Greek Town Thousands of Years Older Than Thought, Goes Back to Stone Age

Strategically located on trading routes that could go back to the Stone Age, once the Oracle became popular, Kirrha served as the port of Delphi

Rich burial in Kirrha
Raphael Orgeolet and Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports-Archaeological Resources Fund

Renewed excavations of Kirrha, supposedly a Bronze Age settlement that arose in a marsh on the northern Greek coast near Delphi, have discovered that it began thousands of years earlier than had been thought. A joint French-Greek team investigating the site for the last 11 years has concluded that concentrated occupation there arose as much as 7,000 years ago, in the late Neolithic period, not in the Early Bronze Age (2,300 B.C.E.) as previously believed.

The Neolithic layer lies about ten meters below the top of the tell. However, thanks to the combined effects of local land subsidence and sea level rise as the last Ice Age waned, that ancient stratum now lies three meters below the water table, dig director Raphaël Orgeolet of Aix-Marseille University explains.

In other words, when they tried to dig into the Neolithic level, they hit water. Study of the late Stone Age layer has had to rely on coring and the discoveries of what Orgeolet calls coarse Neolithic pottery.

Geophysical survey findings indicate that Kirrha’s first inhabitants built homes on stilts in the middle of marshland, Orgeolet says. That wouldn’t have been unusual. It was a common practice in Neolithic Greece to build settlements in marshy areas.

In the Bronze Age level, which thankfully lies not only above the Neolithic layer but above the water level, the archaeologists found several graves as well as numerous pottery kilns dating to Middle and Late Helladic times. Kirrha seems to have been a major center for pottery manufacture in Bronze Age Greece.

In the late Bronze Age, Kirrha seems to have been abandoned, for reasons unknown. Then it arose anew around 2,700 years ago, at which multiple ancient sources say it served as the landing port for pilgrims to Delphi. That famous mountaintop town may have existed earlier too but definitely gained its lofty status only after the Bronze Age, thanks to the oracle.

“The important place in the area was definitely Delphi. If Delphi hadn’t existed, there probably wouldn’t have been a port in Kirrha at that period,” Orgeolet posits.

Bracelet with Minoan-style seal, Kirrha
Raphael Orgeolet and Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports-Archaeological Resources Fund
Mycenaean-style multiple burial, Kirrha
Brice Chevaux and Raphael Orgeolet and Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports-Archaeological Resources Fund

At some point during the classical period (around 2,600 to 2,500 years ago), a sanctuary was built on the hill and houses were built on the terraced southern slope, toward the sea. Further down the slope, the archaeologists discovered ship sheds that housed Greek warships: the triremes.

The price of piety

Kirrha arose on a crossroads of ancient trading routes through the coastal plain of Delphi, the site of the most famed of the ancient oracles, who consulted not only by kings but also Greeks from every part of the land and foreigners as well.

The priestess reportedly delivered her predictions seated on a golden tripod above a chasm whence were issued foul and poisonous vapors. Delivered in metric verses, the oracles were ambiguous. To some that murkiness merely served to demonstrate the oracle’s profundity. To faithless others it smacked of peculiarity that Apollo, ostensibly the god of clarity, expressed himself so vaguely.

The criticism only became worse when somebody pointed out that the verses were technically poor and contained metric errors, hardly befitting Apollo, who was also the patron of poets.

Among those unimpressed by these chasm-induced visions was the 7th century B.C.E. storyteller Aesop, famous for his fables. It bears adding that his existence is disputed, but supposedly, he made a pilgrimage to Delphi, and found the priests of Apollo to be disappointing. Aesop reportedly called them the “parasites of Apollo” and likened them with floating shavings that look big from far away but at closer inspection were found wanting. His message didn’t come off too well and he was slain by the priests for having spoken his mind.

Middle Helladic period grave, Kirrha
Simon Sedlbauer and Raphael Orgeolet and Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports-Archaeological Resources Fund

Be all that as it may, the coastal town’s strategic location allegedly enabled the locals to not only service pilgrims to the Pythia, but – according to the 5th century B.C.E. physician Thessalos – to rob the many devotees passing through. In fact, the Kirrhans’ treatment of travelers was so abominable that at the turn of the 6th century B.C.E. an alliance of city-states led by King Cleisthenes of Sicyon attacked the city, leading to the First Sacred War (Frontinius. Strat. III.7.7; Pausanias X.7.6).

Back in prehistoric Kirrha, we now learn that people had intensely settled the area there thousands of years before Delphi appalled Aesop, thanks to the pottery dating back to the Neolithic and the findings in the cores. It is plausible that the trading routes existed in the Neolithic period as well, and that was why the town arose at that spot.

