Networks of communication (land and sea routes) during Prehistoric times in northern Greece and the northern Aegean

Ioannis Aslanis, Stefania Michalopoulou


Although networks of communication existed during Prehistoric times in Greece and the wider area, their documentation has not been always feasible. For example, the documented presence of obsidian – a raw material of great value – from Milos to neolithic settlements of mainland Greece, Asia Minor and distant northern areas is proof of the island's communication with the mainland, but it cannot specify accurately the areas of direct contact, since the material is transferred and secondarily dispersed.

The present project aims at locating networks of communication in northern Greece (mainly Macedonia) during three different periods of Prehistory: the Chalcolithic (4800-3200 BC), the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1700 BC) and the Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BC). More specifically, we present the research on networks developed within specific time-frames of the aforementioned periods: 4800-4500 BC (Dimini phase) of the Chalcolithic Age, ca. 1975-1600 BC of the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Helladic I period, and 1550-1100 BC of the Late Helladic II and III periods.

The choice of Northern Greece for the search of communication networks in Prehistory aims at advancing the research, since this region falls significantly behind in comparison to more southern areas, where important civilizations flourish, (such as the Minoan or Mycenaean) that develop wider and more complex networks of communication, on which the bibliography is abundant.

The choice of the period (Chalcolithic, Middle and Late Bronze Age) is directly related with the level of research concerning each chosen time period, and with the presence of those particular characteristics that will allow for the safe documentation of the communication networks. Research in the aforementioned region, carried out at DGRA/IHR by I. Aslanis in the framework of larger research projects, brought to light new evidence that clearly attest for existence of communication networks before the region becomes part of the Mycenaean world.

The level of research in Macedonia concerning the Chalcolithic, Middle and Late Bronze Age does not allow until today to safely document networks of ideas and ideologies. Therefore, it is obligatory to focus the research for communication networks on the study of material objects, the dissemination of which would contribute to the understanding of the ways of communication between neighboring or far communities. Among the material objects, we chose pottery the most abundant type of find in excavations. The main target was to map the imported pottery from the South. This, however, was not always possible, because in many cases there is no differentiation between imported and local pottery.


At the beginning of the 5th millennium, pottery production in Greece reaches an outstanding technological and aesthetic level. It is the result of continuous development of about two thousand years, and together with other innovations introduced in technology (e.g. development of metal-work), in the organization of settlements with the implementation of community works (e.g. protective enclosures, public constructions or shrines), or in social organization (e.g. formation of specialized groups, such as metal workers or ceramists), mark the beginning of a new age, the Chalcolithic, which has exceeded the Neolithic production stage. This development is mainly better located in Thessaly, the largest plain of Greece, where evolution from the Neolithic to the Chalcolithic age is constant, the latter having begun from 4800 BC, i.e. from the Dimini phases of Late Neolithic or LN II period.

Within this framework, pottery production in Thessaly, where painted pottery has a long tradition, appears as quality pottery with painted decoration in chocolate color on a glossed light-yellow surface. This is known as “Dimini pottery” or category of Β3a2a by Wace and Thompson (1912). The production technique, the shapes of the vessels and especially their decorative motifs stand apart from any other type of painted pottery, and it is almost as distinctive as the Mycenaean pottery of the corresponding period. The center of its production is considered to be the area around Volos, where the homonymous settlement of Dimini is. It seems, however, that it is also produced in other parts of Thessaly as well, perhaps not with the same quality, as the color and glaze is often exfoliated.

In Macedonia, pottery production of the same period includes vessels with a different array of shapes, but with a painted decoration that seems to be influenced from Thessaly. Dimini pottery can be found only in the area to the West of Axios River, and it is totally absent to areas east of the river.

