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Chapter 4: Neolithic 2 (Balikh) Tell Aswad (Pages 180-183)

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Tell Aswad lies on a tributary of the Balikh River about 22 kilometres south of Tell Abyad in the Syrian Jazirah. The site is roughly oval in shape with two high points at either end. It was discovered by Mallowan who excavated on the higher summit in 1938. He found traces of Halaf Culture occupation but surmised that much of the mound consisted of Neolithic remains.

The site was reinvestigated by Cauvin in 1970 who excavated a step trench from top to bottom of the higher summit on its northern side. The lower summit has never been examined and its relationship to the rest of the site is unknown. Cauvin divided his sequence into eight levels numbered from top to bottom. Levels I to VI contained remains of mud-brick buildings - a lime plaster floor - flints and other artifacts but were devoid of pottery. Levels VII and VIII at the bottom yielded only a few bricks and fragments of plaster but abundant artifacts including many sherds of pottery. About half the sherds had a red or brown surface and were burnished; these had either grit or straw filler. The remaining sherds were from much coarser straw-tempered vessels with little surface treatment. A few sherds only had red painted decoration. Most of the pots were hole-mouth vessels and several had strap handles - knobs or lugs for carrying.

The chipped stone industry was of much the same character throughout the sequence. The tools were made on blades and flakes struck from pebble cores. The principal types were tanged arrowheads with a little abrupt retouch - burins - end-scrapers on blades - disc scrapers and sickle blades with some borers. The sickle blades were short truncated blades for the most part which are believed to have been hafted so that they formed a jagged cutting edge. They were quite numerous in every level. Obsidian was present throughout.

Among the other artifacts were numerous fragments of small polished limestone and alabaster bowls. The remaining finds included a few baked clay anthropomorphic and animal figurines - some bone points - basalt grinders - three butterfly beads and several other items of adornment.

Three carbon 14 determinations have been made on samples obtained in the recent excavations. They are: for level VIII 6500 +/- 120 B.C. Mc-864 - level VI 10550 160 B.C. Mc-607 and level III 6700 120 B.C. Mc-865.

Cauvin has concluded on the evidence presented above that Tell Aswad was first occupied in the middle of the 7th millennium by a group making pottery. They were the first people in Syria to use pottery regularly as all other finds of early pottery are dated several centuries later. Although people with the same material culture continued to occupy the site for a considerable time pottery was not used in the later stages of the settlement. This explanation - if correct - would fit the observed facts but it seems so improbable that another hypothesis may be preferred.

Let us first consider the cultural parallels for the Tell Aswad material. Tbe flint industry - stone bowls and other distinctive artifacts such as the butterfly beads closely resemble those from the later aceramic and ceramic Neolithic at Abu Hureyra and Bouqras. The only significant difference is that the sickle blades at Ten Aswad are of a different type and more common than at the two other sites. Even the Tell Aswad pottery - though much more abundant than that from the top levels at Abu Hureyra and Bouqras - encompasses the same range of wares and decoration. One may conclude that the Tell Aswad material is sufficiently like that on the Euphrates sites to be included in Neolithic 2 of the Levant. It is thus all the more strange that a sequence repeated at Abu Hureyra and Bouqras of an aceramic and then ceramic Neolithic with otherwise much the same material inventory should be reversed at Tell Aswad. The stratigraphy at Tell Aswad was determined from a step trench rather than a deep sounding carried to bedrock at the centre of the site. It is perfectly possible that when the settlement was founded pottery was not made but subsequently the focus of the settlement shifted north at about the time pottery began to be used. The true stratigraphic relationship between an earlier settlement with a considerable depth of deposit and a later extension at a lower elevation might be missed in a step trench excavated across such occupation deposits. The Halaf remains on top of the old heart of the site could be unrelated to the earlier occupation. At this point we may look once more at the C-14 dates. On Cauvin's reading of the stratigraphy the dates for level VIII and level III are inverted - the earlier level being dated later. If on the other hand my suggestion were correct the dates would be in the right order so lending weight to the argument. The problem cannot be resolved satisfactorily without further excavations but it would seem more likely that Tell Aswad was first occupied by a group which did not use pottery and that they adopted the craft later rather than the reverse explanation put forward by Cauvin.

One difficulty remains with the Tell Aswad sequence and that concerns the C-14 determinatioas. Two of the dates fall within the first half of the 7th millennium so one might assume that the site was occupied then. The typology of the artifacts links the site closely with Bouqras which is itself dated about 6000 B.C. It is difficult to believe that Tell Aswad was real1y occupied that early as it would be typologically more advanced by several centuries than not only Bouqras but also a number of other dated sites in the Levant. As one of the determinations is altogether much too early (Mc-607) it may be that the other dates are also incorrect.

Cauvin found one other site in the Balikh valley with remains similar to those from Tell Aswad. The site is Tell Khirbet Bassal which lies on the Karamuk - a tributary which flows parallel with the Balikh on the west. It has not been excavated but Halaf sherds were found near the summit and flint and obsidian artifacts lower down together with fragments of stone bowls comparable with those at Bouqras ...

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