Strange 10,000-year-old Artifacts From Jordan Tied to Cult That Dug Up the Dead, Archaeologists Say

Crudely shaped flints found in Kharaysin could be figurines used in Neolithic ceremonies in which bones were buried and exhumed, study suggests

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Flints now postulated to be humanoid figurines, found in Neolithic Kharaysin, Jordan
Flints now postulated to be humanoid figurines, found in Neolithic Kharaysin, JordanCredit: Juan José Ibáñez et al / The Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity
Ariel David
Ariel David

Enigmatic flint artifacts unearthed at a large Neolithic village in northern Jordan were not tools, archaeologists have concluded. The violin-shaped artifacts dating to nearly 10,000 years ago may actually be crudely shaped figurines that represented deceased relatives, and were likely part of a complex ancestor cult that involved the ritual burying and exhumation of the dearly departed.

These unique figurines were part of a broader artistic and conceptual revolution in the Near East that accompanied the dawn of agriculture, which placed humans, instead of animals, at the center of prehistoric imagery, concludes a team of Spanish archaeologists that published its findings Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.

The putative figurines now reported from Jordan stand alone in the archaeological record of the period for the use of flint as a material. Earlier Paleolithic and Neolithic art does include some advanced human representations, generally carved in ivory or limestone. Just one example are the so-called Venus female figurines from Europe that date back to more than 30,000 years ago. But this anthropomorphic imagery paled in size and quantity to animal representations, particularly the spectacular animal scenes that adorned the caves of our hunter-gatherer ancestors in Europe.

In the Near East however, if there was paleo-cave art, it hasn’t been preserved and rock art found throughout the region, including riddling the Negev, has been impossible to date.

Clay figurines found in a pit at KharaysinCredit: Juan José Ibáñez et al / The Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity

Something completely different

More than 100 double-notched flint artifacts have emerged since 2016 amongst the remains of houses unearthed at Kharaysin, 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the Jordanian capital, Amman. The ancient settlement covered an area of 25 hectares (62 acres) and was occupied at different times from the late ninth millennium B.C.E. to the early seventh millennium B.C.E.

The archaeologists found these puzzling flint objects, which measure between one to five centimeters (0.4 to 2 inches) in layers carbon-dated to 9,500 to 10,000 years ago, says Juan Jose Ibanez, the archaeologist from the Spanish National Research Council who led the study.

“The flint tools from this period are very standardized: sickles, knives and so on, but this was something completely new,” Ibanez tells Haaretz.

Notches were sometimes carved into flint tools to facilitate hafting, that is, using rope to attach the stone to a handle to create more powerful, levered tools like axes or spears, he notes. But this was not the case here since the ends of the artifacts were flat and dull, lacking the sharpness and pointiness needed to make any of these objects useful.

At some point after their discovery, one of the excavators suggested the enigmatic flints could be anthropomorphic depictions. With a bit of imagination, the notches carved into the sides of the artifact seem to create the stylized shape of a human figure with a head, shoulders and lower body.

Neolithic sculpture Credit: Juan José Ibáñez et al / The Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity

“We were very skeptical initially but now our analysis indicates that this is the most logical conclusion,” Ibanez says.

The researchers studied about half of the mystery flints under a microscope, seeking signs of wear and tear on the stone – and found virtually none. The lack of abrasions indicates the artifacts did not have any practical use in everyday life, the study published in Antiquity says.

The archaeologists also compared the artifacts to later Neolithic statuettes from another site in Jordan which more clearly depict the human form, and found they shared similar proportions in representing different ‘body parts,’ further strengthening the figurine theory.

For an expert flint knapper it would have taken about half a minute to create such an artifact, but that does not detract from the major significance of the find, says Avi Gopher, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist.

Anthropomorphic representations in flint “are a really a unique phenomenon not known from any site from this period,” says Gopher, an expert on the Neolithic who was not involved in the study. “It’s such a simple, minimalistic representation of a human figure, but it is also so clear – everyone would read it like that.”

Location of KharaysinCredit: Juan José Ibáñez et al / The Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity

The Kharaysin artifacts can also be clustered into two different groups: one in which the lower body of the putative figurine has the same width of the upper body, and a second one in which the hips are wider than the shoulders. This may have been a way to distinguish between depictions of males and females, though this hypothesis still requires further study, Ibanez says.

Rest in pieces

As to what function these figurines may have had, the researchers note that most of the artifacts were found at a small cemetery, indicating they were part of funerary rituals held there.

The 10 burials that archaeologists dug up in this area remind us that, in the Neolithic, people could hardly expect to rest in peace once they were dead. The study of the skeletons showed that many of the tombs were reopened after the initial burial to remove some of the bones, especially the skull and mandible.