Contrary to other categories of widely-spread painted pottery from Thessaly, a) the diaspora of Dimini pottery to settlements of Macedonia West of the Axios, as it appears today in archeological research, is limited to only certain settlements, since characteristic Dimini pottery is found only in clusters of three to five settlements, and it is absent from contemporary neighboring settlements where other types of painted pottery are found (e.g. black on red), which often imitate its decoration. b) the settlement clusters with Dimini pottery are located in areas that can be considered as crossings (route image 1). This is the sea-side hilly zone between Olympus and the Thermaic Gulf, the also sea-side hilly zone between Mount Paikon and the then coastline of the bays of Giannitsa southwards and Kastanas eastwards, the zone between the Yellow Lake and Mount Vermion in the region of Kozani, and the pass between lakes Cheimaditis, Begoritis and Petres, in the region of Florina. Settlements with Dimini pottery can be found in the area of Korça, in southern Albania, perhaps even up north in the area of Pelagonia. Dimini pottery is also found in various settlements in the midstream of Aliakmon River in the area of Servia, and should probably be explained by its bordering with Thessaly. c) Dimini pottery can be found up to the western coasts of the Thermaic Gulf, the Gulf of Giannitsa and the Gulf of Kastanas. The latter two have been covered with alluvial silting and are now fertile plains. d) Opposite to other categories of painted pottery (e.g. black on red pottery) found throughout Macedonia, the absence of Dimini pottery to the East of Axios River in the areas of Thessaloniki, Langadas and Chalcidice, as well as eastern Macedonia, attests, among other, for the fact that spread of pottery did not take place by sea, but also that it was not easy to be produced by local workshops.

These observations allow for a synthetic approach of the following image: groups of settlements with Dimini pottery in Macedonia are organized and function in unity, with one central and its satellite settlements, as it has been proposed concerning settlements of the same period in Thessaly. Their presence in narrow zones of land, a form of natural passages, must have served as control points for the movement. These settlements do not necessarily form “colonies” of corresponding settlements of Thessaly, but were definitely in close contact with them.

This is perhaps one of the earliest efforts to control natural routes in Greek Prehistory, but seen in the light of the developments of the Chalcolithic Age described earlier and the need for raw materials, mostly metals (copper, gold), and especially for their safe transport, such a control effort is easy to understand. The absence of Dimini pottery in central Macedonia east of the Axios and Chalcidice shows a preference by the groups under movement to land and not sea routes.


After a period of adjustment to the new conditions characterizing the beginning of the Bronze Age (Early Helladic I and II periods), intensified cultural and economic contacts began during the Early Helladic III period (2300-2000 BC) between communities in mainland and especially insular Greece.

In Macedonia we observe the close relation of its western parts with neighboring Thessaly. Central and eastern Macedonia seem more isolated, and the communication networks, although existing, are hardly traced in archeological data.

During the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1700 BC), the Minoan civilization gradually emerges, which constitutes the first civilization in the area of Greece. Its features include among other the development of vivid trade activity, which is quite visible in the islands and the coasts of the southern Aegean, where Minoan trade posts seem to be created. It was probably the introduction of the sail on the formerly oared boats that contributed to the development of trade.

The islands and coasts of the northern Aegean seem to retain trade relations with the Minoan world, although loose. In contrast, they are closer with trade centers of central Greece and Euboea. Among the characteristics of the area during the Middle Bronze Age is Minyan wheel made pottery. It was first located in East mainland Greece, and particularly in the area of Orchomenos, where the Minyans lived, from whom it took its name. Although this area is considered to be a production center, we cannot, however, rule out production in other centers.

Minyan pottery is characterized by its fine quality of clay (usually, but not exclusively, grey-colored), for its explicit forms (Kylix) and its distinctive decoration with wide horizontal grooves on the body and the column-shaped base. From the shape, the decoration and often the color we assume that their production aimed at replacing metal patterns. This goal seems to have been achieved, since wheeled Minyan pottery became very popular, and is found in settlements on islands and coasts, mostly of the northern Aegean, initially in small quantities that gradually grow in number and reach their peak during the Middle Helladic III period (1800-1700 BC). During the same period we find the hand-crafted Minyanizing pottery, which during the Late Helladic I period (1700-1600) replaces, at least in Macedonia, the Minyan.

