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International research team led by Freie Universität publishes results of a two-year study
No 263/2019 from Sep 10, 2019
An international team of researchers led by a team from Freie Universität Berlin has excavated a 9,000-year-old grave and its contents in the south of Jordan and interpreted the findings. The researchers spent two years compiling data from various disciplines, including cultural anthropology, geology, and neurobiology, in an effort to understand burial customs and the emergence of hierarchical structures in a Neolithic village community in the south of Jordan. They concluded that prominent figures were not depicted in their burials as absolute rulers, but rather as primus inter pares: first among equals. The study’s findings have been published in the online journal PLOS ONE.
A team of archaeologists from the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology at Freie Universität Berlin had discovered the grave, which is about 9,000 years old, in the Neolithic village of Ba’ja in 2016 in cooperation with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities. "The burial was very involved, and some of the goods buried with the body are unique," says Hans Georg K. Gebel, an archaeologist from Freie Universität who has been leading excavations at the Stone Age mountain village since 1997. "But when you look at the burial rites and social environment in these mega-villages, which are the oldest of their kind in the world, it becomes clear that this was a very group-oriented community with close-knit relationships," he explains. The study’s authors believe research has focused for too long on powerful individuals alone and on the signs of wealth buried with them. "But the fact that power differences became solidified in these early villages is a very multi-layered process. If we want to understand these fundamental social changes better, we should study not just the prominent figures, but also the society itself and the ways people came to power," says Marion Benz, who, together with Gebel and Christoph Purschwitz, is in charge of the current project titled "Household and Death in Ba’ja," which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), Berlin-based research institution ex oriente e.V., and the German Archaeological Institute.
Numerous institutions from Berlin, Freiburg, Mannheim, Brno, and Nice were involved in studying the grave. The interdisciplinary research showed that even with all the special features involved, the body was buried according to the local rites, and there were similar goods in other graves as well. However, this marks the first time that a grave from this period has been found with a single adult buried under such intricate, laborious conditions. Anthropological studies and isotope analyses suggest that the occupant was a young adult man, more slender than muscular, and that he must have grown up in the immediate area, if not in Ba’ja itself.
In the scholars’ view, there is no indication that the person buried here achieved power and prestige by accumulating goods. The things that could have indicated that he was a warrior or a hunter were destroyed; arrowheads were deliberately broken, and the head of a club or mace was smashed. The exotic semiprecious stones and pearls found in the grave show that this person also had access to a far-flung trade network. There is turquoise, presumably from Sinai, and carnelian from the desert of what is now Saudi Arabia. One turquoise bead was even recycled; after it broke, a new hole was drilled through one of the parts. But others in the settlement also had access to these exotic raw materials, says Benz. It was not unique to the occupant of this grave. "It seems instead that the person buried here was deliberately depicted as a prominent figure," she explains. "His special status was likely based less on possessions or wealth than on social prestige, which was not supposed to pass to anyone else after his death."
The people who lived in the village 9,000 years ago must have faced major challenges. Never before had 500 to 1,000 people lived together in a single place for centuries. For communal life in close quarters to have been possible, new rules and skills in communication, mediation, and conflict resolution must have been needed. Ba’ja was abandoned around 6900 BC. "As for why, we can’t say for sure at this point," Purschwitz says, adding that the understanding of the establishment of power depicted in the study is also only a first step. The new findings regarding the development of hierarchies in the oldest village communities should not be generalized, he cautions. "There must have been many different paths to power," Benz points out. "Our goal was to record as many clues as possible in a clear and systematic manner." The researchers hope this "elite grave" of a "first among equals" will prompt reconsideration of theories of the emergence of power structures that focus on violence or possessions.
A one-of-a-kind item from the Stone Age: The grave’s occupant wore a unique piece of jewelry consisting of four stone rings and a mother of pearl ring on his left upper arm.
Expert craftsmanship and exotic materials: This flint dagger contained in the grave was not made in Ba’ja.
The 9,000-year-old grave that archaeologists from Freie Universität Berlin excavated in cooperation with the Jordanian Department of Antiquities yields new insights into the emergence of early hierarchies.
A view of the Neolithic archaeological site of Ba’ja, in the south of Jordan, taken from one of the surrounding rocks. On one of the lower floors of the buildings, archaeologists from Freie Universität Berlin working in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan found a richly appointed grave.
- History and cultural studies