Excavations challenge views on pre-historic society

Thursday, 05 May 2011

A team of British archaeologists, including Dr Sam Smith of Oxford Brookes University, has made important discoveries about some of the earliest buildings created by man.

A team of British archaeologists, including Dr Sam Smith of Oxford Brookes University, has made important discoveries about some of the earliest buildings created by man. Their excavations of a large, amphitheatre-like building at a site in southern Jordan add to growing evidence that the earliest permanent buildings might not have been homes as had been considered the case until recently, but centres for community life.

A paper co-authored by Dr Smith outlining the findings was published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr Smith was Project Manager of the excavations and the team was led by Bill Finlayson, director of the Council for British Research in the Levant in London and archaeologist Steven Mithen, an archaeologist at the University of Reading.

The findings suggest that 12,000 years ago, when our ancestors began to give up their hunter-gatherer lifestyles in favour of a more settled life of farming, they first came together to engage in communal activities such as processing their wild harvests and possibly to engage in community performances, rather than to live together as has been previously thought.

The excavations have also raised doubts about our understanding of where and how settled society first evolved. It has been thought that settlement first occurred in a specific area in Northern Levant (Syria and Lebanon) before spreading to other areas. Southern Jordan is much further south than Syria and Lebanon and the buildings found in both areas are from the same period suggesting a simultaneous evolution of society over a wider area, than was thought to have been the case.

The building which dates from 11,600 to 10,200 years ago is very large for the Neolithic period, measuring 22 by 19 meters, Its central area is surrounded by a long bench about a meter deep and half a meter high decorated in part with a wave pattern incised into the mud-brick. There's a second tier of seating in some parts of the building. The central area also contains a series of stone mortars set into plaster platforms on the floor, which may have been used to grind wild plants. Two other, smaller structures nearby among a group of other buildings are thought to have been storehouses for cereals and other food resources. None of these buildings appear to be domestic houses but seem to have served as storehouses or workshops; one building contained green stone beads and seems to have specialized in their manufacture. Many decorated objects and carvings of gazelle and human heads were found at the site. The team discovered that the occupants cultivated wild plants such as wild barley, pistachio, and fig trees, whilst hunting or herding wild goats, cattle, and gazelle.

Sam Smith commented 'The sheer scale of the site was truly amazing and the smooth and decorated mud plaster of the bench was very beautiful and well preserved. He added 'What we learned through these excavations is that this stage of human development is far more complex than we had thought. It highlights the importance of social processes and shows that corporate endeavour, even ideas like the 'big society' were issues which our ancestors were wrestling with 12,000 years ago.'

The findings are the fruit of ten years of initial investigations, followed by three years of intense excavations funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Further research on the site is planned for the future.