The Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project

The Lithics from Mallakastra

September 1, 2001
Curtis Runnels

The complete inventory of lithics from the regional survey and from the excavation at Kryegjata B was examined in June-July by Curtis Runnels, Muzafer Korkuti, Priscilla Murray, and Arta Mëhilli.  The inventory consists of 2,565 artifacts.  Each artifact was examined and classified by formal technological type and assigned a provisional date and entered into the project database.  This report summarizes our preliminary observations on the lithics and is subject to considerable revision as the study continues.  The classification we used was based on the system first proposed by  François Bordes for Palaeolithic industries and which is today widely used to describe lithic assemblages (e.g., Debénath and Dibble 1994; Demars and Laurent 1989).

The collection procedures employed by the survey teams ensured that lithics of all sizes and descriptions were collected.  The careful training of the field walkers and the policy of collecting all lithics ensured that the assemblage of just over 2500 pieces is representative of the population of lithics in the Mallakastra area.  The wide range seen in the sizes of the artifacts, which range from large cobbles used as tested pieces down to worked flakes no more than one or two millimeters in maximum dimension, is testimony that few if any significant lithics were overlooked by the survey teams.  Only a small number of pieces, fewer than five, turned out on closer inspection to be natural, i.e. unmodified stones.

General Observations

The majority of the artifacts are made from local raw materials, chiefly reddish-brown flint (chert).  Only one small piece of obsidian (of unknown origin) was noted in the collection.  Raw materials other than flint include quartzite, quartz, and cherty limestone.  Flint was by far the most commonly used material.  The local flint occurs in the form of cobbles which accumulated in streambeds and gravel bars associated with the major rivers in the region.  Cortical flakes struck from these cobbles  predominate in the collection and there are also many cobbles with one or more flakes removed to test them for quality ("tested pieces" as opposed to true cores).  These features point to the local reduction of flint cores to produce blanks for the manufacture of retouched tools.  Two kinds of flint were exploited.  One variety is reddish-brown, opaque, and lustrous and occurs in the form of stream-rolled cobbles.  The other variety is a fossiliferous material of light brown color, which also occurs as cobbles or pebbles.  A small number of artifacts were manufactured from flint types that may have been brought into the area from another part of Albania or even farther afield.  Pieces of high quality flint resembling chalcedony and the light, translucent brown flint called "honey flint" in the archaeological literature occur in the form of finished artifacts or blanks and never in the form of cores, core fragments, or other debitage that would prove that the material was procured and worked locally.  Only artifacts of typologically "late" forms, e.g, Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, or Neolithic were made from imported materials. 

A close examination of the artifacts under 10X magnification revealed no evidence of water transport, erosion, trampling, or other post depositional movement and alteration.  Almost all surfaces are free of scratches, abrasion, polish, or other damage.  Edges are usually crisp and sharp, with thin or minutely retouched edges showing no signs of damage other than clusters of micro-flake scars that may have resulted from use.  Patinas are noticeable on typologically older artifacts, particularly on those of Lower-Middle Palaeolithic type, but generally patinas are uneven and the Mallakastra artifacts show little evidence of the extreme effects of weathering that are noticeable on Palaeolithic artifacts farther south in Epirus (Runnels and van Andel 1993; Runnels et al. 1999).  This finding is consistent with the observations by Zangger and Timpson (see this web site) on the geomorphology of the region.  They noted that surfaces are old and stable, and erosion is minimal.  The lithic artifacts are likely to be at or near their original positions of deposition.  This last conclusion is supported by the completely different sizes of artifacts found in most tracts.  The artifacts range in size from one millimeter to more than 10 centimeters in maximum dimension and show no sign of the sorting by size that would occur if the lithics on the surface were regularly sorted by flowing water or downslope movement.

In conclusion, the artifacts are well preserved and apparently derive from prehistoric activity areas in the landscape.  In terms of chronological distribution, however, there is evidence of considerable discontinuity.  Only two major periods are represented: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic.  Lower/Middle Palaeolithic artifacts are common, with smaller numbers of early Upper Palaeolithic artifacts.  The other period represented in the assemblage can be described as Mesolithic (Epipalaeolithic).  Other than for these two periods, evidence for human presence in the form of the lithics is very patchy and only a handful of artifacts were assigned to the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages.

Lower and Middle Palaeolithic

A large number of the artifacts were assigned to the Palaeolithic, specifically to the Middle Palaeolithic (MP), and are broadly similar to the artifacts found elsewhere in Albania, for instance at Xara near Butrint (Korkuti 1983).  Earlier and later materials are certainly present, but are few in number.

