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TitlePrehistoric Macedonia by Kostas Kotsakis
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I. Prehistoric Macedonia

by Kostas Kotsakis

1. Introduction
In regional archaeology, interest is often accompanied or caused by specific geopolitical
events. The classic example of such a relationship is Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt
with the rise of Egyptology in Europe, and the history of research is full of such in-
stances, even in recent times. Macedonia is no exception to this. The Balkan Wars and
the First World War in particular brought this mysterious and little known area of the
Balkans to public attention. It is not by chance that the first studies were conducted by
allied troops stationed at various points of Macedonia. Sometimes these were nothing
more than the chance result of activities such as digging trenches. They had in any case
been preceded by Rey’s article and the useful book by Casson at the beginning of the
century, which accompanied Wace and Thompson’s classic work, itself a result of the
then recent annexation of Thessaly to the Greek state. Systematic research, however,
appeared only in 1939 with W. Heurtley’s valuable book Prehistoric Macedonia, a
founding work for the study of the prehistory of this region and based on research con-
ducted in the 1920s.1

Without a doubt, however, as soon as research into Macedonian prehistory began,
the region was seen in contrast to the South. This was to be expected: the South of
Greece, the locus of classical civilisation and its prehistory, had from the 18th century
been the core stereotype of the European perception of Greece, captivating the imagina-
tion of Europeans, through travellers, the landscapes of engravings, romantic
descriptions of the places of classicism, and, of course, the archaeological artefacts. The
European gaze defined research stances and approaches and scientifically shaped the
type of archaeology that was practiced in the South: an archaeology that puts emphasis
on art history as a high form of civilisation. For the history of archaeological research in
Greece the role of Macedonia, as with that of Thessaly, has to a great degree been to act
as a catalyst against the stereotypes of South Greek archaeology. It is not by chance that
the first truly interdisciplinary archaeological programme in Greek prehistory, which
marked the beginning of contemporary archaeological research, was conducted in Ma-
cedonia in the early 1960s; despite its unfortunate progress, it provided a model for
much of the subsequent research carried out in Greece.2

If, as Heurtley himself explained in the introduction to his book, the purpose was
to demonstrate that ‘Macedonia goes with the South’ and not with the ‘North’,3 this
deep sense of difference must have been widespread at that time, a feeling strengthened
by the recent political history of the region. Such discontinuity continues to shape re-
search approaches even today, although to a lesser degree. The ‘North-South Divide’
has been repeatedly discussed in relation to developments in South Greece that were
absent in Macedonia, such as the appearance of palace culture and ‘social complexity’,
thus creating a kind of geographical and cultural ‘boundary’.4 Just what the contribution
of ancient political thought was to the formation of this notion of a difference that can
be seen to the north and south of an imaginary ‘boundary’ is a matter for specialist
scholars. The only thing one should say about the prehistory of the region, admittedly
on a general level, is that such a view of the boundary most probably leads to the essen-
tialisation and objectification of multi-dimensional phenomena, such as social
organisation or complexity, which neither have a stable content nor, as such, are they
necessarily always manifested in the same way. For example, social complexity can be

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ascertained in various fields and not simply in the field of political organisation, nor in
particular in the way in which power is diffused throughout the social structure. The last
appears to predominate and to characterise certain societies in the Late Helladic period
in the Peloponnese and Central Greece, obviously through specific social situations and
special structural characteristics, but it does not necessarily prevail in other geographi-
cal areas, with different historical parameters. An archaeological discussion that insists
on similar limits ends up looking at the appearance of specific archaeological forms, on
both sides of the boundary, which it usually considers as stable and unchanging, and
labels as ‘types’, e.g. palace type or a special pottery type. The presence of a ‘palace’,
however, cannot be considered necessarily concomitant with political hierarchy, nor
does it fully explain a hierarchy, whilst the absence of a palace does not necessarily also
mean the absence of any form of social hierarchy. Pottery types cannot be compared
without first understanding the function of the pots and the process of their production
within different social contexts, in which they participate and partly produce, as ele-
ments of the material culture. There is, therefore, a deeper difficulty in formulating an
analytic discourse that is based on stable categories that are formed through the concept
of the ideal boundary. For this reason, each phenomenon shall here by approached, as
far as possible, within its own parameters without being subject to generalised catego-
ries that presuppose in advance a specific content, meaning and role.

