Episode 23: Wadi Rabah

In the southern Levant, the first part of the Pottery/Late Neolithic is known for the 7th millennium BCE Yarmukian Culture. The Yarmukian culture has a lot of variation within it, such as in the shapes of houses (rectangular houses, rectuangular and round houses, rectangular, round and curvilinear houses, all curvilinear houses, etc.) and also in the way that the pottery was decorated. Pottery in the Yarmukian could be slipped or not, burnished (polished) or not, decorated with incised (cut in) decoration in different geometric patterns and sometimes even painted. Towards the end of the Yarmukian culture, from about 6000 cal BCE, things get a bit more complicated.

In the southern part of the Yarmukian culture, after about 6000 cal BCE we get the development of something slightly different which is generally called either the Lodian (after the site of Lod) or the Jericho IX (after the site of Jericho). There is a lot of argument as to whether the Lodian/Jericho IX and other local variations are different cultures, or whether it is just a slightly different fashion within the later part of the Yarmukian. The main difficulty with this argument is that the main bit of evidence that tends to get looked at is the slightly different fashions in how the pottery is decorated. This is because pottery tends to get the most attention when we look at and identify cultures that developed after pottery became a common part of daily life, and it is also because the differences in pottery decoration are basically the only differences that we see between the Lodian/Jericho IX and the Yarmukian culture. The difference in the pottery – the big argument that the Lodian/Jericho IX was a distinct culture – is that the pottery is still decorated with incised patterns and/or painting, but that painted decoration is more popular than it was before, and the painted decorations tend to be burnished. That is pretty much it as far as differences between the Yarmukian and the Lodian/Jericho IX.

So, while there are still arguments, it is becoming more and more accepted that the Lodian/Jericho IX is just an example of some changes in fashion that we see towards the end of the Yarmukian, which – if we include the Lodian/Jericho IX – continues in the southern Levant until somewhere around 5800-5600 cal BCE. After this, more fashions change across the southern Levant and we get the development of the Wadi Rabah culture, which continues in the southern Levant until about 5100 cal BCE.

Just like the arguments as to whether the Lodian/Jericho IX is part of the Yarmukian culture, we also have some arguments with the Wadi Rabah as to exactly how large of an area of the southern Levant was part of the Wadi Rabah culture. Like the Lodian/Jericho IX, some of this is from archaeologists who look at small differences in the fashion for things like pottery decoration and argue that there were a lot of little local cultures that were very similar to the Wadi Rabah. Some of these arguments, though, come from differences in the way that archaeological sites have been studied over the decades, and also from modern political differences. This is because archaeological sites from the southern and central parts of what is now Lebanon have villages, houses, stone tools, figurines and pottery that all look very much like the Wadi Rabah sites of what is now western Jordan and Israel/Palestine. Modern politics can make it a little tricky to talk about a single archaeological culture existing across the borders of different countries though, and the Near East is not alone in sometimes having different names (in the case of Lebanon, Byblos moyen or Néolithique moyen) for what is pretty much the same culture.

Just like the Yarmukian culture, the Wadi Rabah culture was mostly made up of small farming villages dotted around the landscape. While villages of the Yarmukian culture had a lot of variation in the shapes of houses that people built – sometimes even within the same village – in the Wadi Rabah pretty much everyone seems to have built themselves rectangular houses. These were sometimes designed as a single long room, and sometimes the houses were divided into a series of internal rooms. Not very many of the Wadi Rabah sites which have been excavated have been able to expose a large area of the village, so it is hard to tell exactly how people liked to arrange these rectangular houses in their villages. As far as we can tell, the houses seem to have been mostly scattered around the village, with the occasional small clusters of houses together but mostly spread out with plenty of space between each house. The houses were usually built from stone foundations, with the upper parts of the walls built of either mudbrick or pisé (rammed earth). Sometimes these houses had paved patio areas around them, or courtyard areas between adjacent houses.

Houses from Wadi Rabah levels at the site of Munhata. Image after Banning 2010
Houses from Neolithique moyen (Wadi Rabah) levels at Byblos. Image after Banning 2010.

As before, people got the majority of their food from growing domesticated crops and herding domesticated animals. One new development in this, though, seems to be an increase in olives at some Wadi Rabah sites. Olives were domesticated long before the Wadi Rabah, and we do find olive pits in small numbers at some Yarmukian sites. Where things change in the Wadi Rabah is that some sites have a lot more olives – although not enough to have drastically changed people’s diets. It’s not that people were living off of olives, but it does seem that people in at least a few Wadi Rabah villages had figured out how to press the oil out of olives and store it to use throughout the year.

Other fashions in and around the house change in the Wadi Rabah. In the Yarmukian people tended to keep female figurines in or around their houses. These are believed to have been either good lick charms, fertility symbols, or images of local deities or mythic figures. Female figurines continue to be kept in the Wadi Rabah, probably for these same reasons. The figurines themselves though, looks rather different. Instead of the naturalistic human depictions of women with coffee-bean or cowrie shaped eyes we have more schematic female figurines carved onto stone or bone which primarily depict a pair of eyes and a triangle to represent the genitals.

