Episode 19: The Many Faces of Late Neolithic Mesopotamia

We have looked thus far at the transition to the Pottery Neolithic over the seven millennium BCE in Anatolia and the Levant. This time I wanted to look at the third major central area of the Near East – Mesopotamia, or the land between the rivers. Mesopotamia is a big region, and includes not only the land directly in between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers but also areas to the north as far as the foothills of the Taurus and Zagros mountains, and lands to the south into the Syrian desert. This big area generally gets divided into northern (or upper) Mesopotamia and southern (or lower) Mesopotamia, although a central region between these can sometimes be divided out depending on what time periods or cultures we are looking at.

Map of Mesopotamia showing the northern/upper, central and southern/lower parts of the region as well as nearby regions of the Near East. Image from Bernbeck & Nieuwenhuyse 2013.

Seventh millennium BCE Mesopotamia, which here is called the Late Neolithic, is home to multiple archaeological cultures. The Late Neolithic archaeological cultures and developments from later in the sixth millennium BCE have traditionally gotten more attention from archaeologists, so the names of cultures that form here in Mesopotamia during the seventh millennium have mostly been given in reference to these later developments. Thus, in the western parts of northern Mesopotamia in what is now Syria, we have first the Initial Pottery Neolithic and Early Pottery Neolithic, which turns into the Pre-Proto-Halaf and then Proto-Halaf (or Pre-Halaf). This is named for the later Halaf culture which turns up here after the end of the seventh millennium. We have a similar pattern of names for the more eastern and southern parts of northern Mesopotamia (and central Mesopotamia), with the cultures here being the Pre-Proto-Hassuna, Proto-Hassuna and (at the very end of the seventh millennium) the Hassuna culture. These names also come from a focus in the Hassuna culture as it develops after the end of the seventh millennium.

In southern Mesopotamia, we don’t have a very clear idea of what sort of archaeological societies we have during most of the seventh millennium, so we don’t have specific names for cultures of this region until the last century or two of the seventh millennium when we see the emergence of the Samarra culture.

Examples of Proto-Halaf bowls and jars from Tell Sabi Abyad. Image from Nieuwenhuyse & Cruells 2004.

So by the last couple of centuries of the seventh millennium BCE in Mesopotamia we have three main cultures that we think were around – the Proto-Halaf, the Proto-Hassuna (or in some areas the Archaic Hassuna) and the Samarra. But these were not groups with fixed boundaries between them, such as where villages in one valley have completely Proto-Halaf style houses, pottery, stone tools, and other artefacts, and villages in the next valley over have all Proto-Hassuna style things. Instead, what we have is a big fuzzy mix across Mesopotamia, with groups and styles blending together and gradually changing across different parts of Mesopotamia. So we see sites more to the western part of northern Mesopotamia mostly having Proto-Halaf style pottery with some Hassuna or Samarra items, then villages in the eastern parts of northern Mesopotamia having mostly Proto-Hassuna style pottery with some Proto-Halaf and Samarra mixed in, and then villages in southern Mesopotamia having mostly Samarra style pottery with some Proto-Hassuna or Proto-Halaf styles mixed in.

Examples of Proto-Hassuna jars, from Tell Sotto (left) and Yarim Tepe (right). Image from Petrova 2019
Examples of Proto-Hassuna ‘carinated’ bowls from Umm Dabaghiyah,. Image from Kirkbride 1972.

The earliest pottery that we get in Mesopotamia doesn’t necessarily show these sorts of divisions between different parts of the region. Mostly, early pottery in Mesopotamia is mineral tempered and comes in a fairly basic set of shapes. This changes pretty quickly though to either mostly plant tempered pottery or a combination of plant and/or mineral tempered pottery. The shapes that are more common between different parts of Mesopotamia also develop after this earliest stage of pottery, with bowls and jars from the Proto-Halaf areas of northern Mesopotamia having different shapes and different types of decoration (open bowls, jars with necks and incised decoration) from the Proto-Hassuna parts of northern and central Mesopotamia (jars with little to no neck, carinated bowls and decoration pieces stuck onto the outside of vessels).