A similar difficulty, connected completely to the above, arises from the applica-
tion of ethnic or cultural categories that are often adopted, seemingly indiscriminately,
in an effort to reconstruct Macedonian prehistory. The meaning of cultural group
(which, at bottom, does not represent anything more than selected archaeological cate-
gories of material culture, mainly pottery), is a popular tool in archaeological studies for
historically reconfiguring peoples and groups with a supposed distinctive spatial behav-
iour, traceable thanks to the material culture and archaeological remains.5 According to
this view, the archaeological evidence reveals ethnic and cultural origins, movements
and even migrations and colonisations. It overlooks, however, the fact that this traceable
distribution of finds is essentially the result of the one-dimensional significance that ar-
chaeological research attaches to material culture, pottery in particular. If pottery and
material culture are not evidence of cultural origins, but elements of the identity of the
groups living in a region, then the picture that emerges is significantly different. In
place of a linear movement of cultural groups, a dense multi-dimensional network of
relations and contacts between prehistoric communities is shaped, which may not have
the schematic simplicity of conventional reconstruction, but is undoubtedly richer and
perhaps nearer the reality of prehistoric life. We shall not, however, discuss the question
of origins in general, a question with particular theoretical and semiological overtones,
and which goes beyond the scope of this chapter.

Finally, in terms of the history of research, a couple of words on the geography of
this region. Regardless of geopolitical developments, the geographical region of Mace-
donia is defined by the outflow basin of the River Axios, which connects the areas to
the north and south of the contemporary political boundary, i.e., from the borders of
Greece and the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia. In this presentation of the prehistory, the
aim shall not be to adopt a new, contemporary boundary to replace the ideal one be-
tween North and South of the early 20th century, shifting the dividing line some
kilometres to the north, to today’s borders between the two countries. Even so, it is in-
teresting, and ought to be noted, that, in terms of the international interest, the
reconstruction of prehistory on both sides of the borders has not followed parallel paths.
In the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia, foreign research projects have only recently taken
off, in parallel with the local ones. On the Greek side, the initial picture was shaped
within an international environment, already before the Second World War. The partici-

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have so far been found at Dispilio and Yannitsa, but there are analogies throughout the
whole of the Balkans in this period. Researchers currently refer to them generically as
‘script’, without this meaning that we know whether these symbols had a specific
speech value. Even so, all these archaeological artefacts should not be considered ex-
changeable goods in themselves, but more as symbols of the exchange. The true
exchangeable goods are lost to archaeological research: textiles, foods and people, in
the form of exogamous exchanges. The gender dimension of these networks also es-
capes us, the role of men and women in the settlement and in movement along the
networks, as well as in the successive changes in Neolithic social reality. In each case,
the ‘cosmopolitan’ nature of the period does not last for long: as we approach the end of
the 5th millennium and the beginning of the 4th, the traces of the Neolithic settlements
are almost lost. At settlements such as Mandalo and Sitagroi long-term abandonment
that lasts for several centuries is witnessed, whilst the known sites dating to this period
are few. Megalo Nisi Galanis in the Ptolemaida basin is one such site that has been ex-
plored recently.38 It undoubtedly shows a dramatic change in the order and form of the
settlements, the characteristics of which we do not yet understand. As is common with
archaeological reconstructions, much more and systematic research is required on this