Concerning Macedonia, wheel made Minyan pottery is considered as an imported tradable good, and the frequency of its appearance reflects both the preference to this product and the intense commercial contacts with the centers of production. The diaspora of Minyan pottery in Macedonia appears only in seacoast settlements (route image 2). This observation forms quite reliable proof for the existence of a sea route of communication, in this case for trade, between settlements of the northern Aegean and Macedonia, and central Greece and Euboea.

Most settlements with Minyan pottery in Macedonia were inhabited long before that period. There are, however, some (e.g. Siviri, Molyvopyrgos) that seem to function for as long as there is a great demand for Minyan pottery, the presence of which is gradually reduced and stopped during the Late Helladic I period (1700-1600 BC). It is highly possible that these settlements were founded as trade stations, to serve only commercial purposes, on the model of the Minoan trade-stations in the southern Aegean.

However, apart from the relations between settlements based on the sea trade routes, we should not exclude closer contacts in sectors other than trade. The alterations in space organization and building techniques, as well as the preference to particular categories of quality pottery (red or reddish), located in at least few settlements, seems to support the opinion that contacts between Macedonia and the Aegean became more and more close during the Middle Bronze Age. This applies also for the settlements of western Macedonia, which definitely had continuous relations with settlements of Thessaly, as it is attested already from the Early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC).


According to the latest research, during the Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BC), Macedonia was an important region of cultural encounters, as they can be observed from the diaspora of archeological finds, mainly pottery. This area stretches from Epirus, in the West, to the river Nestos, in the East. To the North, in the Balkan hinterland, the valleys of the rivers Axios, Strymon and Nestos act as access corridors for the development of all kinds of activity.

Contacts with the South is achieved both from the mainland and the sea. The land routes connect Thessaly and Epirus with western Macedonia. The most known passes are those of Sarantaporos - from Thessaly to the plateau of Kozani, of Olympus and of the Pierian Mountains to the western coasts of the Thermaic Gulf and the then bay of Giannitsa (route image 3).

Contacts between western Macedonia and Thessaly, as attested in archeological finds, are constant and vivid. Research has shown the development, already since the beginning of the Bronze Age (3rd millennium BC), of a common Thessalo-Macedonian cultural framework. This appears to be maintained during the Middle and Late Bronze Age.

During the Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BC), that common development is reflected initially in the early presence of matt painted pottery, and later in the presence of Mycenaean pottery. The areas of Aiani, the Kamvounia and the Pierian Mountains, in particular, keep closer contacts with Thessaly and the Mycenaean world of which they are part. We must underline, however, the difficulty in distinguishing imported Mycenaean pottery from the one crafted in local workshops, due to a lack of corresponding analyses. Therefore, the present project adopts the use of the terms “imported” or “local” which are given by the excavators of Mycenaean pottery in western and other parts of Macedonia, as well. The same criterion is used to choose the positions that form the network of the presence of Mycenaean pottery in the region (route image 3). This does not include positions with Mycenaean pottery which is definitely of local production (e.g. Angelochori, Vergina).

In central and eastern Macedonia, access towards the South seems to take place exclusively from the sea. The seacoast settlements, mostly those of central and less of eastern Macedonia, keep close contacts with Thessaly and the Aegean region already since the beginning of the period. This contact is expressed mainly by the expansion of matt-painted pottery from Thessaly and the Minyanizing pottery, which continues the Minyan pottery of the Aegean. The latter continues the close relations developed between the two areas already since the Middle Bronze Age.

The element, however, that contributes to the clear recognition of a sea route of communication between Macedonia and the Aegean region during the Late Bronze Age, is the presence of Mycenaean pottery.

Mycenaean pottery first appears in Macedonia at an advanced phase of the Late Bronze Age (end of LH I period, end of 16th c. BC) as an imported product. The reasons for its delayed presence in Macedonia are under research, an important factor of which is the aftermath of the Santorini volcano eruption.

