Episode 14: Networks and Inventions in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East is known for a lot of changes to daily life compared with the earlier Epipalaeolithic. We have already looked at some of these major changes to the way that people lived, with the change from gathering to growing your own food, and settling down to live in villages with a community social life.

However, these were not the only changes that came about in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. There were also a lot of less well-known changes and improvements to technology and society, and the way that communities interacted and shared information and goods between themselves. Some of these are improvements to technologies and networks that existed in the Epipalaeolithic, and some seem to be new things that came about here in the PPN.

Stone tools were not new in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, we have already seen them for millions of years. As with most other periods though, the PPN saw changes in the way that stone tools were made. Starting in the PPNA, and becoming widespread all over the Near East in the PPNB, we see technique for making stone tools with blades made using what is called a naviform (‘boat-shaped’) core. This method allowed people to get a lot of nice and fairly standard sized blades off of a single core without having to stop and re-shape the core in between blades. It proved to be a popular technique, spreading across the Near East in the early part of the PPNB and the chipped stone tools made in the PPNB changed over to be often made from naviform core blades which were used as blanks to be further shaped into tools.

An example of blade blanks made from a naviform core. Image from Barzilai and Goring-Morris 2013.
A reproduction of a naviform core, showing the overlap between the blades (viewed from their bases) that were taken off during the knapping process. Image taken from Barzilai and Goring-Morris 2013.

Other things that we have seen before int he Near East saw improvements in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Stone beads started to turn up at sites in the Near East in the later part of the Epipalaeolithic, and were traded around, sometimes over long distances. Well, those beads, and the movement of beads, didn’t stop with the change to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Quite the opposite, in fact. Stone beads are more common in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, and are found in a wider range of styles and made from a wider range of types of stone. They are also still travelling around the Near East, much like they were before if now in slightly larger numbers.

A series of the finished and unfinished stone beads that were found at the PPNB site of Jilat 7 in the southern Levant. Image taken from Wright and Garrard 2002.
An example of a carnelian bead found at PPNB Nahal Hemar in the southern Levant. The bead itself is shown on the left, with a drawing on the right highlighting the way that this bead was drilled from both directions. Image taken from Groman-Yaroslavski and Bar-Yosef Mayer 2015.

Another thing which we saw very occasionally in the Epipalaeolithic of the Near East starts to turn up across the Near East in the PPNA. Unlike beads, which only become a bit more common, stone vessels become a lot more common across many parts of the Near East. These are most often made of different types of limestone or other easily-worked stone. Sometimes they are plain, sometimes they are highly polished, and sometimes they are covered in decoration. They are usually closer in size to a large soup bowl, but sometimes we find big versions, like limestone platters up to one meter (three feet) across.

An undecorated but highly polished carved limestone bowl from PPNA Gilgal I in the southern Levant. The scale given here is in centimetres. Image taken from Rosenberg 2008.
Several fragments of carved and decorated lomestone bowls from Gobekli Tepe insoutheastern Turkey from the late PPNA and early PPNB. Image taken from Dietrich et al 2020.

Limestone was not only used to make vessels in the PPNA and PPNB. It also started to be common, at least in Anatolia and the southern Levant, to use limestone to make limewash plaster for making the walls and floors of houses brighter, cleaner, and easier to maintain. This was not only a nice decorative improvement, but it meant that people would have needed to have the technology to make very hot fires which could stay hot for a long time, in order to convert limestone into lime (or quicklime), which could be mixed with water to dissolve into limewash plaster.

The spread of these new technologies across the Near East, as well as the movement of stone beads and increasing amounts of obsidian, have led archaeologists to suggest that the PPNB saw a large social network spread across the Near East. In this “PPNB Interaction Sphere” people lived in houses organised into villages, grew their own food rather than collecting it in the wild (more or less), made stone tools with the naviform core technology, and traded ideas and goodies with one another. On the surface, this does look like one very large social network.

Of course, that is on the surface. If we look deeper into the different valleys and rivers of the Near East we can see that these general things which were common across the Near East hide a lot of detail and regional variation. Everyone lived in houses, but the shape and design of these houses is the same in a single valley, or in a pair of connecting valleys, but is different from the houses built by people in a different area. Stone beads and arrowheads were made in a wide range of shapes, and certain shapes were also more common in some areas and not very popular in others. Stone vessels were made in slightly different shapes, and with different types of decoration, in different regions. The details of daily life do not mean that communities of the Near East did not share information and trade goodies like obsidian with one another, but they do mean that people and communities maintained more than one level of social network. At the broad level, they lived within the interaction network of the PPNB Near East. But at the more personal and community scale, they lived in a smaller social bubble of their village and their region. Not every new invention, house shape or decoration was adopted. People chose to adopt what they wanted, and what would help them to feel a part of their social bubble and different from people outside of it. Archaeologists have argued for years about whether the PPNB Near East was a single interaction sphere or a mosaic of smaller cultural groups. Really, both of these are true. It just depends on what level of detail you look at.

Episode Bibliography:

Asouti, E. 2006. Beyond the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B interaction sphere. Journal of World Prehistory 20: 87-126.

Barzilai, O. and Goring-Morris, A.N. 2013. An estimator for bidirectional (naviform) blade productivity in the Near Eastern Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. Journal of Archaeological Science 40: 140-147.

Clarke, J. 2012. Decorating the Neolithic: an evaluation of the use of plaster in the enhancement of daily life in the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B of the southern Levant. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(2): 177-186.

Dietrich, L., Götting-Martin, E., Hertzog, J., Schmitt-Kopplin, P., McGovern, P.E., Hall, G.R., Petersen, W.C., Zarnkow, M., Hutzler, M., Jacob, F., Ullman, C., Notroff, J., Ulbrich, M., Flöter, E., Heeb, J., Meister, J. and Dietrich, O. 2020. Investigating the function of Pre-Pottery Neolithic stone troughs from Göbekli Tepe – An integrated approach. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 34: 102618

Frahm, E., Campbell, S. and Healey, E. 2016. Caucasus connections? New data and interpretations for Armenian obsidian in Northern Mesopotamia. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 9: 543-564.

Goren, Y. and Goring-Morris, A.N. 2008. Early pyrotechnology in the Near East: experimental lime=plaster production at the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B site of Kfar HaHoresh, Israel. Geoarchaeology 23(6): 779-798.

Groman-Yaroslavski, I., Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E. 2015. Lapidary technology revealed by functional analysis of carnelian beads from the early Neolithic site of Nahal Hemar Cave, southern Levant. Journal of Archaeological Science 58: 77-88.

Ibañez, J.J., Ortega, D., Campos, D., Khalidi, L. and Méndez, V. 2015. Testing complex networks of interaction at the onset of the Near Eastern Neolithic using modelling of obsidian exchange. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 12: 20150210.

Kuijt, I. 2014. Lithic inter-assemblage variability and cultural-historical sequences: a consideration of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A occupation of ‘Dhra, Jordan. Paléorient 27(1): 107-125.

Rosenberg, D. 2008. Serving meals making a home: the PPNA limestone vessel industry of the southern Levant and its importance to the Neolithic revolution. Paléorient 34(1): 23-32.

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.

Wright, K. and Garrard, A. 2003. Social identities and the expansion of stone bead-making in Neolithic Western Asia: New evidence from Jordan. Antiquity 77: 267-284.

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