Understanding Late Neolithic Ceramic Containers from Upper Mesopotamia
- Olivier Nieuwenhuijse
- NWO (360-62-040).
What was the role of ceramic containers in the formation of Late Neolithic societies in Upper Mesopotamia, 7000-5000 BCE?
Previously neglected by mainstream archaeological research, the seventh millennium is now emerging as one of the most important epochs in Near Eastern prehistory. Key transformations in this period include: the domestication of aurochs, the intensified exploitation of secondary products, and the adoption of the world’s earliest administrative practices. These Near Eastern innovations continue to form pillars of our own, modern societies today. An innovation with unprecedented consequences was in the field of ceramic containers. At the start of the seventh millennium BCE, Upper Mesopotamian prehistoric communities first adopted pottery. In the course of the millennium they firmly integrated this new class of material into their societies. Our project seeks to understand how, when, and why this came about.
Tell Sabi Abyad, located in northern Syria, is one of very few sites where archaeologists can follow the step by step introduction of sustained pottery production and its subsequent development. Relentlessly Plain refers to one of the main characteristics of Upper Mesopotamian pottery in the seventh millennium, and it is also the title of the forthcoming publication. Our project has two main aims: to understand ceramic containers in the Late Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia, and to make a large, important body of material available to a wider scholarly audience.
Materials and methods
We seek to understand the seventh millennium ceramic containers from a broad range of perspectives. The basic fieldwork was carried out in the village of Hammam et-Turkman (Syria) close to Tell Sabi Abyad, but important analytical work was subsequently conducted at universities and labs across Europe. The team includes specialists for analyzing the raw materials including clays, plasters, pigments, and residue traces and even the basketry imprints preserved on the prehistoric pottery. The project has adopted a more holistic, contextualized perspective on the ancient ceramic evidence, combining the depositional context from which the finds were recovered and patterns of fragmentation together with the more traditional focus of reconstructing typologies.
As a result of this project, we can now follow the subsequent steps by which pottery containers gradually became an integral part of Late Neolithic societies. Across Upper Mesopotamia, Central Anatolia, the Northern Levant and the Zagros, the seventh millennium began with the first sustained adoption of ceramics. In Upper Mesopotamia, the earliest ceramic horizon (ca. 7000-6700 BCE) was exemplified by tantalizingly low densities of very carefully-made containers of a limited size and capacity. Provenance analyses at Tell Sabi Abyad show that these carefully made containers reached the site from elsewhere through wider networks of exchange linking the village with others.
This initial stage did not last long. It was followed by a long era (ca. 6700-6300 BCE) characterized by the introduction of a locally made, coarsely-made plant-tempered pottery, also known as ‘Coarse Ware’. Increasing sherd densities attest to the slow social integration of this new material culture. Our project identifies important changes in the uses of raw materials, shaping techniques and firing, attesting to improvements in the potters’ craft. Vessel shapes became more diverse and over the centuries ceramic containers grew taller and more voluminous. Pottery jars in various shapes and sizes became a key component of prehistoric village communities in the region. Curiously, however, while Upper Mesopotamian villagers were intimately familiar with painting architecture and objects, and even if pottery may seem to us today an inviting medium for stylistic display, ceramic containers remained entirely undecorated; they were ‘relentlessly’ kept plain.
The later seventh millennium represented another phase of great ceramic change (ca. 6300-6000 BCE). New types of specialized cooking pottery indicate shifts in culinary practices. Residue studies show that for the first time in the history of the ancient Near East dairy products were being processed in ceramic containers. Some of the world’s oldest evidence for human milk consumption comes from prehistoric cooking pots from Tell Sabi Abyad. For the first time, some broken pots were repaired, attesting to new meanings given to old pots. Decorated pottery began to make its (initial) impact. With time, decorated containers became more numerous, and decorative styles more complex. This set the stage for the introduction of painted Fine Ware at ca. 6000 BCE and the emergence of the Halaf ceramic tradition.
Fascinatingly, we may identify changing cross-overs through time with alternative craft technologies for making containers. Strongly mineral-tempered, burnished to a gloss and sometimes painted, the earliest ceramic vessels may have emulated multi-colored stone vessels typical for this era. We find subsequent linkages with containers made of plaster and basketry. This reminds us that in prehistoric settlements of the ancient Near East pottery was never alone. Ceramic vessels always formed part of a complex constellation of containers made in a suite of soft, malleable materials.