Mariners may have been traveling the Aegean Sea even before the end of the last ice age, according to new evidence from researchers, in order to extract coveted volcanic rocks for pre-Bronze Age tools and weapons. A new technique which dates obsidian — volcanic glass which can be fashioned into tools — suggests that people were mining for obsidian in Mediterranean waters and shipping the once valuable rocks from the island of Melos in modern day Greece as far back as 15,000 years ago.
“Obsidian was a precious natural rock-glass found only in Melos, some in [the modern-day Greek areas of] Antiparos and Yali,” explained Nicolaos Laskaris of the University of the Aegean in Greece. “From there it was spread all over the Aegean and in the continent too through contacts of trade.”
If you wanted to have sharp tools and weapons in the days before bronze, you needed places like Melos. But you also needed a boat to get there. The evidence that people were crossing over to Melos even before the end of the last ice age comes from obsidian artifacts found in the Franchthi cave on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern mainland Greece — far from the island of Melos. Previous geochemical work had already established the artifacts were from Melos, but figuring out when they were brought from the island is a trickier problem.
“They were sailors, certainly, especially in the Aegean region they followed little islands jumping like a frog reaching also Asia Minor and the Greek mainland,” said Laskaris, who with his colleagues has published a paper about the discovery in the Sept. 2011 issue of Journal of Archaeological Science. “Until now only in Franchthi cave obsidians had been found at circa 8,500 B.C. Now we prove earlier contact with coastal sites was a fact.”