Facing death in the Neolithic Near East
Past Horizons, 14-03-2014
Archaeologists working at the Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa in Syria discovered a small carved bone artefact within a funerary layer. This unique artefact which contains two bas relief human faces, holds significance for research on the origins and meaning of human representations during the transition period from hunter-gathering to farming in the Near East. In an article recently published in Antiquity, archaeologists Juan José Ibáñez, Jesús E. González-Urquijo and Frank Braemer explain that Tell Qarassa was occupied by early farmers who exploited emmer, einkorn and barley as well as chickpea, vetch and lentils. They also herded or hunted goat, cattle, pig, gazelle and Mesopotamian fallow deer. This was at a point where both plants and animals were in the process of domestication.
Tell Qarassa is a Pre Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) site. During the transition period from the Early to Middle period, some of the dwelling spaces were abandoned and used instead for funerary purposes. The individuals interred there were buried in a flexed position and in most cases the graves had been reopened and the skulls removed after decay had set in, indicating complex funerary rituals. The skulls were then placed individually or in groups in the inhabited areas of the settlement. In 2010, two deposits were found to contain five/six skulls arranged in a circle. The bone artefact from the funerary layer was fashioned out of the rib of a large bovid, most likely an auroch. The artist had created faces in a manner which gave the impression of a 3D image, trying to focus the attention on the more deeply engraved closed eyes and mouth. On closer examination the artefact – referred to as a wand by the archaeologists – did not appear to have had any surface colour applied. It has also been intentionally broken at either end, partially sawn and then snapped. The swelling at the edge of one end suggests that there were more carved faces when the artefact was longer.