Mesopotamian Science and Technology - II
I have prepared three webpages.
This first webpage covers the history of writing and numbers (including cuneiforms) and astronomy (including lists of omens).
The second webpage covers the so-called “science of crafts” with cave painting, tool making (including stone tools), fire and pre-pottery technologies, weaving and textiles (ca. 60,000 BC), ceramic sculptures and pottery (starting ca. 29,000 BC), boats (ca. 10,000 BC), the wheel (ca. 6500 BC), and concludes with early patterns of trade and maps (ca, 12,000 BC).
The third webpage covers irrigation, and metallurgy of the Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages.
It is worthwhile keeping in mind some of the 'periods' that make up Mesopotamian history:
Natufian Culture (ca. 13,000-7500 BC)
Neolithic "New Stone Age" (ca. 10,000-4500 BC)
Pre-Pottery Neolithic (somewhere between 10,000-5500 BC)
Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (ca. 9500-8000 BC)
Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (ca. 7600-6000 BC)
Pottery Neolithic (ca. 7000-5500 BC)
Hassunah Period with Hassuna Culture ca. 6900-6500 BC and Samarra Culture ca. 7000-4800 BC
Halaf Period (ca. 6500-5100 BC)
Ubaid Period (ca. 6200-4000 BC)
Chalcolithic "Copper Age" (ca. 5500-3000 BC)
Warka and Proto-Literate Periods (Uruk Period ca. 4100-3000 BC)
Gaura and Ninevite Periods (Tepe Gawra ca. 5000-1500 BC, Nineveh ca. 6000-612 BC)
Jemdet Nasr Period (ca. 3100-2900 BC)
Bronze Age (ca. 3300-1200 BC)
Early Bronze Age with Early Dynastic Period (ca. 2900-2350 BC), Akkadian Empire (ca. 2350-2150 BC), Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 BC) and the Early Assyrian Kingdom (ca. 2600-2025 BC)
Middle Bronze Age with Early Babylonia (ca. 1900-1800 BC), First Babylonian Dynasty (ca. 1830-1531 BC), Empire of Hammurabi (ca. 1810-1750 BC) and Minoan eruption (c. 1620 BC)
Late Bronze Age with Old Assyrian period (2025-1378 BC), Middle Assyrian Period (c. 1392–934 BC), Kassites in Babylon, (c. 1595–1155 BC) and Late Bronze Age collapse (ca. 1200-1150 BC)
Iron Age with Syro-Hittite States (ca. 1180-700 BC), Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC) and Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC)
As you can guess from the above list, establishing a definitive stratigraphy on the way artefacts are 'layered' and dated on a particular site and how the context between layers is interpreted has always been an open issue in archaeology. In addition some terms such a Sumerian, Sumero-Akkadian, Assyro-Babylonian, etc. are often not precise in terms of geographic coverage or chronology (even spellings are different). Lists of time periods are notorious for all being different in different texts, and l have simply used a range of dates given on a variety of different sources. Individual authors are often very coherent in their definitions and chronology, but as I have done, when you move across multiple publications and websites you immediately realise that each uses a slightly different chronology to contextualise their research. The key here is that we are trying to discover features of Mesopotamian science and mathematics, not create a coherent description of the history of one of the world's earliest civilisations.
Below we have a simple map of the region indicating both present-day locations and some of the ancient sites that are mentioned in these three webpages.
Mesopotamian natural sciences: a "science of crafts"
When we say that the natural sciences such as physics and chemistry did not exist in Babylonian times, is that really true? They had astronomy and astrology, they mastered the concept of 2-dimensional space (i.e. legal and economic value of land), and 'wisdom texts' included many things that implied a knowledge of basic science.
Some experts underline that today our natural sciences, and even our whole philosophy of life, is based upon the idea of “cause and effect” or causality. It is at the foundation of our understanding of the natural world, the connection between one process and another. But Babylonians believed that the gods controlled events in the heavens and on Earth. The gods lived in the sky, and the Sun and other celestial bodies were the gods tracing finite orbits over an immobile vault. These movements were thought to control terrestrial affairs. So causality was not seen as a property of a natural world, since the gods could decide to do anything they wanted. These experts tell us that it was the Greeks, and in particular Hippocrates (ca. 460-370 BC), who wrote the “law of cause and effect”, in that every natural event has a natural cause. For many experts before Hippocrates there were no 'natural sciences' because there was no organised body of thought. For some experts the Babylonians only had mysticism, for other experts they had a collection of skills that may not have made up a science, but nevertheless were the foundation for many technologies. People have called this the “science of crafts”.
So maybe Mesopotamia was not home to deep thinking about the physical principles and laws underlying the natural world (concepts of causality, force, motion, etc.). Nor did they appear to care about “understanding” things like statics, hydrostatics, levers, screws, buoyancy, the basic elements, or even the idea of natural phenomena. But let's look at what they did think about.
The technology of early cave paintings
We will start by looking at the technology of early cave paintings. The traditional view was that mortuary practices, personal ornamentation, and the production of geometric representations, as part of a symbolic material culture, were 'recent' innovations of modern Man, i.e. dating from no later than ca. 40,000 years ago.
But today we are not so sure about this 'traditional view'. The Blombos Cave in South Africa is home to deposits dated to ca. 70,000-100,000 years ago (and red ochre samples have been discovered on a archaeological site in Zambia dating from ca. 270,000 years ago). These deposits include engraved ochre, engraved bone, ochre processing kits, marine shell beads, and refined bone and stone tools. These findings point to Man being able to maintain a subsistence living, and to being able to make multi-step technology and composite tools. There is also a sense of stylistic elaboration of some tools, and possibly the attribution of symbolic important to some of them. If we then turn to a cave in the Hohle Fels, in the Swabian Alps, we find some of the earliest examples of both prehistoric art and musical instruments, dated to ca. 35,000-40,000 years ago (and including the earliest known Venus figurine, the so-called Venus of Hohle Fels). These two sites would suggest that man’s true moment of early artistic expression lies in the very early Aurignacian period of Western Europe, i.e. ca. 45,000 years ago.
This newer “traditional view” has been even more recently challenged by the findings in the Pettakere Cave in the Maros karst of Sulawesi in Indonesia (a karst is a soluble rock such as limestone full of sinkholes and caves). This cave is home to two stencils of human hands and a large painting of a red hog deer or Babirusa. Conservative estimates of the age of these works is ca. 34,400-39,400 years old, thus actually disconnecting the emergence of figurative representations from the Euro-centric tradition. This is comparable to the most recent data from the El Castillo Cave in Spain, where one “red disk” has been dated to ca. 40,800 years old, and a hand stencil to ca. 37,300 years old. So, did figurative representation emerge independently in different parts of the world? Or was it carried by Homo sapiens as they emerged from Africa? What is certain now is that cave paintings appear to actually pre-date figurative and animal carvings (even if the opposite is still included on many Websites and in most textbooks).
What is so important about cave art? In addition to its artistic value, cave art is seen as one of the key elements in a long process of figural symbolisation preceding the development of writing (check out this publication). What we started with are the engraving on stone and bone tools (art mobilier), then (according to the traditional view) the first 'sculptures', and then cave paintings. This sense of progress was seen as paralleling the different tool making 'industries', ca. 40,000-10,000 BC, (e.g. Aurignacian, Solutrean, Magdalenian), and the development of language (possibly starting ca. 100,000 BC).
One could argue that the symbolic meaning of early cave art must include some set of common understandings about context and subject matter. But the way forward is to look at the what was created, how it was assembled and displayed, and what material were used, and how those materials were used. And much of that will boil down to how the paints were prepared and applied. Experts now feel that the answers to many of their questions is in the detailed analysis of the pigments used.
We will look at El Castillo and try to better understand the technical prowess of early Man. Firstly, the cave is composed of 26 strata each representing a period starting some 150,000 years ago, and running through to the Middle Ages, the cave has been often called the “encyclopaedia of Palaeolithic cave art” (up to ca. 9500 BC). Secondly, the 317 'red disks' were made using a mouth-operated airbrush, leaving a regular disk shape with more pigment in the centre, and a less intense halo around the outside. The central part of the disk included some pigment droplets, and some disks were smeared with a finger or brush.
The pigment used was mainly composed of iron oxide particles associated with alumino-silicates (mostly from potassic micas and/or feldspars found in clay), and calcium carbonates. The different disks are 'painted' with quite different types of red pigment, up to almost pure iron oxide. So two types of pigment were commonly used, one an almost pure iron oxide, and the other made from a ferruginised clay rock. Some pigment also contained biological material, in some cases but not all, this could be blood. In other cases a plant fibre might have been used as an organic binder, but it may have also been introduced from a hair or pelt 'brush'. It is clear that the pigment was prepared by pounding and grinding between two grindstones. The minerals found in some of the iron oxide rich pigments appear to have been added, but others appear to contain naturally occurring minerals. Some of the disks appear to have been painted with a very viscous pigment, other disks appear to have been painted with a pigment mixed with a significant quantity of water. The addition of the clay minerals made a coarser more viscose pigment.
