Introducing Stelida


Located 3km south-west of Chora, Stelida is a geological rarity in the Aegean, being a 152m high hill made of chert. When broken, this stone provides a sharp and durable cutting edge, making it a desirable tool-making material before the introduction of metal-working 7,000 years ago.

The site was first reported in 1981 by French archaeologists who found clear evidence that Stelida was a prehistoric quarry and stone tool workshop. 

But how old was the site? The tools looked nothing like those from well-known Neolithic and Bronze Age Cycladic settlements (7,000 – 3,200 years ago).

The Ministry of Culture recognised Stelida’s importance, giving it protected status in 2000. O. Philaniotou and I. Legaki of Naxos Museum later made excavations, claiming the hill was quarried in the Middle Palaeolithic, at least 40,000 years ago! 


Why Are We Here?


While Stone Age (Palaeolithic) hunters were living on mainland Europe for over 1 million years, the Mediterranean islands were believed to be settled only 9,000 years ago by farmers (Neolithic). 

When Stelida was discovered in 1981, the oldest villages of the Cyclades were only 7,000 years old, such as Grotta and Zas Cave on Naxos. Exciting new research in the Greek islands is rewriting this history, with claims of pre-modern human activity on Crete and Melos. If true, this could change world history, as scholars have long argued that only modern humans (Homo sapiens) were able to make boats and colonise islands.


The Aegean might therefore have been an important migration route into Europe from Africa. Previously, the sea was considered a barrier, with the land bridge of Thrace the only possible path.  

Are the stone tools of Stelida evidence of such early human activity in the Aegean?

The only way we can answer these questions is by excavating to clarify which humans were visiting the site, and when they were there. At Stelida we are the first archaeologists in the Mediterranean islands to start such work.


How Do We Know?

How do we know where on Stelida to dig, and what does excavation involve?


1. Surveying Stelida

First we map the distribution of stone tools across the hill’s surface. Where we see ‘hot spots’, and our geologists say there is deep soil preserved, we decide to excavate.


2. Excavating Stelida


Now the hard work begins! Before we dig, we remove all plants and rocks from the surface.


With picks, shovels, trowels and buckets we carefully remove the soil, using a sieve to retrieve the artefacts.


At every stage we record the work, making notes, photographs, drawings, and use surveying equipment to map the artefacts’ exact location.


3. Stelida, Soils and Science


We water sieve 20 litres of soil from each layer in search of plants, animal bones and shells: the remains of what people ate, and a reflection of the Naxian landscape at that time.


Unfortunately Stelida’s soil is harsh (“the worst piece of land for a dowry”), with plants and bones only surviving in some hearths because they were burnt. Using Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating, scientists from Bordeaux can tell us when the artefacts were buried, and the date of each layer.


Microscopic analysis of the soil layers provide further information on climate change and past human activities invisible to the naked eye.


What Have We Found?

Prehistoric hunting spears (L – R). (1) Lower Palaeolithic, wood; (2) Middle Palaeolithic, chert; (3) Upper Palaeolithic, bone; (4) Mesolithic, bone; (5) Mesolithic, bone and chert.

Prehistoric hunting spears (L – R). (1) Lower Palaeolithic, wood; (2) Middle Palaeolithic, chert; (3) Upper Palaeolithic, bone; (4) Mesolithic, bone; (5) Mesolithic, bone and chert.

(1,2) Lower Palaeolithic: Emery handaxe, chert cleaver; (3) Middle Palaeolithic: Cores and flake tools.

Stelida predates the invention of pottery and metals, so most of what we find are stone tools, 270,000 of them so far!

While most tools are made of local chert, we also have some emery tools, the earliest use of this famed north-west Naxian resource. The Stelida tools were made for hunting, making clothes, food preparation and woodworking; some distinct examples tell us who made them, and when. We have little evidence for habitation, just some fireplaces where early humans camped during their visits.


Homo heidelbergensis , Neanderthal,  Homo sapiens .

Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthal, Homo sapiens.

who and when?

Stelida was first used at least 250,000 years ago (Lower Palaeolithic), with handaxes possibly made by Homo heidelbergensis.

