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Content archived on 2024-05-29

Tracking Minoan mobility using a multi-isoptopic approach

Final Activity Report Summary - MINOAN ISOTOPES (Tracking Minoan mobility using a multi-isoptopic approach)

For more than 20 years the measurement of isotopic ratios of several chemical elements have been routinely applied to human and animal skeletal material recovered from archaeological sites to provide evidence of past diets (e.g. carbon, nitrogen) and of migration of individuals (oxygen, sulphur and strontium). Most studies have measured only one or two isotopes (e.g. carbon and nitrogen) and as a consequence only investigated one aspect of the archaeology (i.e. either diet or migration).

In this study a multi-isotopic approach, measuring isotopic ratios of carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur of bone collagen and oxygen, and strontium isotopes of tooth enamel, was applied to skeletal material excavated from Minoan and Bronze Age Crete. Migration plays an important role in Minoan prehistory, so the aim of the project was to address questions of migration and palaeodiet on the island of Crete. Furthermore, the island of Crete presents a limited area (an island) with different geological bedrocks and environments and as such provides a perfect natural laboratory in which to test the further aim of the project, that is - to assess how useful the multi-isotopic approach is.

Skeletal material from 365 individuals (human and animal) from 17 archaeological sites were measured for isotopic analysis, including more than: 300 carbon/nitrogen, 100 sulphur and 200 strontium isotope determinations.

The results reveal that people and animals from Crete are characterised by sulphur and strontium isotope values typical of the marine/coastal environment and expected local limestone values. Whilst the values of most humand adhered to this local value, 6 individuals from the cemetery site of Armenoi have unusual strontium isotope values and two of these have unusual sulphur values. The isotope data combined with morphological data suggests something unusual about these individuals and that they could possibly be immigrants to the island of Crete. In contrast to the marine/coastal influence on the sulphur and strontium isotopes, the carbon and nitrogen isotope data indicate that neither the humans nor the animals in Minoan Crete consumed significant amounts of marine protein, and that diets were isotopically similar for all individuals across the island and in different time periods.

The multi-isotopic approach has proved very effective on the island of Crete, especially the combined use of sulphur and strontium isotopes for characterising the isotopic landscape of Minoan Crete and providing some evidence for possible migrants at the site or Armenoi. If only one isotope had been used, interpretation would be much more difficult. Furthermore, it has highlighted the role of sulphur isotopes combined with carbon and nitrogen isotope (palaeodietary data) to identify people living in coastal environments but not consuming marine resources.

This work contributes one of the largest isotopic studies applied to archaeological material of one geographic area and archaeological period, to date, as such it provide a sound foundation for future isotopic studies of Crete and the Mediterranean area. It demonstrates that the multi-isotopic approach at such a scale is an excellent methodology for making archaeological interpretations of migration and palaeodietary studies.