Wadi Rabah female figurine from the site of New Yam. Image from Milevski et al. 2016 (original caption included).
Wadi Rabah female figurine from the site of Hagoshrim. Image from Milevski et al. 2016 (original caption included).

Pottery from the Wadi Rabah has a lot in common with pottery from the earlier Yarmukian culture. It is handmade, which is not necessarily the case later in the Chalcolithic (copper stone age) period. Pottery may still also be slipped or not, burnished or not, and decorated with incised geometric shapes or painting (or neither). In the Wadi Rabah, painted decoration on pottery becomes more common than incised decoration. A fashion starts to appear in the Wadi Rabah for painting a red band around the rims of jars, which is something that will continue to be in fashion later in the Chalcolithic. We also see a new type of decoration on some of the pottery, with extra clay added to the outside of vessels and shaped into designs or even figures.

A slipped and burnished carinated jar from Ein el-Jarba decorated with a human figure made from applied clay. Image from Streit 2011.

The shapes of the pottery also change from the Yarmukian. Like the Yarmukian we still have mostly a mix of bowls and jars, although we also have some plate-like flat platters and some cups (some of which have small pedestal bases almost like a winestem). We also start to get a type of jar called a bow-rim jar, where the base of the neck where it meets the body of the jar is pinched in – like a little waist. The shapes of bowls change as well. Bowls come in a range of sizes just like they did in the Yarmukian, but there is also a new fashion – with bowls but also sometimes for pots -for something called carination. This is where the angle of the bowl changes sharply partway up the side to create a distinct angle in the side of the vessel. Carination is something that was popular at this same time in the Halaf culture to the north and east of the Wadi Rabah. The fashion for carination in the Wadi Rabah has been argued to be something that indicates contacts and the exchange of ideas between Halaf villages of northern Mesopotamia and Wadi Rabah villages of the Levant.

Examples of Wadi Rabah bow-rim jars. Image from Garfinkel 1999 (original caption included).
Examples of Wadi Rabah carinated bowls. Image from Garfinkel 1999 (original caption included).

Of course, it is not just the increased fashion for painting pottery (although not to anything like as much detail as Halaf pottery) and for carinated bowls that suggests some sort of contact between people living in Wadi Rabah villages and people living in Halaf villages. We also have a couple fragments of Halaf pottery, which were found at the site of Ein el-Jarba. And, of course, if we want to talk more generally about connections between the Wadi Rabah and people living in villages to the north we have obsidian. Imported obsidian is still pretty rare – with Wadi Rabah sites having nothing like as much obsidian as villages from most of the Halaf culture (which were closer to the obsidian sources) but we seem to have more obsidian making its way into the southern Levant than we did earlier on in the Yarmukian. It seems that this obsidian did not always travel alone either. From the site of Hagoshrim we have several carved stone bowls made of soapstone – the closest sources for which are the very north of Syria or Anatolia. These bowls probably arrived at Hagoshrim already made, as the excavators at the site did not find any debitage – the little flakes and fragments of stone that come off during the process of making either chipped stone tools or carved stone bowls.

Examples of some of the imported soapstone vessels found at Hagoshrim. Image from Rosenberg et al. 2010.

There is also a unique find from the site of Tel Tsaf of a copper awl (a long and thin point used to make holes in something tough – like leather – before the pieces are sewn together with a needle and thread). What separates copper from bronze is that to make bronze you need to add either arsenic or tin to copper. The copper that this awl was made from contains both tin as well as a small amount of arsenic and even lead. As there is no evidence of people using the smelting process needed to make bronze for about another two thousand years, though, this awl was probably made from copper which naturally contains tin, and was probably hammered into shape from a pure source of this copper. This sort of copper does exist, in Tajikistan as well as possibly in the Caucasus. The awl found at Tel Tsaf is not in good enough shape to allow us to tell exactly where its copper comes from, but in any case it would have travelled a long way before reaching Tsaf.

The copper awl from Tel Tsaf. Image from Garfinkel et al. 2014 (original caption included).

We also see a more common sign of connections between people living in Wadi Rabah villages and people living in villages to the north in the form of sling stones. These are flat oval or egg-shaped stones, usually carved from limestone but occasionally from other local stones like basalt or flint (as well as two examples made of baked clay). Slingstones are also found on Halaf sites as well as at sites from about this same time in Anatolia. These were probably not weapons that people used to fight one another, as while they would hurt they probably would not do much more than break a limb or give someone a bad bruise. The best theory for the use of slingstones here in the Wadi Rabah, as well as elsewhere during the sixth millennium BCE, is that they were used by people herding livestock as a way to drive off any predators that might try to come and steal one of the family goats.