As it is evident from the diaspora of positions (route image 3), Mycenaean pottery is found quite often in positions of central Macedonia. Contrary to western Macedonia, which maintains contact with the Thessalian hinterland by land, Mycenaean pottery in central Macedonia is probably transported only by sea. It is worth underlining the presence of Mycenaean pottery in eastern Macedonia. The mapping of the positions with Mycenaean pottery in Macedonia gives room for various interpretations. Here, we shall only note the contacts kept between the Aegean centers and the settlements of central Macedonia via sea routes of communication which had been developed already since the Middle Bronze Age. Mycenaean pottery originates from centers in the Peloponnese (Mycenae, Berbati), but also Central Greece. Initially it is located in small quantities in very few settlements (Toroni, Prehistoric Olynth, perhaps Karabournaki) exclusively on the coasts of Macedonia, indicating that the sea route along the coasts of mainland Greece was the main route for its transportation. However, as we can discern from its mapping, it can gradually be found at settlements of the hinterland as well, an indication not only of its intense commercialization, but also of the impact of the Mycenaean civilization on Macedonia. The imports are seemingly limited to small vessels that serve specific needs. Particular preference of this type of pottery led local craftsmen to reproduce it in local workshops, since around 1300 BC (LH IIIB1 period), embracing certain differences mainly in painted decoration. In the same time, the presence of imported Mycenaean pottery remains continuous.

The impact of the Mycenaean world on the region of Macedonia, especially central and western, is, after 1300 BC, quite strong, and is reflected in both the organization of the settlements and their economy and the way of life of their inhabitants. This conclusion led many researchers to make reference to a “Mycenaeanization” of the region.

The image of the settlement of Kastanas on the mouth of river Axios is indicative of the relations with the Mycenaean civilization of southern Greece. The settlement, which was inhabited during the Early Bronze Age, is located on an islet 70 meters from the opposite coast where surface research located the existence of a coastal settlement.

The geoarcheological survey of the wider region revealed that the settlement of Kastanas was located at the entrance of the peninsula that stretched north and was surrounded by the so-called “bay of Kastanas” into which Axios River flows. At approximately the center of the peninsula there is the settlement of Axiochori, and at the northern edge that of Limnotopos. The settlement of Axiochori is located at the center of the peninsula and overlooks the entire area at a radius larger than 10 kilometers. It appears to be the central settlement, while the settlements of Kastanas and Limnotopos control the entrance and the northern edge respectively.

The area develops under the strong influence of Mycenaean civilization following its progress. In the Kastanas settlement, during the Late Bronze Age and particularly the period Kastanas IV, which includes layers 17 to 14a and corresponds to LH IIIA-C early period (1475-1275 BC), the edifices are initially small, single-spaced, often arched, arranged in loose groups around courtyards and streets. In layers 16 to 14b we observe an increase in the size of the edifices and the unconstructed space. Layer 14b appears to have a central palace-like structure, the type of which refers to southern prototypes. In the house we often come across matt-painted decoration, and the presence of imported Mycenaean pottery constantly increases. The economy of the Kastanas IV period is characterized by an extensive farming of einkorn wheat. It is hurriedly gathered together with various weeds (12%), and it seems that it was exported to settlements in Argolis, where we have also noted the same percentage of weeds.

During the next Kastanas V period, and particularly in layer 12 (LH IIIC, ca 1100 BC) the light edifices of layer 13 are replaced by multi-spatial brick constructions, between which there are courtyards and alleys. The presence of Mycenaean wheel pottery increases vertically and is more numerous than ever. According to excavator B. Hänsel, we find a strong influence of Mycenaean civilization of the LH IIIC period in layer 12, which is perhaps associated with the settling of populations from the palatial centers to the periphery of the Mycenaean world.

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Research directed by: Ioannis Aslanis. Collaborator: Stefania Michalopoulou. GIS Chartography: Eleni Gadolou


For the configuration of the map with the precise locations of archeological positions, much is owed to the following colleagues: Arambatzis Christoforos Valla Magda Georgiadou Anastasia Karamitrou-Mentesidi Georgia Koulidou Sofia Lioutas Asterios Malamidou Dimitra Besios Manthos Savvopoulou Thomai Stefani Liana Chondrogianni-Metoki Areti Chrysostomou Panikos Tsioumas Michalis (topograher)