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Chapter 3: Neolithic 1 Tell Aswad (Pages 127-130)

Pre-History and Archaeology Glossary

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One other site with deposits dating from the 8th millennium BC has recently been excavated in Syria. This is Tell Aswad which lies in the Damascus basin about 25 kilometres southeast of the city and about half way between the present Hijjane and Ataibe lakes. In this region the floor of the basin is almost flat with the exception of some low hills a few metres high. Tell Aswad is situated on one of these which originally stood about 2 metres above the level of the plain. Until quite recently Tell Aswad lay in a marshy area only a few kilometres from the edge of the lakes. The marshes and lakes would have been even more extensive in the Neolithic then they were earlier this century.

The site is almost circular and very extensive covering about 5.41 hectares - although the occupation deposits are only from 2 to 3 metres deep. The site was sounded by H. de Contenson in 1971 and 1972. He excavated two trenches - Aswad East and Aswad West - each 4 metres square and spaced wide apart in the southern sector of the site. The deposits consisted of dark ashy layers with traces of burned vegetable matter and charcoal into which had been dug many pits. These were of various sizes up to 2 metres in diameter. Some were pit hearths full of burned material - others were rubbish pits; but none were large enough for a dwelling. A few of these had a rim of plano-convex mud-bricks some of which were baked. A platform of bricks was found in the East trench but apart from this there were no other built structures in the trenches. The only trace of building activities was impressions of reeds in a few lumps of clay; the remains perhaps of shelters or huts built by the inhabitants out of materials readily available in the locality. The surface of the rest of the mound consisted of the same ashy deposit that was found in the trenches so that it does not seem that there were structures built of other materials such as mud-brick elsewhere on the site.

Several burials were found at the bottom of the West trench. Most had been placed at intervals in a single pit dug in the natural subsoil. There was one complete skeleton in a contracted position - another that was incomplete - and several skulls of adults and children. One other skull was found set on the natural surface in the same trench. The flint industry at Tell Aswad was based on the production of blades. The cores were prismatic or pyramidal although 25% of then were bipolar; a few being of the keeled type. The most numerous tools were sickle blades and tanged arrowheads while the remainder consisted of notched pieces - burins - borers and end-scrapers. This industry was more developed than those I have discussed so far and much of it had parallels with a later cultural stage. This was true also of some of the other artifacts found at Tell Aswad such as the polished axes and abundant human and animal figurines. Yet at least some of the flint tools - the notched arrowheads in particular - were more archaic. This impression derived from typology was reinforced by the ten C-14 determinations made on samples from both trenches. All of these from the West trench fell within the 7th millennium but four out of the five from the East trench were from the 8th millennium.

De Contenson has divided the sequence at Tell Aswad into two phases based upon stratigraphy - the evolution of the typology of the flint tools - the other associated artifacts and the C-14 dates. The site is now believed to have been occupied first in Phase I and the debris of this phase makes up most of the deposit of Aswad East. The earliest date here is 7790 +/- 120 B.C. GIF-2633 for a deposit near the natural surface while above that there are three others of 7690 +/- 120 B.C. GIF-2372 - 7390 +/- 120 B.C. GIF-237O and 7320 +/- 120 B.C. GIF-2371. These make a coherent series of determinations from which one might estimate that the phase began a little before 7800 B.C. De Contenson believes that the settlement then expanded towards the west for some material of late Phase I character was found at the bottom of Aswad West. There are two dates for this of 6925 +/- 55 B.C. GrN-6678 and 6915 +/- 60 B.C. GrN-6679. The remainder of the deposit in Aswad West constitutes Phase II. A little material of this phase - dated by one further C-14 determination - was found at the top of Aswad East suggesting that the settlement expanded to the east again before it was finally abandoned. Although the whole of the site may have been occupied at least briefly in Phase II this does not appear to have been so in Phase I. Then perhaps no more than half or even less was occupied at any one time. Even this would have been a considerable area so it appears that Tell Aswad was always an extensive site in contrast with the core mound at Mureybat for example which was much smaller. This considerable spread of settlement may be accounted for by the absence of permanent structures rather than simply a large concentration of people. The inhabitants may have preferred to spread outwards over the natural hill on which the site stood rather than to live tightly huddled together as was usually the case on sites with mud-brick buildings where family or customary tenure of a particular building plot may have encouraged more concentrated settlement.

This complicated development of the settlement at Tell Aswad has since been confirmed by further studies of the evolution of the artifacts. The typology of the arrowheads in Phase I has now been worked out in detail and this permits more precise comparisons to be made with other sites. Many of the arrowheads had short tangs and pairs of notches. They were frequently retouched with a little pressure-flaking. Such arrowheads have been found in Phase III at Mureybat although there they often had fewer notches and pressure-flaking was less usual. Nevertheless the two assemblages had much in common including a similar core technique and range of retouched tools. Such typological similarity would have suggested that Phase I at Tell Aswad overlapped with phase III at Mureybat and this is confirmed bt the C-14 dates ...

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