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Chapter 4: Neolithic 2 Abu Hureyra (Pages 163-175)

Pre-History and Archaeology Glossary

Excerpts and Definitions and Addendums:

Tell Abu Hureyra is situated on the right bank of the Euphrates about 36 kilometres downstream from Mureybat. The river has cut deeply into the Syrian plateau so that the sides of the valley are formed by cliffs or hills. The floor of the valley at Abu Hureyra is about 6 kilometres wide and a river terrace juts out into the flood-plain here. The site is situated on this projection and has a good view up and down the valley. The steppe of the Syrian plateau meets the moist alluvium of the flood-plain at the edge of the valley floor and the prehistoric mound lies on the dividing line between these two environmental zones. The Euphrates River is now about 1 kilometre to the north but it probably flowed much nearer the site when it was inhabited than now and would have been the main source of water for the inhabitants. An important feature of the local topography is the Wadi Hibna which is incised into the plateau and joins the Euphrates valley 2 kilometres west of the site.

This area receives an average of 200 mm rainfall a year although there are considerable fluctuations in the actual amount of rain that falls. Dry farming is possible on the steppe in years when the rains reach at least this average figure. The water table of the flood-plain remains high for much of the year which makes it possible regularly to obtain high crop yields today even when the rains fail. The floor of the Wadi Hibna also has a high water table and is very fertile. Although the Wadi is dry for much of the year now it probably carried a perennial stream in the early Holocene. It was potentially important to inhabitants of the prehistoric settlement therefore because it offered additional moist alluvial land irrigated by running water.

The site which is approximately trapezoidal in plan covers 11.5 hectares (28.5 acres) and is the largest known Neolithic settlement in Syria. A ridge runs from north to south along the west side of the site which slopes down steeply to the flood-plain. The north side slopes more gradually down to the flood-plain while to the east and south the mound falls gently away to merge with the terrace. Almout all the debris of which the mound is composed is derived from the Neolithic settlement.

Once the Neolithic settlement was founded it was occupied continuously until it was finally abandoned. This long occupation sequence can be conveniently divided into three phases; early aceramic - later aceramic - ceramic Neolithic. The first early aceramic deposits were found at the bottom of trenches B and C in the centre of the north-south ridge. This area remained the focus of the settlement throughout its life and the greatest depth of depoait (8 metres) was found here. The early aceramic village was quite small but it rapily expanded north and south for remains of a late stage of the phase were found in trench A and in trench E where it overlay the Mesolithic settlement. In the later aceramic phase the settlement grew still more until it covered the whole area of the mound. Remains of this stage make up almost all the 5 metres of deposit in trenches F and G - both of which were dug to test the sequence of occupation of the rest of the mound. The settlement later contracted in size so that in the ceramic Neolithic phase it covered about half the area of the mound. Occupation was confined to the north-south ridge where the remains of this phase make up the top metre of deposit in trenches A-B-C-E. Originally this deposit would have been considerably deeper but much has disappeared through erosion.

The buildings were of much the same type throughout the aceramic Neolithic occupation. They were rectilinear with several rooms and built of mud-brick. The rooms themselves were from 3 to 4 metres long and from 1.4 to 2 metres wide. One complete building excavated had five rooms and its exterior dimensions were 10.7 metres by 4.5 metres. The walls were usually quite thin so these buildings were probably one storey high. In one building the walls had survived intact to their original height of 1.7 metres. There were several vertical post-holes set in the tops of the walls to carry either a loft or subsidiary supports for the roof. In the same building was a rectangular porthole doorway between two of the rooms with a high sill and mud-brick lintel. This type of doorway seems to have been the common form of entry to the rooms of these buildings although a few had doors at floor level.

The rooms of these buildings usually had plastered floors which were coloured black and then burnished. A few had designs painted on them in red and one of them was recognizable as a sunburst or a blob with lines radiating from it. Some had simple trodden earth floors. The walls were covered with mud plaster which in some buildings had been whitewashed.