The overall conclusion of this type of analysis is that early Man clearly tried different techniques, in part dependent upon the place where the disk was to be placed (less viscous the higher up the wall). But we must understand that early Man had to search for the natural materials, grind the minerals, decide how to mix them with a liquid binder to get the desired viscosity, and use different blowing techniques to apply the pigment. He also tried to obtain disks of the same size and shape, he aligned them, and he even smeared some of the disks to recuperate unsuccessful attempts. Evidence points to early Man trying to create a technically complex work, and not just making some clumsy step up the evolutionary tree.
More generally only three different colours were used in early cave paintings, the iron-based red (hematite), yellow (goethite, or often called brown ochre, and limonite), and black with charcoal, soot, or manganese dioxide in the form of Manganite and Pyrolusite (and rarely a Calcite white). For example, Manganite was known to pre-historic Man as a starter for wood fires, it lowers the combustion temperature from 350°C to around 250 °C. Manganese oxides are frequently found along with clays, quartz, calcite and iron oxides, and often the black pigment came from manganite heating. However there are plenty of examples where the black pigment came directly from a ground mixture of manganese ores, without any heat treatment.
In addition, prehistoric Man also knew how to transform goethite into red hematite under heat treatment. And they knew how to mix the pigments with extenders (clay, calcite, quartz, bone, talc, etc.), and with a binder (water, vegetable oil or animal fat). The use of binders and extenders tends to suggest that the pigments and paints were prepared outside the caves, and thus could also have figured in more domestic rituals (i.e. not reserved only for cave art). The earliest 'pigments' might simply have been a mix of clays and chalks with animal fats, ca. 35,000 years ago.
In the Chauvet Cave, home to many horses painted in black, what we see is charcoal applied directly (in 'crayons'), or ground before application. We also have manganese oxide mixed with quartz and iron oxides, but different figures actually use different sources of oxides. Given the variety of different ways to obtain black, there is the suggestion that the 'artist' was more focussed on the colours and the properties of the pigments, and less on the use of a particular mineral type. A very detailed analysis of the pigment types and structures shows that realisations near each other were often done more or less at the same time, but that the entire cave would have been decorated over quite an extended period of time.
We mentioned grinding pigments, well there are examples of the use of abalone shells and a quartzite stone being used to grind charcoal and ochre. And in terms of brushes, we have hair, grass, fingers, 'crayons', and thin bone tips, all used for applying the pigment to the cave walls.
There is also ample evidence of pigments being made from ores not found in the local region, suggesting some form of early trade network operating over an extensive area.
It is very difficult to capture fully the steps in the material production of cave paintings (including the selection of materials and tools, and the day-to-day manufacturing, usage, repair, and discard), particularly for the earliest paintings in Altamira in Spain, and Lascaux and Chauvet in France. We may do a better job with the cave paintings in Çatalhöyük, in Anatolia, because they are more recent (ca. 7500-5700 BC), include many layers of plaster and a large diversity of designs, and are very elaborate (and include relief sculpture).
In fact, Çatalhöyük is one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Europe and Middle East. The first thing to note is that examples of red ochre and marine shells (often associated with ochre) are known to have existed in the region from ca. 32,000 BC. Also there is plenty of evidence of sourcing and using ochre pigments, i.e. handstones, grinding slabs, basalt pestles, etc., however there are very few cave paintings sites in the region.
So, even at this late date, it would appear that the pigment raw materials was still 'imported' from a different site, often involving quite a long journey. Some experts attribute a ritual significance to the actual trip to obtain the raw ores, possibly due to the association of blood and red ochre that appears to have existed for perhaps the last 100,000 years. And we know that lumps of red ochre have been found in Africa dated back ca. 500,000 years ago, and some 300,000 years ago in Europe. The earliest red ochre processing tool-kit dates from ca. 100,000 years ago.
The first step would be to wash the raw minerals. Then they would be ground and sieved, with more grinding and sieving the colours became more bright and intense. Mixing and heating produced a variety of different colours and shades. Heating pigments was certainly used ca. 36,000 years ago. For example yellow iron hydroxide changes to yellow-brown, then to red iron oxide at ca. 250°C to 300°C. Further heating to ca. 575°C to 650°C changes the colour through red-purple to black. The powder could be compressed into 'crayons' or made runny when mixed with an extender such as clay, talc, calcite, bone, etc. Binding the pigment to a wall would involving mixing the pigment with water or an organic material such as plant oil, urine, blood, animal fat, etc.
One way was to use the secco technique, painting with a mix of pigment and water on to a dry wall. Another was to use the tempera technique which involves using an organic binder, producing better pigment dispersion and intenser colours. Often the water in the cave would be used, since it contained dissolved calcium salts, making it an excellent fixing agent.
The example of Çatalhöyük is significant since it clearly demonstrates how early Man used his cave painting techniques to decorate early house walls. Initially the walls and floors were plaster with a lime or gypsum plaster. The manufacturing process behind these plasters is a topic discussed elsewhere on this webpage. The true (burnt) lime plaster could make a hard, waterproof, durable surface. Red paint was often used, and designs could be elaborate, ranging from dots, to geometric motives and floral designs. Then followed the decoration of skulls, the making of figurines, and the creating of pottery.
One characteristic feature of the region were the decorated pillars found in both domestic buildings, and as monumental 'temple-like' architecture. In Nevalı Çori, an early Neolithic site, there were stone pillars decorated with carved animals and human figures, and in Göbekli Tepe, a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A site, there were limestone pillars carved with various animal figures in low relief.
Another impressive find is the wall painting in the Syrian site of Djade al-Mughara, which dating from ca. 9000 BC, is considered to be the worlds earliest painting on a constructed wall. It is on a mudbrick wall in a large circular adobe house that would have once had a wooden roof. It has been claimed that the geometric designs are found throughout the Levant and Persia, and are also seen in carpets and kilims (rugs). Is it difficult to grasp the importance of these works, but we must remember that they were made before the discovery of pottery or the cultivation of wheat, 5,500 years before the first cities of Mesopotamia, and the (albeit smaller) stone circles pre-date Stonehenge by 7,000 years. The pigments used were burnt hematite for the red, crushed limestone for white, and charcoal for black.
As a general statement experts associated the evolution of painting in Çatalhöyük houses with the use of marl plaster and the production of fired clay figurines, but not with fired clay pottery. There does not appear to be a close relationship between wall paintings and pottery in terms of design or the materials used. For example the earliest pottery used an organic temper and had no decoration, whereas pigments used for wall paints were often mixed with a mineral and used in creating complex geometric patterns. It was only the later pottery (post ca, 6000 BC) that used a mineral temper and were decorated with geometric patterns. Experts have suggested that the earliest pottery was used purely for domestic purposes and had no ritual or symbolic importance.
Delving more deeply into the pigments used, experts have noted the wide variety of shades of red used, from orange red to brown red. Red was made mostly from red ochre, but there are also some examples of the use of Cinnabar. There were even a few examples of blue from ground Azurite and Green from Malachite (very rare), but these colours appeared to be exclusively associated with burials. It is thought that this was the first example of blue being used, and the Azurite could be finely ground to make a bright, light blue, or coarsely ground to make a darker, greeny-blue. The pigments could be finely ground to obtain brighter colours, and mixed to obtain different shades. In addition five different types of wall plaster were used, ranging from a fine wash over a coarser layer, to a single hard textured layer. Four of the five plasters were of a pale brown colour, the fifth was a white-yellow colour. The single layer plasters did not contain any plant temper. Tools for painting included animal hair brushes, cloth, skin, bone tools, wooden sticks, and even stone tools. As far as the experts can tell there was no systematic pattern to the mixes of plaster and paint types, nor the number of layers, nor the types of tools used, etc.
For a more extended description of the pigments, tools, plaster and the instrumentation used for the analyses, have a look at the PhD report entitled “The Wall Painting of Çatalhöyük (Turkey): Materials, Technologies and Artists”.
Red ochre, the preferred colour of Vermeer, was used perhaps as early as 400,000 years ago (and there are signs that red ochre might have been carried from one site to another as early as 1 million years ago). We also know that it was routinely used all over Europe, ca. 23,000 years ago. The most famous use was in the cave painting hand prints that are found all over the world. Interestingly, the mix of silica, clay and iron oxide can give different colours, i.e. yellow, red, purple and brown, but red was the preferred colour of Stone Age Man. In fact the raw colour is yellow, and it turns red after calcination (loss of water). Whilst we think of cave paintings, in fact red ochre was most certainly more commonly used for face and body paintings (ca. 100,000 years ago). We know that ca. 40,000-25,000 years ago Man was using mineral-based pigments derived from iron oxide (yellow, brown and reds), manganese dioxide (black) and kaolin or ground calcite (lime white). They were also using animal fat (or blood, bone marrow, urine, albumen) as a binder, and crushed bone (or feldspar, biotite, ground quartz) as an extender so that they could cover a larger surface with less pigment and prevent cracking when drying. We will see that ochre was also used in making prehistoric mastics and adhesives, and there is ample evidence suggesting that it was also used in the decoration of early stone tools, ca. 75,000 years ago.
Pre-Pottery Neolithic A
Mesopotamia was one of the earliest homes to Neolithic farming communities, and in many ways they were the creators of our “science of crafts”. We know that the region was already occupied in the period ca. 11,500-10,000 BC. Those communities cultivated pre-domesticated crops (barley and wild oats), built circular mud brick dwellings sitting on stone floors, used hearths, and buried the dead under the household floors.