This does not mean that people living in Wadi Rabah villages didn’t ever keep any weapons. While we do not find many – and while arrowheads are actually a lot less common during the Wadi Rabah than they were previously – we do have chipped and carved stone axes as well as carved stone maceheads. A mace is essentially a weight on the end of a stick that you can use to club people with. These were used as weapons across many parts of the world well into even the more recent historic periods. While maceheads have been very occasionally found from Yarmukian sites and even from one later Pre-Pottery Neolithic site (Ain Ghazal) they seem to be more common in the Wadi Rabah (and more common still later on in the Chalcolithic). These were carved balls or cylinders of stone about four to six centimetres (two to three inches) across with a hole drilled through the centre to insert a stick. These were almost always made from local stone, usually limestone.

Wadi Rabah stone axes from Nahal Yarmut. Image from Khalaily et al. 2011.
A carved stone macehead from the Wadi Rabah site of Neve Yam. Image from Rosenberg 2010.

So, depending on who you are talking to, the Wadi Rabah was present either across the southern Levant as far east as the Jordan valley, or it was present across the central and southern Levant as far east as the highlands of Jordan to the east of the Jordan valley – an area which is nearly twice the size. How much area the Wadi Rabah covered, though, is actually not the biggest argument that we have about it. While we have a pretty good idea of the radiocarbon dates BCE during which we have the Wadi Rabah, there is still an ongoing argument about WHEN the Wadi Rabah happened. After the end of the Pottery/Late Neolithic we move into a new phase of how we divide time in prehistory – the Chalcolithic. There is a lot of debate as to whether we should consider the Wadi Rabah to be the very end of the Neolithic, or the very beginning of the Chalcolithic. This is because there are some things which become more popular in the southern Levant during the Chalcolithic (maceheads, red rims on pottery, olive oil) which first turn up in the Wadi Rabah. The other side of this argument, though, is that there are a lot more things which the Wadi Rabah has in common with the Yarmukian (pebble figurines, rectangular house designs, handmade pottery, and the absence of metal working). For my vote, the Wadi Rabah represents the end of the Neolithic in the southern Levant and not the beginning of the Chalcolithic. About half of archaeologists working on the Neolithic or Chalcolithic would back me up in this view, but then again, half would not. As for you – you get to choose too.

Episode Bibliography:

Banning, E.B. 2007. Wadi Rabah and related assemblages in the Southern Levant: interpreting the radiocarbon evidence. Paléorient 33(1): 77-101.

Banning, E.B. 2010. Houses, households and changing society in the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic of the Southern Levant. Paléorient 36(1): 48-87.

Garfinkel, Y. 1999. Neolithic and Chalcolithic Pottery in the Southern Levant. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Garfinkel, Y., Klimscha, F., Shalev, S. and Rosenberg, D. 2014. The beginning of metallurgy in the Southern Levant: a late 6th millennium cal BC copper awl from Tel Tsaf, Israel. PLoS One 9(3): e92591.

Khalaily, H. 2017. Nahal Yarmut: a Late Pottery Neolithic site of the Wadi Rabah culture, south of Nahal Soreq. ‘Atiqot 67: 1-29.

Koadowaki, S. 2005. Designs and production technology of sickle elements in Late Neolithic Wadi Ziqlab, northern Jordan. Paléorient 31(2): 69-85.

Lovell, J.L. 2001. The Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic Periods in the Southern Levant. BAR International Series 974. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Milevski, I., Getzov, N., Galili, E., Yaroshevich, A. and Horwitz, L.R.K. 2016. Iconographic motifs from the 6th-5th millennia BC in the Levant and Mesopotamia: clues for cultural connections and existence of an interaction sphere. Paléorient 42(2): 135-149.

Rosenberg, D. 2009. Flying stones – the slingstones of the Wadi Rabah culture of the Southern Levant. Paléorient 35(2): 99-112.

Rosenberg, D. 2010. Early maceheads in the southern Levant: a “Chalcolithic” hallmark in Neolithic context. Journal of Field Archaeology 35(2): 204-216.

Rosenberg, D., van den Brink, E.C.M., Shimelmitz, R., Nativ, A., Mienis, H.K., Shamir, O., Chasan, R. and Shooval, T. 2017. Pits and their contents: the Wadi Rabah site of Qidron in the Shephela, Israel. Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society 47: 33-147.

Rosenberg, D., Getzov, N. and Assaf, A. 2010. New light on long-distance ties in the Late Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic Near East: the chlorite vessels from Hagoshrim, Northern Israel. Current Anthropology 51(2):281-293.

Rowan, Y. and Golden, J. 2009. The Chalcolithic period of the Southern Levant: a synthetic review. Journal of World Prehistory 22: 1-92.

Schechter, H.C., Avi, G., Nimrod, G., Rice, E., Alla, Y. and Milevski, I. 2016. The obsidian assemblages from the Wadi Rabah occupations at Ein Zippori, Israel. Paléorient 42(1): 27-48.

Siggers, J.F.C. 1997. The Lithic Assemblage from Tabaqat al-Bûma: a Late Neolithic Site in Qadi Ziqlab, Northern Jordan. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Toronto.

Streit, K. 2016. The Near East before borders: recent excavations at Ein el-Jarba (Israel) and the cultural interactions of the sixth millennium ca. B.C.E. Near Eastern Archaeology 79(4): 236-245.

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