Zooarchaeology of Turtles in the Mediterranean

Zooarchaeology, “is the systematic study of animal remains recovered from archaeological sites, with the goal of understanding past human life, in historic and prehistoric times” (University of Tennessee 2013). By looking at the fluctuation of animal species and numbers, archaeologists are able to identify how humans altered the environment, how they interacted with animals, or how their culture shifted over time. Turtles are one of the keystone species in the Mediterranean. Keystone species are a species that an ecosystem largely depends on. They are also a sensitive species to change, which makes them a good subject to study. By studying the fluctuation of turtle populations over time, archaeologists can attempt to discover not only how humans interacted with turtles but also how humans altered the environment that the turtles live in. 

Around 10 years ago, Canan Cakirlar conducted a study of several different turtle species in the Mediterranean. Canan Cakirlar is the head of the zooarchaeology department at Groningen Institute of Archaeology. The study took place at five different sites that were previously fishing harbors and marine ports. These sites included Clazomenae, Kinet, Fadous, Beirut, and Burak in Lebanon. The study examined interactions between humans and turtles in the premodern past. There was no specific time period, rather it was a study of how premodern interactions led to the current population size of turtles in the areas (Cakirlar, Canan, Francis Koolstra, and Salima Ikram 2021).

Figure 1: A map of the turtle study area in the Mediterranean

The specimens collected were examined by context, what type of bone they were, weight, and any form of mark from butchery or gnawing. It was also determined whether the sea turtle was a Loggerhead, Green Sea Turtle, or a Nile soft shelled Turtle. The methods of calculating relative abundance utilized were %MNI (minimum number of individuals) and %NISP (number of identified individuals).

The study found that humans exploited turtles for their shells and meat. There was a sudden increase in the amount of turtle specimens found during the Iron Age, which is believed to be linked to increased access to metal tools and seafare. It is interesting to note that climate impacted the availability of turtles to humans in different places throughout time. The climate had an impact on nesting locations and availability of food. The weather can also affect the archaeology of human and turtle interactions. It is also a possibility that as new people moved into the Mediterranean they utilized the new animal to reduce food insecurity. Two of the more interesting finds were the decrease in size of bones which may have been due to domestication of turtles and that turtle specimens were almost nonexistent at the sites during the Upper Paleolithic and Epipalaeolithic periods.

Even though we know that humans had an impact on the turtle population in the Mediterranean throughout time, the overall significance of past human interactions on the present turtle population is not certain.

Figure 2: Depiction of a Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Obviously the exploitation of turtles for resources contributed to the diminished turtle populations now, but it cannot be said for certain it was all humans since the climate and state of nesting sites play important roles in the survival of turtles as well. More studies surrounding the speciesof turtles in the Mediterranean are being conducted in order to see the severity of impact on the turtle populations today. 


Cakirlar, Canan, Francis Koolstra, and Salima Ikram

  2021  Tracking turtles in the past: zooarchaeological evidence for human-turtle interactions in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. Antiquity 95(379):125–141.


Casale, Paola

  2007  A model of area fidelity, nomadism, and distribution patterns of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the Mediterranean Sea. Heidelberg 152(5): 1039-1049.


Canan Cakirlar, Jort Bosman, and Salima Ikram

  2019  Archaeozoology of the Near East XII. Barkhuis, Port Angeles


University of Tennessee

  2013  Zooarchaeological Research. Department of Archaeology, Knoxville 

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Using Bead Archaeology to Discover Information about Regions of the World

Figure 1: a bead from the Neolithic Era

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “Typology is a classification according to general type.” Typology can range from the mapping of unknown gravestones in cemeteries to even objects themselves. Beads can be found in many different sections of the world from all different time periods dating back to 3800 BC. In looking at the physicality of a bead, archaeologists gain a deeper understanding of the technology used to produce the bead as well as the time period that the bead was crafted in. By mapping different types of beads by date, material, and shape, archaeologists are able to determine the types of societies in a specific region and the technology that they had access to/developed. 

Horace Beck was one of the first archaeologists to attempt a study of beads in 1928. He categorized different materials and sizes of beads, which led to an increased interest in the archaeological study of beads . Before Beck, beads were often viewed as smaller objects and their meaning was largely unknown. They were often lost due to insufficient recovery techniques.

In a study done 30 years ago in the Levant, Daniella E Bar-Yosef Mayer studied beads and categorized them by shape, region, age, and material. She visited twenty-two archaeological sites in an effort to work towards a typology of beads from in and around the Neolithic Period. The conclusions drawn from this study include findings such as how characteristics of the beads display aspects of chronology within societies, how societies can be dated due to the type of bead, and how certain groups were trading their resources with other groups. She is continuing to work on her typology of beads today in different areas of the world.

Figure 2: the beginning of a typology of Neolithic beads in the Levant

The beads found throughout the Levant display a wide range of time periods. As time periods changed, so did the type of beads and the technological features that were used to create them. Bar-Yosef Mayer writes in PLos journal, “We conclude that between 160 ka BP and 140 ka BP there was a shift from collecting complete valves to perforated shells” (Bar-Yosef Mayer 2022). Not only does this mean that new technology was being developed, but also, people were developing new ways to display and exchange beads. As soon as perforated shells were introduced, the beads could now be worn on a string. The transition from carrying beads to a form of human adornment with “jewelry” shows a change in time period and another way for beads to move larger distances.  

As more typologies of beads are created, more information about the connections of certain societies can be drawn. For instance, if one bead is found in one region but the same bead is found 100 miles away, it can be inferred that those societies are interconnected. The mapping of beads on different archaeological sites throughout the world has led to a better understanding of the connections between groups of people throughout the world, human necessity for self adornment, and the understanding of past behavioral patterns.


Beck, Horace

1928  Classification and Nomenclature of Beads and Pendants. Journal


E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Daniella

  February 24, 2014  Towards a Typology of Stone Beads in the Neolithic Levant.

    Journal of Field Archaeology(2):129-142

E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Daniella

  2017  In Not Just for Show, edited by Daniella Bar- Yosef Mayer, pp. 69-81. Oxbow

    Books, Oxford.

E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Daniella

  July 8, 2020  On Holes and String. PLoS ONE journal 15(7):abstract


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