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Chapter 3: Neolithic 1 Mureybat (Pages 119-127)

Pre-History and Archaeology Glossary

Excerpts and Definitions and Addendums:

Mureybat is the only site known in Syria where occupation continued without interruption after the Mesolithic. The site is situated on the left bank of the Euphrates near a present-day ford and ferry crossing. It lies on a consolidated gravel terrace which is itself superimposed on an outcrop of soft limestone. The site faces west across the Euphrates flood-plain which is about 2.5 kilometres wide at this point. The river flows at its foot while behind to the east the land gradually rises to the Jazirah Plateau. The site today forms an elongated oval platform along the bank of the river and rises about 4 metres above the level of the fields behind. The core of the site is a small circular mound 6 metres high which lies on top of this platform. The total area of the site is a little over 3 hectares but this was never fully occupied in any phase of the settlement's existence. The earlier phases of settlement were concentrated in the area of the central mound which extends over 4300 square metres.

Mureybat was first excavated by M. van Loon who in 1964 and 1965 dug trenches in the western slope of the central mound and also made several soundings elsewhere on the platform. The work was continued by J. Cauvin from 1971 to 1974. He excavated several more trenches a little to the south of van Loon's area and one other sounding on the east slope of the central mound. These excavations have shown that the focus of occupation altered during the life of the settlement but as most of van Loon's and Cauvin's trenches were placed quite close together we do not have a clear idea of the extent of each phase of occupation. The full sequence or occupation on the site has, however, now been determined. The earliest phase of settlement was found by Cauvin and designated phase I. This has since been subdivided into a primary phase of Mesolithic occupation, phase IA, and a post-Mesolithic deposit, phase IB. Phase IA appears to have been confined to a small part of the western slope of the central mound, covering no more than 100 or 200 square metres, and the settlement was apparently not much larger in phase IB. The phase II settlement was more extensive, covering much if not all of the central mound; this phase is equivalent to strata I to IX in van Loon's excavation. Phase III, van Loon's strata X to XVII, likewise extended over much of the central mound. The deposits of phases IB to III are the remains of the early post-Mesolithic settlement with which the excavations at Mureybat have been principally concerned. The site continued to be occupied throughout the earlier Neolithic, apparently, and material like the aceramic Neolithic at Abu Hureyra and Bouqras levels I and II was found in both campaigns of excavations; the C-14 dates for these levels at Bouqras indicate that this phase, designated phase IV by Cauvin, dates from the 7th millennium BC.

The earliest buildings at Mureybat were found in phase IB. These were circular structures with walls made of vertical wooden posts set close together. The lower 50 centimetres of the walls were made weatherproof on the inside with a clay facing 10 centimetres thick which were the only parts of the structures that survived. Several floor surfaces were also found and hearths with horseshoe-shaped clay surrounds. Fire-pits or roasting pits filled with burned pebbles, ash and charcoal were associated with the floors and were a feature of each phase of occupation at Mureybat from phase IA to phase III.

The chipped stone assemblage from this phase had much in common with phase IA. Now and throughout the sequence most tools were made on small blades and flakes struck from prismatic cores. Microliths comprised 7 to 20% of the retouched tools in these levels. Many of these were lunates with a few triangles and trapezes. Microborers were also very common while a few backed bladelets made up the rest of the microlithic component. Among the larger tools were borers and drills with a few end-scrapers, burins, denticulates and occasional sickle-blades. There were two new tool types in the assemblage, a concave-based arrowhead with side notches resembling a Khiamian point and a heavy flaked adze. The latter was probably used for shaping timber and is a characteristic tool at Mureybat in subsequent phases. The remaining artifacts consisted of quite abundant bone points and a few cylindrical bone beads.

In phase II circular structures continued to be built but these were somewhat different from those in phase IA. These were now usually made of mud and stone and much less timber was used in their construction. Most of the structures were about 4 metres in diameter but some were as small as 2.7 metres across. Their floors were usually made of slabs of limestone set in mud and sometimes levelled with gravel. The walls similarly were composed of stones set in mud although a few were made of mud alone, presumably with some support of reeds or wood. Querns and grinding stones were frequently incorporated in the floors and walls. Although little more than the floors of these structures survived, their size and frequency suggest that they were dwelling huts. Outside these buildings were circular fire-pits about 80 centimetres in diameter lined with clay. They were full of ash, charcoal and burned pebbles. These may have been roasting pits for meat or parching seeds. After they went out of use they were frequently filled up with domestic debris.

