Ochre and Hide-Working at a Natufian Burial Place

Article excerpt


Unravelling site function and settlement patterns is crucial for understanding the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers in the Near East. In the Natufian core-area of the southern Levant--Mount Carmel, Galilee and the Jordan Valley--site function and settlement patterns have mainly been assessed from the size of the sites, the presence of architecture and burials, as well as the composition of flint assemblages and ground stone tools (e.g. Bar-Yosef 1980; Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989; Byrd 1989). Most classifications of site function simply distinguish large, semi-permanent base camps and seasonal camps. More recently, some have highlighted the existence during the Natufian of sites with extensive evidence of symbolic activities (Goring-Morris & Belfer-Cohen 1997; Goring-Morris 2000). The cave of Hilazon Tachtit (Israel) (hereafter Hilazon) might represent such a location. Recent excavations have yielded evidence supporting the hypothesis that this cave served mostly as a mortuary site (Grosman 2003; Grosman et al. 2008). The presence of ground stone tools there prompted a use-wear analysis, the results of which are presented here. Our studies suggest that some of the tools were used in hide-processing sequences involving ochre.

The nature of the occupation at Hilazon

Hilazon is a cave located in Lower Galilee (Figure 1), only a few kilometres from the site of Hayonim Cave (Grosman 2003). The site is at the foot of a limestone cliff on the right bank of the Wadi Hilazon, approximately 120m above the stream channel. Two main stratigraphic units were encountered during excavation: layer A, containing mostly ashes and goat dung from herding, accumulated since the Byzantine period; and layer B, an archaeological layer corresponding to a Natufian occupation. Absolute dates (calibrated to 12 400-12000 BP) and characteristics of lunate microliths place it within the Late Natufian. Despite its relatively small size, the Natufian occupation of Hilazon presents most of the characteristics usually associated with larger settlements, such as the presence of structures, burials and ground stones. The size of the site, its location at the top of a high escarpment and extensive evidence of burial practices seem to indicate that the cave was predominantly devoted to ritual activities (Grosman 2003). This was recently reinforced by one of the unearthed burials, which is unlike any burial found in the Natufian, and argued to be consistent with expectations for a shaman's grave (Grosman et al. 2008). Yet mundane activities were also carried out on site as attested by the lithic and faunal assemblages, including tool manufacture and food processing (Grosman & Munro 2007).


In order to explore the range of activities performed, the small ground stone tool assemblage from Hilazon was analysed. In Natufian sites the presence of ground stone tools, especially handstones, grinding slabs, and mortars and pestles, has largely been interpreted as evidence of plant food processing. However, it has also been recognised (e.g. Flannery 1969; Wright 1992; Bar-Yosef 1998) that ground stone tools are associated with other activities such as ochre processing. Indeed, recent functional analyses of grinding implements would suggest that this category of tools indicates a wider variety of tasks (Dubreuil 2002, 2004).


Friction between a tool and processed matter generates wear and leads to the progressive transformation of the tool surface (e.g. Georges 2000). In archaeology, use-wear analysis centres on the study of the optical manifestations of these transformations under various magnifications. Developed for flint implements, use-wear analysis is now being increasingly applied in the analysis of ground stone tools (e.g. Adams 1988, 1993, 2002; Fullagar & Field 1997; Mansur 1997; Procopiou et al. 1998; Gonzalez & Ibanez 2002; Menasanch et al. …