There are lots of weapons and tools of ‘Levallois’ type made by Neanderthals, possibly 40,000 – 130,000 years old (Middle Palaeolithic). Much activity on the hill relates to early modern humans (Homo sapiens), likely dating 12,000 – 40,000 years ago (Upper Palaeolithic). The last Cycladic hunter- gatherers made tiny tools for harpoons and arrows 7,000 – 9,000 years ago (Mesolithic).

(1) Lower Palaeolithic activity; (2) Middle Palaeolithic (Neanderthal) activity

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stelida's significance

  1. Stelida is the oldest site in the Cyclades, with scientific dates over 100,000 years old.

  2. We have the earliest use of Naxian emery, and the first proof of Cycladic Neanderthals!

  3. Early Homo sapiens activity at Stelida suggests some modern humans entered Europe across the Aegean sea.

  4. Stelida allows us to study the behaviour of different human species in one place.


Sun, Sand and Sea

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Naxos today is famed for its golden beaches and blue sea, with a long warm summer, and a mild wet winter. It has not always been like this...

Palaeolithic activity at Stelida occurred during the last Ice Age (Pleistocene), when the weather, landscape and sea-levels were all very different. Knowing what Palaeolithic Naxos looked like is difficult because plant and animal remains are rarely preserved, evidence that could tell us about climate and environment.

Ice Age Europe (70,000 – 20,000 years ago).

(1) Land-bridge to Stelida (300,000 – 250,000 years ago); (2) Short sea- crossing to Stelida (30,000 – 18,000 years ago).

to stelida by sea?

Marine scientists have reconstructed Aegean sea-levels during the Pleistocene.

During the Ice Age the sea was much lower, with Naxos part of a much larger Cycladic island. In some cold periods a land- bridge joined the islands to mainland Greece and Turkey; we think this is when Neanderthals and earlier humans visited Stelida. From the end of the Ice Age modern humans (Homo sapiens) paddled small boats to the Cyclades.


Boreal forest, Alaska – similar to Ice Age Naxos.

Boreal forest, Alaska – similar to Ice Age Naxos.

From elephants to olives

While Stelida preserves little evidence of the animals, birds and plants of Palaeolithic Naxos, we can ‘borrow’ information about the environment from elsewhere in Greece.

In the later Ice Age, when Naxos was part of a larger island, we know of dwarf elephants (see right) from close to Moutsouna. There may also have been deer, which are known on Rhodes and Crete. On Thera, plants from 37,000 years ago preserved by volcanic ash indicate an environment similar to today, with wild olives, pistachia, palm trees and tamarisk. In contrast, when Neanderthals and earlier humans visited Stelida, it would have been a cold, forested place, like Alaska today.

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Stelida Today and Tomorrow

Stelida, 1994.

Stelida, 1994.

stelida's recent past

Stelida is not just a prehistoric site; today it is a desirable location for villas and hotels, some of the most expensive property on Naxos.

Until recently Stelida was an inhospitable, infertile area owned by the villagers of Agios Arsenios, with no settlement or church, its use limited to grazing sheep and clay pits for roofing materials. The local stone was quarried one last time in the 1980’s to build the airport’s runway (see right).



stelida's present

Stelida now has a diverse community; a mix of Naxian, Greek and foreign seasonal residents, the hill almost completely deserted in winter.

Key characters include the local Kavuras family whose first hotel developments in the 1980’s began Stelida’s tourist boom (see left). The late 1960’s also saw a few foreigners buying land to ‘get away from it all’, including the political scientist Alfred de Grazia (see left), and the geologists Hecht and Roesler.


Palaeolithic quarries – few known, even fewer excavated.

Palaeolithic quarries – few known, even fewer excavated.

stelida's future

A careful balance is now needed between Stelida’s (a) long- term residents, (b) its thriving tourism and development, and (c) its archaeological heritage.

Stelida is a very important and rare site, with few other Palaeolithic quarries known worldwide. Naxians should be proud of Stelida: the oldest site of the Cyclades, with the islands’ first Neanderthals, somewhere that lets us study human behaviour over 250,000 years! Stelida needs protecting so further discoveries can be shared with you and your children.


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