The earliest known Greek art has now been identified in a cave on the island of Crete. Portraying extinct animals, it has been found to date to the last Ice Age and is more than 11,000 years old.
Dr Thomas Strasser of Providence College, Rhode Island says “This is the first palaeolithic art ever found in Greece and it’s significant because it deepens the history of art there by many thousands of years, and is like an eyewitness account of Ice Age Crete. Archaeological and palaeontological information, as well as new technologies unavailable to earlier scholars, offer evidence to confirm a palaeolithic date for the earliest carvings.”
The Asphendou Cave, located in the mountainous Sphakia region of western Crete, has been known for several decades, as have the petroglyphs, described by Dr Strasser as “a confusing jumble of engravings that had eluded dating”. The confusion was caused by several layers of engraving superimposed on one another in the calcite flowstone of the cave floor. When first noticed the animal depictions were thought to be of feral goats and possibly as late as the Bronze Age.
The oldest of these layers have now shown to be a species of recently identified fossil dwarf deer named Candiacervus ropalophorus, which became extinct more than 11,000 years ago. The species has unusually long antlers with short lateral tines, and specimens found not far north of Asphendou in caves on the north coast of Crete date to between 21,500 and 11,000 years ago, the period of upper palaeolithic cave art across Europe.
Photogrammetry was used to record and then extract the individual quadrupeds, and the images compared with those made from excavated Candiacervusremains.
The 37 deer engravings identified at Asphendou are tiny — about 5cm long — and the engravings shallow. They represent “a palaeolithic animal herd without ground line or background," Dr Strasser reports in the Journal of Archaeological Science.