Review of ‘Marine Molluscan Remains from Franchthi Cave’ by Judith C. Shackleton

26th May 2014

‘Marine Molluscan Remains from Franchthi Cave’ by Judith C. Shackleton, 1988, Indiana University Press, x + 194 pp. ISBN 0-253-31976-5 (pbk)

Review by Moya Smith

This is one of a series of five fascicles dealing with the results of Indiana University’s excavations at Franchthi Cave in the southern Argolid, Greece, between 1967 and 1976. The other fascicles include maps, plans and sections of the excavated areas, and accounts of the landscape and people of the region as well as of the lithic industries.

This fascicle includes two separate reports. First is Judith Shackleton’s extremely detailed description and analysis of molluscan remains from excavations in the cave itself and from the nearby shore (Paralia). This section has eight chapters, five appendices (A-E), 20 figures and 19 tables. Of this, the actual text numbers about 50 pages. Following this is Margaret Deith’s and Nicholas Shackleton’s report on oxygen isotope analyses and the implications for determining seasonality. This continues as Chapter 9, with Appendix F, 10 figures, two tables, and three plates. Text numbers 12 pages. The bibliography is a joint one, and despite the publication date does not include recent articles on the same subject by Shackleton or Deith.

Before assessing the usefulness of this publication for archaeologists working in Australia I will briefly describe the contents of the two reports.

Judith Shackleton’s Introduction, provides the background to her involvement in the research project and gives an overview of the geographical setting, plans of the sites, comments about the value of water-sieving for retrieval of molluscs (expanded in Appendix A), and the difficulties of identifying archaeological marine shell to species level. An irritating feature of this otherwise lucid introduction is the site plan. This shows the location of the trenches from which her samples derived, four in Franchthi cave itself and four, or is it five? (there is some discrepancy between map and text), on the Paralia, some 12.5 m lower than the cave and 55 m NNW. However, if you want detailed plans and sections of the excavated areas, you will have to locate Fascicle 1 in the series (Jacobsen and Farrand 1987), which presumably also contains some information about precisely what the excavation ‘units’ are. I suppose the minor irritation or inconvenience these omissions create is reduced to proper perspective by accepting both editorial comment and author’s stress on the fact that this is not so much an archaeological treatise, but a bioarchaeologlcal analysis, presented as ‘a discrete entity’ because of the demands of ‘publication policy’ (p.4).

The second chapter presents the ‘zonation’ of the shells from the cave trenches. Shell is present from c. 26,000 BP, introduced by ‘natural factors’ (p.13), while human use of shellfish, predominantly as food, is evident from the Late Upper Palaeolithic, after 11,000 BP, through to the ceramic Neolithic. Five shell use zones are defined according to numbers and percentages of species occurrence:

Zone 0: 26,000 BP – 11,000 BP no indication of human use of molluscs.

Zone I: 11,000 BP – 9400 BP, Patella (limpet), Monodonta and Gibbula (trochids); late Upper Palaeolithic

Zone II: 9400 BP – 8500 BP, CycJope (gastropods); Lower Mesolithic and much of the Upper Mesolithic

Zone III: 8500 BP – 6900 BP, Cerithium (gastropods); end of Upper Mesolithic, Final Mesolithic, Aceramic Neolithic

Zone IV: 6900 BP – 5000 BP, Cerastoderma, Tapes, Donax, Donacilla (bivalves); Ceramic Neolithic.

Of interest is ‘that the marked change seen in material such as animal bones and botanical remains signaling the transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic is not observed in the marine molluscan sequence’ (p.20). The fluctuations in species occurrence in each trench, or profiles of ‘marine molluscan zonation’ (p.14) are clearly portrayed in Figures 3 to 6, and include the now-common but still desirable, convention of line drawings of the shell species.

What lifts this publication above prosaic lists of data comes in the ensuing chapters. In Chapter 3 Shackleton discusses the habitats of the Franchthi molluscs. Chapter 4 contains reconstruction of previous shorelines and attendant marine environments, with all the implications this has for resource availability and potential resource scheduling. Five periods were chosen for reconstruction: 18,000 BP; 11,000 BP; 9500 BP; 8OOO BP and 5000 BP; the first, midway through the zone of non-humanly derived shell, the last four, representing the different zones of molluscan remains. The maps are taken as representing an age range rather than a precise date. My only quibble with the maps representing this data is that the key/legend is only printed on the map depicting the current shoreline (Fig.8) and for Figures 9 to 13 this entails constantly flicking backwards for reference.

Following this outline of available habitats, Chapter 5 juxtaposes habitats of shellfish from the excavations against available habitats through time, raising the notion of ‘perceived edibility’ (p.41) s an explanation for some variation in exploitation patterns. This is expanded in Chapter 6 with discussion/comments of gathering techniques for different shellfish, and the role of shellfish in the diet both nutritionally and seasonally. In addition there is the valuable Table 3 (p.44) ‘Simplified Habitat Information for Marine Molluscs to Show Ease of Collection’. Chapter 8, the Epilogue ‘intentionally not headed “Conclusions”, (p.55) summarises the potential of analysis of marine shell assemblages. The bulk of shell data is summarised in table form in Appendix C, presenting for each trench, according to unit, the percentages of the nine principal groups of species, and including the number of specimens in each excavated unit.