A few buildings had internal features made of mud-brick and plaster. There were low platforms in the corners of some rooms which may have been for sitting or sleeping on. Storage bins were found in a room of at least one building; these were made of mud-brick and lined with plaster. Niches were frequently built into walls and probably served as receptacles for household equipment. A number of buildings had a hearth in the centre of a room. This was filled with ashes but the rest of the room was often quite clean so I am inclined to think the hearths were used for warmth and light rather than for cooking. A room of one building had a clay oven in one corner which was almost certainly used for preparing food.

Most of these buildings had much the same characteristics and were probably houses. One structure in trench G had a different plan. It consisted of two rooms of the usual shape but adjoining these was a pair of narrow chambers 0.5 and 1 metres wide and at least 4 metres long. This building may have been used for some other purpose. Although each house was separated from its neighbours all were built close together with only narrow lanes and courts between them. This density was so marked that we found remains of one and even two or three series of buildings in every trench we excavated. The buildings themselves were quite often clean inside with just a scatter of flint tools or other artifacts on the floors. The passageways outside were choked with organic refuse - animal bones - ashes and the remains of fires. It would appear that meat in particular was prepared outside and that domestic rubbish was allowed to accumulate between the buildings.

All these buildings faced south or south-west to catch the winter sun. They were rebuilt time after time on the same alignment in the same place. In trench B this happened seven and in trench C no less than eleven times. Two possible explanations may be offered for this practice. One is that the restrictions on space within the settlement were so great that a new building had to be constructed on the same plot as its predecessor. The other might be that families had customary rights to certain plots and chose to rebuild their dwellings on the same spot over many generations. In practice these two influences probably operated together the result being that the same arrangement of houses was perpetuated over a long period; itself an indication of the stability of the settlement.

The ceramic Neolithic layers had weathered badly so that it was not possible to determine the plans or any buildings. Traces of rectilinear mud-brick structures were found - enough to indicate that the same building tradition continued. A new feature characteristic of these layers was a series of shallow pits up to 2 metres in diameter and 1 metre deep. Some had been dug out and reused many times. Each was filled with burned debris - bones and often stones as well. They may have been roasting pits or fire hollows but their exact purpose is uncertain for the monent.

Throughout the life of the Neolithic settlement the inhabitants buried their dead in shallow pits beneath the floors of their houses or in the yards outside. Some bodies were buried singly in a crouched position though the skull was sometimes removed. A few of these had been wrapped in matting. One had a flint arrowhead lodged in the chest cavity - evidence that this individual had suffered a violent death. Other corpses were buried in groups either with or without their skulls. The skulls were deposited singly or in groups and were sometimes mixed with a few other human bones. The single inhumations were best preserved because they had not been subsequently disturbed. The multiple burials were often disordered; skeletons were frequently buried incomplete and the bones were in poor condition. This was because secondary burial had taken place. The bodies seem to have been buried until the flesh had decayed and later exhumed. The skulls were often then detached and buried separately while the remaining bones were carelessly gathered up and reburied in multiple graves. Red ochre was scattered over some of the bodies and painted on several of the skulls. A few of the burials were accompanied with grave goods; one or two river pebbles - a flint tool or some beads. In one case a complete necklace of coloured stone cylindrical beads was found. One unusual type of funerary artifact was the butterfly bead almost all of which were found in graves. These were oval - triangular or trapezoidal and ground very thin. Each was bored through the middle for suspension. Most were made of serpentine althoutgh a few were cut from agate - both of which were probably obtained from the Taurus Mountains.

The skeletons are now being examined in the laboratory and this study promises to tell us much about the physical condition of the inhabitants. It may also be possible to deduce more precise information about the composition of families and their social arrangements. One problem in particular on which the anthropological study may throw some light is the question of family ownership of houses and their rebuilding over several generations. If burials of the descendants of a single family are found beneath successive houses that could be an indication that ownership of dwellings and the plot on which they stood was maintained within the same family from one generation to the next.

The flint industry was based upon the production of large blades from conical and double-ended cores. All the flint was obtained in the vicinity from wadi gravels, the valley slopes and outcrops in the limestone. There were some gradual alterations in the techniques of production and in the types of tools found during the life of the settlement which help to differentiate the phases. In the early aceramic the blades were long, irregular and pointed. During the next two phases most blades were struck from double-ended cores and as a result were parallel-sided and more regular.

