykeon, and Christos Batzelas who actually did the sampling from the latter; Konstantinos Zachos and Dimitris Kontogiorgos (Ephorate of Ioannina) who had the idea of checking the date of Serviana. And of course Professor Giorgos Hourmouziadis (University of Thessaloniki), who “surrendered” himself to the persistant arguments of his assistant Marina Sophronidou and myself, and agreed to give us samples from his excavations at Dispilio, despite his scepticism towards chronological subdivisions and time measurement in general. I am deeply sorry that he is not with us anymore to see and comment upon the outcome of this effort.

11I also wish to thank all the other team members of the project, starting of course with the radiocarbon scientists Christine Oberlin and Yannis Maniatis, heads of the Radiocarbon Laboratory of Lyon and the Laboratory of Archaeometry “Demokritos” respectively. A special mention should be addressed to M. Christophe Moreau, head of the LMC14 Laboratory at Saclay, who, although not directly involved in our project, has manifested a great interest in it and accelerated, whenever possible, the procedures of AMS dating. Then come the members of the palaeo-environmental team, whose names do not appear in this volume, but whose contribution was essential in both the conception and the realisation of the project: the coordinator of the palaeo-environmental research Laurent Lespez (lecturer at the University of Caen during the time of the project, and professor today at the University of Créteil-Paris East); the research engineer Robert Davidson (Geophen Laboratory, Caen), the archaeologist and micromorphologist Cécile Germain-Vallée (district council of Calvados), the fire-signal specialist Yann Le Drezen (now lecturer at the Geography Dept., University of Paris I); and the palynologists Antonio López-Sáez and Lourdes López‑Merino, both at the Laboratory of Archaeobotany of the CSIC at Madrid.

12The role of the permanent technicians of the Radiocarbon Laboratory of Lyon, Marie-Thérèse Cuzange and Viviane Belon, in the successful fulfilment of the project needs to be underlined, as well as the role of Didier Roux, account manager of the same laboratory, and especially Nicole Florès, account manager of the entire UMR 5138, who assumed the difficult task of coordination of the operations on a practical and financial level: I thank them all sincerely for their efforts. I also thank the permanent technicians of the “Demokritos” Laboratory, Marigo Kyriazi and Kyriaki Gogidou, for the care they showed in the preparation and processing of samples. Irène Béguier, Laetitia Birée, Irini Kellidou and Nicolas Doutau have been temporarily employed by the project for different tasks; each one of them brought his/her contribution to the success of the project, and I thank them. I also thank Alexia Levrey, engineer at the Department of Cartography of the Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, with whom we have started developing a GIS with the data gathered by the project: although this plan remains (at least for now) unaccomplished, she spent much time on it and gave me a lot of useful advice. The maps used in this book are not hers (the background map was drawn several years ago by Catherine Finetin, engineer at the Cartography Department of the Maison d’Archéologie et d’Ethnologie René Ginouvès at Nanterre) but integrates part of Alexia’s advice for the presentation of sites. Athina Pediaditaki-Nalbant, Nicola Wardle‑Hunter and Tatiana Stefanova carried out the demanding task of translating the original Greek and Bulgarian texts of this book into English: I thank all three of them for their work, their professionalism, and also for their support of the overall project. The final language editing was made by China Shelton, whom I thank here sincerely.

13I express my gratitude to the successive directors of the UMR 5138 at Lyon: Anne Schmitt (Senior Researcher at the CNRS), for she believed in the project from the beginning and fully supported it, and Nicolas Reveyron (Professor at the University Lyon 2), who pursued the same direction until the end.

14This project, and me personally, owe much to Bogdan Atanassov, my “half-Greek” Bulgarian friend and colleague (now assistant professor at the New Bulgarian University at Sofia), who opened the doors of the Bulgarian archaeological milieu for me and guided me (literally!) to most of the investigated sites. With his advice, his hospitality, and his persistence, but also his well-founded critiques, he improved both the shape and the essence of this initiative.

15Among the persons whose contribution to the concept of the project was essential, I need to mention of course René Treuil, my professor at the University of Paris I (now emeritus). I am deeply – and permanently – indebted to him for inspiring in me the desire for quest in general, and that for the quest around the Neolithic-Early Bronze Age transition in particular. It was in his major 1983 book, Le Néolithique et le Bronze Ancien égéens, that I discovered the issue for the first time. He was also one of the first to consider the Balkans as an integral part of the Aegean world and encouraged me, as a student first and as young scholar later, to open the framework of my research into this direction – not just by reading books, but by actually going there, meeting the “neighbours”, and making projects together. This was also the devise of my other “mentor”, Roland Étienne, under whose direction I had the luck to realise my post‑doctoral research as a member of the French School at Athens and initiate my first (i.e. as a coordinator) multidisciplinary project. I cannot thank him enough for his open-mindedness, his generosity, and his constant support of all my scientific plans, including this one.

16Finally, I wish to express publicly my gratitude to Pascal Darcque, my companion in science and in life, for all his help, his understanding, and his advice, as well as to our two kids for their patience.

February 2013


17An important part of the volume’s printing costs has been covered by a publication grant from the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP). I express my gratitude to the members of the Institute’s committee for accepting to support so generously this editorial project, and I thank personally Mrs Karen Vellucci, director of grant programs, for handling the entire procedure with such efficiency and friendly manner. Eva Alram-Stern and John Chapman were the two scholars who accepted to review the book upon request of the publisher. Let them both find here my sincere thanks: their comments helped make this book not only real but better.

18Last but not least, I wish to thank the heads and personnel of the Publications department of the Maison de l’Orient for their support, both material and human.

September 2015

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