In a recent article (2018) looked a wild grass exploitation and the emergence of cereal cultivation through the period including the so-called Epipalaeolithic and aceramic Neolithic in the Fertile Crescent (so ca. 20,000 to ca. 10,000 BC). We can see from the below map the extent of the 'occupation of the region' during those periods. The key message was that in Chogha Golan (no. 1 on the map) wild grasses and cereals were being harvested and consumed from ca. 9800 BC, and that by ca. 7800 BC the wild cereal had been replaced with domesticated emmer.
(1) Chogha Golan; (2) Ali Kosh; (3) Chogha Bonut; (4) Chia Sabz; (5) Ganj Dareh; (6) Sheikh-e Abad; (7) M’lefaat; (8) Qermez Dere; (9) Hallan Çemi; (10) Demirköy; (11) Körtik Tepe; (12) Çayönü; (13) Cafer Höyük; (14) Gritille; (15) Nevali Çori; (16) Tell ‘Abr; (17) Dja’de; (18) Halula; (19) Jerf el Ahmar; (20) Sabi Abyad II; (21) Tell Qaramel; (22) Mureybet; (23) Abu Hureyra; (24) El Kowm II; (25) Tell Bouqras; (26) Aşikli Höyük; (27) Çatalhöyük; (28) Pinarbaşi; (29) Can Hasan III; (30) Ras Shamra; (31) Tell Ghoraifé; (32) Tell Aswad; (33) Tell Ramad; (34) Eynan; (35) Hilazon Tahtit; (36) Ohalo II; (37) Wadi al-Hammeh 27; (38) Iraq ed-Dubb; (39) Gilgal; (40) Netiv Hagdud; (41) ZAD 2; (42) el-Hemmeh; (43) Wadi Faynan 16; (44) Kharaneh IV; (45) Wadi el-Jilat 6 & 7.
This period between ca. 11,500 and 10,000 BC has been defined as the so-called Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period, and is commonly associated with the Levantine and Upper (North) Mesopotamian regions of the Fertile Crescent. These peoples stored food in granaries, they had a lithic industry based upon stone blades and arrowheads, and they developed stone axes and polished adzes.
Above we can see some items from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period. In the drawing we have stone tools from the Levant, (a) and (b) are El-Khiam (see Khiamian period) projectile points, (c) and (d) are HaGdud truncations, (e) is a borer/awl, (f) a knife, (g) a cuphole, (h) a polished axe, and (i) and (j) shaft straighteners. The photographs below are of basalt axes and stone bowls.
The above tools might appear rudimentary to us, but by 10,000 BC the stone-based tool making industry was nearing the end of an evolutionary cycle that had taken more than 3 million years. And we should remember that a wood-based toolmaking industry certainly pre-dated this stone-based tool making industry. In fact, archaeologists classify stone tools into industries (or techno-complexes), where an industry consists of a number of lithic assemblages, or groupings of different tools on the basis of shared technological or morphological characteristics. As an example, this could be by the way different tools were all manufactured through the symmetrical reduction of a bifacial core, producing large flakes.
The early Hassunah Period (ca. 6000 BC) still represents a 'typical' Neolithic village culture. Initially pottery was not present, but Samarran pottery (ca. 5500-4800 BC) would later represent the apex of artistic achievement (see above). Initially semi-nomadic they would gradually settle and build permanent dwellings, make and use some crude pottery, work flint, obsidian, and bone, weave cloth, wear ornaments, and bury the dead with objects. Later they would construct so-called pisé buildings (rammed earth) and paint their pottery (increasingly influenced by Samarran designs). Later still Halaf painted pottery (ca. 6100-5100 BC) would become dominate, marking the arrival of a new culture (see below).
A recent study of 19,000 stone tools from 81 locations, spanned 2 million years, showed that the edges of the tools got longer with time (more efficient) and more diverse.
In fact, so-called Pre-Mode I stone tools date back to 3.3 million years ago, and thus predate the genus Homo by some 500,000 years. Tools of the genus Homo are called Mode I tools, or the Oldowan Industry (2.6 to 1.7 million years ago). These tools were simple river pebbles struck using a hammerstone (so a percussion technology), creating conchoidal fractures and leaving sharp edges and tips and small flakes. Then came the more complex Mode II tools, or Acheulean Industry (1.7 million to 100,000 years ago), often associated with early humans. In this period we have the so-called biface, of which the hand axe is the most representative.
The biface just means a two-sided (symmetrical) lithic flake with an almond-shaped morphology. This technology evolved over a long period of time, from early retouched flakes (i.e. hit several times to obtain a desired sharp edge), to using bone or wood to help sharpen the tool, and through to the Levallois technique for knapping, a method for lithic reduction which provided greater control of the final shape of the flake. Mode III is the so-called Mousterian Industry (600,000 to 400,000 years ago), and involved stone tools made for an anatomically modern human (i.e. Neanderthal). These assemblages involved small points and tools requiring strong grip strength. Mode IV is all about the move from flakes to long blades, and the Aurignacian Culture (40,000-31,000 years ago) of modern humans is a good example. Their tools included worked bone, perforated rods, and long, fine blades rather than “crude” flakes.
This culture produced some the earliest cave art, three-dimensional figurines, and pendants, bracelets, and ivory beads. Mode V are the so-called Microlithic Industries, or small stone tools and microblade technologies, made by people between 35,000 and 3,000 years ago. With the appearance of microliths, we enter both the Mesolithic (pre-agricultural, and in the Levant covering a period ca. 20,000-9500 BC, and also sometimes called the Epipaleolithic period), and the Neolithic periods (ca. 10,200 to 8800 BC in the Levant).
Above we have 20 examples of Mesolithic flint tools (in the Levant this pre-agricultural period ran from ca. 20,000 BC to ca. 9500 BC). Below we have examples of the more frequently used tools of Stone Age Man.
Pre-pottery cultures that fall into the period ca. 36,000-5000 BC include the following:
Emirian Culture (Levant, ca. 30,000 BC) - curve stone blades
Antelian Culture (Levant, ca. 30,000-18,000 BC) - narrow blade points
Kebarian Culture (Levant, ca. 18,000-12,000 BC) - small, geometric microliths
Natufian Culture (Levant, ca. 12,500-9500 BC) - semi-sedentary, earliest evidence of agriculture, short blades and bladelets, the microburin technique was used, the Helwan retouch flint-tool fabrication technology - followed by Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (ca. 9500 BC)
Qaraoun Culture (Lebanon, ca. 10,200-6900 BC) - often associated with the so-called Heavy Neolithic flint tools, of huge, heavy tools such as axes, picks, and adzes including bifaces, and no evidence of arrowheads, burins, or millstones
Shepherd Neolithic Culture (Lebanon, ca. 10,200-8800 BC) - small flint tools
Qadan Culture (Upper Egypt, ca. 13,000-9,000 BC) - watered and cared for local plant life, made grinding tools and blades, ritual burials
Harifian Culture (Negev Desert, ca. 8800-8000 BC) - elaborate semi-subterranean houses, first time arrowheads were found among the stone tools - contemporary with Late Natufian and followed by Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (ca. 9500 BC)
Châtelperronian Culture (France-Spain, ca. 41,000-39,000 BC) - denticulate stone tools, flint knife with single cutting edge
Aurignacian Culture (South Europe, ca. 38,000-29,000 BC) - first example of human figurative art, cave art, worked bone or antler points, fine flint blades and bladelets
Gravettian Culture (South Europe, ca. 29,000-22,000 BC) - small, pointed, re-struck blades with blunt straight backs, carving tool known as a burin, use of nets for hunting small animals, hundreds of Venus figurines
Solutrean Culture (France-Spain, ca. 20,000-15,000 BC) - prehistoric art, ornamental beads, bone pins, finely worked, bifacial points made with lithic reduction percussion and pressure flaking (rather than the cruder flint knapping), making of light projectiles and barbed and tanged arrowheads, long spear points, flint knives and saws
Magdalenian Culture (Western Europe, ca. 15,000-10,000 BC) - flint tools, elaborate worked bone and ivory (the Bone Age) including “harpoons”, blades, scrapers, denticulated microliths, perforated batons, and portable art with figurines, engraved projectile points and sea shell necklaces (and a suggestion of trade routes) - domestication of the dog
Azilian Culture (France-Spain, ca. 10,000 BC) - microliths, flat bone harpoons, and pebbles with abstract decoration
Ahrensburg Culture (North-Central Europe, ca. 11,000-10,000 BC) - flint arrowheads, lithic’s, fish-hooks and amber animal sculptures
Swiderian Culture (Poland, ca. 11,000-8200 BC) - flint blades, lithic’s
Maglemosian Culture (North Europe, ca. 9000-6000 BC) - bone and microliths for fishing and hunting, fishing spear - had domesticated dogs - note that this overlaps with the end of the last ice age “Weichselian glaciation”, ca. 9660 BC, and when Europe and Scandinavia were still landlocked with Britain
Kunda Culture (Baltic region, ca. 8000-5000 BC) - retouched tanged points fishing tools - trained domestic hunting dogs
Kongemose Culture (Scandinavia, ca. 6000-5200 BC) - stone axes, flintstone flakes, arrowheads, scrapers, drills, awls, and toothed blades
Baradostian Culture (Zargos Mountains, ca. 36,000-18,000 BC) - flint industry
Trialetian Culture (Caucasus Mountains, ca. 14,000-6000 BC) - flint industry
There is an excellent series of videos by Will Lord concerning Neolithic tool making, including Neolithic flint tools, flint axe, flint knapping of a hand axe, and knapping a arrowhead. “Skill and Cognition in Stone Tool Production” provides an excellent insight into adze makers today in a village in Indonesian Irian Jaya. Whereas “Technology and Terminology of Knapped Stone” provides a guide to the prehistoric working of stone. For a more complete view of life during Neolithic times, check out Mystery of Life in the Paleolithic Age, Ancient Mesopotamia, World’s First Civilisations in Iraq, The Sumerians, and The Dawn of Religion.
