Franchthi Cave on the Mediterranean Sea

Deep History in a Greek Cave

Franchthi Cave Entrance, Greece
Franchthi Cave Entrance, Greece. 5telios

Franchthi Cave is a very large cave, overlooking what is now a small inlet off the Aegean Sea in the southeastern Argolid region of Greece, near the modern town of Koiladha. The cave is the epitome of every archaeologist's dream--a site constantly occupied for thousands of years, with wonderful preservation of bones and seeds throughout. First occupied during the early Upper Paleolithic sometime between 37,000 and 30,000 years ago, Franchthi Cave was the site of human occupation, pretty much consistently up until about the final Neolithic Period about 3000 BC.

Franchthi Cave and the Early Upper Paleolithic

Franchthi's deposits measured over 11 meters (36 feet) in thickness. The oldest layers (Stratum P-R in two trenches) belong to the Upper Paleolithic. A recent reanalysis and new dates on the oldest three levels was reported in the journal Antiquity in late 2011.

  • Stratum R (40-150 cm thick), lower part is Aurignacian, upper part Gravettian, 28,000-37,000 cal BP
  • Stratum Q (5-9 cm), volcanic tephra representing ash from the Campanian Ignimbrite, Aurignacian lithic materials, rabbit and cat bones, 33,400-40,300 cal BP-
  • Stratum P (1.5-2 meters thick), undistinguished lithic industry, poorly-preserved mammal bone, 34,000-41,000 cal BP

The Campanian Ignimbrite (CI Event) is a volcanic tephra thought to have occurred from an eruption in the Phlegraean Fields of Italy which occurred ~39,000-40,000 years before the present (cal BP). Noted in many Aurignacian sites across Europe, notably at Kostenki.

Shells of Dentalium spp, Cyclope neritea and Homolopoma sanguineum were were recovered from all three UP levels; some appear to be perforated. Calibrated dates on the shell (with consideration for the marine effect) are in roughly the correct chronostratigraphic sequence but vary between ca 28,440-43,700 years before the present (cal BP).

See Douka et al for additional information.

Significance of Franchthi Cave

There are many reasons why Franchthi Cave is an important site; three of them are the length and period of occupation, the quality of preservation of the seed and bone assemblages, and the fact that it was excavated in modern times.

  • Length and period of occupation. The site was occupied, more or less continuously, for about 25,000 years, during which time came the invention of agriculture and pastoralism. What that means is that changes that were wrought by these phenomenal leaps in human understanding can be traced at one place, by examining differences between different layers.
  • Quality of preservation. In most of the layers excavated at Franchthi cave, remnants of animals and plants in the form of bone, shell, seed, and pollen were preserved. These kinds of artifacts have provided researchers with a wealth of information concerning diet and the course of domestication.
  • Modern excavation techniques. Franchthi cave was excavated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by the Universities of Indiana and Pennsylvania and the American School in Classical Studies at Athens. These researchers paid attention to stratigraphic layers, and kept much of the faunal and floral materials that would have been ignored or thrown away in earlier times.

    Franchthi Cave was excavated under the direction of T.W. Jacobsen of Indiana University, between 1967 and 1979. Investigations since then have concentrated on the millions of artifacts recovered during the excavations.


    This glossary entry is a part of the guide to Upper Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

    Deith MR, and Shackleton JC. 1988. The contribution of shells to site interpretation: Approaches to shell material from Franchthi Cave. In: Bintlinff JL, Davidson DA, and Grant EG, editors. Conceptual Issues in Environmental Archaeology. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press. p 49-58.

    Douka K, Perles C, Valladas H, Vanhaeren M, and Hedges REM. 2011. Franchthi Cave revisited: the age of the Aurignacian in south-eastern Europe. Antiquity 85(330):1131-1150.

    Jacobsen T. 1981. Franchthi Cave and the beginnings of settled village life in Greece. Hesperia 50:1-16.

    Shackleton JC. 1988. Marine molluscan remains from Franchthi Cave. Excavations at Franchthi Cave, Greece. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Shackleton JC, and van Andel TH. 1986. Prehistoric shore environments, shellfish availability, and shellfish gathering at Franchthi, Greece. Geoarchaeology 1(2):127-143.

    Stiner MC, and Munro ND. 2011. On the evolution of diet and landscape during the Upper Paleolithic through Mesolithic at Franchthi Cave (Peloponnese, Greece). Journal of Human Evolution 60(5):618-636.