4. Late Prehistory
Researchers have not come to any conclusions as to the precise processes responsible
for the changes that characterise the next long period, which we conventionally call the
Bronze Age (3500–1100 BC) in Macedonia. The rapid changes that can be observed in
the economy and social organisation of Crete and the Peloponnese, but also of the Cy-
clades, led to an explosive rise in hierarchy and social complexity in these societies,
which ended in the appearance of ‘palace’ cultures, as Colin Renfrew has noted since
the 1970s.39 Something similar is not, however, apparent in Macedonia. The populations
of the Early Bronze Age continue in the Neolithic settlements, or resettle in older Neo-
lithic toumbes such as Mandalo and Sitagroi. At the same time, many settlements that
had been settled in the Late Neolithic and had already been abandoned were not re-
founded, and the beginning of this period at least is marked by a general decline in the
number of settlements. In the region of Langadas, for example, the number of sites
shrinks in the Early Bronze Age, but rises again by the end of the 3rd millennium. By
the end of the Bronze Age, the number of sites has risen markedly, and during the Iron
Age the density of sites is so high that such a number has never been seen since, even
during the Ottoman period.40 A similar reduction in settlements is seen in East Mace-
donia, and the general picture that we have, although to a great degree lacking and
fragmentary, indicates a drastic reduction of the population in comparison with the high
point of the Late Neolithic. Before, however, coming to any conclusions about possible
historical events, we should remember that the whole of the 4th millennium already rep-
resents a period of population decline following the collapse of the extensive network of
Neolithic settlements and exchange between the regions, including complementary mi-
cro-environments and productive capacities. The most substantial change that is
observed in this period is the dominance of settlements with a toumba form. All the flat-
extended sites have already been abandoned and even the largest sites now shrink to the
limits of manifestly smaller toumbes. One characteristic example is the Mesimeriani
Toumba in the Prefecture of Thessaloniki, where the older Neolithic settlement is lim-
ited to the west side of the original Neolithic settlement, occupying an area of only
around 1 1/2 acres, and which continues to be inhabited and to rise throughout the
whole of this period.41 The Macedonian landscape acquires many of the prehistoric fea-
tures familiar to us today during the Bronze Age.

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The importance of the predominance of settlements with the toumba form should
be assessed in relation to the characteristics of the social organisation attributed to this
form of settlement layout. As we have seen, the formation of the toumba is considered
to be the result of the presence of the ‘oikos’, a presence that lays an emphasis on the
duration and continuation of the distinct households that together constitute the settle-
ment. This development now also appears to have shaped the forms by which space was
organised, which previously lay emphasis on a communal collectivity that now appears
to have been abandoned completely. On the contrary, there are indications that in this
period the ‘oikoi’ and their ‘households’ now dominate completely, to the extent that
they represent or are a substitute for the totality of the community. Thus, communal
works appear, especially in the advanced phases of the Bronze Age, that have the sole
purpose of strengthening the power of the ‘oikoi’ of the community, making it more
tangible and giving them a dominant position in the landscape, deliberately raising the
tell in its totality. On the other hand, works of architecture such as the ‘Burnt House’ at
Sitagroi portray this dominance in an eloquent way, the forerunners of which we en-
counter in the Neolithic period only in the ‘megara’ of Dimini and Sesklo in Thessaly.42
Large, central buildings in which storage spaces and spaces for the consumption of food
(hearths, silos, etc.) prevail, indicating an attempt at economic autonomy that is not by
chance alone.43

