Social Identities and the Expansion of Stone Bead-Making in Neolithic Western Asia: New Evidence from Jordan. (Research)

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In the study of the beginnings of farming and herding in western Asia, many questions remain unanswered, but two stand out. First, important changes in craft production and exchange attended the Neolithic, but what stimulated them? Second, what were the effects of changing economies on social organisation, or vice versa? Beads and bead-making are important signals of social values, and can shed light on both issues. In this paper, we explore the expansion of stone bead-making in Neolithic western Asia, using workshops in the Jilat-Azraq Basin, eastern Jordan. By 'workshops,' we mean simply bead production areas.

Body ornaments first appear in the archaeological record in the early Upper Palaeolithic (45,000-20,000 BP), in East Africa (Enkapune ya Muto), Europe (Bacho Kiro), and western Asia (Ksar Akil, Ucagizli). Upper Palaeolithic beads, pendants and bracelets imply new attitudes to body decoration that probably had evolutionary implications. The vast majority of Upper Palaeolithic ornaments were made from ivory, shells, animal bones and teeth. By contrast, Upper Palaeolithic stone beads are rare (Kuhn et al. 2001: 7642-5; White 1993:279-80; 1995: 29). In western Asia, at the end of the Palaeolithic (Natufian period), most body ornaments were made of shells, gazelle phalanges, deer bones and fox teeth (D. Bar-Yosef 1991; O. Bar-Yosef 1997:166; Goring-Morris 1989:175-6; Reese 1991). Stone beads, however, continue to be rare, although Natufian hunter-gatherers were fully capable of making elaborate stone items (e.g. figurines). Stone beads become numerous and diverse only in the Neolithic (conventionally divided into several sub-periods, see Table 1). In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) stone body ornaments begin to appear in abundance. By the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) most sites contain them and they become more numerous and diverse in the PPNB and Early Late Neolithic (ELN). In this paper, we address six questions:

1 What stimulated the initial expansion of stone bead manufacture in the Neolithic?

2 What can early stone ornaments tell us about social identities?

3 What do aesthetic choices in stone bead-making tell us about cognition?

4 What were the social units of bead production?

5 To what degree can we speak of intensification and specialisation in Neolithic bead-making?

6 How was exchange in stone beads integrated into changing economies?

To answer such questions, the ideal evidence would come from excavations of several well-dated, contemporary sites in a defined region. Some, but not all, of the sites should have special access to a source of a localised raw material used for ornaments. Such sites would have in situ bead production areas, excavated with a view to maximum recovery of microartefacts and biological evidence. The Jilat-Azraq Basin Project in Jordan provided just such an opportunity. Here, Neolithic stone bead workshops were found along with evidence for the beginnings of cultivation and sheep or goat herding.

Neolithic Settlement and Subsistence in the Jilat-Azraq Basin

The Jilat-Azraq Basin is a region of dry steppe-desert (Wadi Jilat) and oasis (Azraq), where rainfall farming is not possible today (Figure 1). Wadi Jilat lies 30-40 km east of the present-day margins of the 'Levantine Corridor' (the Jordan Valley and adjacent highlands) where rain-fed cultivation is possible and where large Neolithic villages emerged. Azraq Oasis lies 50 km north east of Wadi Jilat in this region, on the edge of the Basalt Desert. In all, 16 late Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites have been excavated (Figure 2) (Garrard 1998, in preparation; Garrard et al. 1994a-b; Baird et al. 1992).


The earliest steps in Levantine plant cultivation took place in the Levantine Corridor in the PPNA. In the Jilat-Azraq Basin, cultivated plants appeared only later, in the Early-Middle PPNB (Jilat 7, Azraq 31), when agricultural villages in the adjacent Levantine Corridor were already well established (Garrard 1999). …