Of course, these are the ‘classic’ or stereotypical shapes for each of these cultures, and there is in reality a lot of overlap in shapes and styles within individual villages, especially those in the middle area of northern Mesopotamia where the boundaries of Proto-Halaf and Proto-Hassuna blur. This is also the case with the “husking tray”, which is considered to be a characteristic item of Hassuna pottery, but which is found also during the seventh millennium Proto-Hassuna and is also found occasionally all over northern Mesopotamia – including in the Pre-Halaf western parts. These trays were first thought to have been used to remove the husks (tough outer coatings) of cereal grains. We now know that they absolutely were not used for this, but the name has stuck. Some recent experiments actually make a good argument for these as tins for baking bread – with the ridges on the bottom of the trays helping the bread to bake evenly and not stick to the bottom.

Examples of ‘Husking Trays’ – complete or fragments – from Shimsharah and other Hassuna-area sites. Image from Restelli 2021.
An example of a white ware vessel from Tell Sabi Abyad. Image from Nilhamn & Koeck 2013.

Pottery was, of course, not the only sort of container that was available in the seventh millennium. Plaster vessels, known as white ware, were around in the Near East since the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (9500-8500 cal BCE), although these had gone mostly out of fashion in Mesopotamia during the later part of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. During the Late Neolithic though, starting from about 6900 cal BCE these start to come back into fashion. In the eastern Proto-Hassuna part of northern and central Mesopotamia these white ware vessels are fashionable again for only a few hundred years, loosing their appeal when pottery became common across sites. In the western Proto-Halaf part of northern Mesopotamia though, they stay fashionable for much longer, including after pottery becomes commonplace, only becoming less fashionable towards the very end of the seventh millennium, but still turning up on sites for another five hundred years of so after that.

Apart from the appearance and spread of pottery across Mesopotamia, in some ways life remained exactly the same as during the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic, and in other ways there were major changes to societies. The villages where people lived, and the houses in these villages, show very little change between the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic and over the seventh millennium. People live mostly in small villages made up of rectangular houses grouped together, with the houses mostly divided into multiple internal rooms.

A Cluster of Proto-Halaf houses from Tell Sabi Abyad. Image from Akkermans 2013.
A group of Proto-Hassuna houses from Umm Dabagiyah. Image from Kirkbride 1975.

One thing which was around before the seventh millennium in the Near East but which is seen a bit more commonly during the seventh millennium is a practice called skull shaping. This – as the name suggests – is the practice of winding a cord or other object around the head of a baby so that the bones will grow into an elongated rather than a round shape. This doesn’t hurt the baby, as it does not affect the brain. But we don’t exactly know why people chose to do this, as shaped skulls don’t seem to relate to a certain social role in society (such as shamans), or relate to a particular gender or kinship group. It seems to just have been an occasional practice, like a fashion or a certain aesthetic taste in appearance.

A burial from Choga Sefid with a modified skull. Image from Hole et al 1969.
A modern example of a person with a modified skull. Image from Croucher 2013 (original caption shown here).

One thing which does change during the seventh millennium is the use of seals and stamps in at least the Proto-Halaf part of northern Mesopotamia. Seals were the wet clay or putty that could be used to cover a jar or seal a basket. This sealing clay would then be stamped with a carved stamp of ceramic, stone, bone, or another material. Once a container had been sealed and stamped, it would then be impossible to open it without breaking the seal. If this seal was broken, you would need to re-seal the jar or basket with a fresh layer of wet clay or putty and stamp it again with an identical stamp. Otherwise, it would be obvious that the container had been tampered with. This is a system which we will see much more of through time in the Near East, as a way of protecting private property as well as an administrative system for storage, control of resources and trade. It is here in the seventh millennium BCE that it seems to begin, suggesting that it is here in the seventh millennium that people started to have the idea of property belonging to a single family or a single person rather than to the village or social group as a whole, and they wanted to protect this property and make sure that none of their neighbours helped themselves to it when no one was looking.

Fragments of seals with stamped impressions recovered from Proto-Halaf Tell Sabi Abyad. Image from Duistermaat 2013.

Episode Bibliography:

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Cruells, A., Fara, J.M. and Molist, M. 2017. Akarçay Tepe and Tell Halula in the context of the earliest production of ceramics in west Asia. In A. Tsuneki, O. Nieuwenhuyse and S. Campbell (eds.), The Emergence of Pottery in West Asia. Oxford: Oxbow Books: 27-42.

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