The chipped stone industry of this phase was siepificantly different from phase I but the tools were still small. Microliths were still very common but these consisted almost entirely of microborers as lunates and other geometric Microliths were no longer used. Of the larger tools drills were also numerous but end-scrapers, burins and sickle blades were still uncommon. Arrowheads were now much more abundant. Many of these were like Khiamian points but there was much variety in the arrangement of the notches. A few now had a stem. Obsidian was found in small quantities for the first time in this phase.

The inventory of other finds was a little more abundant and varied in this phase than earlier. Bone tools such as borers and needles were particularly numerous and a group of these was found on the floor of Structure I. Cauvin has also found elaborate combs and sputulae with serrated ends.

Heavy stone tools were another innovation in these layers though querns, grinders, pestles and mortars are known from the Mesolithic levels at Abu Hureyra. The querns were oval or rectangular in shape and hollowed out in the centre. Spherical stones appear to have been used as grinders with the querns. Pestles and mortars were also quite common. One or two anthropomorphic stone figurines were also found in these levels.

The plans of the buildings changed markedly in phase III. Some were still circular but others were now rectilinear and composed of several rooms. The circular structures were larger than before, 10 metres in diameter in one instance and one at least had several compartments within it. The walls of these buildings, like the rectilinear ones, were now built with rows of dressed stones held together with mud. Posts and split logs were used to strengthen the walls. One wall was decorated with several rows of painted black chevrons on a white background. The floors were frequently paved with stones as in phase II. The structures were filled with much burned clay which retained impressions of the timber and straw used in the upper part of the walls and roofs. These circular buildings were found in Cauvin's excavations while van Loon found only rectilinear ones. His structures were built in the same way as the circular ones. The chambers in each building were frequently no more than 1.5 metre in width. None of these chambers had a doorway at floor level so they must have been entered from porthole doors higher in the walls or from above. Within these chambers were traces of separate compartments, possibly storage bins, and hearths.

These buildings are complex in arrangement and consequently difficult to interpret, a difficulty compounded by their poor preservation. The circular structures are commodious enough to have served as houses and their internal compartments may have fulfilled a domestic function. Most of the rectilinear buildings as they survive now seem far too cramped inside for anything more than storage. It is possible, of course, that the small chambers in these buildings were in fact basement storage rooms in two-storeyed structures and that domestic activities were carried out on the first floor. There is a parallel for this arrangement at Ganj Dareh in Iran. Here rectilinear two-storeyed buildings built in this same way with walls as thin as those at Mureybat have survived remarkably intact and Smith has told me that he now believes the basement rooms may have served as storage chambers for the houses above. There is a rarked resemblance between the two groups of buildings but it will not be possible to state with certainty what the function of the Mureybat buildings was until we know more about their precise contents.

The earliest occurrence of human burials within the settlement at Mureybat was in phase III. The inhabitants of the settlement in earlier phases may have buried their dead within the settlement but outside the area of excavation. Nevertheless the absence of burials in the Mesolithic deposit at Abu Hureyra strengthens the impression one has that in northern Syria bodies were disposed of away from the settlement in earlier periods in contrast with the Natufian in Palestine. When burial within the settlement was introduced in phase III at Mureybat it had many similarities with the custom at Jericho in the PPNA. Skulls were detached and buried in groups separated from the corpses to which they belonged. In another instance a skull and several long bones were buried together without the rest of the skeleton - this was a form of secondary burial that was a regular practice in a later context in the aceramic Neolithic at Abu Hureyra.

The flint industry was modified still further in phase III though it was still in the same tradition as that of phases I and II. Apart from a few microborers microliths had almost disappeared. In their place the larger tools, end-scrapers, side-scrapers and burins increased substantially in number and even sickle blades were more abundant. Arrowheads were also wich more common and larger too. Many of these now had a true tang for hafting as well as side notches although there was still much variety of shape; Khiamian points, however, had all but disappeared. A few of these arrowheads were retouched with squamous flaking for the first time but spare abrupt retouch remained the usual technique. Obsidian was now arriving on the site in increasing quantity.

Bone tools were still fairly abundant; the most common ones were borers as before, the remainder being flat spatulae and beads. None of the elaborate combs has been found in these levels but even in phase II they were a rare find and so perhaps not typical.

Among other finds were finely made stone dishes and bowls, one of which had a wavy band carved in relief on the rim. Querns, grinders and other heavy stone tools were very common. Then there were a few other pieces of elaborately carved stone, one of which was complete; this has been interpreted as an anthropomorphic figure but it would appear to be more like an owl or other bird of prey.

