"Exploring Macedonia" is our first new itinerary in Greece since 2018. On this occasion, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a kind of travel diary on our blog, following precedents from Greece, Ireland and Turkey. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
Today, we went to the extremes. To be more exact, we went on an excursion into the far west of Macedonia, to see the beautiful lake-side town (actually lake-peninsula town) of Kastoria with its rich Byzantine treasures. We have written about Kastoria before, so here I will dwell on something we saw along the way!
We saw a lot of landscape, as we were travelling to the region known as Upper Macedonia in antiquity, an area of mountains and isolated plains, today also of many traditional villages.
Our first stop was at Dispilio, one of the most important prehistoric sites in the area. Here, a lakeside settlement of the Neolithic era has been excavated for the last few decades. There are a great many Neolithic settlements in Macedonia, and they are important.
The Neolithic, or new stone age, is the era when humans changed their lifestyle more profoundly than at any other transition. It is the period when our forebears gave up the life of nomadic hunter-gatherers and began to modify the landscapes they lived in and the plant and animal species they lived with and on. It marks the introduction of agriculture and of animal husbandry, and following from those, of permanent settlements, and of pottery. All of this began in the Near East, more precisely in what is now Eastern Turkey and Northern Iran and adjacent areas, over 10,000 years ago. Having spread through Anatolia, the idea of a Neolithic lifestyle reached Europe around 8,000 years ago, and three of its four major points of entry were in Greece, namely in Thessaly (Central Greece), in Crete - and in Macedonia. (The fourth is the Danube, a bit further north.)
There are hundreds of Neolithic settlements in Macedonia, perhaps even thousands, but Dispilio is quite unique. It is a lake-side site, where wooden houses were built on a shoreline, often on platforms above the shallow waters. Its beginnings are over 7,500 years ago. As the lake still exists, the site has preserved much organic material, especially wood, giving us insights into the construction of dwellings. They were made of wood, as a general structural framework, wattle (woven reeds or branches) for walls and perhaps roofs, and mud, covering and insulating the walls. Lake-dwellings of this type are a specific form of settlement at the time, the majority of sites are on dry land. In both cases, they are small villages and we can safely assume that they relied on exploiting the resources available in their immediate vicinity. Dispilio would have seen the lake itself as one such resource, and fishing would have been one of its activities, as would growing grains and raising livestock ashore.
Dispilio is not the only such lakeside settlement in Neolithic Macedonia, but it is the best-explored. The extensive information provided by systematic excavations has enabled the archaeologists to reconstruct part of the settlement. There are a series of huts, all made of wattle and daub (mud), recreated with their interiors, to give us an impression of Neolithic life in the region. Inside, we usually find a hearth, a bedstead, some objects of pottery (used for storage of food, for cooking, and also for display - there are finely painted pots), as well as tools made of bone and stone.
There is an oddly serene atmosphere at reconstructed Dispilio, a place that smells of lakewater and is surrounded by softly rustling reeds. It is not difficult to imagine the village life of our distant forebears there.
Our day also included a wonderful lunch at Kastoria and a superb wine-tasting in Amyntaio.