Stone tools and lithic technologies
Lithic technologies are often used to characterise both a technology, and a view into the evolution of trade over the entire Pre-Pottery period. With blade-core reduction used during Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, naviform blade technology during Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, and later still with the return of flake-based reduction.
We delve deeper. Originally blanks were produced, notably for making large, straight, sickle blades and projectile points. In the period ca. 10,500-8500 BC, the prevailing technologies supported hunter-gatherers, hunting gazelle, and gathering wild cereal grasses, pistachios and acorns. Settlements were few and quite large, were situated in what we would call woodlands, and there were still signs of seasonal mobility. But the trend was to smaller hunter-gatherer clusters more widely dispersed over the landscape. Milling stones suggest an increasingly reliance on plant foods such as seeds and nuts, and the trend was to produce microliths and sickle blades. Microliths are usually elements in composite tools, and in small weapons. In the period ca. 8500-7500 BC settled villages appeared and plant cultivation became commonplace. It was here that we see emerge the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B with microliths giving way to bigger blades made from larger cores, and the appearance of the naviform blade-core technology. By ca. 7500-6000 BC sedentary village life, with reliance on cultivated plants (some domesticated), became the norm, and animal husbandry replaced hunting. So Pre-Pottery Neolithic B is characterised by a proliferation of blade tools, i.e. sickles, projectile points, knives, and burins all struck from naviform cores. The naviform core is nothing more than a thin, 'boat' shaped blade core having a kind of point at each end (i.e. bi-directional). But the naviform did occur during a restricted period, and is used today as a (the) key marker of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period. The transition to Pre-Pottery Neolithic C is defined by a move to more moist regions, either near the coasts or in higher elevations, possibly provoked by aridity and drought in traditional settlement areas. There are indications that the climate changed, with hotter summers and cooler, wetter winters. Population dispersal and resettlement based on village farming and pastoral nomadism emerged, but was economically less stable. Architecture and burial practices suffered, and naviform blade production disappeared, being replaced by un-standardised flake industries.
Why this move to the naviform? We delve deeper. There is evidence to suggest that it is all about standardisation. The Pre-Pottery Neolithic hunter-gatherer-farmer used standardised reaping and hunting tools based on a long blade with a straight cutting edge. They could make long blades, weapons tipped with projectile points, burins, borers, and cutting and scraping tools. And during Pre-Pottery Neolithic B they were all made with the naviform core technology. The naviform is essentially a boat-shaped, opposed-platform, percussion-blade core. The key was that tool makers could use these cores to make a variety of tools in a very uniform and consistent way. Core makers could make these types of cores in different ways, i.e. from thin flint tablets, or by breaking up thick flint blocks. With the tablets little additional work was needed, but in other areas additional work was needed to create the correct core shape. Making naviform cores did require good quality stone that could be worked in to cores, and re-worked later into tools.
But why adopt a more difficult and sophisticated manufacturing process? You needed to create a blank, then a naviform blank, then a tool. What was certain was that tools made from a naviform were better. The triangular shape of the naviform meant that the opposed faces were positioned as acute angles to a single working face. The knapper could work to make the blade without damaging the other sides, and had better control over his movements. The triangular cross section made the blade stronger. And errors in making the blade could be more easily corrected. Also the cores were all between 12-15 com long and 2.5 to 3.5 cm wide. The core would be placed on the knee and the naviform prepared with a downward soft striking movement using a smooth, soft-stone hammer. It was more like 'peeling' small flakes from the cutting edge. The sharp edge on the naviform could then be ground to a fine finish.
The naviform core-and-blade technology was all about the nearby availability of the right raw materials, the development of a simple, standardised manufacturing technique, and an ever increasing demand from that particular Pre-Pottery Neolithic economy. Before the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period demand was not sustainable, with dispersed autonomous groups seeing to their own basic economic needs. In this earlier period there were probably no specialised tool makers. With the appearance of many sedentary villages and an intensive agrarian economy, there was a market for standardised blades. The naviform core-and-blade technology could provide consistent and good quality tools, and it became the dominant approach. And the specialist tool maker was born. The key elements in specialisation are standardised production processes, specialised skills and production tool kits, production efficiency and keeping errors and unnecessary waste under control, and access to (rare) raw materials. The naviform core-and-blade technology had all of these features, and could in many ways be considered Man’s first “cottage industry”. The archaeological signs are there with workshops (chipping floors), activity areas for individual craftspersons, debris dumps, and stockpiles of blanks.
This period was followed by the temporary failure of the agrarian economy, the abandonment of large village sites, and the end of many craft technologies, including the naviform. The specialised blade economy collapsed. People went back to a dispersed, partially transient culture based upon small hamlets. Also the burnt-lime technology (see below), was slowly replaced by ceramics, something within the capabilities of individual craftspersons. Of course tools were still needed, but there was no longer a demand for the standardised production of large blades made from blanks. Blades became shorted and made of simple flakes, and there are signs that many tools were scavenged from older tools or old stocks of blanks.
Knapping is often used to discuss skill levels and metal capabilities of Man. It involves a complex set of factors, from the physics of fracture mechanics (hammer velocity and flaking angle) to hominid anatomy (gesture dexterity). Given the variety of raw materials used, knapping requires a constant integration of perceptual information and the sequential movement of shoulder, arms, hands and fingers. Knapping is known to have produced so-called 'flaking accidents'. Accidental flakes can have their use, but experts have focussed on the presence of accidental flakes as a proxy for the skill level of prehistoric hominins. The study of accidental flakes shows that there were two different types. One is an accidental flake that does not actually affect the core's final geometry. The knapper responds to the new form of the core and can control the damage done and salvage the situation (i.e. testing decision making and problem-solving skills). The second type of accident is when the core is damaged and cannot be salvaged.
Below we have a flaking accident with a small basalt cobble. This one was recovered by removing the step scar from the core surface.
The first thing to note is that most stone artefacts are made from volcanic rocks such as rhyolite, basalt and trachyte. About 75% of flakes are from the first type of 'flaking accident', when the core can be salvaged, but data shows that basalt was 'better' (ca. 80% salvaged), and trachyte the worst (65% salvaged). Interestingly those cores that were discarded usually did not show any signed of attempted salvage, i.e. the knapper knew immediately that the core could not be salvaged and did not waste his time trying. Only a few sites show some attempts at core recovery, possible because inexperienced knapper's practiced core salvage.
Generally flake accidents occur when the hammer force and velocity or impact angles are miscalculated in relationship to the raw material or core geometry. Logically, we might expect that better control over the hammer and raw material properties implied higher skill levels and produced fewer flaking accidents. Experts suggest otherwise, higher skill levels appear to be directly linked with higher hammer velocities, producing more flakes from a larger raw material core. It looks as if flaking accidents were part and parcel of all knapping processes irrespective of period, and the key was the way the knapper adapted to rectify the outcome. Earlier stone tool-makers knew about flaking mechanics and had the physical capability to increase hammer velocities, but not the ability to adapt and 'recover' the core. To be successful they had to reduce hammer velocity and produce fewer flake accidents. But the result was a simpler, less effective, core design. Later stone tool-makers knew how to increase hammer velocities, producing more flakes, and yet 'recover' and produce cores with more complex and effective features.
Above we are describing so-called percussion knapping or reduction, later an additional technique of pressure flaking using antler tools was used to create finished, sharper stone tools.
We have to remember that tool making is all about intentionally creating a tool to solve a problem. Making a tool is a hallmark of Man, and requires a form of practical intelligence linked with a capacity for technical thinking (this is equally true of other early technologies such as weaving, pottery and boat making). Nor should we underestimate both the skill needed and time taken in making stone tools, right from early days they were both cultural objects and a product of a manufacturing process (and remember a stone or pottery bowl is just another type of tool for holding liquids or grain). Tools could be simple lithic cores struck by a hammerstone, producing flakes and hand axes. They could be more specialised, using flint and chert to make knife-like tools and scrapers. Later still came the microlith technology for spear points and arrowheads. Techniques evolved from ground stone, usually made of limestone, sandstone, basalt, rhyolite, granite, or any stone that does not flake, and used to make adzes, celts, or axes. Lithic reduction involved the using of a hammerstone and a soft hammer fabricator to detach lithic flakes from a lithic core. The sharp flakes could be used to make projectile points or knives. Some people might have specialised in making bifacial blanks, whilst others would then have made them in to hand axes. Stone containers and bowls were also made using the same process. The stone cores could also have been ground smooth making them useful for grinding other materials such as plants or other stones.