At this point we should also take into account the disappearance of the painted,
decorated fine pottery and its substitution by monochrome undecorated categories.
Many of the techniques used in pottery production, decoration and firing that were
widely known from the explosion of pottery production in the Late Neolithic disappear
in this period, and production is limited to dark-coloured vessels, for daily use, cooking
and storing. Only in the mid-2nd millennium BC does pottery decorated with similar
characteristics reappear. This important change is not necessarily connected with the
movements of prehistoric ‘peoples’, with realignments of the cultural map of Mace-
donia, nor should it be related to ‘cultural decline’ or ‘stagnation’ or similar evaluative
descriptions.44 Neolithic painted pottery represents an object of high social visibility,
produced for the offering of food and public consumption within conditions of open so-
ciability. Its presence and use in such a context aspires to emphasise the value that
society places on the redistribution of food, and by extent mutuality, thus creating a cen-
tral ideological mechanism. This social function is the deeper reason why this particular
form of material culture acquires this prominent role in Neolithic cultures. The rise of
the ‘household’, however, signifies a distancing from the ideology of redistribution, and
reinforces hoarding and autonomy, as we can see in the extensive storerooms that ac-
company the household buildings. The consumption of food is transferred to ‘private’
space, as is demonstrated by the hearths and the food preparation structures, where col-
lective distribution is neither possible nor necessary, and perhaps not even desirable.
Collective consumption is thus transformed into private hospitality and the vessels take
on a different focus. Within the context of private hospitality, the Neolithic common
use of the vessels cannot attribute particular status to the host. On the contrary, the per-
sonal objects that belong only to the members of the house and which are exhibited in
the appropriate circumstances transmit to third parties powerful messages of status and
social superiority. In this way, the ‘households’, by emphasising the importance of ‘per-
sonal’ objects, objects that can be worn upon the person, reorganise social — and
economic reality — to their benefit. Within this process, they use and reshape the mate-
rial culture that accompanies and supports this reality. The declaration of social
messages of mutuality is gradually transformed into a declaration of messages of power,
which are expressed by the very presence and form of the ‘oikoi’ within the context of
their low-key competition, whilst pottery is limited to its simple functional use. Some
pottery shapes, however, appear related to the new conditions of individual consump-

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1. L. Rey, ‘Observations sur les sites préhistoriques et protohistoriques de la Macédo-

ine’, BCH 40(1916), S. Casson, Macedonia, Thrace and Illyria, Oxford 1926. W.
Heurtley, Prehistoric Macedonia, Cambridge 1939.

2. Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001, 283-284. The Nea Nikomedia project (1961)
remained unpublished for almost 40 years, and the first volume of the excavations
was published only in 1996 (Wardle 1996). On the influence of the Nea Nikomedia
project on archaeology in Greece, see Fotiadis 1995. See also, Fotiadis 2001.

3. Heurtley 1939, xvii.
4. Halstead 1994.
5. Recall the so-called ‘culture-historical approach’, as formulated by Gordon Childe

in the inter-war period. For the contemporary theoretical critique of this view see for
example Johnson 1999, with a simple synopsis. Even so, this approach is used ex-
tensively by Sakellariou 1982.

6. Schulz 1989; Vouvalides, Syrides and Albanakis 2003.
7. Besios and Krahtopoulou 2001; Krahtopoulou 2003.
8. Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001.
9. Grün 1996.
10. An age of 700,000 years has been proposed by A.N. Poulianos for — to use his term

— Archanthropus europaeus petraloniensis. See Poulianos 1981.
11. On the Peloponnese, see Reisch 1982; Runnels and van Andel 1993. On Thessaly,

see Runnels and van Andel 1993.
12. Runnels 1995.
13. Efstratiou, Biagi, Elefanti et al. 2003.
14. One dating puts the use of the mines at 20,300 years B.P. Koukouli-Chrysanthaki

and Weisgerber 1993.
15. Perlès 2001.
16. On this major issue, see Dennell 1983; Zvelebil 1998; Kotsakis 2002; Kotsakis

17. van Andel and Runnels 1995; Runnels 2003.
18. Childe 1925.
19. Mitrevski 2003.
20. Özdogan 2005; Roodenberg 1995.
21. Basgelen and Özdogan 1999.
22. For the characteristics of Neolithic settlements and their transformational function

within the context of Neolithic society, see Lagopoulos 2004. Also, Kotsakis 1996.
23. Until the opening of the Tempe National Highway, the Sarantaporo pass was the

main connection between Thessaly and Macedonia. On Neolithic Servia, see Ridley,
Wardle and Mould 2000.

24. This is an ancient Greek word which has survived throughout the whole of Mace-
donia until today.

25. Hodder 1990; Leach 2003.
26. With the term ‘household’ in prehistoric archaeology we mean the smallest social

unit that, as a recognisable entity, resides within a structure and is active in the af-
fairs of the community. See the review of the relevant bibliography in Souvatzi
2002. For the economic functions of households, see Halstead 1999.

