Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Material Continuities, Renewals and Cultural Transformation

This subproject, carried out by post-doctoral researcher Dr. O. Nieuwenhuyse, investigates changes and continuities in the functional, social and symbolic uses of the material culture, c. 6800-5800 BC. A contextually oriented approach is adopted, which pays attention to the local socio-economic and ideological contexts in which the Late Neolithic material culture prevailed. Innovative human action is seen as the dynamic interplay of social, economic and ideological values, in which people make choices from a variety of alternative options. Following the general research objectives of the research programme, this subproject explores three interrelated issues and integrates earlier work with new data.


Department of Pottery Technology of Leiden University (Dr A. van As)

Université Bordeaux 3 (Dr B. Robert)

Strasbourg University (Prof. J. Connan)

Bristol University (Prof. R. Evershed)

A critical re-evaluation of current archaeological concepts and paradigms for the Late Neolithic in the Near East

Scholars increasingly acknowledge the role of the present and the history of research in the shaping of archaeological thought (e.g. Campbell 1999; Thomas 2004). The project includes a survey of the development of research on the Late Neolithic, tracking the interdependencies between shifts in theoretical-archaeological thinking, advances in archaeological fieldwork, and the wider cultural context in which archaeology as a science flourishes. Current concepts and approaches are evaluated. Alternatives will be developed, based on an extensive review of the archaeological-theoretical and anthropological literature. 

An interpretative study of Late Neolithic material culture

To found the theoretical discussion on the practice of archaeological fieldwork, and to confront theoretical concepts with empirical data, the project contributes to current debates with detailed material-culture studies. This part concentrates on Tell Sabi Abyad, which offers extensive, representative samples. The emphasis is on ceramics, the category that plays a key role in archaeological thinking. However, other categories of containers are included as well: containers made of stone, white ware, unfired clay and basketry. The post-doc will investigate similarities and differences in different media for storage, transport, food preparation and consumption. Moving away from the dominant descriptive approach, the project includes a functional analysis, focussing on socio-economic and ideological use, rather than on typo-chronology.

A functional model has recently been developed for the post-6200 BC ceramics (Nieuwenhuyse 2005); this shall be extended to the earlier period, using material properties (technology, shape, size, etc.), use traces, and the burgeoning ethno-archaeological literature on pottery use (e.g. Hally 1986; Lesure 1998). The find context and spatial associations of the artefacts within the excavated settlement will be taken into account. The fieldwork includes a macroscopical analysis of the technology (raw materials, shaping method, firing strategies), shape, size, and decoration, as well as visible use traces of the Late Neolithic ceramics. For each ceramic category, the technological chain of operations is reconstructed (LeMonnier 1992), a prerequisite for understanding the technological choices made by the Late Neolithic potters.

Material culture and climate change

The project adopts a diachronic emphasis, covering the major culture-historical transitions that punctuate the Late Neolithic. In conjunction with the high-precision 14C dating programme (see subproject 2), this gives the opportunity to explore both short-term and long-term innovations in the material culture and to define the exact timing of changes and continuities. Particular emphasis is on the climate event at about 6200 BC and its socio-economic implications. How did the event translate into the material culture? Attention will be focussed on issues such as the organization of storage and the (changing) expression of social identity through material culture. Developing a broad, contextual synthesis, the Post-Doc will investigate what environmental, economic, social and ideological factors stimulated or inhibited material-culture innovation.

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