Updates on a « missing period » – The Middle Bronze Age in the Northern Aegean

Although contacts with the well-known cultures of Southern and Central Greece always existed, the Northern Aegean developed quite differently during the Bronze Age (3100 – 1100 BC). The region is mainly characterized by long-lived inhabited tell sites and it shows many connections to the Balkans of which it is the southernmost part. The topography is dominated by mountain chains and some coastal plains, as well as river valleys (Fig. 1 and 2).

Fig. 1: Map of the sites mentioned in the text (background from Treuil et al. 2008).

Our knowledge of the Middle Bronze Age, i.e. the first half of the second millennium BC, is based for the most part on coastal sites, which yielded southern imports that allow for quite reliable dating, whereas this phase can hardly be identified inland, due to the shortage of well-defined characteristic material culture that can be separated with certainty from the Early or the Late Bronze Age. This fact, combined with the evidence for the abandonment of several key sites during the Middle Bronze Age (Gori 2015a) and stratigraphic lacunae suggests a considerable gap in settlement.

Fig. 2: Bronze Age Tell of Agios Mamas in Central Macedonia (photo T. Krapf).

Is this picture reflecting prehistoric reality ? Or, more likely, is this the result of a research framework that uses the traditional tripartite systems (Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age) without taking into account the archaeological record and regional variability?

Athens Balkan Archaeology Day 2018

The second installment of the Athens Balkan Archaeology Days (for the first meeting see here) addressed these questions by organising a presentation of I. Aslanis’ 2017 book “Das prähistorische Olynth, Ausgrabungen in der Toumba Agios Mamas 1994-1996, Die mittelbonzezeitliche Keramik der Schichten 18 bis 12” (Fig. 3) followed by short papers about the Middle Bronze Age in the Northern Aegean, the southern Balkans and Central Greece. These presentations allowed for a comparative approach of the Middle Bronze Age from both southern and northern perspectives. The workshop, which took place on the 1st of December 2018 at the premises of the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece, was promoted by the Balkan Prehistory Initiative (BPI, see Krapf et al. 2017 for earlier activities) and organised by this paper’s authors.

Fig. 3: Aslanis 2017

The event was centered on the book presentation by Dimitra Malamidou (Ephor of Antiquities of Serres) and Ioannis Alanis himself. Agios Mamas is a coastal site on the Chalkidike peninsula located near ancient Olynth. Seven layers, spanning the period from the 21st to the 18th c. BC, are attributed to the Middle Bronze Age. The presence of Grey Minyan pottery imported from Central Greece allows us to link the stratigraphy of Agios Mamas to those of the southern sites that were trading partners, such as Pevkakia Magoula in Thessaly (Maran 1992).

Three papers on the Middle Bronze Age in Western Macedonia (Stavros Oikonomidis, Aris Papayiannis and Akis Tsonos), Albania (Maja Gori and Tobias Krapf) and Central Greece (Kalliopi Sarri) completed the meeting. A final discussion panel was lead by Gilles Touchais (University of Paris 1) and Walter Gauss (Austrian Archaeological Institute at Athens). (Fig. 4)

Fig. 4: Group picture of the Athens Balkan Archaeology Day 2018 (photo P. Kaplanis).
International spirit along the Aegean coast versus local traditions in the mountains

The workshop highlighted several key points relating to the Middle Bronze Age. One of these was the presence of significant differences in contact networks and developments between inland and coastal sites. Agios Mamas participated in the Grey Minyan pottery distribution network that linked Central Greece to coastal Thessaly, Macedonia, and even the Troad, as Kalliopi Sarri (University of Copenhagen) stressed in her presentation. This “international spirit” on the coast and the islands of the Aegean already existed in the Early Bronze Age, and became even more evident in the Late Bronze Age. The sequences of sites such as Troy, Pevkakia, Mitrou, Lefkandi and Agios Mamas can be properly linked due to parallel developments in the Grey Minyan pottery typology. However, this pottery type is completely absent from inland Macedonia. The few so-called Pseudominyan vases – grey kantharoi with high vertical handles similar to one of the Grey Minyan shapes – that can be found as far as southern Albania and southern Serbia, are not sufficient to trace precise trajectories towards the North (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Kantharos from Sovjan layer 6 (photo T. Krapf).