Making stone tools was not physically demanding, but required time. And time spent making a stone tool was time lost for foraging (gathering or hunting). Making stone tools eliminated most other productive activities. So most of Man’s early existence (as far as stone tools was concerned) was about finding ways to make tools better and faster. Ground stone axes and adzes were made of hard rock usually available in the beds of rivers or streams, but they would take at least 4 hours to make. Chipped stone axes and adzes could be made in about 30 minutes, but an experienced knapper could make a flaked flint hand axe in about 15 minutes (but that type of expertise required training that could probably only be acquired in a structured social and physical context). Retouching flint tools for re-sharpening was also a very quick process. An additional element here is that ground tools required little skill, whereas making a good flaked flint hand axe required a lot of experience and skill. So on the one hand ground stone axes took longer to make, required less skill, and lasted longer, whereas flaked flint axes could be made and resharpened quickly, but required skill to make, and did not last as long. So you can see, much depended upon the availability of the stone, the skill set available, and the tasks to be performed. What we see is that Man slowly moved to investing in ground stone tools for tasks such as wood cutting, but preferred flint flaked tools for hunting and fishing (and butchery and hide preparation).
Even in the so-called Stone Age there were special-purpose quarry sites providing raw materials that would be taken back to either manufacturing or habitation sites. And there is evidence of so-called “chains of connection” stretching hundreds of kilometres across Europe (with 'exotic' sites produced stones, blanks, and tools of a consistently higher quality than a locally production).
Of course this begs the question, why make tools, stone or otherwise? The most common view is that to a hunter-gatherer tools had to give them some advantage, at an acceptable cost in time and effort. Tools are a solution to a problem, and they must have been useful in overcoming problems with foraging 'strategies'. Hunting involved individual prey or clusters of prey. Gathering involved finding patches with an abundance of edible plants, berries, etc. A tool must have made it easier for Man to obtain food. They would need time to look for prey (or a patch for gathering). They would spend time in pursuit, capture, transportation, preparation and consumption of food. In using tools, they would need to factor in the cost of production and transportation of the tools (and the costs involved in inventing, testing and improving a tool). But this is not all, prey (and food patches) must have been more or less desirable, depending upon (for example) prey size, danger, density, distribution, available technology, and even palatability. Would Man have gone for the most 'profitable' resource first? How would they have balanced danger, or the 'cost' of searching, against the desirability of the prey? Would Man have wanted to carry around a heavy hand axe on the off chance that they would meet a big animal? Would they have preferred a few multipurpose weapons that they could use to capture a varied diet of smaller animals? Experts have suggested that if 'profitable' resources were abundant, then Man would have gone for the specialist weapon. But if food was scarce, Man would go for easy to carry multipurpose weapons in order to ensure a diverse diet. This switching model could be seasonally driven, or affected by things such as droughts. And the tipping point between these two views is the 'cost' to make and transport the different technologies (tools, weapons, ...), and not forgetting the 'cost' of tool/weapon maintenance, repair and replacement (and what can, and cannot, be done during foraging). For early Man 'cost' was measured in time expended, and the benefit was the return in energy obtained from food. And 'time' must have included tool making and maintenance, foraging, reproduction, providing some kind of care for offspring, and probably some form of group rituals. Also we can factor in 'risk', with plants and fish being low risk sources of food, and large terrestrial mammals being high risk sources. And we know that women in early communities were associated with risk-averse foraging, whereas a man would include risk-prone foraging strategies. With the biggest risk being, not eating. Everything we know about tool and weapon development appears to have been motivated by improving on existing foraging efforts, i.e. better tools for fishing are a good example.
In this sense early Man and modern Man are no different, each having as a primary objective the development of more efficient tools and weapons. And this meant tools that were quicker to make, lasted longer, were more effective, and used better the raw materials available. What we see is that early Man would initially use local materials, would keep to a modular design for quick and easy repair, would try to reuse a weapon (re-sharpen arrows), or repurpose tools (digging sticks have been found to have been broken bows). What experts saw was that maintainable tools was the hallmark of the late Acheulian Industry, reducing the amount of raw material in a tool was characteristic of the period ca. 300,000-100,000 BC, whereas mobility and transportation of lithic raw material (blanks) evolved rapidly in the period ca. 120,000-11,000 BC. There are signs that foragers would repair tools on a quasi-daily basis, whereas those collecting food from well defined patches (or rivers) would 'schedule' upgrades to their tools and have 'periods-out' to make and refresh their tools when they had an abundance of stored food. Experts can now classify tools that were made long before their use and cached (including cores), tools that were transported over long distances, tools that were maintained and used over a long period of time, tools designed for many uses, and tools reshaped for other uses. And here we see forager-hunters preferring simple tools that were easy to make and maintain, and easy to carry, whereas food 'collectors' (gatherers) preferred tools that were increasingly optimised for particular tasks.
Just to stress the 'hidden' knowledge acquired over time by Man. We often come across stones around pre-historic fires. One good reason is that slowly heating stones in fires of about 150-250 °C and then letting them slowly cool, makes then easier to work. They are easier to fracture and knapp, even if the tips are a bit softer and more prone to wear. Heat treated flint tools are common from about 12,000 BC. This temperature range is usually obtained by covering the stones with still glowing hot coals in a hot sand pit for about 3-4 days.
We tend to look at stone tools and forget how they were actually made and used. Hafting is all about making a handle for a stone (or bone, ...) artefact, improving both the weapon’s range of use and the damage it can cause. Uniting a tool with a handle (or hilt) was all about increasing the efficiency of use, and is a key sign in the move from simple to complex tool making. And there is firm evidence that hafting was extensively used more than 125,000 years ago. Haft’s were usually made of wood, so Man would have had to cut and work the right wood for the task, e.g. something soft enough to be able to work and slit. Man would have already known how to use coals (not flames) to prepare and harden the wood tips, and they could use a rough stone to 'polish' the wood as a handle. Then they would slit one end, and remove some of the wood to allow space for the stone head.
The next task would be to fit the stone head or flint tip into the haft. Stone Age Man actually produced a number of glues or resin compounds, i.e. tar and pitch from birch bark and pine wood. They could make a kind of pine resin or wax glue, and they could make a glue from animal hides, and even from Blue Bells. Life without glue for pre-historic Man would have been far more difficult. Glue kept his stone axe blade firmly fixed to its wooden handle, and cushioned the impacts when using tools. The process is essentially one of pyrolysis through 'open' distillation. You need to cover some older thick birch bark with a thinnish (2-3 cm) layer mixture of mud, clay and sand (and the clay must be quite fine so that it does not crack during firing). The bark must be completely sealed in, and connected to some kind of wooden pipe leading from the bottom of the 'oven', hollowed out elder wood was often used. The oven would be covered with dry grass, so that the ash would fill any small holes and cracks in the 'oven'. Firing would take 2-3 hours, and you only needed a temperature of about 180°C to boil out the birch bark tar. After about 20 minutes 'wood acid' would appear, followed by a mixture with the tar. The mixture would have been collected in a stone bowl or animal skull, and then the liquid part would have to be evaporated by re-heating. What would remain was a black, sticky pitch. This same type of 'oven' was probably later use to fire the first pottery. We know that pine resin extracted in the same way was then mixed with bee wax, increasing the overall quantity and making a hard but not brittle glue. When mixed with some wood ash from the fire as a binder it made a very hard glue. There is also now ample evidence to suggest that red ochre was also mixed with both late Stone Age mastics and adhesives as a binding agent (ca. 70,000 years ago). The iron-containing pigment was mixed with gum from the acacia tree to create an adhesive for small shafted tools. Tests show that the red ochre made the glue stronger and less brittle. And just for information, the Blue Bell glue comes from the plants underground onion, and could have been used to stick feathers on the shaft of arrows, etc.
Do not confuse birch bark tar with birch sap. We know birch sap was actually chewed at least 11,000 years ago, and it was also used to flavour beer ca. 4500 BC. Some experts believe that birch bark tar could have been developed and used anytime between 800,000 and 200,000 years ago (and the Greeks and Romans used it as well).
How would early Man have discovered this process? Certainly one element in that discovery process was based upon the way Man made wooden tools and weapons. Taking a wood pole Man would have worked it against a rock surface to create a point. They would then have heated the point in a fire, bringing to the surface the wood tars in the wood mixed with a coating of carbon. This could be polished with a stone that left fine ground particles in the tar on the tip. Subsequent firings and polishings would make a hardened glaze of pitch, fine particles and carbon, which was actually harder than Man’s first attempts at copper tips. We know this type of technology was being used 400,000 years ago.
The final part of our stone age tool would have been a string used to bind the stone axe with its handle. There is ample evidence to suggest that Man made string, 'medicine', and glue from plants and animal fibre. There are examples of string dating back ca. 8000 years, and made of fibres of wildflowers. There is also evidence of the use of twisted flax fibres for sewing clothes, weaving baskets and attaching stone tools to handles. It is difficult to date finds, but the earliest fibres could date from ca. 32,000-26,000 years ago, and there are numerous examples of fibres being used in the period ca. 17,000-15,000 years ago.
String, weaving and textiles
The earliest signs of weaving are bundles of raw flax fibre, fine and coarse linen threads, twisted string, netting and knitted fragments, as well as spindle whorls and stone loom weights. These were all found in Robenhausen and may date from as early as 5000 BC. Weave-like impressions on early pottery suggest that some form of early 'textile' of tightly woven plants strands might have existed ca. 7000 BC.