Relatively few types of tools were made in the early aceramic; tanged arrowheads, end-scrapers and borers on blades, single-blow and angle burins together with a few flake scrapers. Massive flint tools were not found at Abu Hureyra nor are they known from any other site in the Levant occupied at this time. These tools were shaped with a little abrupt retouch, the arrowheads sometimes being retouched under the tip as well as around the tang. Arrowheads were by far the most common tool throughout the Abu Hureyra sequence.

Tools were retouched a little more in the later aceramic phase and squamous pressure-flaking was introduced. A greater variety of scrapers was made among them side-scrapers on flakes and blades and disc scrapers. The smaller discoids or thumbnail scrapers are quite characteristic of the assemblage. The arrowheads usually had stubby straight-ended tangs. Burins were common and more varied in type. A variety of awls were made on both flakes and blades. Several tools of this phase have been examined by Keeley for traces of microwear and this study has shown that a specific type of long borer on a blade was used as a drill or reamer to bore holes in wood. A distinctive sheen had formed on the retouch scars caused by the high speed of rotation of the tool and this suggests that it had been turned by a bow drill. The end-scrapers were shown to have been used to scrape hides. A few retouched blades with sickle gloss were found in the later aceramic phase most of these were backed and had irregular edge retouch. Microwear examination has confirmed that they were used to reap plants but we do not know if these were cereals or reeds. There is good evidence that the inhabitants grew cereals in this phase but as the few sickle blades we found would have been insufficient to harvest them they must have been collected in some other way.

There were further minor changes in the flint industry in the ceramic Neolithic phase. Squamous pressure-flaking was used more frequently particularly to retouch arrowheads. Amuq arrowheads retouched in this way were made for the first time. A small quantity of obsidian was used at Abu Hureyra in every Neolithic occupation phase. Most of the pieces were small unretouched parallel-sided blades struck from conical or cylindrical cores. A few retouched obsidian tools were found in the late aceramic and ceramic Neolithic phases among them tanged arrowheads with squamous retouch and flake scrapers. Some waste obsidian flakes and exhausted cores were recovered so it would appear that the blades and retouched tools were made on the site. The cores themselves were not roughed out from raw blocks or obsidian at Abu Hureyra as there was insufficient waste of this kind on the site. The obsidian probably arrived in the form of partly prepared cores. Obsidian comprised 4.35% of the total chipped stones recovered from the complete Neolithic occupation sequence in trench B. Only 2.05% was used in the early aceramic phase in this trench but this increased to 5.42% in the later aceramic; in the ceramic Neolithic it fell to 4.19%. The figure for the early aceramic may not be quite representative as relatively little was excavated of the remains of this phase in trench B. Even so it tends to confirm a view I formed when the excavations were in progress that more obsidian was used as the settlement grew.

Pieces of obsidian from many sites throughout south-west Asia have been analysed in the past to determine their origins. An outline of the obsidian trade has been obtained from this work but many problems still remain to be resolved. The method of analysis most commonly used has been optical spectrography. In this technique much time is needed for each analysis so in order to build up a general picture of obsidian distribution a few pieces only have been examined from each site. This has created a sampling problem for we do not know if the few pieces analysed are representative of the actual obsidian distribution. One further difficulty with optic spectrography is that it is not quite sensitive enough to distinguish between all the different sources of obsidian.

These problems can be overcome if neutron activation analysis is used because samples may be analysed more rapidly and in greater detail with this technique than is possible with spectrography. In the new programme of obsidian analyses I am carrying out in collaboration with Bradford University we are using the neutron activation method. Large samples of obsidian from selected Neolithic sites throughout the Near East are being studied to determine the sources from which it originated. In this way we shall obtain a more precise picture of the distribution of obsidian during the Neolithic and we hope also a clearer idea of how the obsidian reached the sites on which it is found.

