Monoxylon III: Czech archaeologists trace ancient sea routes in Neolithic dugout replica

Photo: Radomír Tichý, archive of Czech Radio

Monoxylon is the Greek term for a vessel chiselled out from a single tree trunk. It’s also the name of a Czech-led experimental archaeological expedition, which first set off in such a craft back in 1995. The aim then and now is to validate in practice assumptions and hypotheses about human migration in the Neolithic age, some 8,000 years ago.

Photo: Radomír Tichý,  archive of Czech Radio
After two years of preparation, the Monoxylon III team this weekend loaded their hollowed-out boat onto a trailer in Eastern Bohemia, bound for the Greek port of Lavrion. If all goes well, on Saturday they will begin island hopping to Milos, a historic source of obsidian, or volcanic glass, and – 400 kilometres and just over two weeks later – land their dugout in Crete.

University of Hradec Králové professor Radomír Tichý – who literally built the Centre of Experimental Archaeology in nearby Všestary from the ground – is the expedition’s leader.

“The Monoxylon I expedition took place in 1995 across the Aegean Sea. At the time, it was all still rather hypothetical. But then Italians published findings from Lake Bracciano, north of Rome, about dugouts that likely crossed the Mediterranean during the Neolithic period, the Younger Stone Age.

“The boat we built in 1998 for Monoxylon II was longer, more seaworthy. We sailed the Western Mediterranean, from Sicily to Portugal, in five stretches. And for Monoxylon III, we’ve modified the dugout to much more closely resemble the one discovered in Lake Bracciano. Plus, we will be crossing the Eastern Mediterranean. So, it should be really very, very, interesting!”

The team’s nine-meter vessel, a replica of the 8,000-year-old Italian boat, weighs in at 1.3 tonnes. It will be manned by two rotating crews of ten, who will be accompanied by a modern-day catamaran that can serve as a floating pier in particularly foul weather.

Photo: Radomír Tichý,  archive of Czech Radio
Monoxylon III will retrace sea routes fuelled by trade in obsidian from Sicily to the coast of Tunisia. Obsidian from Milos has been found in the famous or Knossos labyrinth in Crete. That suggests a line could have been realised by two routes: from Santorini to Crete, which is more demanding, or from Peloponnese to Western Crete.

Expedition organiser Radomir Tichý chose the more difficult route. Doing so should contribute more to understanding the spread of early agricultural cultures in the Mediterranean during the Younger Stone Age.

Their last stretch, at over 100 kilometres, is an important test of distances simple Neolithic-era vessels could traverse in one go, and how well a vessel made from one tree trunk could transport not only people, but crops and livestock.