Inland, local handmade ceramic traditions continued and the identification of the Middle Bronze Age depends on radiocarbon dates. The sites of Kryopigado at Aliakmon in the Kozani prefecture (2110-1900 BC, Karamitrou-Mentesidi – Lokana 2011: 310-317) and Polemistra near ancient Aiani (1929-1782 BC, Chondroyianni-Metoki 1998: 33-34) can be attributed to the same period as the horizon defined as Middle Bronze Age at Agios Mamas (Hänsel 2010: 338-345). The first, Kryopigado, is an organized flat settlement with semi-underground circular pit houses, while at the latter several layers and buildings with stone foundations and mud brick superstructures were found. These sites provide a link towards southeastern Albania, where occupation clearly continued during the first half of the second millennium BC at the lakeside settlements of Maliq and Sovjan. Both are located in a highland plain that is situated above 800m a.s.l. As a result of the 2018 posthumous publication of Frano Prendi’s work on Maliq, the stratigraphy of this reference site, that was established in the 1960s and covers the whole Albanian Bronze Age, can now be verified and compared to other sequences, in particular that of Sovjan (Gori 2015b and Gori – Krapf 2016). Radiocarbon dates for the Middle Bronze Age (level 6 of Sovjan and Maliq IIIc) are missing, but those for levels 7 (22nd and 21st c. BC) and 5c3 (16th to 14th c. BC) of Sovjan make it highly probable that level 6, which was originally attributed to the Late Bronze Age, covers at least part of the Middle Bronze Age (Gori – Krapf, 2016, 95). Other neighbouring regions, like mountainous Epirus, are still almost entirely lacking data for this period, and only a few sites, such as Palabouti (radiocarbon dates 1730-1529 BC) in the Ioannina basin (Katsadima – Vasileiou 2018) can be securely dated. This is, however, not sufficient to define the material culture of this phase in Epirus, which in any case seems to not differ much from the rest of the Bronze Age.

Abandonment of the tripartite system?

In the final discussion of the workshop, a crucial question was raised. Does it make sense to speak about a well-defined Middle Bronze Age when we lack any clear cultural definition? Why should the layers of Agios Mamas – already an object of controversy as layers 13 and 12 were both attributed by Horejs (2007) and Aslanis (2017) to different periods, the Middle and Late Bronze Age respectively – be translated into the traditional tripartite system, i.e. Middle Bronze Age I, II and III, although this division is not even clearly applicable to the archaeological record in the South? Since we base our definition mainly on a few radiocarbon dates, should we not better speak in terms of absolute datings to define the first part of the second millennium BC?

The workshop participants clearly opted for the use of a referential system based on settlement layers, e.g. Agios Mamas 15, combined with absolute dates, where available. This becomes even more important, when talking about regions further away, such as Southern Italy or the Central Balkans, where the terminology used for the Bronze Age phases does not correspond with that of the Aegean.

The well informed discussion on the nature and definition of the Middle Bronze Age in Macedonia was made possible by the publications of Agios Mamas and Maliq, two geographically distant sites in the Southwestern Balkans that provide, together with Sovjan, very valuable contexts for understanding the chrono-cultural development of the ceramics in the first half of the second millennium BC. Now it is up to the archaeologists working in neighbouring regions to connect the different stratigraphies in order to better understand this period, which is the missing link between what we call the Early and the Late Bronze Age cultures.


Aslanis I. 2017. Das prähistorische Olynth, Ausgrabungen in der Toumba Agios Mamas 1994-1996, Die mittelbonzezeitliche Keramik der Schichten 18 bis 12, Rahden, Verlag Marie Leidorf.

Chondroyianni-Metoki A. 1998. Aliakmon 1994: Research of A Bronze Age settlement (in greek), AEMTH 8, 1994, 27-36.

Gori M. 2015a. The Long Journey of a Few Ugly Pots. Long Distance Cultural Interactions in Southwestern Balkans at the End of the Early Bronze Age, in: P. Suchowska-Ducke, S. Scott Reiter, H. Vandkilde (eds), Forging Identities. The Mobility of Culture in Bronze Age Europe, BAR International Series, Oxford, Archaeopress, 183-192.

