Episode 22: Halaf

The Halaf culture develops in northern Mesopotamia at the beginning of the sixth millennium cal BCE from its origins in the Pre-Halaf culture of the seventh millennium. At the same time, the Proto-Hassuna culture to the east also looses its prequel name, changing into the Hassuna culture in eastern Syria and into the Standard Hassuna culture in northern Iraq.

Neither of these changes in the way that we name cultures involves a dramatic change in the cultures themselves, and mostly has to do with the pottery. In the Hassuna culture this change is in the style of decoration seen on painted and carved pottery, with bowls and jars getting bands of decoration along the tops of bowls and towards the tops of jars. Painted pottery also becomes more common. The Hassuna culture continued in eastern Syria and northern Iraq until probably the middle of the sixth millennium, continuing to consist of villages of large, rectangular multi-roomed houses but changing to also incorporate the use of stamps and seals similar to those of the neighbouring Halaf culture. By sometime around the middle of the sixth millennium BCE, the Hassuna culture was replaced by the Halaf culture as people in eastern Syria and northern Iraq decided instead to take up the traditions, styles and ways of life of their western neighbours.

A decorated Hassuna bowl from Hakemi Use. Image adapted from Tekin 2013
Styles of decoration on Hassuna pottery from Yarim Tepe I. Image adapted from Merpert & Munchaev 1987.
Illustration of some of the ground stone axes found from Hassuna levels at Yarim Tepe I. Image adapted from Merpert & Munchaev 1987.
A group of multi-roomed Hassuna houses from Yarim Tepe I. Image adapted from Merpert & Munchaev 1987.
Examples of sealing stamps and a lead bracelet recovered from Hassuna period layers during excavations at Yarim Tepe I.
Image adapted from Merpert & Munchaev 1987.

In the Halaf this change from the Pre-Halaf is less in the style of decoration and more in the amount of decorated pottery pieces that we find during excavation. The proportion of pottery which is painted grows significantly, from only a small percentage of pot sherds found to half or more of the pottery found during excavations.

A Halaf bowl from Arpachiyah, on display in the British Museum.
A small Halaf jar from Arpachiyah, on display in the British Museum.
A large Halaf jar from Arpachiyah, on display in the British Museum.
Carved and decorated Halaf stone bowls from Domuztepe. Image adapted from Campbell 2013.
Examples of Halaf anthropomorphic (people-shaped) figurines. Image adapted from Belcher 2014.

It was this painted pottery which originally made the Halaf culture so popular in the archaeology of the ancient Near East, as these sixth millennium phases of the Halaf were found decades before the discovery of the seventh millennium Pre-Proto-Halaf and Pre-Halaf early phases. The Halaf culture was first discovered by Baron Max von Oppenheim during his excavations at Tell Halaf in the years just before the first world war. The discovery of so much beautiful, elaborately painted and finely made pottery was a big surprise at the time, as the general view was that fancy pottery was something that appeared later after societies had gotten more complex. At the time the though was that people living in small early farming villages without rulers would have used dull, undecorated, coarsely made pottery and that the finely made and painted stuff only came along when elites wanted to compete with one another. This meant that early studies of the Halaf culture included theories that it might have been an early experiment in more complex societies. We now know that this idea was wrong. Nothing about Halaf society has any real indications of people having noticeable differences in social status or rank or even in their access to resources, at least not at the level of individual people.

The current view of Halaf society is that all of this elaborately painted pottery was used for eating, both for quiet meals at home as well as for getting together with friends, neighbours and extended family for social events. The majority of painted Halaf pottery is in shapes associated with the eating and serving of food, and these painted pots also don’t tend to have evidence of being used for cooking or the storage of food and supplies.

Painted pottery is not the only thing that we see as making the Halaf culture distinctive. Another distinctive feature of the Halaf is something that we also saw in the Pre-Halaf – stamps and seals to mark private property. With these we also find what are called tokens, which are little lumps of clay or broken sherds of pottery which have been carved into little disks. These would have served as counters to indicate how many of something – such as how many sheep you sent off to summer pasture with someone else. The third distinctive feature of the Halaf is newer – round houses called tholos houses, which sometimes are found on their own and sometimes have multi-roomed structure built onto one side called an annex. These usually do not have a door into them from inside the tholos house but instead have their own entrance from the outside, and are considered to have been storage structures for the tholos house.

Halaf jewellery and seals from Arpachiyah, on display in the British Museum.
Halaf tholos houses found during recent excavations at Tell Tawila in Syria, with part of an annex visible attached to the upper left of the larger tholos. Details of these excavations can be found here.

The Halaf culture emerges from the Pre-Halaf at around 5950 or 5900 cal BCE and lasts until about 5300 cal BCE. During this time it expands outwards from its homeland in central and western Syria. By the middle of the sixth millennium cal BCE the Hassuna culture of eastern Syria and western Iraq develops into an expansion of the Halaf culture, along with the very southeastern corner of modern Turkey. Other societies around the Halaf are also considered to be variations of the Halaf or at least ‘Halaf influenced’, especially those of the northern Levant. Despite the large area covered by the Halaf, it was not a single uniform blob of culture. Comparisons of the decorations commonly used on Halaf pottery shows that this culture was instead a network of smaller overlapping groups, each limited to a small series of villages across a stretch of river or along part of a valley or plain. While the distribution of local styles of pottery decoration were each small, these overlapped with one another to create a web of closely related interacting cultural groups which together shared not only similar styles of pottery, architecture and the marking of personal property but also similarities in the organisation of villages, manufacture and use of figurines, jewellery and other artefacts, and ways of life. We can thus see the Halaf as a large cultural interaction network which, while not centrally ruled and controlled over its large area, created a common culture throughout its small farming villages across all of northern and central Mesopotamia.

At the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, the large area of the ancient Near East which made up the ‘Pre-Pottery Neolithic Interaction Sphere’ broke down into the many smaller regional cultures of the seventh millennium BCE. The growth of the Halaf over the sixth millennium BCE reversed this trend, with the development once again of a large interaction sphere – a Halaf interaction sphere – once again covering a large area of the ancient Near East.

Episode Bibliography:

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