The inhabitants of an early farming site some 9,000 years old, located in today's Jordan, only buried their dead after they had decomposed to skeletal remains, a team of Danish and Jordanian archaeologists have discovered. But even then, the dead were not left to rest in peace, it seems. After decaying, the bones were separated, sorted by type and the collections of bones were buried in stone cists or coffins – which were interred inside houses.
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"We do not know yet if the buried ones are relatives, or how they were singled out to be buried here," said Dr. Moritz Kinzel, excavation leader and researcher from the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen. "It also seems that the dead bodies were in various stages of decay when they were buried at Shkrat Msaied. This could be an indicator that the people had not necessarily died in the settlement and were just brought here to be buried, to become part of the community.”
So far skeletal remains of more than 70 people have been unearthed at Shkrat Msaied, a Neolithic site in a valley just north of Petra.
“I believe the remains had been completely or almost completely skeletonized when they were placed in the graves," said physical anthropologist Marie Louise Jørkov from the University of Copenhagen to Haaretz, noting that otherwise, the smell of the decay inside the homes would have been horrendous.
One corollary of the method was that it allowed several people to be buried in the same coffin, she added.
Dead among the living
The human bones were for the most part separated – for instance, skulls together, leg bones together and so on. These collections were placed in shafts that were located inside private homes. Burying the dead inside or by the house suggests they wanted to be close to their dead, or let the spirits of the dead "share" in their everyday life, Jørkov says.
However, it seems that by separating the body parts, the community wanted to ensure the dead could not return, as an individual or some kind of zombie, Kinzel adds.
Even after interment in coffins, the dead were apparently not left in peace in Shkarat Msaied. “Many of them have been moved and reburied in a messier 'mass grave'," said Kinzel. "It seems that the funeral took place through several stages. Initially, the bones were sorted, then they were moved from one coffin to another, where they were no longer put in order. In the last phase, the bones were thrown into a form of collective waste burial. But the tomb is still inside the house."
About the time these people lived, some 9,000 years ago, their society was undergoing upheaval. From being primarily hunter-gatherers living a nomadic life, they began to settle down and farm. “Initial bone studies shows evidence of hard physical work - marked muscle attachments and arthritis - in the adults and nutritional stress among the children,” says Jørkov.
The archaeologists digging found a lot of stone tools at Shkrat Msaied, such as flint knives and rock drills, and also bone tools such as needles and spatulas.
While there is some evidence of early domestication of plants and sheep, she would not categorically say they found practices of first farmers in general; but the behavior of the people clearly indicate memory and group identity building, Kinzel says.
According to Kinzel, the very architecture of Shkrat Msaied is also interesting. The people lived in round stone houses, of which 26 have been excavated so far, ranging from about three to eight meters in diameter. Some had been dug into the ground inside, so that the floor is about one meter below the surface.
One of the houses has the earliest example of stairs ever found, says Kinzel. "There are two staircases in the house, one that leads down into the room, and one that leads upward, probably up to the roof," he says.
Roofdwellers and mysterious powder
The roof seems in general to have played an important role for the ancient residents of Shkrat Msaied. Kinzel thinks they probably stayed on the roof much of their time, perhaps for the light – to see what they were doing, or perhaps to avoid the unpleasant smoke from the fireplace inside the house. "We rarely find tools or other objects on the floor of the houses, so we believe that they mainly lived on the roof of the houses," he explains.
In contrast to much of the west, the Levantine climate is relatively pleasant, enabling people to work outside. "It's a bit like today's Bedouin, who spend more time outside than inside. It is quite a modern thing that we always want to be inside," says Kinzel.
Another intriguing discovery recurring in all the houses is a ring-shaped basin containing a white powder. The powder has mystified scientists, who cannot suggest a practical use for it. It may have been related to a cultic or ritual behavior.
"We do not know what the purpose was, but the small pool with the powder is in each house. The white powder is probably burnt limestone, but it's still a bit unclear to us. We have had problems interpreting the analysis," Kinzel admits.
Rituals to avert rage?
Overall the residents of Shkrat Msaied 9,000 years ago seem to have had a strong community life surrounding rituals, something the collective burials also point to.
Transiting from hunting-gathering to permanent settlements meant they were adopting village lives of mutual proximity. "We generally regard rituals to be a powerful tool for keeping order and control groups of people, because it gives them a common understanding that could be used to avoid conflicts," says Kinzel.
Another site in Jordan where man was evidently transiting from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture is Shubayqa, where Danish archaeologists are also involved. In eastern Jordan, cabins dating back 20,000 years - some of the oldest man-made buildings scientists know of – are being studied.
"The exciting thing is that even though several excavation sites are relatively close to each other, we still find large individual differences. Even places where there are only six kilometers between country towns, there is still a very individual approach to how the residents built their houses and used the various resources," says Kinzel. "It shows that the individual settlements have been quite independent of each other, but we can also see that they must have worked together and exchanged goods and raw materials."
“The findings at Shkarat Msaied are unique. The density of burials is comparable with the famous skull building at Cayönü in Upper Mesopotamia. The findings allow us to explore the relationship between humans, animals and the built environment on a kind of micro scale. This will for sure give a better understanding of the Neolithic behavior as such”, concludes Kinzel.
This year's excavations of Shkrat Msaied are being sponsored by the Palestine Foundation and the Danish Institute in Damascus.