Episode 18: a Tale of Two Pottery Neolithic Levants

Anatolia, or rather the bulge of Asia Minor, is the westernmost part of the Near East. If we move south of Asia Minor we get the Levant, which is the region of the Near East along the Mediterranean coast.

At the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), around 7000 cal BCE, the Levant sees two different patterns of life, one in the northern part of the Levant and another in the southern Levant. In the northern Levant, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B ends at about 7000 cal BCE with the transition to the early Pottery Neolithic (also called the Late Neolithic). As with Anatolia, the change from the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic to the Pottery Neolithic was not dramatic, with the adoption of pottery being the most significant single change to societies.

Some changes, of course, did take place even if they were more gradual than dramatic. People mostly lived in small farming villages of one or two hectares. This was not very different to life in the PPNB except that the large villages or ‘megasites’ from this earlier period were either abandoned or shrank down to the size of the other small villages. Community life also shrank, contracting down more to the scale of the single family or the extended family rather than the level of the entire village. As with Anatolia we have evidence of this from the way that houses in villages were arranged. Instead of large neighbourhoods or whole villages grouped together, farming villages of the Pottery Neolithic were made of one or more clusters of a few groups of houses arranged together around a communal space. These houses could be made of one large room, or have smaller internal rooms. Over time, the houses themselves got a little bit bigger and had more internal rooms – such as bedrooms or (more commonly) storage rooms. The large communal buildings and communal granaries that we saw in the PPNA and PPNB have now changed, with storage mostly seeming to take place in the home or within the extended family neighbourhood.

A reconstruction of one of the house clusters at Pottery Neolithic Shir in Syria, from the middle of the seventh millennium cal BCE. Image from Bartl 2018.

Pottery also became common across these farming villages. As with this period in Anatolia, pottery in the northern Levant was initially a bit less common and then became more common later on. Unlike with Anatolia (where this change took about 500 years) pottery became a common part of everyday life more rapidly, within one or two hundred years of the beginning of the Pottery Neolithic. The earliest pottery had a lot of variation from one site to the next, and was often pale in colour. What this pottery is called also varies from one valley or one site to the next, but in general it came in simple shapes, was light in colour (although not always) and was mostly mineral tempered. Another type of early Pottery that we see in the northern Levant is called Dark Faced Burnished Ware, which is dark in colour and had a polished (or burnished) surface. Apart from being burnished, these pots were decorated in several ways – including adding bands of clay to the outer surfaces, cutting little lines into the surface of the pots or wrapping them in textiles to leave impressions in the clay before firing. Over time- mostly by about 6600 cal BCE – this darker burnished becomes the more popular type of pottery, especially for the fancier (or fineware) pottery, although some lighter coloured or coarser pottery remained. How much Dark Faced Burnished Ware came to replace other types of pottery varies across the northern Levant. In the northern parts of the northern Levant it seems to go mostly out of fashion, being almost completely replaced by a pale coloured coarser pottery called ‘Pinkish Gritty Ware’ by the end of this period around 6000 cal BCE. In the more southern parts of the northern Levant though, Dark Faced Burnished Ware and coarser wares continued to be present in mostly equal proportions all the way though to 6000 cal BCE.

Examples of Dark Faced Burnished Ware and earlier light coloured pottery from Pottery Neolithic Shir in Syria. Image from Nieuwenhuyse et al. 2017.
An example of a short-necked jar of Dark Faced Burnished Ware from the Pottery Neolithic site of Shir in Syria. Image adapted from Nieuwenhuyse 2009.
Fragments of pottery from Pottery Neolithic Shir in Syria with textile impressions pressed into the outer surface of the pot. These markings not only provided decoration to the pottery but form some of our earliest evidence of the way that textiles were made in the Near East. Image from Nieuwenhuyse et al. 2012.

There were also changes to the way that stone tools were made, although these also were not dramatic. Older techniques of making chipped stone tools – like naviform blades and cores – were still used, with the added use of new techniques such as pressure flaking.

In the southern Levant, the change from the PPNB to the Pottery Neolithic is both slower and more dramatic. It is dramatic in the sense that the changes which we see in the few hundred years after 7000 cal BCE were not part of the early Pottery Neolithic but were instead part of another stage of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic called the PPNC. This period sees a lot of changes which are very similar to what we see in other parts of the Near East, but at the same time are different and happening in the absence of the adoption of new techniques and materials like pottery.

The most noticeable thing that happens in the southern Levant during the PPNC is that the megasites either were abandoned or shrank down to the size of a small village (just like in the northern Levant) and houses were also often grouped together, sometimes around a courtyard shared by a few different families or one big extended family. Houses continued to be rectangular, and were often made up of just one room although some also have internal rooms.

There is also less obsidian coming into the southern Levant from Anatolia. What obsidian is travelling south is also no longer coming from the very east of Anatolia (almost the southern Caucasus) but is now coming from farther west in Capadoccia. Other things that were moving around the southern Levant in the PPNB though – like shell jewellery and beads – are still moving between sites across the southern Levant.

Some examples of sea shell beads from PPNC Beisamoun, including shells from both the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Image from Bocquentin et al. 2020.

Old methods of making chipped stone tools also did not completely die away, but there was a lot more use of newer fashions and techniques such as the use of pressure flaking and more use of flakes in making tools. This continued not only throughout the PPNC but also the later Pottery Neolithic, with more use of pressure flaking and also more use of flakes and tools made from flakes. Other types of worked stone also continue on from the PPNB, such as carved stone bowls, which were often decorated or painted. There are also gradual changes in the way that people buried their dead. Cremation burials start to appear in the southern Levant in the PPNC, and burials of all kinds become a lot more rare. Over the course of the PPNC people seem to change where they buried their relatives. Instead of under the house floor or in a nearby part of the village, people seem to have moved to burying their dead in other places – ones that were presumably outside of the village and which we have not been able to find.

