Pelasgia, Aeolia, Thessaly, different names same place in prehistory and history

Peneus River running on the outskirts of Kalampaka town, has been throughout the centuries the main basis and a driving force behind our history, civilization, economy and the development of our way of life in general. This is the reason why the earliest remains of human presence here have been discovered near the banks of this river. Peneus river god was the child of Oceanus and Tethys. In the Greek mythology the plain of Thessaly became known as one of the main battle grounds in the war between the Gods and the Titans.

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Thessalian plain and Penios river as seen from St. Stephen monastery in Meteora

Away from myths and according to the latest archeological findings man’s presence in the region is very old starting at the Mid-Paleolithic era, about 130.000 years ago and continued continued uninterrupted till our present day. In recent years important artifacts as well as human’s remains have been uncovered at Theopetra cavern near Meteora, where very significant excavations are being held continuously over the last 25 years. The last glacial period of the Paleolithic era started to retreat and the region’s climate slowly began to warm about 16000 years ago. This climate change lasted for another 8000 years and by the end of this period the early waves of agricultural revolution had already reached and swept the plain of Thessaly, while the domestication of animals was achieved some 2.000 years later! It’s really fascinating to know that very few places on Earth outside Mesopotamia can yield with such consistency the successive evolutionary stages of man’s agricultural revolution. And Thessaly plain is noted as one of those rare places!

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Neolithic settlement of Dimini

This “boom” of Thessaly’s Neolithic economy was mainly marked by the mass population movements, as well as from the creation of the first permanent settlements like Sesklo and Dimini mainly on the Eastern part of Thessaly closer to the Aegean Sea. That last wasn’t without a good reason because the Aegean sea along with it’s many islands it must have served at the time as a line of communication with Minor Asia and the Messopotamia. Sesklo enjoyed its heyday around 5500 BC. The community covered an area of more than 13 hectares and its population could not have been more than a few hundred inhabitants. The buildings at Sesklo had stone foundations and a “superstructure of pisé”, crowned by a gable of hip roof made of a thick layer of clay on a timber frame.” Most of them where one-roomed measuring between10 to 50 square meters.

Dimini covers on the other hand an area of 0.8 hectares, with the astonishing fact about this site being the six concentric circular enclosures. Initially it was thought that represented defensive walls but more recent reexamination points to better organization of the land. Dimini was established sometime after 5000 BC and its buildings are within the concentric circles mentioned above. On that same period Thessaly was known by the name of Pelasgia and its Neolithic inhabitants as Pelasgians.

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Neolithic pottery from Dimini

During the early 20th century, archaeological excavations conducted by the Italian Archaeological School and by the American Classical School on the Athenian Acropolis and on other sites within Attica revealed Neolithic dwellings, tools, pottery and skeletons from domesticated animals (i.e., sheep, fish). All of these discoveries showed significant resemblances to the Neolithic discoveries made on the Thessalian acropolises of Sesklo and Dimini. These discoveries help provide physical confirmation of the literary tradition that describes the Athenians as the descendants of the Pelasgians, who appear to descend continuously from the Neolithic inhabitants in Thessaly.

At about 1200 BC during the Mycenaean period in Thessaly region, became known at that time by the name of Aeolia, a considerable number of bigger in size settlements were developed that became strong enough to allow their participation on the Greek expeditionary force to conquer Troy. Those cities were Trikki (present today Trikala) Oechaliae and Ithomi along with Aeginion (present day Kalampaka) and formed under the name of Estiaeotis one of the four administrative regions of the ancient Thessalian confederation. The Thessalian confederation it lasted until 353 BC when in the aftermath of the Macedonian victory in battle of Crocus Field of King Phillip II against the Phocians, that the Thessalians appointed King Philip “Archon” of Thessaly. This was an appointment for life, and gave Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, control over all the revenues of the Thessalian Confederation, and furthermore made Philip leader of the united Thessalian army!  From that point on Thessaly became one of the closest allies of Macedonians and they remained so until the arrival of Romans in the 2nd century BC and the battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC. Few years later Thessaly was annexed by the Roman Empire like the rest of Greece and along with Macedonia they became a Roman province.

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Theopetra Cave inhabited by humans 130.000 years ago.

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The Cave of Theopetra, just 4 km away from Meteora is indeed a very unique archeological site, mainly because it has revealed many of our early history secrets, like the finding of the oldest known man-made structure on earth. This unique cave with its great location, its superb access to fresh clean water and its vantage point, it served like a magnet for those early inhabitants who could recognize from miles away such key advantages. So those early human settlers used it continuously for more than 130.000 years.

Its uniqueness from an archeological perspective is that in contains, within a single site, the records of two greatly significant cultural transitions: The replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans, and the later transition from hunter-gathering to farming after the end of the last Ice Age. The cave consists of an immense 500 square meter rectangular chamber at the foot of a limestone hill, which rises to the northeast above the village of Theopetra, with a very big entrance 17m wide by three metres high.

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It lies at the foot of the Chasia mountain range, which forms the natural boundary between Thessaly and Macedonia prefectures, while the Lithaios River, a tributary of the Pineios River, flows in front of the cave. The small Lithaios River flowing literally on the doorsteps of the cave meant that cave dwellers had always easy access to fresh, clean water without the need to cover daily long distances to find it.

Excavations, which have been systematically carried out, have unearthed light geological deposits dating to the Pleistocene and Holocene periods as well as anthropogenic deposits, indicating that the cave had been continuously inhabited during the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic, the Mesolithic and the Neolithic periods.

Specimens found, such as coal and human bones, prove that the cave was occupied from about 135,000 BC to 4000 BC, and that temporary use continued during the Bronze Age and historic times up to 1955. Even after that the cave was used occasionally to by shepherds to shelter their herds’ right up until the excavations began. It is the first time that cave dwelling was recorded in Thessaly during the Palaeolithic period.

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The latest cave findings published in 2012 by the lead scientist and its team responsible for the excavations, Paleoanthropologist Dr. Ekaterini (Nina) Kyparissi-Apostolika, has raised the time records of cave’s dwelling up to 135.000 BC.

Excavations brought to light three human footprints which have been dated to approximately 135,000 years ago. The find consists of four human footprints in a row, from four individuals believed to have been children aged 2 to 7. Those children must have walked on the remained ashes of a fire that later in time it became petrified and thus allowing footprints to be preserved till present day.The stratigraphic sequence of Theopetra cave extends through three cold periods: during the Middle era circa 25,000 BC, during the Upper Palaeolithic, and during the final Upper Palaeolithic period (end of the Pleistocene era).

The excavations and study of the finds at Theopetra have been conducted since 1987 by the scientific research group of the department of Paleoanthropology-Speleology, as we have already mentioned earlier under the direction of Dr. Ekaterini (Nina) Kyparissi-Apostolika. Objects discovered in the cave include stone tools of the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, as well as Neolithic pottery, bone and shell objects, skeletons from 15000, 9000 and 8000 BC, and traces of plants and seeds that reveal dietary habits.

ImageBack in 2010 it was announced that according to an optical dating test known as Optically Stimulated Luminescence, that performed to date a recently excavated stonewall and applied on quartz grains nested within the stones, it surprisingly revealed the oldest known man-made structure. The 23,000 year old stone wall in front of Theopetra cave probably built to protect its residents from cold winds at the height of the last ice age, is the oldest known example of a man made structure!

If visiting Meteora then Theopetra Cave is definitely a site not to be missed by anyone!