However if we step back from weaving, we immediately find sewing needles dating back ca. 61,000 years, and being quite common after ca. 45,000 BC. It is thought that these bone needles would have been used to tie animal skins together using animal sinew or plant material as thread. It was during the Solutrean Culture (ca. 20,000-15,000 BC) that Man appeared to focus more on working bone and ivory than on developing flintwork (a period just pre-dating polished stone). And it is during this period that we saw the appearance of cups, lamps, clay models of bisons and coloured frescoes in caves. Experts have included in this period the appearance of smaller and thinner bodkins, a kind of long thin needle with an elongated eye. This would have permitted the transition from a rough kind of sewing to using thread to replace fibre and cut leather strands. Some pebbles have been found with pierced conical holes which may have been used to calibrate the threads used. During this period a great quantity of tiny flint tools have also been found, of which some might have been used for tattooing.
Some sources mention spinning, i.e. a spindle used for twisting fibres, ca. 8000 BC. The use of these fibres to create a criss-cross pattern to produce a flat cloth is said to have been invented ca. 5800 BC. The loom, an essential element in weaving, was said to have been invented ca. 6000 BC, and earliest examples of woven wool come from Anatolia (ca. 5800 BC), and examples of linen come from Egypt (ca. 5000 BC). A small woven fragment found near the Tigris (Mesopotamia) has been dated to ca. 7000 BC.
Some experts question the dominant view of defining everything through stone tools, and they suggest that the use of organic fibres (animal or plant) could also be as old as humankind (ca. 1.8 million years). Naturally organic materials are fragile, so much is left to supposition, theory and interpretation. Some experts date the use of string to modern Man (ca. 40,000 years), other say that the development of string occurred over a period in excess of 800,000 years. Almost no artefacts or clues about early textile technologies exist, so much is based upon a theory of how Man might have interacted with things around them (e.g. body protection, ways to carry things, etc.). Some define this as materiality, the way physical properties of an artefact depend on how the object was used. One way is to look at how ancient artefacts might have been used, repaired and deposited (and including how Man might have acquired the motor skills needed for manufacturing the artefact). Another approach is to try to understand the different ways a particular artefact might be made and to understand why Man decided to make the artefact in one particular way and not another. Yet another approach is to look at the purpose. How 'needed' that technology would have been? Was a particular artefact a necessary component to enable another better understood (and earlier) technology? As an example, can we see string 'hidden' within our understanding of stone tools?
The approach often discussed is to focus on twisted plant fibres. We know that such fibres existed 40,000 years ago, and there are good arguments suggesting that such twisted fibres date from much earlier times. Textile impressions in clay are a good starting point. They show that knots were already known, and the suggestion is that the twisted fibres must have been developed and used much earlier than the development of knots. Some experts claim that knots could date from 250,000 year ago to 2.5 million years ago, but twisted string is not essential for knotting to take place. This idea is based upon the idea that stringing and knotting would have been necessary for hunter-gatherers. String can be knotted without being twisted. The two techniques (twisting and knotting) could have evolved independently. The earliest knot could have been simply a bend to join two cords or strands of fibre. Interweaving could have occurred early on as a way to create a knob or stopper in a fibre strand. Animals and birds who weave fibres into nests and plants that climb by twisting themselves around trees could have been the inspiration for early string and knots.
One important element is that there have been many studies of beads, and their importance on the cognitive development of humans. We know that bead manufacturing dates back some 300,000 years, and perforated beads certain date back some 135,000 years. In addition there is some evidence for natural artefacts (e.g. a wolf incisor) with a perforation dating back 300,000 years. The implication is that if you had beads you also had string.
Some experts have suggested that needles could also have been used not just for sewing hides but also for softer textiles. Yet other experts have suggested that fishnet weights could actually have been warp weights. The basic idea here is that some artefacts interpreted as being for hunting might actually have been used for textiles. Experts have not ruled out that marks on prehistoric antlers and rib bones could have been produced by cordage or textile weaving. There is some support for the idea that early hunter-gatherers might well have needed some kind of fibre-based items for fishing and gathering. There are small pieces of rope dating to ca. 17,000 BC, and there is no reason to assumed a sudden discovery. The basic materials (hemp, nettle and wild flax) for making short lengths of rope have always existed. However, it must be said that the few surviving examples of clothing (ca. 3200 BC) show that twisted fibres, knots and braiding were known, but no woven textiles have survived.
As a last comment on this topic. Making twisted rope, knots, and some basic forms of netting, etc. would be (a) useful, (b) require no unusual level of dexterity, (c) require no special tools and (d) would use materials that are easy to find. Just the same for stone.
Just to avoid any confusions, pottery experts define 'fabric' as the material from which a pot is made from. This usually means the clay and inclusions that can be used to identify the location where a pot was made, as well as the method of manufacture and data. To be complete, 'form' means the overall shape, and bits such as rims and handles, and the decoration.
Weaving (and twisted rope) and boats are often mentioned next to each other in archaeology texts. Prehistoric boats involve a mix of available artefacts and suggestions about how prehistoric Man colonised the world. What is certain is that a 3-meter long dugout canoe has been dated to ca. 8000 BC, and there are rock carving suggesting that reed boats were used ca. 10,000 BC. Experts think that some form of early Man moved between islands ca. 800,000 years ago, presumably using something that floated. Seaworthy boats may have been developed as early as 45,000 years ago, according to one hypothesis explaining the habitation of Australia.
We know that the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture (occupying the Danube, Dnieper and entry to the Black Sea) have ceramics (ca. 6000 BC) showing sailing boats. There is evidence of the sailing boats being used during the Mesopotamian Ubaid period (ca. 6000-4300 BC), and sails are depicted in Egypt ca. 3200 BC. There are suggestions that the Sumerians used square-rigged sailing boats for trade with the Indus Valley culture.
Mesopotamian texts list boat parts and materials, and seals and reliefs show boats. The earliest representation is just of men (leaders or Gods) standing on the ends of a read 'raft' or 'sickle boat', with the water shown as wavy lines. Later images have boats transporting people and cattle. This type of 'sickle boat', with protrusions extending from the stern, was also found in Egypt, suggesting that they learnt about the technology from the Mesopotamians. Later still we can see cabins and cargo strapped to the Egyptians boats. A similar type of flat bottom 'sickle boat', with a cabin and a large double rudder, was also seen in the Indus Valley, ca. 4000 BC.
The above picture is often associated with the statement that simple, single-sail square-rigged reed boats date back to ancient Mesopotamia, ca. 5500 BC (odd, because it looks to me as if it has two sails!).
For more on the appearance of boats in Mesopotamia check out this review on water transport.
The wheel was certainly invented well after the invention of sewing needles, woven cloth, rope, basket weaving, boats and even the flute. It is also one of the few early inventions that does not appear to be inspired by something found in nature.
Wheeled vehicles may have appeared as early as 4500 BC in Mesopotamia, in the Maykop culture in the Caucasus (ca. 3700-3000 BC), and in the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture (ca. 6000-3500 BC) covering modern-day Romania and Ukraine. The wheel certainly depended upon the invention of the early wooden wheel (possibly as early as ca. 6500 BC) and the potters wheel. Scholars suggest that the first 'free-spinning' potter’s wheel was developed in Mesopotamia, and a stone wheel found there has been dated to ca. 3130 BC (some experts talk of ca. 4000-3500 BC). However fragments of wheel-thrown pottery discovered in the same region predate this. It has been suggested that this type of pottery was made on a 'tournette', or slow wheel, a stone or clay disc with a peg in the centre which you would push to move. This type of wheel might date back to ca. 5200-4700 BC. The 'proper' potter’s wheel (often called a kick-wheel), with a flywheel, is probably Egyptian and dates from ca. 3000 BC.
The so-called Bronocice pot, a ceramic vase found in modern-day Poland, and dated ca. 3635-3370 BC (thus of the Funnelbeaker culture), has an image of the first wheeled vehicle. Many sources mention Mesopotamian clay tablets showing the wheel used for transportation ca. 3500 BC. The oldest real wheel-axle combination is from modern-day Slovenia and is dated to ca. 3340-3030 BC. There are two types of wheel-axle, one in which both the wheel and axle rotate, and one where the axle is fixed. Both types date from about the same period, say 3200-3000 BC, but there are signs that the fixed axel came a bit later. One of these earliest 4-wheel wagons weighted nearly 700 kgs., so speed was not its main characteristic. The earliest examples of spoked wheels are from the Siberian Bronze Age Andronovo culture, ca. 2000 BC (other sources also mention Egyptian chariots ca. 2000 BC).
It is generally believed that the wagon started as a sledge. Wooden sledges are known to have existed ca. 7000 BC in northern Europe (possibly pulled by dogs). Later sledges are also known to have been pulled by domesticated cattle on the southern Russian steppe. These sledges arrived in Mesopotamia ca. 4000 BC.