In some cases, the archaeologists found partially articulated bones in the disturbed burials, meaning that the remains had been manipulated before the flesh had completely decomposed. Some of the tombs were so-called secondary burials, that is, caches in which the bones were laid once the remains had been used for whatever purpose they had been dug up in the first place.

Primary burial at KharaysinCredit: Juan José Ibáñez et al / The Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity

What happened to the bones in between is still a mystery, but Ibanez speculates that the flint figurines from the cemetery may have been used and then discarded there as part of these rituals of burial and exhumation, likely to represent specific deceased people that were being remembered.

Rituals involving human remains were common throughout the Near East during the Neolithic, a time when people in this region first began domesticating crops and animals.

One example, roughly from the same period as the Kharaysin remains, are the dozens of “plastered skulls” that have been found from Israel to southern Turkey. These were actual human crania whose facial features were reconstructed with plaster and seashells so they could be prominently displayed. A few centuries earlier than these are the 11,500-year-old skull fragments with signs of carving that have been found at Göbekli Tepe, a Turkish site that has been dubbed the world’s oldest temple for its impressive megalithic circles.

At Kharaysin, Ibanez and his team found three skulls inserted in the plastered wall of one of the houses in the ancient village.

“People back then were definitely living with the remains of their ancestors,” Ibanez says, adding that in some Neolithic communities it was also common to bury the dead under the floors of houses.

Human remains in a secondary burial, KharaysinCredit: Juan José Ibáñez et al / The Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity

Just another skull in the wall

Most scholars today believe these behaviors were linked to an ancestor cult that arose in parallel with the dawn of agriculture. As humans across the Near East increasingly abandoned the hunter-gatherer way of life and settled into permanent farming communities, enormous amounts of resources and time were invested in tending crops, building houses and raising animals.

This meant that larger communities formed and needed to create a sense of shared identity, while also being able to stake their claim to the land they had toiled so much on. And the best way to accomplish both goals was to identify their shared ancestors and invoke their original ownership over the area, Ibanez notes.

“This is my house because my father built it – so I keep my father inside the wall to prove it,” is how the archaeologist sums it up.

Plastering skulls or setting them inside house walls may seem like a macabre and alien custom, but the principle of using ancestral ties to define a people’s shared history and bolster a claim to a certain territory is still the basis for constructing common identities in many modern nation states to this day. Disagreements over whose ancestors were the first to live in a certain region also continue to fuel conflicts over land ownership (think Israelis and Palestinians).

The Neolithic ancestor cult and the beginning of agriculture were also likely connected to an artistic and conceptual revolution, of which the Kharaysin figurines (if indeed they are figurines) may be a prime example. Whereas during the Paleolithic and the beginning of the Neolithic, animals were the main focus of prehistoric artists, this began to change around 11,000 years ago, when depictions of humans started to become more frequent and predominant.

While we cannot know for sure why this change occurred, many scholars suggest it may be linked to the growing importance of the ancestor cult – and the need to depict and venerate the deceased – as well as the power over nature that humanity gained by domesticating crops and animals.

Neolithic glocalization

The Neolithic fascination with the human form “is probably related to the new beliefs about the deceased and ancestors but also to sedentarism and agriculture, because there is a new conscience of what humans are capable of,” Ibanez says.

In fact, it may have been this very conceptual revolution, which viewed humanity as a newly dominant force over nature, that steered us away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, says Gopher, the archaeologist from Tel Aviv.

“You cannot domesticate a plant or an animal unless you change your perception,” he posits. “In in the old, animistic, world view you are part of nature and you have the same rights and opportunities as other living beings. With the Neolithic revolution, you are putting yourself a step above nature, you are saying ‘here I am, I am at the center of the stage.’”

The notched artifacts from Kharaysin would be the first known example of figurines made of flint in the Neolithic Near East, but the centrality of the human form is apparent across the region in different forms: from the anthropomorphic features of the monoliths at Göbekli Tepe, to the above-mentioned plastered skulls, to human figurines made of clay and plaster.

These variations on a theme give us insight into how Neolithic cultures were in touch with each other over vast distances, Ibanez notes. The patchwork of early farming communities formed a region-wide network in which not only artifacts were traded across hundreds of kilometers but also new ideas could be shared and adapted to each local reality, Ibanez says.

“We thought innovation was something that appeared in one place and then spread, but now we know that Near East communities were inventing new things and then transmitting them in a network,” Ibanez says. “The region was a melting pot in which things were happening in the same direction but with local peculiarities. They were inventing agriculture, livestock and sedentary living. They were all doing similar things that were going to change humanity, but they were doing these things each in their own particular way.”

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