Episode 13: It takes a village

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the Near East was a time of many firsts. In addition to changing the way that we lived and got our food, it was also the time when we got villages and village life.

The first recognizable houses appear in the later part of the Epipalaeolithic. However, we don’t really think of the development of settled communities of both related and unrelated people – villages – until the early part of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, the PPNA. This is when we get not only permanent houses but also public or community structures. What exactly these buildings-which-were-not-houses were is not always entirely clear. Some of them seem to have had some role in food storage for the community, and some seem to have been places where community events and rituals took place. Some were both of these.

The most famous of these public buildings, especially for the sort which seems to have had some sort of religious or ceremonial function, are the ones from Gobekli Tepe in what is now southeastern Turkey. These have been broadly interpreted as shrines, and each seems to have been used for a certain limited period before it was carefully buried and a new shrine was made and used nearby. This means that we not only have a nice sequence of shrines to look at through time, but thanks to the previous inhabitants of Gobekli Tepe’s decision to bury these shrines at the end of their use, they are very well preserved.

Gobekli Tepe, showing the excavated shrines and new areas still under excavation. Image taken from here.
Some of the animals carved onto pillars at Gobekli Tepe. Image from here.

These buildings change over time, as do the houses that we find in Neolithic villages of the PPNA and PPNB. In the PPNA, we are mostly looking at small, round or oval shaped buildings with a variety of building methods. In the PPNB, the buildings are still made using a variety of methods, but they are almost always rectangular. Houses are not only rectangular, but over the course of the PPNB they also start to get more internal divisions, with added rooms and storage areas. Public buildings also start to get more internal architectural details, but not always.

Jerf el-Ahmar, showing the large PPNA public building. Different houses from some of the many occupation levels of this village are also visible, including later rectangular houses with rooms and earlier oval-shaped houses. Image from Belfer-Cohen and Goring-Morris 2010.
Changes to the shape and internal layout of houses through the different phases of PPNA and PPNB Cayonu (southeastern Turkey). House shapes and designs move through time with the oldest to the left and the younger styles to the right. Image from here.

In many sites, we also start to see more than one public building in different parts of the village. This suggests that we might be starting to see more storage of food happening at home, rather than at the level of the community as a whole, and that the social groups of villages might be getting large enough that they are starting to divide into multiple social sub-units (extended families or clans) that live together in the same village. One of the ways that these groups within the same village may have distinguished themselves is through shared ancestry and relationships between their ancestors.

This might explain the use of skulls in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. It was not unusual across the Near East for people to bury their relatives under the house floor. In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, it was also not unusual to go back later and retrieve a particular skull, or to keep the skull back while the rest of the person was buried. These are found in both houses and public buildings, and can be highly polished from repeated handling. These can also be decorated with plaster to better resemble the living people which they once were.

A plastered skull excavated from Jericho in the southern Levant. Image from here.
Three plastered skulls as they were found at Yiftahel in the southern Levant. Image from Slon et al 2014.

Episode Bibliography:

Atakuman, Ç. 2014. Architectural discourses and social transformation during the Early Neolithic in southeast Anatolia. Journal of World Prehistory 27: 1–42.

Balbo, A.L., Iriarte, E., Arranz, A., Zapata, L., Lancelotti, C., Madella, M., Teira, L., Jiménez, M., Braemer, F. and Ibáñez, J.J. 2012. Squaring the circle. Social and environmental implications of Pre-Pottery Neolithic building technology at Tell Qarassa (South Syria). PLOS One 7(7): e42109.

Belfer-Cohen, A. and Goring-Morris, N. 2010. The initial Neolithic in the Near East: why it is so difficult to deal with these PPNA… Mitekufat Haeven: Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society 40: 149-166.

Birch-Chapman, S. and Jenkins, E. 2019. A Bayesian approach to calculating Pre-Pottery Neolithic structural contemporaneity for reconstructing population size. Journal of Archaeological Science 112: 105033.

Byrd, B.F. 2005. Reassessing the emergence of village life in the Near East. Journal of Archaeological Research 13(3): 231-290.

Dietrich, O., Heun, M., Notroff, J., Schmidt, K., and Zarnkow, M. 2012. The role of cult and feasting in the emergence of Neolithic communities. New evidence from Göbekli Tepe, south-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 86: 674-695.

Finlayson, B., Mithen, S.J., Najjar, M., Smith, S., Maričević, D., Pankhurst, N. and Yeomans, L. 2011. Architecture, sedentism and social complexity at Pre-Pottery Neolithic A WF16, southern Jordan. PNAS 108(20): 8183-8188.

Goren, Y., Goring-Morris, A.N. and Segal, I. 2001. The technology of skull modelling in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB): regional variability, the relation of technology and iconography and their archaeological implications. Journal of Archaeological Science 28(7): 671-690.

Hadad, R. 2019. Ruin dynamics: architectural destruction and the production of sedentary space at the dawn of the Neolithic. Journal of Social Archaeology 19(1): 3-26.

Kuijt, I. 2001. Place, death and the transmission of social memory in early agricultural communities of the Near Eastern Pre-Pottery Neolithic. In M.S. Chesson (ed.), Social Memory, Identity, and Death: Anthropological Perspectives on Mortuary Rituals. Arlington, Virginia: American Anthropological Association: 80-99.

Love, S. 2013. Architecture as material culture: building form and materiality in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of Anatolia and Levant. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32: 746-758.

Ortiz, A., Chambon, P. and Molist, M. 2013. “Funerary bundles” in the PPNB at the archaeological site of Tell Halula (middle Euphrates valley, Syria): analysis of the taphonomic dynamics of seated bodies. Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 4150-4161.

Schirmer, W. 1990. Some aspects of building at the “aceramic‐neolithic” settlement of Çayönü Tepesi. World Archaeology 21(3): 363–387.

Schmidt, K.2011. Göbekli Tepe. In Özdogan, M., Başgelen, N. and Kuniholm, P. (eds.), The Neolithic in Turkey: New Excavations and New Research. The Euphrates Basin. Istanbul: Archaeology & Art Publications: 41-83.

Slon, V., Sarig, R., Hershkovitz, I., Khalaily, H. and Milevski, I. 2014 The Plastered Skulls from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Site of Yiftahel (Israel) – A Computed Tomography-Based Analysis. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89242.

Verhoeven, M. 2001. Ritual and ideology in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B of the Levant and southeast Anatolia. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 12(2): 233-258. Verhoeven, M. 2002. Transformations of society: the changing role of ritual and symbolism in the PPNB and PN of the Levant, Syria and south-east Anatolia. Paléorient

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