The Lower Palaeolithic is represented by heavily patinated large flakes, but there are few independent criteria for distinguishing earlier artifacts from the more common Middle Palaeolithic artifacts.  Two or three small bifaces (e.g., the ones from Kraps) might be Lower Palaeolithic.  The Lower Palaeolithic from Southwest Asia to Europe is represented both by assemblages with bifaces (handaxes) and by core-chopper groups.  without bifaces that overlap geographically and chronologically and have uncertain affinities with each other and with later flake-dominated industries (i.e., Middle Palaeolithic; Bar-Josef 1998).  Cores in the form of chopping tools and choppers abound in the collections along with a wide variety of retouched flake tools, and some of these could be Lower Palaeolithic.  Certainty is not possible in the absence of other evidence. 

The MP appears to consist of two facies.  The first is a typical Levalloiso-Mousterian that includes Levallois cores, discoidal cores, blades, typical and atypical Levallois flakes, Levallois points, pseudo-Levallois points, scrapers, denticulates, notches, naturally backed knives, and Upper Palaeolithic types such as burins and end scrapers on Levallois flakes. This facies used high quality flint of light brown or bluish gray color.  The large size of the artifacts, the common use of the Levallois technique to produce blanks, and the lamellar quality of the blanks together call to mind the early MP industries from elsewhere in the Mediterranean world (e.g. Bar-Yosef and Kuhn 1999; Huxtable et al. 1992), that may date to the last interglacial or early glacial in age (i.e., OIS 5 or OIS 4, ca. 135 -60 kyr) .

A non-Levallois MP facies may also be  present, to judge from the form of cores and blanks that utilized a distinctive reduction strategy.  This strategy involved the reduction of local cobbles of dark brown flint by splitting them longitudinally and using the resulting pieces to make flat, recurrent, semi-discoidal cores.  The debitage from these cores includes large numbers of cortical pieces and many wedge-shaped ("orange slice") flakes. These blanks, which were typically flakes rather than blades, were fashioned into MP scrapers, naturally backed knifes, denticulates, notches, and, more rarely, points. This non-Levallois Middle Palaeolithic is reminiscent of the Pontinian in Italy (Kuhn 1990). The chronological position of these products, and their relationship, if any, with the Levalloiso-Mousterian described above, is unknown, but they are likely to overlap or co-occur during the early and middle glacial (OIS 3 and 4)

Bifacial leafpoints are an interesting feature of the Mallakastra collection.  The foliate leafpoints probably should be associated with the Middle Palaeolithic facies because foliates and bifaces are both found with the typical Balkan Mousterian (Kozlowski 1992; Runnels 2001).

Upper Palaeolithic

The Upper Palaeolithic is attested at Mallakastra by backed blades, end scrapers, perçoirs, and a variety of burins.  The size of the supports and style of retouch on these pieces suggests the early Upper Palaeolithic may be typologically early Upper Palaeolithic.  Some retouched blades may be Aurignacian, as are the carinated and nosed end scrapers on flakes and blocks of flint.  The most striking feature of the Palaeolithic inventory at Mallakastra, however, is the complete absence of backed bladelets of Gravettian or Epigravettian type which are the most typical component of late Upper Palaeolithic assemblages in neighboring regions (Kozlowski 1999; Bietti 1990; Bailey 1997,1999).  The large number of small scale artifacts that were collected by the survey teams and from Kryegjata B precludes the possibility that these artifacts were overlooked.  Also missing are the typical geometric microliths and the microburins that result from their manufacture, which are also typical components of late Upper Palaeolithic industries in the Balkans. We conclude, therefore, that there is a significant interruption in the occupation of the region during the last glacial maximum.  On the basis of the chronology for Gravettian and Epigravettian cultures elsewhere in the Balkans (Kozlowski 1999), this interruption probably occurred ca. 26,000 – 13,000 BP.

In conclusion, the occupation of the Mallakastra survey area began in the Early Palaeolithic, probably before the last interglacial.  The most intensive human presence is documented in the form of two or more facies of a Middle Palaeolithic industry that is probably early to mid glacial in age.  The duration or even the continuity of the MP industry, however, cannot be determined from the available evidence.  It was eventually supplemented or replaced by an industry based on blades and blade-like flakes of Upper Palaeolithic type.  Evidence for humans in the survey area ends before the advent of widespread of late Upper Palaeolithic industries in the Balkans (after ca. 26,000 BP and does not resume until the end of the Pleistocene.