Fragments of a lmestone bowl from PPNC Beisamoun. Red painted decoration can be seen along the rim of the bowl. Image from Bocquentin et al. 2020.

After a few hundred years people living in these small farming villages start to make and use pottery, and we move into the early Pottery Neolithic, which in most of the southern Levant is called the Yarmukian culture. There is a lot of variation in the Yarmukian culture, in both the styles of the pottery associated with it as well as in the way that people built their houses and organised their villages. Some people continued to build rectangular houses like the ones that we saw in the PPNC. Other people built rectangular houses but made one side rounded. Others built houses in an oval shape or even completely round. Some villages had houses all of one of these shapes, and some villages could also have several or even all of these shapes being used together at the same time. These houses sometimes were set apart, and sometimes had private walled courtyards set off to one side. In many villages several of these houses would be clustered together around a communal courtyard, providing them with more privacy and their own space for outside activities. Yarmukian pottery was most popularly red or reddish, and could have any of a large variety of decorations including burnishing, painting, coloured slips or carved decorations to the outside (such as honeycomb or herringbone patterns) or a combination or decoration styles.

Four different houses from Yarmukian deposits at Sha’ar Hagolan. The individual houses and outside storage rooms can be seen clustered around each central courtyard, numbered one to four. Image from Garfinkel 2006.
A human figurine from Yarmukian Sha’ar Hagolan, showing the classic ‘coffee bean’ or ‘cowrie’ eyes popular on Yarmukian figurines. Image from Garfinkel et al. 2010.
A pink Yarmukian jar from Sha’ar Hagolan. Image from the Levantine Ceramics project which can be found here.
A collection of bowls and jars from Yarmukian Sha’ar Hagolan. Image from the Levantine Ceramics project which can be found here.

Episode Bibliography:

Balossi Restelli, F. 2017. Yumuktepe early ceramic production: dark versus light coloured wares and the construction of social identity. In A. Tsuneki, O. Nieuwenhuyse and S. Campbell (eds.), The Emergence of Pottery in West Asia. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 83-96.

Bartl, K (ed.). 2018. The Late Neolithic Site of Shir/Syria. Volume 1: The Excavations at the South Area 2006-2009. Berlin: Philipp von Zabern.

Bocquentin, F., Khalaily, H., Boaretto, E., Dubreuil, L., Schechter, H.C., Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E., Greenberg, D.,Berna, F., Anton, M., Borrell, F., Le Bourdonnec, F.-X., Davin, L., Noûs, C., Samuelian, N., Vieugué, J. and Horwitz, L.K. 2020. Between two worlds: the PPNB-PPNC transition in the central Levant as seen through discoveries at Beisamoun. In H. Khalaily, A. Re’em, J. Vardi and I. Milevski (eds.), The Mega Project at Motza (Moza): the Neolithic and Later Occupations up to the 20th Century. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority: 163-199.

Dietrich L., Rokitta-Krumnow D. and Dietrich O. 2019. The meaning of projectile points in the Late Neolithic of the Northern Levant. Documenta Praehistorica 46: 340-350.

Garfinkel, Y. 2006 The social organisation at Neolithic Sha’ar Hagolan: the nuclear family, the extended family and the community. In E.B. Banning and M. Chazan (eds.), Domesticating Space: Construction, Community and Cosmology in the Late Prehistoric Near Neast. Berlin: Ex Oriente: 103-111.

Garfinkel, Y., Ben-Shlomo, D. and Korn, N. 2010. Sha’ar Hagolan, Volume 3: Symbolic Dimensions of the Yarmoukian Culture: Canonisation in Neolithic Art. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.

Gopher, A. (ed.) 2012. Village Communities of the Pottery Neolithic Period in the Menashe Hills, Israel: Archaeological Investigations at the Sites of Nahal Zehora. Tel Aviv: Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University. 

Nieuwenhuyse, O.P. 2009. The Late Neolithic ceramics from Shir: a first assessment. Zeitschrift für Orient-Archäologie 2: 310-356.

Nieuwenhuyse, O.P. 2017. The early pottery from Shir, northern Levant. In A. Tsuneki, O. Nieuwenhuyse and S. Campbell (eds.), The Emergence of Pottery in West Asia. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 73-82.

Nieuwenhuyse, O.P., Bartl, K., Berghuijs, K. and Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. 2012. The cord-impressed pottery from the Late Neolithic northern Levant: case-study Shir (Syria). Paléorient 38(1): 65-77.

Odaka, T. 2017 (a). The emergence of pottery in the northern Levant: a recent view from Tell el-Kerkh. In A. Tsuneki, O. Nieuwenhuyse and S. Campbell (eds.), The Emergence of Pottery in West Asia. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 61-71.

Odaka, T. 2017 (b). Decoration of Neolithic pottery in the northern Levant: a view from the Rouj basin. In W. Cruells, I. Mateiciucová and O. Nieuwenhuyse (eds.), Painting Pots – Painting People: Late Neolithic Ceramics in Ancient Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxbow: 177-185.

Tsuneki, A. and Miyake, Y. 1996 The earliest pottery sequence of the Levant: new data from Tell el-Kerkh 2, northern Syria. Paléoriejnt 22(1): 109-123.

One thought on “Episode 18: a Tale of Two Pottery Neolithic Levants

  1. Hello Jane, thank you for this new episode. I hope you’re feeling better. Your podcasts are fascinating, and l have learned so much. I’ve come to see our ancestors as real people instead of mannequins in a Natural History Museum diorama.


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