100 pieces of obsidian from trench B at Abu Hureyra have now been analysed as part of the this programm. The results show that obsidian was obtained from at least six sources and that most of it came from four of these. Obsidian from Nemrut Dag was favoured in the early aceramic but the proportion of obsidian from this source declined sharply later on. Relatively little obsidian was obtained at first from the lg source which is also believed to be near Lake Van but much more was used in the later aceramic and ceramic Neolithic phases. It would thus appear that the proportions of obsidian from these two possibly neighbouring sources varied inversely. Some obsidian from the Ciftlik source was used in the early aceramic but the proportion declined in the later aceramic; it increased markedly in the ceramic Neolithic when it was the most favoured of all the sources. Abu Hureyra is equidistant from the Ciftlik and Vannic sources both about 400 kilometres away.

We do not yet know if these results are truly representative of the use of obsidian at Abu Hureyra as the sample studied is still a small one and came from a single trench. We propose to carry out a similar series of analyaes of obsidian from trench C - another trench with the full Neolithic occupation sequence - to see if it supports the results obtained from trench B. We can be certain however that obsidian from at least six sources was reaching Abu Hureyra and that different amounts of obsidian from these sources were used in each phase of occupation.

Bone tools were the second most common find at Abu Hureyra. Those from the early aceramic were limited in type and consisted almost entirely of a range of borers. The same borers were found in the later phases but there was greater variety: some had fine thin shafts; others more robust stubby points. Spatulae were also quite common while among the rarer items were several bone needles, bone tubes which were sectioned to make beads, a fish-hook and a hook and eye which was perhaps used to secure clothing. The range is sufficiently wide to indicate that bone tools were used for many crafts and domestic tasks as well as for adornment at least in the later phases of occupation.

Several other classes of artifacts such as pecked and polished greenstone axes and chisels were found throughout the occupation sequence. Most of these were made from pebbles obtained from the river gravels but a few were fashioned in jadeite almost certainly obtained from Anatolia. They were probably used as carpentry tools. Pecked stone balls, hog-backed rubbers and saddle querns were also quite common. The rubbers and querns were made of basalt or limestone.

A much greater variety of artifacts was used in the later aceramic and ceramic Neolithic phases and is one of the distinguishing features of these stages of settlement. Some of the more attractive artifacts were a series of polished stone bowls and dishes. Most were carved from coloured limestones or alabaster, a few from gypsum and one or two from granite and steatite. The bowls were usually hemispherical and quite small although a few had flat bottoms with flared sides. The dishes were both round and oval. These vessels were delicately finished but a series of large rough stone bowls were also found which could have been either containers or mortars.

A number of much larger containers were made of a distinctive white plaster; these were similar to the white ware (vaisselle blanche) found on other contemporary sites in Syria and Lebanon. Several were large rectangular tubs with a hole-mouth at the top while others were circular jars. Some had been made in the rooms in which they were found and all were thick-walled and very heavy. Most of the white plaster vessels were found in the later aceramic Neolithic layers.

Decorative items such as beads and pendants were also much more common in these two phases. The variety of shapes was considerable including cylindrical, annular, discoid and pear-drop beads made of greenstones, shell bone, baked clay and other materials. Several other objects found in the later aceramic phase were made of baked clay such as decorated stamp seals and spindle whorls. A few unbaked clay anthropomorphic and animal figurines were also found. Clay was used for a number of artifacts and other structural purposes such as pit linings in the later aceramic Neolithic settlement and the inhabitants knew how to fire it well before pottery was made at the site.

Pottery itself was found in the ceramic Neolithic phase and then only in small quantities. Most of it was from simple baggy vessels with plain or collared rims. The fabric was coarse and crumbly with straw temper and the surface of the vessels was burnished. This pottery was exceedingly rough though it did resemble that very broad class of dark burnished wares found on other Syrian Neolithic sites. One or two highly burnished black or brown sherds of a ware found at Ras Shamra in Phases VB and VA and Tell Ramad III did occur at Abu Hureyra as well as others decorated with red paint.

A few strands of thread found in a clay bead indicate that spinning was practised at the site. The one other craft for which we have good evidence is basketry. A number of impressions of baskets were found in bitumen which had been used as a lining. There were also traces of matting in the soil while seeds of rushes and reeds that could have been used to make baskets and mats were recovered in flotation.

