Not So Coarse, nor Always Plain-The Earliest Pottery of Syria

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Mesopotamia boasts a continuous record of pottery production of almost nine millennia, yet the issue of when and why Near Eastern communities first adopted ceramic containers remains much debated. Approaches to the initial introduction of Mesopotamian pottery tend to be functionalist. It is often assumed that Neolithic communities invented pottery primarily to cook and store their agricultural surpluses. Also, it is often stated that the evolution of pottery technologies and styles in the region progressed in a linear fashion from humble beginnings towards the more complex, from coarse and plain to carefully finished and stylistically elaborated. While we certainly do not argue with the argument as to the long terra, new field data show the initial crossing of the threshold from Pre-Pottery into Early Pottery Neolithic to be considerably more complex. A range of new and exciting projects has now begun to explore the incipient stages of the Pottery Neolithic in Upper Mesopotamia. Here we discuss some new insights and questions arising from the excavation of well-stratified very early Pottery Neolithic levels at Tell Sabi Abyad in northern Syria.

Early ceramics in Upper Mesopotamia

In the Near East, ceramics seem to have appeared at approximately similar dates across a huge territorial band stretching from Central Anatolia into Upper Mesopotamia (Le Miere & Picon 1998; Thissen 2007). In understanding the social context of early ceramics, however, it is important that scholars move away from supra-regional syntheses towards a greater consideration of localised developments. It is not uncommon, for instance, to discuss the Pottery Neolithic from the Near East as a whole on the basis of a narrow range of type sites from the southern Levant (e.g. Simmons 2007). In this region, however, the earliest ceramics very probably held a role very different from their role in the north (Gopher & Goren 1998). Moreover, the Yarmukian assemblage post-dates the introduction of pottery further north by at least several centuries (Banning 2007).

The focus in this paper is on what is known as Upper Mesopotamia: the vast expanses of semi-arid steppe between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, today covered by south-eastern Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq. Over the past few decades this area has seen a tremendous increase in archaeological fieldwork focusing on the Late Neolithic period of the seventh and sixth millennia BC. If, initially, a considerable part of this research was aimed at exploring the later stages of the Late Neolithic, characterised by attractively decorated ceramics, it is the earlier stages from the seventh millennium that have come to the fore more recently. These projects have begun to document a series of very early Pottery Neolithic sites, at Mezraa Teleilat, Tell Halula, Akarcay, Seker al-Aheimar, Salat Cami Yam and Tell Sabi Abyad, among others (Figure 1). The earliest ceramics from these sites resemble each other in numerous respects (Tsuneki & Miyake 1996; Le Miere & Picon 1998; Ozdogan 1999, 2003; Miyake 2005, in press; Nishiaki & Le Miere 2005; Akkermans et al. 2006).

Why did Neolithic communities adopt ceramics? A common view asserts that the introduction of ceramics should, first and foremost, be approached from a functional perspective. Specifically, early pottery responded to the need within settled agricultural communities for improved storage facilities and for more efficient ways of food processing (Redman 1978; Moore 1995). In the long run, the adoption of pottery stimulated population growth. Ceramic containers offered unprecedented means for efficient bulk storage of surpluses. Cooking foodstuffs improved levels of hygiene, leading to reduced levels of disease and child mortality. Cooking also opened up a vast range of new resources by turning otherwise inedible plants into desirable dietary additions (Arnold 1985: 127-44; Rice 1999: 8-9). …