“The first inhabitants probably settled in the area because of its favorable location, sitting at the crossroads of the north-south trade route from the Peloponnese to central Greece,” says Orgeolet.

Minoan motif in rich woman's burial

The archaeological potential of the area has been known for over 200 years, but the first excavation of Kirrha waited for the 1920s, when it was first examined by one Oliver Davies, an archaeologist from the British School in Athens. Following that, a team of French classicists thoroughly excavated the site just before World War II.

Decades later, a team from the French School in Athens continued the work, uncovering a Middle Bronze Age village in Kirrha as well as graves from the Proto-Mycenaean period, contemporary with the famous shaft graves of Mycenae that have been dated to the 16th century B.C.E.

After a long hiatus, renewed Greek-French excavations under the auspices of École française d’Athènes, INSTAP and French Ministry of Foreign Affairs commenced: These are the most ambitious yet, combining land and underwater archaeology. The dig operates under the French School in Athens and is directed by Orgeolet, who has been working in the area since 2009.

Minoan-style seal found in woman's Bronze Age grave, Kirrha
Raphaël Orgeolet and Raphael Orgeolet and Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports-Archaeological Resources Fund

The French-Greek team has also discovered proto-Mycenaean graves on the western side of the hill. Most graves were modest, with simple grave goods.

But one stood out: the grave of a young woman buried with hair ornaments, bronze earrings, a bronze fibula and pendant, a silver finger ring, an ivory comb and a bronze bracelet with a Minoan seal depicting a goat.

“Definitely, this seal comes from Late Bronze Age Crete,” Orgeolet says: The manner of its manufacture – using abrasive tools that create deep incisions – is hallmark. “Plus, the goat is a widespread used motif in Late Bronze Age seal Minoan iconography,” he adds.

Discoveries during the 2019 summer season indicate that this grave had been inside a mausoleum within the cemetery. Her grave goods suggest she may have enjoyed special status, though the archaeologists also found other sumptuous graves closer to the summit of the tell.

The young woman’s tomb was one of the latest in that part of the cemetery. Alternatively, the display of goods could reflect change in burial habits, Orgeolet suggests.

Raphaël Orgeolet
Courtesy of Raphaël Orgeolet

While the grave goods were generally simple, the way the dead were handled was anything but. The burials display extremely complex mortuary practices involving multiple and complex secondary manipulations, including reductions and re-depositions of previously inhumed bodies. “When tombs were reopened, specific bones were collected to be put somewhere else or were rearranged within the tomb (especially long bones and crania),” Orgeolet explains.

Simplicity of grave goods in the Middle Helladic period is usually seen as signaling general poverty. But with the advent of the nearby Mycenaean civilization, around 1,600 B.C.E., we see dramatic change in burial practices at Kirrha.

“The complex post-depositional manipulations of the dead suddenly stop and more care was given to the deceased’s material possessions. The lack of grave goods in the Middle Helladic period may indicate, rather than a widespread poverty, that wealth was not to be shown and held in the grave,” Orgeolet says.

The team also found an unusual number of pottery kilns at the site that dated to the Middle and Late Helladic times, starting around 4,000 years ago.

“Kirrha seemed to have been a regional center of pottery production,” Orgeolet says, adding that they may have traded their wares for imported raw materials such as obsidian, bronze and gold, none of which were locally produced.

As the seas rise

Kirrha clearly waned or was abandoned outright during the Mycenaean era, possibly because it was harder to protect than inland towns such as Krisa, which continued to flourish, Orgeolet suggests.

Or, rather than security, there could have been environmental causes.

“Since the Neolithic period, this very tectonically active part of Greece has constantly endured subsidence while sea level was globally rising,” says the researcher. “As a consequence, seawater may have contaminated the water table and coastal land, forcing the inhabitants to seek a place more suitable for agriculture.”

Seawater encroachment into groundwater is a huge problem today too, for different reasons.

During during the early Holocane, 12,000 to 7,000 years ago, as the Ice Age waned, average sea level rose by 60 meters. Water rise would continue more desultorily for a couple of thousand years. Now we are forecast to face a whole new era of sea level rise as anthropogenic global warming melts the remaining the glaciers and ice sheets. The timeline on this is uncertain.

Meanwhile, on the coast of Greece, the archaeologists are continuing their investigation into ancient Kirrha, including by DNA and isotope analysis of the bodies unearthed in the necropolis. These studies have the potential to revolutionize of what we know about the prehistoric population of the area, before the rise of the Delphic oracle.

The town of Itea (left) and the village of Kirrha (right) on the North shore of the Corinthian Gulf
Raphael Orgeolet and Raphael Orgeolet and Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports-Archaeological Resources Fund