27. Pappa and Besios 1999.
28. A general discussion of the Balkan context in Bailey 2000. For recent research on

the Greek side, see Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001. For the settlement of the
Thessaloniki International Trade Fair, see Pappa 1993. For Stavroupoli, see Gram-
menos and Kotsos 2002, and Grammenos and Kotsos 2004.

29. Triantaphyllou 2001.
30. Pappa, Halstead, Kotsakis et al 2004.

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31. Supportive of this view is the interesting observation that the sheep and goats con-

sumed during this ritual had been reared on a different diet than those that were
consumed in a household context, as the special laboratory analyses have shown.
See Mainland and Halstead 2002.

32. Sanev 1988. On Govrlevo, see Mitrevski 2003, vol. II, 5.
33. Gimbutas 1976.
34. Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001, 292.
35. Hourmouziades 1996.
36. See the recent discussion in Grammenos and Kotsos 2004.
37. Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001, 293-294.
38. Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001, 290-291.
39. A classic thesis, which, however, requires a reconsideration of the data, Renfrew

40. Andreou and Kotsakis 1994.
41. Grammenos and Kotsos 2002.
42. Hourmouziades 1979; Kotsakis 1996. On the role of the ‘megaron’ in the social

formation of Thessaly, see Halstead 1995.
43. Renfrew, Gimbutas and Elster 1986. See also the slightly later plethora of impres-

sive food preparation structures at the toumba of Archontiko, Pilali-Papasteriou and
Papaefthimiou-Papanthimou 2002. The similar phenomena observed at the site of
Tumba Radobor in the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia, in the vicinity of the town of
Bitola, are also of interest; see Mitrevski 2003, 46.

44. The view that this picture is related to the descent of the Indo-Europeans into Greece
is popular, in particular outside of the field of archaeology. On the issue of the ap-
pearance of Indo-European languages (and not the Indo-Europeans per se) see
Mallory 1995; Mallory 2001. It is worth noting Mallory’s salient observation here
(2001: 135): ‘Even so, we must admit that there is no secure link between language
on the one hand and the political systems that archaeologists perceive on the basis of
house, burial and pottery, etc. type, or the anthropological types that anthropologists
identify, on the other hand.’ Even if Mallory’s description of what archaeology does
is somewhat outdated, his observation is still valid.

45. Mangafa, Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, Malamidou et al 2003.
46. Koukouli-Chrysanthaki 1987.
47. Pappa 2005.
48. Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001, Andreou 2001.
49. This was a technique known from the Middle East. It is comprised of the construc-

tion of two parallel walls close together, which are united lengthways by smaller
perpendicular walls. The technique offers many of the advantages of a compact wall
but at a significantly lower cost. The ‘cubes’ that are formed can be filled with com-
pact earth or used for other purposes.

50. Halstead 1994.
51. The presence of this pottery is unknown in the upper Axios valley, north of the bor-

ders, at sites such as Vardarski Rid, which belong, according to archaeologists from
the F.Y. Republic of Macedonia, to the Ulanci culture. Claims that there is a My-
cenean influence here are completely indirect and questionable. Even so, the
analogies with the other categories at modern sites of the lower Axios valley, such
as Kastana, are not negligible. See Mitrevski 2001.

52. Kiriatzi, Andreou, Dimitriadis et al 1997.
53. Such as the plain of Sybaris. See Buxeda i Carrigos, Jones, Kilikoglou et al. 2003.

On the subject of Macedonia as a ‘periphery’ of the Mycenean world and for a dis-
cussion of the theoretical questions that accompany such a characterisation, see
Andreou and Kotsakis 1994.

54. Dietler and Hayden 2001; Hayden 2001; Halstead and Barrett 2004.
55. Stirrup jugs, the ‘trademark’ of Mycenean trade, are absent, for example.
56. Andreou 2003.
57. Andreou, Fotiadis and Kotsakis 2001.

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