An 11 600 Year-Old Communal Structure from the Neolithic of Southern Jordan

By Mithen, Steven J.; Finlayson, Bill et al. | Antiquity, June 2011 | Go to article overview

An 11 600 Year-Old Communal Structure from the Neolithic of Southern Jordan


Mithen, Steven J., Finlayson, Bill, Smith, Sam, Jenkins, Emma, Najjar, Mohammed, Maricevic, Darko, Antiquity


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Introduction

The Neolithic in south-west Asia marks the earliest transition in the world from mobile hunting and gathering to sedentary farming lifestyles (Mithen 2003). Once described as a 'revolution', this is now more often characterised as a process of gradual transition with complex inter-related changes in economy, social organisation, ideology and technology (Barker 2006). Our understanding of this process has been transformed by the discovery of early Neolithic sites in southern Turkey (Gobekli Tepe, Schmidt 2006) and northern Syria (Jerf el Ahmar, Stordeur et al. 1997), with architecture indicative of communal activity in its construction and/or use, some of which is monumental in scale. These sites suggest that changes in social organisation involving an increase in communal activity had occurred before the transition to agricultural economies. Here we describe a further large and architecturally complex structure, also dating to the earliest phase of the Neolithic but coming from the southern rather than the northern Levant.

This new discovery has been made at the early Neolithic site of WF16 (Finlayson & Mithen 2007) and is designated within the excavation as Structure O75. It is found in association with a dense cluster of mud-walled, semi-subterranean structures, some of which had been used as workshops, others for storage or grinding of foods and pigments. Structure O75 is of an unprecedented form in the Neolithic archaeological record. While the functional role of this structure remains unclear, it provides further evidence that changes in social organisation--notably the appearance of communal activity, collective labour and ideology manifest in art and architecture--preceded that of economic change within the Neolithic transition process. Moreover, contrary to recent proposals that the Neolithic 'originated' in a so-called 'Golden Triangle' of Upper Mesopotamia (Aurenche & Kozlowski 2001), this new discovery at WF16 indicates that socially-driven Neolithisation was widespread within south-west Asia at the very start of the Holocene.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA)

The initial stages of the Neolithic transition in south-west Asia are denoted as the PPNA cultural phase (9750-8550 BC, Kuijt & Goring-Morris 2002), the start of which is coincident with the environmental changes that mark the end of the Pleistocene. PPNA settlements show significant similarities to those of the Epipalaeolithic in terms of having sub-circular structures and no traces of domesticated plants and animals. The PPNA is followed by the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) cultural phase (8750-6300 BC) when rectangular, two-storey buildings and domesticated sheep, goat and cereals are gradually developed and adopted (Kuijt & Goring-Morris 2002).

Prior to the 1990s, and apart from Nahal Oren (Noy et al. 1973) and Hatoula (Lechevallier & Ronen 1994), most of the key sites dating to the PPNA in the southern Levant were clustered on the western side of the Jordan Valley, notably Jericho (where the Neolithic architecture included a tower, Kenyon & Holland 1981), Netiv Hagdud (Bar-Yosef & Gopher 1997), Gesher (Garfinkel 1989) and Gilgal (Bar-Yosef et al. 2010). This locality was assumed to be the core area for the emergence of the Neolithic (Figure 1). That view has been challenged as sites with spectacular and complex architecture and artworks have been discovered in northern Syria and southern Turkey, notably at Jerf el Ahmar (Stordeur et al. 1997), Gobekli Tepe (Schmidt 2006) and Tell 'Abr 3 (Yartah 2004).

At Gobekli Tepe, numerous large (10-30m diameter, Schmidt 2002) structures with 'T'-shaped pillars are found, which are generally believed to have had a ceremonial or ritual role. At Jerf el Ahmar there are substantial structures, up to 7.5m in internal diameter (Stordeur et al. 2000), described by Watkins (2010) as 'monumental' in scale. …

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