Chapter 7, combined with the 31 pages of Appendix D (Cerastoderma bead making in Trench LS) and E (catalogue of worked shell from Franchthi cave), deals with the non-food or ‘non-utilitarian’ shell from Franchthi Cave. After comments about using the word ‘worked’ in the text, it is disconcerting to see it in the Appendix E title. In a sense I felt that the whole of Chapter 7 could have been included in Appendix E, with perhaps a brief covering comment in the Introduction, since it sits a little awkwardly with the analysis of past and present habitats and patterns of shellfish gathering.

Deith and Shackleton’s report of oxygen isotope analysis of Franchthi Cave marine molluscs follows as Chapter 9. This describes the principles of oxygen isotope analysis, sampling strategy, the comparative data from analysis of modern samples, problems in interpreting archaeological shells, and finally the seasonal implications of the research. The isotopic profiles of 119 samples are located in Appendix 4, and Table 6 indicates their position according to season and period (eg Upper Mesolithic). Table 5 lists the numbers of shell species analyzed according to trench and excavation unit. The small sample size (p.120) prevents the application of statistical analyses, but does act as positive indication of human presence in the cave. Unfortunately there is no information for the period before 10,500 BP due to problems of suitability of shell for analysis, however, the apparent seasonal patterning is interesting, especially when used in conjunction with botanical and faunal assemblages. In the case of the Lower Mesolithic, shellfish are the only indicators of human presence during winter.

What use are these reports for Australian archaeologists? The actual data, for example, details of zonation of shell species, presence of worked beads, seasonal use of the site etc. are perhaps not terribly relevant to an Australian audience. What is both instructive and emulatable are the depths of published detail and the potential application of these methods in an Australian context.

The main guides for archaeologists beginning work with shell remains and/or middens in Australia, remain Bowdler (1983) and Meehan (1982). Several points from the Franchthi cave report could usefully be added to these. Judith Shackleton presents an instructive example of the archaeological potential of analysis of (64.000) marine molluscs, and argues convincingly the benefits of water sieving for enhanced retrieval of material. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work is the reconstruction of past shorelines and past molluscan habitats juxtaposed against habitats of the molluscan assemblage from Franchthi cave. While it is not always easy to obtain this type of environmental data, its application in this case provides a stimulus to attempt the same elsewhere. The discussion about species habitat goes further than simply listing ‘sandy substrate’ or ‘rocky shores’ (pp.23-4) and redresses the ‘curious absence in the literature of what might have been involved in the collection of species of shellfish found at archaeological sites’ (p.43). It is also gratifying for Australianists to note that some of Shackleton’s inspiration came from Meehan (1977; 1982). This model of reconstructed shorelines, which is arguably the most interesting aspect of Judith Shackleton’s section of this publication, has been published elsewhere (Shackleton 1988) though concentrating on only one of the cave trenches. I would suggest that if you’ve got the article you don’t really need to read the publication. However, if you are interested in the data bank itself, then the publication is invaluable.

Much the same argument applies to Deith and Shackleton’s oxygen isotope analysis. Their report has a well written appraisal of the technique which could bear reading if you’re interested in the field, and the body of data in the form of the oxygen isotope profiles is available if you wish to pursue issues specific to this site. Certainly the possibility of identifying seasonal patterns in shellfish exploitation is an exciting one, and this excitement is transmitted by Deith and Shackleton despite their warnings about the limitations of the technique.

Essentially this publication should probably not be read as a separate volume. It is part of a classic excavation report in the Grand European Manner, its main aim to make vast amounts of data publicly accessible. While at the time this report was published no-one had integrated all the data, at least it is in the public domain. The report should be interesting to those working in molluscan material though one would be more inclined to borrow it from a research library than rush out and purchase it. Shackleton’s and Deith’s 1988 articles probably provide a more easily available overview of the themes in this publication which are most relevant for Australian archaeologists.


Bowdler, S. 1983 Sieving seashells: midden analysis in Australian archaeology. In G. Connah (ed.), Australian Field Archaeology: A Guide to Techniques, pp.135-44. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies: Canberra.

Deith. M.R. 1988 Shell seasonality: an appraisal of the oxygen isotope technique. In R. Esmee Webb (ed.). Recent Developments In Environmental Analysis In Old and New World Archaeology, pp.37-49. British Archaeological Reports: Oxford.

Jacobsen. T.W. and W.R. Farrand 1987 Franchthl Cave and Paralla: Maps, Plans and Sections. (Excavations at Franchthi Cave. Greece, T.W. Jacobsen. general editor.) Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Meehan. B. 1977 Man does not live by calories alone: the role of shellfish in a coastal cuisine. In J.Allen. J. Golson and R. Jones (eds). Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric Studies In Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia, pp.493-531. Academic Press: London.

Meehan. B. 1982 Shell Bed to Shell Midden. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies: Canberra.

Shackleton, J.C. 1988 Reconstructing past shorelines as an approach to determining factors affecting shellfish collecting in the prehistoric past. In G.Bailey and J. Parkington (eds), The Archaeology of Prehlstorlc Coastlines, pp.11-21. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Smith, M.
Review of 'Marine Molluscan Remains from Franchthi Cave’ by Judith C. Shackleton
June 1991
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