The Mesolithic (Epipalaeolithic)

Perhaps the largest number of the artifacts from the survey and the excavation at Kryegjata B belong to a small scale flake tool industry that can be described as Mesolithic (to use the term mostly widely used in Europe for the same type of industry or industries).  In view of the similarity of flintknapping technique and reduction strategy and the types of formal retouched tools in some regions from the Final Palaeolithic to the early Holocene, the cultures of early Holocene (e.g. Bulgaria, Gatsov 1990) foragers are sometimes referred to as "Epipalaeolithic" (Gatsov and Özdogan 1994) in order to stress the essential cultural continuity between the two periods.  We prefer the term "Mesolithic," however, because it does not imply continuity or discontinuity.

The large number of Mesolithic artifacts from the Mallakastra survey is surprising in light of the scarcity of sites of this period n Albania and neighboring regions (Runnels 2001: 245-252).  In traditional terms, the Mesolithic is a period when Holocene foragers pursued an economy based on foraging and the exploitation of wild species of plants and animals and is thought to have endured for no more than one or two thousand years in time (Perlès 1990; Petruso et al. 1994) but the number of artifacts in Mallakastra however equals or surpasses that from all of the preceding periods, which were of longer duration and suggest that the Mesolithic was a period of some importance here. 

The anticlinal ridge of Kryegjata overlooking the Vjosa River valley and the early Holocene coast is particularly rich in Mesolithic artifacts.  The sites on the Kryegjata ridge, particularly Kryegjiata B overlooked a coastal plain that was dotted with estuaries, small bays, and wetlands (Fouache et al. in press), which together with the coast presented an ideal habitat for foragers who supplemented a diet of deer, boar, and plant food with the exploitation of marine and riverine resources such as shellfish, fish, birds, seals, and marine mammals.

Geomorphological investigations have shown that the early Holocene coast which is marked with a series of fossil dune lines was probably at or close to a position some 3-5 km behind the present coastline.  A seasonal pattern of exploitation may have connected the sites of Kryegjata with these coastal dune lines.  Winter occupation may have been on the coast, with the group moving up to the ridge in the summer and fall to take advantage of the acorns in the forests of deciduous oaks and to hunt deer and boar in the fall.

The most detailed excavation and complete publication of a major Mesolithic site in the Balkans that can serve as a baseline for comparison is the Franchthi Cave.  The Franchthi chronology and stratigraphic succession has two components (Perlès 1990).  The Lower Mesolithic (Lithique VII) of Franchthi Cave is dominated by small end scrapers on flakes, perçoirs, denticulates, and notches, often combined on a single irregular piece or flake.  There are also occasional trapezoidal pieces with blunting retouch on one or more edges.  Microliths are rare and backed bladelets make up less than 5% of the industry in this phase.  Well made microliths  on blades, bladelets or other pieces predominate in the later Upper Mesolithic (Lithique VIII) of Franchthi.  These microliths were made by retouching or modifying blanks rather than by using the microburin technique which characterized Late Palaeolithic microlithic industries. 

Open air Mesolithic sites of both Lower and Upper Mesolithic affinities are known from Epirus (Runnels et al. 1999) and Corfu (Sordinas 1970), while closer to hand, the sites of Vlusje and Konispol in Albania (Korkuti and Petruso 1993: 707; Korkuti et al. 1996: 211-212) have affinities with the (Upper) Mesolithic.  At Konispol, the Mesolithic with geometric microliths has been dated to ca. 9500 BP (Petruso et al. 1994) and in Epirus the Mesolithic sites are dated to 9000-10,000 BP (Zhou et al. 2000).  The probability is that the Mallakastra Epipalaeolithic has a similar general age.

Further comparisons may be made with the published Mesolithic materials from Montenegro and Serbia, especially the well known sites in the Iron Gorge region like Lepenski Vir, which, however, are dominated by backed bladelets and other elements the suggest continuity with the Final Palaeolithic industries of the region (Srejovic 1990).  Mesolithic sites in Montenegro bear perhaps the closest resemblance to the Mallakastra finds, particularly Odmut Cave, with an industry dominated by end scrapers, burins, truncations, notches, and trapezes (Srejovic 1990: 489-90).  Mesolithic sites elsewhere in the Balkans, e.g. in Bulgaria and Turkey (Gatsov 1990; Gatsov and Özdogan 1994) differ in that they have large numbers of bladelets and backed elements in addition to microliths. The overall impression is that there is considerable chronological and typological variation in the Balkan Mesolithic that requires further study, and which complicates any effort to pin down the Mallakastra Mesolithic.