Baked clay was used in a variety of ways for the first time in this phase. Mazy of the pieces were shapes of uncertain design but a few were quite carefully modelled standing female figures with large buttocks and hands supporting the breasts. Among the more remarkable objects found were five small baked clay vessels. These were little cups, bowls and dishes from 4 to 7 centimetres in diameter. Such finds indicate that the inhabitants were now accustomed to making a variety of objects in baked clay but that the substance was not yet employed for utilitarian objects in everyday use.

More C-14 determinations have been obtained from Mureybat than any other Neolithic 1 site in the Levant but since the most recent dates conflict with those obtained some years ago the procise chronology of each phase is by no means certain. I discussed some of these determinations in Chapter 2 and suggested that the transition from phase IA to IB may have taken place about 8500 BC. The duration of phase IB can only be guessed at for the moment since the single determination from this phase, Lv-607, cannot be reconciled with dates obtained for phase IA. My estimate would be that it lasted perhaps 200 years and that phase II thus began about 8300 BC. Phase II is no better dated than phase I since two of the Louvain determinations for this phase, 8640 +/- 70 BC Lv-605 and 8510 +/- 200 BC Lv-606, are several centuries earlier than the three obtained by the Philadelphia laboratory, 8265 +/- 117 BC P-1217, 8142 +/- 118 BC P-1216 and 8056 +/- 96 BC P-1215. One other Louvain determination for this phase should be mentioned, 7780 +/- 140 BC Lv-6o4, the sample for which came from near the surface and is believed to have been contaminated by more recent humic matter. The Philadelphia dates agree better with the more recent series of Monaco determinations for phases I and III and so may give a more reliable indication of the duration of phase II. From them I would estimate that phase II was concluded about 8000 BC or possibly a little before.

Phase III is dated by three Philadelphia determinations from the first series of excavations and eight from the Monaco laboratory which have not yet been fully published. These two series are reasonably consistent so that the chronology of this phase appears for the moment to be better established than that of phases I and II. The Philadelphia determinations are: 8018 +/- 115 BC P-1220 (levels X-XI), 7542 122 BC P-1224 (level XVI) and 7954 +/- 114 BC P-1222 (levels XVI-XVII). The earliest of the Monaco dates is 8000 +/- 150 BC Mc-734 and the latest 7570 +/- 150 BC Mc-612 while the others fall in between. Phase III thus appears to have lasted from about 8000 to 7500 BC.

Circular mud buildings were constructed in phase IB for the first time so commencing a tradition that lasted a thousand years at Mureybat. The earliest modifications to the Mesolithic tool kit also occurred in phase IB with the introduction of notched points and flaked adzes. This major building innovation and slight but significant development in the flint industry were the first stage of a gradual but ultimately thorough cultural change. As this change began in IB it seems reasonable to take this phase as the transition betveen Mesolithic and Neolithic. The choice is somewhat arbitrary, however, not least because in the flint industry lunates still predominated and microliths as a group did not disappear until phase III.

The development of the flint industry illustrates well how slow but far reaching this cultural change was. First there was the change in the microlithic component dominated by lunates at the beginning and then by microborers. This would seem to indicate that some major change in activities within the settlement was taking place although the flint technology had not altered much at this stage. Then the microliths were phased out and the tools became much larger. At the same time there was a change in the core technique as double-ended cores were now used to produce blades. Some were even the keeled ("naviforme") cores more usually associated with 7th millennium and later industries but a few of these may in fact have belonged with the phase III assemblage rather than have been intrusive from phase IV. Changes in the typology of the flint tools accompanied these technological developments. The arrowheads are the best example of this: they were introduced in small quantities in phase IB but eventually formed as much as 25% of the retouched tools in certain levels in phase III. Their typology also changed markedly throughout this long period.

These changes in the Mureybat flint industry were the result of a local gradual developmant and throughout there was an uninterrupted continuity of culture. Mureybat is the only site known in the Levant at present where a microlithic flint industry was slowly modified until it became a blade-based industry typical of the developed Neolithic and where no break in the complete sequence is suspected. Such a gradual development of the flint industry indicates that the population remained the same, that the Neolithic inhabitants were the descendants of their Mesolithic predecessors. The increasing richness and variety of the remainder of the artifact inventory through the phases also suggests that the inhabitants were becoming more sedentary ...

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