Gateway to Rome
Ancestors of Odysseus
Sebastian Payne on finds made during a youthful excavation in a Greek cave.
My favourite finds were made in a Greek cave on the east coast of the Peloponnese some 30 years ago. I was the animal bone specialist, and just 22, when I joined the American-led excavation at Franchthi Cave in 1967.
Franchthi is a very romantic location. You had to sail about a mile across a bay from the nearest fishing village until eventually the cave opened up in front of you, about 30ft above the water and absolutely huge. There was a rockfall and a window about half way back, so the cave was filled with light.
We all stayed in rented villas about 10-12 miles away and worked more or less every hour of daylight. With a young team all very excited by what we were finding, we happily worked six days a week sorting finds late into the evening. Then on Sundays we went off into the countryside where those of us working on plant and animal remains gathered reference material. I collected as many dead animals as I could scavenge, in particular road kills such as foxes, martens, cats and goats. I also did some live trapping of rodents and collected owl pellets. I'd haul these dead animals back, boil them up, and study the skeletons to help me identify bones from the cave. I've still got all those skeletons today.
Once I was travelling back from Greece with a suitcase full of animal bones when the customs officer asked me what was in there, and I said 'bones' in my best Greek. He clearly thought I'd got the word wrong - until he opened the case and saw for himself. I think he thought I was a bit eccentric.
Initially the excavation had been focused on the Greek city site of Halieis, but the excavators went over to dig at Franchthi because there were reports it was turning up bits of votive material. Very quickly they hit deeply stratified Neolithic and earlier deposits. One of the most significant finds was large quantities of obsidian - a kind of black volcanic glass used like flint for tools - which had come from the Aegean island of Melos.
It was not surprising to find this material in the Neolithic levels but it also occurred in fairly large quantities in the Mesolithic. At exactly the same point we began to get a lot of tunny-fish vertebrae, which are more easily fished if you go out into deeper water. So we had two signals that people had a well-developed seagoing capacity as far back as about 7250 BC. As we dug deeper we continued to get quantities of the same obsidian going right back to about 11,500 BC. Mesolithic seafaring was surprising enough, but this was far more so.
Another find of great interest was fairly large numbers of shed milk teeth of sheep, goats, cattle and pigs from the Neolithic levels. I was slow to realise that these were shed teeth as I was concentrating on looking at tooth wear to tell us how old the animals were when they were killed. Only later did the penny drop that there weren't enough molars to match the worn milk teeth, and that the roots of the teeth had resorbed to the point that indicated they had been shed naturally. This showed that these were teeth that had just dropped out of the mouth, rather than being from animals that had been killed.
This discovery gave us a vivid picture of people living together with their stock in the cave, rather than keeping them in pens outside. It was one of those special moments when you get a shaft of light, when something which you thought you couldn't know emerges, and you suddenly see what was going on.
Sebastian Payne directs English Heritage's new Centre for Archaeology in Portsmouth