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.
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.
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.
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