Microfauna in Neolithic Avgi

Microfauna consists of small sized vertebrates, like rodents, insectivores, hedgehogs, bats, small amphibians, small reptiles and small birds. Microfauna analysis can be very informative towards the reconstruction of the palaeoenvironment, the climate and the vegetation around a prehistoric archaeological site, either cave or extended settlement (Mitchell-Jones 1999). Such small sized animals are usually not hunted, bred or kept as pets by humans, but they can act as key indicators for vegetation, humidity, places with swamps or running water. Since each one of them nests in different microhabitats, an alpine vole is not expected to be found in a coastal area, neither a dormouse in an olive grove or a vine yard (Ondrias 1966). Analysing a microfaunal assemblage helps the archaeologist understand how the ecosystem should have been in an area during the past, since agricultural, pastoral or building activities tend to reform the landscape (Stahl 1996).

Microfauna can be retrieved from deposits of both geological (rock fissures, lacustrine deposits, cave sediments) and archaeological (dwellings, refuse pits, wells, caves used by humans) significance (Andrews 1990). Humans are very rarely responsible for the creation of an archaeological microfaunal assemblage, since the latter is of no economic or emotional value to humans during prehistory. Such assemblages can be created due to wind or water activity, due to soil erosion processes and due to predating activity by avian or mammalian carnivores in caves or isolated places (taphonomy) (Andrews 1990). Birds like owls and kestrels and mammals like weasels and foxes eat their small prey and then either regurgitate or produce within their scats a pellet, containing bones, fur and feathers. The bones than go within the digestive track of predator can bear signs on their surface, which are detected under the microscope (Andrews 1990). Furthermore, estimating the taphonomic processes that created a microfaunal assemblage helps understanding how the stratigraphy works in a site, and how each context was created.

Microfauna analysis in Avgi Excavation is part of a wider program for the study of bioarchaeological remains. Microfauna is retrieved from soils via water flotation. The sampling strategy is the same as for the palaeobotany of the site. Microfauna analysis will try to answer three questions: 1) what species of small vertebrates used to live around Avgi and how can their identification help towards a palaeoclimatic reconstruction? 2) Which taphonomic processes are responsible for their deposition and how can they be incorporated in the geological stratigraphy of Avgi? 3) What conclusions can be drawn concerning human-rodent coexistence during the Neolithic and whether this coexistence can be interpreted as random or as commensalism?

Microfauna analysis is pursued by the use of a stereomicroscope, a digital camera attached to it and a skeletal reference collection of small sized vertebrates. Avgi Excavations have recently acquired the two aforementioned instruments and the writer is already working for building up such a reference collection in the Laboratory of the Excavations. Most Greek Excavations unfortunately lack such a collection, and specialists need to travel abroad in order to use one.

Microfauna is documented from excavations in neolithic settlements like Çatal Höyük in Turkey (Jenkins 2003) and Netiv Hagdud in the valley of Jordan (Tchernov 1994). House mice lived there as commensals together with wild rodents, amphibians and reptiles, all of which helped in detecting climatic and vegetal changes in these regions over the centuries. Our aim is to examine whether such an approach is viable for the Avgi microfauna. Several tens of microfaunal bone samples have been retrieved from the soil samples through heavy residue sorting. After they have been processed, the information that will be derived will be valuable not only towards a palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, but also towards characterizing the use of certain areas/spaces: house mice for example are well known dwellers of crop storage areas and areas of human activity in general, where, apart from the food, they also find warmth and shelter from predators (Mitchell-Jones 1999). We also try to find out which types of contexts yield more numerous microfauna, so we sample hearths, pits, ditches and of course the average fill. Furthermore, any digestion signs on microfauna bones from certain contexts can pinpoint an open or abandoned space.

A burnt mouse skeleton of the genus Mus sp., possibly belonging to the house mouse Mus musculus domesticus, has been retrieved from Building 1 in the East Sector of the Avgi Excavation. Most of the basic postcrania together with the mandibles have been retrieved, which means that the animal was burnt complete. It was found in a context containing burnt cereal grain in a house with evidence for storage activity. This find helps us have a glimpse of the everyday life and the storing conditions in Neolithic Avgi. Moreover, it documents the presence of commensal rodents in prehistoric villages in the South Balkans as early as the end of Middle Neolithic – beginning of Late Neolithic.

To sum up, the key in understanding the various aspects of the neolithic economy and everyday life as well as the interaction between the prehistoric society and the environment is the combination of different specialities (zooarchaeologists and others). The various modern technologies and methodologies applied on the archaeological data proves that life during the Neolithic was more complex than originally thought and that it will continue to surprise us.


Selected bibliography

Αndrews, P. 1990. Owls, Caves and Fossils, Chicago.

Jenkins, E. L. 2003. Environmental reconstruction, the use of space, and the effect of sedentism on microfaunal communities: Case studies from Pinarbaşi and Çatalhöyük. Unpublished PhD thesis, DPT of Archaeology, Cambridge University.

Mitchell-Jones, A. J. et al. 1999. The Atlas of European Mammals, London.

Ondrias, J. 1966. The taxononmy and geographical distribution of the rodents of Greece, Saügetierkundliche Mitteilungen 14, 1-136.

Stahl, P. W. 1996. The Recovery and Interpretation of Microvertebrate Bone Assemblages from Archaeological Contexts, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 3, No.1, 31-75.

Tchernov, E. 1994. An Early Neolithic Village in the Jordan Valley, Part II: The Fauna of Netiv Hagdud, American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletin 44, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, M.A.

 1. www.texasbeyondhistory.netst-plainsimagesFig5-ap5.html
2. www.msnucleus.org


Athens, October 2008
Katerina Papayiannis