Experts think that the horse-drawn chariot was introduced into Egypt by the Hyksos (i.e. foreigners), probably Canaanites (from the Southern Levant), possibly as early as 2000 BC. The key here was the domestication of the horse in the Eurasian steppes ca. 3500 BC, and its arrival in Mesopotamia ca. 2000 BC. However, the first pictorial representation only appears in the Egyptian 18th Dynasty (ca. 1543-1292 BC). The Canaanite chariot consisted of light flexible wood, pulled together with leather straps, and four-spoke wheels. In fact the earliest representations of Egyptian chariots are in hunting, domestic, and processional scenes. The chariot warrior was usually seen in early representations of opposing armies. Around ca. 1450 BC the six-spoke wheels was introduced by Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), probably to support a second man and make it an effective war machine (Hittite chariots were known to have six-spoke wheels). Both Thutmose IV (1397-1388 BC) and Akhenaten (1351-1334 BC) can be seen driving a chariot with eight-spoke wheels.
You many have noticed a passing reference above to burnt-lime technology. What is that? In fact during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period (ca. 7600-600 BC) the Levant witnessed a dominance of lime plaster and gypsum production, although the 'invention' dates back to ca. 12,000 BC with the invention of pyrotechnology. Lime plaster is just sand, lime and water, possibly reinforced with fibre and/or very finely ground particles such as ash. Gypsum is a soft mineral which we often know as chalk or plaster. With burnt gypsum, you can add water and as it dehydrates it 'sets' again into plaster. This lime plaster is also the so-called White Ware, that you will find also mentioned in this text. Lime plaster was used during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period for house floors, plastered hearths, and plaster walls. It was also used for ritual purposes with plastered skulls and statute manufacturing. It is generally thought that because the raw materials and fuel collection (tons of wood) needed some considerable preparation, lime plaster production was the result of organised effort and specialisation. In fact the production of lime and gypsum plaster is a multi-step process requiring selection and collection of raw materials, heating the limestone to 800-900°C (gypsum to 150-200°C), slaking the quicklime in water to form the hydroxide, mixing with various additives, applying and shaping as a paste, and often coating with a slip coat and burnishing. All these skills as similar to those used in pottery manufacture, and the mastery of high temperatures would also be needed later for metal smelting. Some experts have suggested that you would need more than 3 tons of quicklime (another name for burnt lime) for one house construction, and that would have needed more than 13 tons of wood for fuel. Lime plaster was used throughout the Levant (and beyond) in the period ca. 7500-5000 BC. In fact, results show that two types of plaster were used, marl plaster (frequent) and lime plaster (used less frequently). Marl is a lime-rich clay mud that can be found in the form of marlstone, whereas lime is a sedimentary rock composed mostly of calcite and aragonite (different crystal forms of calcium carbonate). They look quite different, with limestone looking a bit 'sandy' in colour, and marl having a grey colour. We should not forget that between the 'invention' and extended use of these plasters, Man studied different aggregate additions, fibre reinforcement, different surface slips, burnishing, and also their use for beads, containers, and sculpture. For example, we know that ca. 8000 BC Man was mixing in marble, quartz and granite chips into his polished lime floors, making what we call today terrazzo flooring of different colours. The techniques developed in the Levant travelled far and wide, and were used, more or less without modification, well beyond the Middle Ages (check out Pre-Industrial Lime Kilns on their use in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain). Until the invention of these plasters (ca. 12,000 BC) Man built with a clay-rich mud or rammed earth, but the structures were weak and prone to weathering and damage. With the advent of pyrotechnology Gypsum-based plasters and mortars appeared ca. 7000 BC, and by ca. 2600 BC the technology had also travelled to Egypt (they had been using lime as a coating since ca. 4000 BC). Lime-based plasters were used for floors, etc. ca. 10,000-5000 BC, and were certainly industrially produced in the Levant before ca. 4500 BC. Initially it would have been air lime, lime hardened when exposed to air. But once Man had mastered pyrotechnology they was able to attain temperatures of 950-1550 °C and produce burnt lime. Attaining these temperatures was in itself a major development. Just building a fire would not do it. First you built a stone-lined pit, and piled wood and charcoal in and around it. Then you would need to stack your crushed limestone alternatively with fuel (dung would be best), and then you would cover it all with wood. Even this early design would be sub-optimal, since 900° C is about the best you can expect from such a pit-fire, or 'kiln'. The slake lime improves when mixed with ash-like particles, making a cement-like paste. The addition of ash enables the lime-ash mix to absorb water and harden. Slake lime will harden naturally over time, but adding ash and water makes it even harder and you do not have to wait. What is produced is almost pottery, but oddly enough Man would take another 1,000 years to discover that. For a detailed review of the use of gypsum and lime plasters, check out Binders in Historical Buildings.
Our pre-historic Man did not do things by half. The floor of his hut was plastered in two layers, a fine and a course layer. The fine layer (2-4 mm thick) was polished and red coloured. The marl or lime was mixed with fine grains of non-burnt lime or marl mixed with quartz as a tempering material. The lower course layer (2-6 cm) consisted of non-burnt lime or marl mixed with tempering materials such a shells, flint, bone, and baked clay. During the later periods pulverised pottery sherds became quite common as a temper. In fact using un-burnt lime meant reducing the massive amount of wood needed in the preparation of the wall and floor covering. We know that for one particular village, ‘Ain Ghazal (ca. 7250-5000 BC), they used more than 57,000 trees for architectural constructions, and nearly 60% were burnt for lime production. They were constantly planting new trees, but near the end of the period there were no more trees in a 3 km radius of the village. We can suppose that Man spent some considerable time finding new ways to get his plaster walls and floors without using excessive amounts of burnt lime, and thus trees.
In introducing burnt lime, we have blandly assumed that Man was master of fire. They had used fire for probably more than 1 million years (some experts quote 1.7 million years). Fire and hearths/ovens were certainly instrumental in the way Man created “places of belonging”, and some experts suggest that fire was the reason that Man evolved socially, economically and politically. We tend to think of early Man as trying to find the best foraging strategy, but the reality was that foraging and fire (e.g. fuel) were two competing-complementary strategies, get it wrong and Man died, get it right, Man survived and prospered. The availability of collectable dry wood would have been just as important as access to good hunter-gatherer areas, and also subject to the same seasonal variations. Fuel needed to be collected, transported, processed and stored, and fire was used both for hunting and/or land clearance, and for food processing and cooking. Managing access to fuel would have also been one of the key factors in early sedentism.
Fire clearly transformed materials. In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period it enhanced the processing, preservation and nutritional value of newly domesticated foodstuffs. Fire transformed building materials, and the variety and type of artefacts used. In the region of the Levant and Mesopotamia (the Fertile Crescent), post ca. 10,000 BC (the so-called Early Holocene), Man appeared to pick places that had water, tree cover, and wood resources. There are signs of wood-cutting in the Zagros foothill regions dating back to ca. 9800 BC. It is even suggested that wildfires increased due to lightning strikes during rapid climate warming in the region. And this led to increased seasonal growth of grasses and shrubs, and the drying out of the local biomass. And this led to both 'easier' human settlement and the emergence of goat herd management (known from ca. 8000 BC). Core data taken from lake sediment show that the foothill regions were rich in tree and shrub wood, nuts, grass, reeds and sedge stems, and steppe-forest plants. And there are ample signs of different fuel types being used, i.e. trees, shrubs, reeds, grasses, and even coprolite (a nice word for animal faeces). Wood fuel was dominate in high-land regions, and almost absent in the steppe regions (grass and reeds being the dominant source of fuel). The patterns for fuel use (woodland management and firewood selection) appear correlated with the adoption of agriculture and a more sedentary lifestyle, e.g. shift from nuts to cereals. A telling fact is that the Pistacia tree was being used for its nuts in ca. 8000 BC, but by ca. 7950 BC it was more than 90% of all firewood used (as cereals very rapidly replaced nuts in Man’s diet). Also good building woods, poplar and willow, were rarely selected for firewood. Experts have looked at alternative layers of non-burnt phytoliths and have suggested that firewood might indicate how Man was managing his local environment. For example, leaf and twigs might suggest undergrowth clearing to foster increased tree growth and/or fodder for goats. Whereas reed, sedge and grass fuels might point to their use for roofing, matting, basketry, fodder and food. There are signs that fire was also used to clear areas for the improved natural propagation of reeds, sedges and grasses. Dung is an excellent source of fuel, and burns very evenly (it was preferred over wood by early potters). Some experts have suggested that this was one of the key motivators for the domestication of goats.
There are clear signs that ca. 8200 BC (and through to ca. 6000 BC), there were stone constructed hearths that were returned to annually by mobile pastoral communities. What the hearths show is that larger communities would form during the migration to high-land summer pastures (May to October), but dissolve during the winter. Around the hearths there are signs of pits being dug and lined for storage, and fire-cracked stone suggest grilling and roasting of food. Experts are able to read much into hearths and ashes. It is suggested that the early fires in the Zagros region were made in communal open areas, suggesting that food processing and cooking was shared by several groups. The repeated plastering and renewal of many fireplaces shows that the same places were used season after season, and it is also suggested that the hearths were also used by smaller winter groups. The photographs below are of Jarmo, in the Zagros foothills, and is said to date back to ca. 7000 BC as one of the worlds oldest agricultural communities.
With time, hearths and ovens became incorporated with smaller architectural units, suggesting that food processing and cooking became associated with smaller, tighter, social units. Buildings also changed, from small-roomed structures to buildings with larger rectangular rooms. These changes are said to be associated with the move to the household as the main production and consumption unit, and is also correlated with increased sedentism and the adoption of agricultural practices.
