Archaeologists have found what may be Europe’s oldest pile-dwelling site, dating to almost 8,000 years ago, preserved by the waters of Lake Ohrid, which straddles the border between Albania and North Macedonia.
The discovery comes as part of the EXPLO Project, an ERC-funded research project exploring human responses to environmental change at lake sites in the southern Balkans. The team has been working in the region since 2018, and has previously explored other lakeside sites including Dispilio in Greece and Ploča Mičov Grad on the North Macedonian side of Lake Ohrid. But, in 2021, the team turned their attention to a site near the village of Lin, on the Albanian side of the lake.
There, divers and shore-based researchers identified the remains of a Neolithic village, covering an area c.300m long and 200m wide, with houses built on wooden piles that – most likely – lifted them above the ground. The researchers also discovered that the settlement was surrounded by fortifications made up of thousands of pine posts, indicating a considerable effort to protect it – against whom, we cannot say. This is an unusual discovery, as such structures are rarely preserved in sites on dry land. There is only one site in Greece, also a lake dwelling, with comparable structures.
It is uncertain how many the site would have housed, but its extensive palisades and large house posts suggest a community of several hundred. The settlement would have stood either in the shallows of the lake or on its shores: this is still the subject of some debate, but the project’s leader, Albert Hafner of the University of Bern, believes it probable that Neolithic water levels were slightly lower than they are today, placing the settlement on the marshy beach at the edge of the lake. This would mean that the flat plain behind the dwellings – a rare occurrence in an area dominated by steep mountain slopes – could have been used for agriculture. This is supported by the discovery of cereals among archaeobotanical material from the settlement, as well as the presence of tools such as grinding stones and sickles.
Dendrochronological and radiocarbon dating of the well-preserved wooden piles reveals several intermittent phases of occupation and abandonment, spanning almost 1,000 years. The team initially expected the earliest phase to date to the mid-6th millennium BC, like the other sites they had investigated, but were surprised to find that it was in fact several centuries older, dating to 5900-5800 BC. This makes the settlement remains at Lin the earliest securely dated sedentary site in this area. The discovery pushes back the arrival of farming in the region by c.300 years as well, from 5500 BC – previously the earliest widely accepted date – to at least 5800 BC.
Data from this site will be invaluable in building up a full absolute chronology of the Neolithic period based on tree rings and dendrochronology in south-eastern Europe and connecting sites across the region, as well as providing a picture of what life was like in this part of Balkans at the time.
Images: Nikolas Linke; Marvin Lehmann