Earliest Figurative Art in Crete and Greece

Asphendou petroglyphs on the speleothem in the cave (Strasser et al 2018)

The earliest known figural art from Greece was once thought to be from the Neolithic (8,500 to 5,000 years ago). New research on old data has pushed that date back to over 11,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic (Late Pleistocene).

Isolated from the mainland for over 5 million years, Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and it’s where the Asphendou cave is situated, specifically in the White Mountains in the western portion of the island.

Map of the Greek Island Crete.

Within this cave is a set of rock art inscribed as petroglyphs on a speleothem–a sort of stone found in caves, created when calcite or calcium carbonate minerals precipitate from flowing or dripping water.

Discovered in the 1960s and first documented in the 1970s, it was debated whether the rock art should be dated to the Paleolithic (over 11,000 years ago) or to the Bronze Age (5,000 to 3,000 years ago).

The problem was how do you date an inscription on a rock. Sometimes you can do this relatively by identifying certain elements within the rock art itself. For instance, if bows are depicted instead of spears or atlatls, a earliest date can be determined. But in the case of the Asphendou petroglyphs, no readily identifiable motif that could be dated was obvious.

Also, there wasn’t a datable patina present that could be tested, which is sometimes possible. And, being a petroglyph, no pigments were used that could be tested or relatively dated by knowing when such pigments were popular. So, for decades, the when question of the rock art in the Asphendou cave went unanswered.

Perhaps until now. In recent years, new archaeological and palaeontological information has come available. As have new technologies and methods of analyses. Together, these lines of evidence are discussed in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (Strasser, Murray, van der Geer, Kolb, and Ruprecht, 2018) and the authors conclude that the petroglyphs were carved on that cave wall in the Late Pleistocene, or Upper Paleolithic.

About Asphendou Cave

The cave itself is small, just a few meters deep and about half a meter high. It’s situated near Sphakia in western Crete and at about 720 meters above sea level in the White Mountains. The floor is comprised of the speleothem where the petroglyhs are carved, covering an area roughly a meter in diameter. When it was used in the Paleolithic, the cave was probably larger based on the piles of rock spalled from the roof. By most archaeological standards, this would be considered a rock shelter rather than a cave, but the authors note their continued use of the term to avoid confusion since previous documentation of the site refers to it as a cave.

Levels 3 (yellow) and 4 (blue) of the rock art panel. The extinct deer are in level 4.

Extinct Deer

Since the cave was first discovered and published in the 1970s, several extinct species of deer were discovered on Crete, along with a peculiar and distinguishing feature. The deer exhibited an elongated antler, perhaps twice the length of their own body. Specifically, this extinct genus of deer are called Candiacervus.

Within the rock art happens to be a quadraped with that same distinctive antler.

Enter the Technology

Using a method that is fast becoming popular in archaeological research, the research team took what was probably hundreds of individual photographs using a Nikon D800E DSLR and a 25mm prime lens. They then processed these images using AgiSoft Photoscan Pro, which creates a 3-dimensional image known as an orthophoto (an image that is geospatially corrected so the scale is uniform). The whole process is known as Structure From Motion, or Photogrammetry. From this 3D orthophoto, they were able to create sketches and maps and perform detailed analyses without being confined to the cave and it’s lighting.

In the 1970s, when the rock art was first documented, the thought was that the incisions were done in a single event. The resulting sketch was, compared to the new data collected with photogrammetry, a jumbled mess.

The more recent research team were able to tease out the subtle differences between several artistic events in the past by taking note of differences in depth and style of the incisions. They were able to identify at least 3 different levels of the rock art, created over time, and one overlapping an earlier event, much like a palimpsest.

Quadraped, likely Candiacervus, element “b” in the sketch.

And it is the oldest layer, the layer with the quadraped that is likely to represent Candiacervus, was dated to the Palaeolithic period. Which makes this the oldest figural art in Crete and in Greece.

Further Reading:

Strasser, T.; Murray, S.; van der Geer, A.; Kolb, C.; and Ruprecht, L. (2018). Paleolithic cave art from Crete, Greece. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 18: 100-108.

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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