We have already noted that several raw materials used at Abu Hureyra had been imported from a considerable distance. Most of these are believed to have come from the Taurus Mountains and Anatolia 300 kilometres to the north. The list can be extended to include a pyritic micaceous stone and malachite powder which was apparently used as a cosmetic. Several objects made of this particular stone were found each with a polished U groove on one side and a criss-cross pattern of scratch marks on the back. They resemble certain artifacts found at Zawi Chemi Shanidar in a slightly earlier context interpreted as arrow shaft straighteners and Helbaek informs me that a few similar to those at Abu Hureyra have been found at Beidha.

Several other raw materials were obtained from different regions. The steatite probably came from the Zagros Mountains while a bead and other tiny pieces of turquoise may have originated in Sinai. Cowrie shells were found in every phase of the Neolithic settlement: these may have come from the Mediterranean or the warmer waters of the Persian Gulf or Red Sea. Although these links suggest contact with much of the Near East it appears that more of the exotic materials were imported from Anatolia than elsewhere. This may simply be because this was the region where such desirable materials were to be found or because there were stronger social and cultural ties between the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra and the peoples to the north than their contemporaries elsewhere and that these links were strengthened by the exchange of such materials.

These raw materials though distinctive were imported in small quantities. Other more common materials, basalt and certain limestones for rubbers and stone vessels, gypsum for bowls and perhaps bitumen were obtained within a radius of 60 kilometres. The most common of all the raw materials such as flint were to be found in the vicinity of the settlement while pebbles of greenstone, granite and other attractive stones could be found in the river gravels.

No C-14 determinations have been made yet on the charcoal samples from Abu Hureyra and until these are available one can discuss the chronology of the site only in very general terms. Comparisons with Tell Aswad (Balikh) and Bouqras would suggest that the aceramic phases should fall within the 7th millennium while the ceramic Neolithic levels would be dated about 6000 BC or a century or two later. The duration of the settlement can only be guessed at for the moment: the considerable occupation sequence and the evidence for gradual change in the typology of the flint industry and other artifacts suggest to me that the settlement was occupied for much longer than Bouqras for example; perhaps from the beginning of the 7th until well into the 6th millennium.

Certain classes of remains are characteristic of the aceramic Neolithic at Abu Hureyra. Rectilinear mud-brick buildings composed of several rooms with plaster floors are one example and the burial customs including collective secondary burial associated with removal of skulls are another. A third is the flint industry which used large blades struck from double-ended and keeled cores. These were retouched to make arrowheads, end-scrapers, burins and sickle blades. Such remains have also been found on many other contemporary settlements in the Levant; they are distinctive enough to be taken as characteristic featuxes of this new stage following Neolithic 1 which I am calling Neolithic 2. Some other artifacts found in the more developed later aceramic phase at Abu Hureyra are also associated with Neolithic 2 remains on many other sites. The fine stone dishes and bowls, plaster vessels and the abundant variety of bone tools may be included here. These artifacts were almost as widespread and characteristic of Neolithic 2 as the three major classes of artifacts I mentioned first .....

Sites in the Neighbourhood of Tell Abu Hureyra

Three small Neolithic surface sites have been discovered near Tell Abu Hureyra. One is on the right bank of the Wadi Hibna (site III) just before it opens out into the Euphrates flood-plain. The other two sites (site I and site II) are a little to the east of Abu Hureyra on the edge of the same terrace above the flood-plain. Flints collected from these three sites can be paralleled at Abu Hureyra so it looks as though they were all contemporary. These surface sites may have been small settlements related in some way to the larger centre.

One other prehistoric tell was found by van Loon 3 kilometres to the east of Abu Hureyra. This was Tell Kreyn which like Abu Hureyra lay on a projection of the first terrace into the flood-plain. At the northern end there was a small mound while to the south the site spread out over the surface of the terrace. The mound itself yielded a surface collection of Halaf sherds but on the terrace behind there were abundant flints which could be paralleled at Abu Hureyra. Tell Kreyn, while still quite small, seems to have been a more substantial settlement than sites I - II - III. It was certainly occupied at the same time as Abu Hureyra then perhaps abandoned and resettled in Halaf times .....

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