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by Archaeology Newsroom

Early urbanization in Greece. The Aegean islands

As mountain peaks scattered in the sea, the Aegean islands did not favour population explosions. In order to survive on their rocks, the islanders developed skills and techniques for the maximum exploitation of their natural resources.They acquired empirical knowledge in fields, such as physics, chemistry, meteorology, astronomy, from their activities in mining, metalwork, shipbuilding and seafaring. This resulted in the development of technology, whose products were exchanged for subsistence commodities from mainland communities. Thus, in the islands’ craft specialisation,the division of trade and labour, all archaeologically documented as very early in the third millennium BC have contributed to the process of urbanization.This was different not only from that of the mainland but even among the various island communities themselves. The relatively large size of the eastern Aegean islands of Lemnos, Lesbos, Chios and Samos together with their geomorphology as well as their being geographically placed near the coast of Asia Minor not only guaranteed their survival but also favoured the development of harbour-settlements which controlled the sea routes from South to North and vise versa. Poliochni on Lemnos, thanks to its location just opposite the Dardanelles, seems to have developed as a proto-urban centre as early as the beginning of the third millennium BC, rightly claiming the title of the first European city . Town planning, paved streets, communal wells, a sewage system as well as an impressive wall for its defense are among the visible works of the so-called Yellow period (c. 2300 BC), but the communal “Granary’ and the so-called “Assembly Hall” or Bouleuterion date back to the beginnings of the city ( Blue period). Some of these proto-urban features of Poliochni are also found in other known Early Bronze Age settlements of the Northeastern Aegean islands. But Poliochni’s early and rapid development seems to have been due to the early introduction of metals and metallurgical technology from the Caucasus area, as is reflected in many ancient Greek myths and confirmed by archaeological discoveries. The process of urbanization in the Northeastern Aegean islands was cut short towards the end of the third millennium BC for reasons still unknown to us. The size, lay-out and distribution of Early Cycladic I (3200-2700 BC) cemeteries as well as the custom of single burials in each grave suggest that isolated farmsteads were dispersed throughout the islands. Fewer but larger cemeteries and the practice of multiple inhumations suggest the existence of sizeable villages, preferably coastal, during the Early Cycladic II period (2700-2300 BC.). Such villages seem to have been created by the synoecism of the scattered farmsteads in coastal locations guaranteeing safe anchorage. Skarkos on los is the best known example of an EC II coastal village with clear urban characteristics such as a townplan, and a network of streets bordered by rows of two-storey houses. Similar settlements developed at Gratta on Naxos, Paroikia on Paros, Ayia Irini on Kea, Akrotiri on Thera, Phylakopi on Melos, Chalandriani on Syros etc. Craft specialisation and division of labour are reflected in metallurgy, stonecarving and, above all, in shipbuilding and seafaring, while some form of social stratification is evident from the burial customs. Some small, short-lived, fortified settlements, like Kastri on Syros and Panormos on Naxos, were perhaps a hasty solution in the face of an emergency and do not seem to constitute examples of smooth urban development. Little is known about the Early Cycladic II (2300-2000 BC) settlements which are buried under subsequent phases of habitation. Limited in numbers -no more than one in every island – they occupy the same coastal sites as the preceding E.C. II centres, which apparently developed into ports. These towns developed further during the Middle Cycladic period (2000-1600 BC) into real cities of a cosmopolitan character, of which Akrotiri on Thera is the best example. Akrotiri was buried early in the Late Bronze Age under thick deposits of volcanic ash. However, other towns, such as Paroikia on Paros, Phylakopi on Melos, Grotta on Naxos, Agia Irini on Kea continued to exist throughout the Late Bronze Age.