Gori M. 2015b. Along the Rivers and Through the Mountains. A reviewed chrono-cultural framework for the south-western Balkans during the late 3rd and early 2nd millennium BCE, Universitätsforschungen zur Prähistorischen Archäologie, Bonn, Habelt.

Gori M., Krapf T. 2016. The Bronze and Iron Age Pottery from Sovjan, Iliria 39, 2015, 91-135.

Hänsel B., Aslanis I. 2010. Das prähistorische Olynth, Ausgrabungen in der Toumba Agios Mamas 1994-1996, Die Grabung und der Baubefund, Rahden, Verlag Marie Leidorf.

Horejs B. 2007. Das prähistorische Olynth, Ausgrabungen in der Toumba Agios Mamas 1994-1996, Die spätbronzezeitliche handgemachte Keramik der Schichten 13 bis 1, Rahden, Verlag Marie Leidorf.

Karamitrou-Mentesidi G., Lokana Ch. 2011. The excavation at Kryopigado near Aliakmonas in the Voion region (in greek), in: G. Karamitrou-Mentesidi (ed.), The 1st Archaeological Meeting of Upper Macedonia, AEAM 1, 2009, Aiani, 301-328.

Katsadima I., Vasileiou E. 2018. Παλαμπούτι: Μία θέση της Μέσης Εποχής του Χαλκού στο λεκανοπέδιο των Ιωαννίνων, in: Β. Τεοφιλοπούλου (ed.), Το αρχαιολογικό έργο στη Βόρειοδυτική Ελλάδα και τα Νησιά του Ιονίου 1, 2014, Athens, Έκδοση του Ταμείου Αρχαιολογικών πόρων και απαλλοτριώσεων, 81-86.

Krapf T., Agolli E., Aslaksen O.Ch., Ilieva E., Ivanov S., Kleitsas Ch., Papadias G., Papazovska Sanev A., Tsafou E., Tsonos A., Vliora E. 2017. Balkan Bronze Age Borderland, Along Ancient Routes from the Aegean to Albania, F.Y.R.O.M., Kosovo and SW Bulgaria, in: M. Fotiadis, R. Laffineur, Y. Lolos, A. Vlachopoulos (eds), HESPEROS, The Aegean Seen from the West, Proceedings of the 16th International Aegean Conference, University of Ioannina, 18-21 May 2016, Aegaeum 41, Liège, Peters, 279-285.

Krapf T., Aslaksen O.Ch., Gori M., Recchia G. 2018. Bronze and Early Iron Age Burial Tumuli across the Western Balkans, ArchéOrient-Le Blog, 16.02.2018 [en ligne] https://archeorient.hypotheses.org/8247

Maran J. 1992. Die Deutschen Ausgrabungen auf der Pevkakia-Magula in Thessalien III, Die mittlere Bronzezeit, Bonn, Habelt.

Prendi F. 2018. The Prehistoric Settlement of Maliq, Tirana, Academy of Albanological Studies Institute of Archaeology.

Treuil R., Darcque P., Poursat J.-C., Touchais G. 2008. Les civilisations égéennes du néolithique et de l’Âge du Bronze, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

Les auteurs

Tobias Krapf is the scientific secretary of the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece (Athens) and part of the French Albanian archaeological mission in the Korçë basin.

Ole Christian Aslaksen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Gothenburg University, focussing on aesthetics, mobility and archaeometric analysis in the LBA Balkans.

Maja Gori is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ruhr-University of Bochum and part of the French Albanian archaeological mission in the Korçë basin.

Akis Tsonos is the secretary of the Institute for the Transbalkan Cultural Cooperation (I.T.C.C.) and a member of the Albanian Greek excavation project on Maligrad island in SE Albania.

Pour citer ce billet : Tobias Krapf, Ole Christian Aslaksen, Maja Gori, Akis Tsonos. Updates on a « missing period » – The Middle Bronze Age in the Northern Aegean, ArchéOrient-Le Blog, 11 janvier 2019. [En ligne] https://archeorient.hypotheses.org/11282

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