The typical features of the Mallakastra Mesolithic (and we may not be dealing with an industry, but with a mixture of periods), which are broadly shared with the industries mentioned above, include cores with single platforms used to produce small blades and flakes, large numbers of small end scrapers (thumbnail type) on flakes, trapeze shaped points on truncated blades (technically, some of these points can be described as Pointes de Sonchamp, Rozoy 1978: 71-73), and smaller numbers of perçoirs, burins, denticulates, and notched pieces, often exhibiting fine, small, nibbling retouch on one or more edges.  The trapezes and other microliths, although not particularly common, were manufactured on flakes or blade segments and were not shaped with the use of the microburin technique but were snapped and then retouched to shape.  One edge would be retouched to give the microlith its final form, a simple technique seen also at Sidari (Sordinas 1970), Franchthi (Perlès 1990: 46-79) and Konispol Cave (Korkuti et al. 1996: 211 ).  This rather unsystematic production of blanks and the selection of atypical or cortical flakes or broken pieces as supports for the manufacture of retouched tools, often with more than one tool grouped on a single support, are typical features in Mallakastra.  Bladelets and bladelet cores are extremely rare.  Backed pieces, which are present in small quantities in other sites (e.g. Franchthi with 5%: Perlès 1990: 40) are conspicuous by their absence.  The careful collection strategy used in the survey and the excavation at Kryegjata B virtually eliminates the possibility that backed pieces or bladelets were overlooked in any systematic fashion by the survey teams.

The widespread but discontinuous distribution of trapezes around the Mediterranean has long been seen (e.g. Clarke 1980: 53-56) as evidence of the coastal and maritime distribution of Mesolithic cultures, which at least in part may have been spread by maritime peoples.  It is clear, however, that similar trapeze-based Mesolithic industries are located throughout the Balkans and may be related as much to the diffusion of the bow and arrow to hunt deer, elk, and birds than to any other cultural pattern.  The use of microlithic tools and weapons is, however, a feature that is in any case observed throughout the later Upper Palaeolithic in this region and therefore has limited interpretative significance.

Later Periods

Two or three ground and polished axes (celts) were noted in the collection, along with six or seven pressure blades with sickle gloss.  These artifacts may belong to the Middle or Late Neolithic.  One later Bronze Age artifact, a sickle element with two truncations, backing, denticulation, bifacial retouch and silica gloss (cf. Runnels 1985) was also noted.  Otherwise, apart from one bifacially flaked gunflint of the type described by Sir Arthur Evans (Evans 1887) as being a particular product of this region, Iron Age, Medieval, or later lithics of historical age, such as threshing sledge flints, are conspicuously absent.  In this context, however, it should be noted that there are many small fragments and plain flakes, often cortical, that may be of any age.  Stone tools were used throughout historic times (Runnels 1982) and it is probable that some of the lithic scatter encountered on the surface in the Mallakastra region is post-prehistoric, but the lithic artifacts used in later periods are notoriously difficult to identify and classify (Kardulias and Runnels 1995: 97-103 ; Torrence 193-194).


The stable landforms of Mallakastra mitigated the effects of erosion or deposition on the post-occupational modification of prehistoric sites.  The intensive techniques of survey and artifact collection also served to reduce the effects of collection bias on the structure of the assemblage available for study.  We believe that the simple patterns detected in the first preliminary inspection of the lithics are not the result of sampling error, therefore, but represent real patterns characteristic of the archaeological record.  For instance, Mallakastra appears to have been devoid of human activity in the later Upper Palaeolithic, as were parts of the Balkans (Kozlowski 1999), the Aegean (Özdogan 1998: 211-212; Runnels 2001: 240-245), and Europe (Gamble 1986: 137-249) in this period.  This "patchiness" of the late prehistoric record of Europe cannot be explained away as the result of systematic bias in excavation and survey projects: it is too widespread a phenomenon to be an accident.

Summing up the record of human activity in Mallakastra, occupation, or at least activity, begins with the earliest Middle Palaeolithic flake-based industries, probably sometime before the last interglacial (very early Lower Palaeolithic industries are absent).  Palaeolithic activity continues into the early Upper Palaeolithic but ceases before the Gravettian/Epigravettian backed blade industries spread across the Balkans beginning around 26,000 BP.  There is a second major period of activity in the early Holocene (Mesolithic), which may have lasted for a few thousand years, after which evidence of prehistoric or post-Classical activity is nearly non-existent.  The general pattern, therefore, is of two periods of prehistoric use of this region: one in the Middle Palaeolithic and the other in the Mesolithic.  The reason or reasons for the lack of human use of Mallakastra in the periods before the Middle Palaeolithic, between the MP and the Mesolithic, and after the Mesolithic period are at this stage of our research entirely unknown, and will be the principal object of our continuing study of the lithics from the region.

Report prepared on 1 September 2001

Curtis Runnels
Department of Archaeology
Boston University
675 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston MA 02215


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