Between ca. 8000-7600 BC, and in the Zagros region, the earliest fires were open pits associated with fire-heated rocks. You could dry/smoke food, and roast, parch, toast, grill, griddle, and bake. If you put the hot rocks in the foodstuff (held in a stone, wood, basket or skin 'bowl') you could boil, stew or extract grease. There is evidence that early Man opened shells and roasted nuts, as well as toasted and/or parched grains (improving taste and 'shelf-life'). By ca. 7750 BC Man was using mud-brick ovens, some plastered both inside and outside. Naturally the lining of ovens were fired during use, and we can see that Man specifically selected alluvial sources with an abundance of quartz and feldspar that absorb well thermal shock. We know that these ovens were used for large-scale toasting of grains, and that they were placed within rectilinear, multi-roomed building complexes. Have a look at “Food, Meals and Daily Activities” for an insight into food 'habitus' at Neolithic Çatalhöyük (a settlement that existed ca. 7500-5700 BC, and the worlds largest and best preserved Neolithic site).
Putting fires and ovens inside buildings clearly facilitated year-round occupation and early sedentism, although they may have been moved outside during the hot summers. There are signs, ca. 7000 BC, of large deposits of soot on plastered and whitewashed walls. A lot of the waste found in refuse pits was burnt, which in itself might have reduced the toxicity and harmfulness of organic waste.
And everywhere we have fire, we eventually see the use of fired lime (starting ca. 10,000 BC), its use in construction, and then in ceramic vessels and figurines. Lime, once fired, then rehydrated, hardens to provide a rigid waterproof and highly durable material. But we are talking of temperatures of at least 750°C, but near 900°C was better. Uses included containers (ca. 8000 BC), flooring (ca. 7000 BC), and somewhat later human and animal figurines. Some of the earliest figurines appear to have been 'fired' at low temperatures, and in fact might have simply been put into fires without the intention to create a durable artefact. Quite a number of clay 'tokens' have also been found. Were they symbolic of something, e.g. early counting devices, games, etc.?
There is evidence in Ganj Dareh that fire destroyed some buildings, ca. 7950 BC. People were killed by falling debris, rather than the fire itself. But temperatures were high enough to melt and crack stone artefacts.
It is truly amazing what we can learn about something as ephemeral as fire, and how its discovery changed Man. But in the above text we do not mention how Man made fire. In fact Man’s use of fire remained sporadic and opportunistic through into the so-called Late Pleistocene (post ca. 120,000 years ago), where there is evidence of systematic and habitual use of fire. It is difficult to imagine Man being dependent upon nature for fire, but we must remember that (for example) the US is hit by millions of lightning strikes annually, and it is estimated that, even in Alaska, there are at least 100 lightning-induced fires burning every day in the summer. So early Man became really expert in maintaining fires, but the real question is how Man finally found a way to ignite fire. Experts feel that rubbing sticks together to make fire is probably related to the technology of hafting. The use of twine or cord to pierce shell beads was known ca. 120,000 years ago, and this same technology could be used to make a fire drill. But we have to wait until ca. 20,000 years ago to see Man become 'master' of fire, with the hearth, cooking, ovens, early pottery, and finally metal working. Check out hand drill, bow drill, pump drill, fire plough, fire saw, and the early history of fire strikers with flint.
Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (Wall of Jericho)
One of the most famous constructions found for the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period (ca. 9500-8000 BC) is the so-called Wall of Jericho (Tell es-Sultan in the Levant). This was an urban fortification, dating to ca. 8000 BC or earlier, and built of undressed stone (dates vary depending upon sources, but most experts put this fortress in a period between 10,200-8,800 BC). It is one of the earliest of its kind, and is thought to have provided protection for an organised community of 2,000 to 3,000 people (it was built around a natural oasis). At least 17 different versions of the wall have been found, indicating that the site was still in use in ca. 700 BC. In fact there are indications that the proto-town of Jericho was started some 500 year before the first wall was built, which if true would actually be before the agricultural revolution (i.e. Neolithic Revolution). There are indications that human activity around the oasis might date back to ca. 12,000 BC. And, as the name of the period suggests, we are also in a period before the making of pottery. In addition, these walls have nothing to do with the Biblical Jericho, because Joshua, if he existed, was a pure product of the Bronze Age (ca. 3300-1200 BC).
The earliest settlement consisted of circular homes made with un-baked mud bricks and probably topped with domed roofs, and there were no “roads” or obvious urban plan. Since pottery had not yet been invented, they used stone vessels. They wove cloth and some of their obsidian tools have been found to have originally come from eastern Turkey, suggesting that a form of trading culture was already in place. The wall was built with an exterior ditch, and there was one stone tower set against the inner side of the wall.
The ditch was around 8 m wide and nearly 3 m deep, and had, in places, a circumference of up to 600 m. The ditch was cut into solid bedrock. The wall itself was around 2 m thick, and between 4-5 m high, the tower might have been about 8-9 m high. The wall and tower were made from undressed stone, presumable taken from the ditch. The construction of the tower is estimated to have taken more than 11,000 man-days. There are suggestions that the ditch and wall was built to stop sand flooding the town, and the wall may also have been defensive. No heavy flint picks or tools have been found for the period, so the effort involved in excavating the ditch must have been tremendous. Experts think that the work must have been done using so-called stone splitting mauls (this kind of tool was known to have been used for digging ditches in solid rock in the period ca. 9000-8000 BC).
The Neolithic period
Traditionally, the Neolithic period (beginning ca. 10,200 BC) is supposed to have started with the beginning of farming, and ended with the tools of the Copper Age. In the Levant, and before this period, we had the Epipaleolithic Natufian culture (ca. 21,000-9500 BC), traditionally classed as a hunter-gatherer culture. A culture initially of nomadic hunter-gatherers who could use relatively advanced tools, e.g. small flints, short blades (microlithic industry), and harpoons and fish hooks made of bone. This culture became sedentary before the introduction of agriculture, and was responsible for some of the earliest evidence of agriculture, i.e. exploiting wild cereals. The region, the Levant (pre-history, ancient history), was known to host a hundred kinds of cereals, fruit, nuts, and edible plants. It is a period where circular structures, probably made of brushwood, were built around a fireplace, and there are no traces of mud bricks (common in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period). Settlements were more like camps, and relocation was frequent. There were no storage facilities.
This is a far too brief summary of a long period during which people began living in villages (sedentism) and producing their own food (agriculture). In this sense it was a period of profound economic, social, technological and ideological change. Some experts suggested that the change was sudden, and triggered by climate change, but today there appears to have been no direct correlation between major cultural changes and climate. What is certain is that the period saw the introduction of durable stone-built architecture, intensified plant and animal use, the appearance of an art of decoration, the use of new mortuary traditions with marked graves and cemeteries, and signs of elaborate ritual and symbolic behaviour. Usually the transition between hunter-gatherer and a more agricultural-driven culture is said to have suddenly occurred ca. 12,500 BC, but there is now plenty of evidence showing that the transition was in fact gradual (it has now been termed “the revolution that wasn’t”, stressing the continuity of transition). The defining technology during this period was the production of stone tools from very small blade blanks. It started with narrow non-geometric microliths (often less than 1 cm long), moved to geometric forms (trapezes and rectangles), and then on to small arrowheads and 'lunates' or small crescent-shaped microliths. The earliest type of microliths (ca. 20,000-15,500 BC) were found in caves or open-air settings. The key was that these microliths, or bladelets, would have been mounted in composite tools (e.g. different hafting). In fact the 'backed bladelet', (just a blade with one blunt side) is thought to have been responsible for the move to chipped-stone tool technology.
There were traces of structures, including floors, stone foundations, pavements, and post holes. The huts were probably made of brushwood, and set around an out-door heath, with refuse collected in designated areas. Some huts were set in depressions containing large quantities of flint and ground stone. There were a few oval huts associated with collections of marine shells, red ochre, flint bladelets and cores, and burnt horn cores. These sites were probably seasonal campsites. There were a few sites that look to have been larger multi-season sites, with good site organisation, burials, and worked bone and stone. The period ca. 15,500-12,500 BC looks to have been characterised by an increase in the number of sites, and suggestions of direct interaction between sites. Large sites had a diverse collection of artefacts, and there are signs that the site would have been reused several times. Some sites may even have had stone walls. Alongside these larger sites were many smaller 'specialised' short-lived sites. Some experts have suggested that the larger sites were for the winter, and the smaller ones for spring and summer (other experts contest this Bedouin idea).
Ground-stone objects such as deep vessels, pestles and mortars, and grinding slabs also appeared early in this period, along with ground stone tools. There are suggestions that the use-wear patterns show that the tools were multi-functional, and their use might not only have been related to subsistence living. Grinding slabs show that cereals were pounded some 23,000 years ago, and that both bones and ochre were also ground using the same tools. Shells and bones show that they were sharpened, polished, denticulated, beveled, abraded, incised, and drilled. Some objects carried geometric designs or patterns of lines. There is also some evidence that twisted cords and nets were made using organic materials (stone net sinkers have also been found). A key message here is not to judge Mans technology just by his stone tools. The earliest 'mobile art' are engraved limestone pebbles or cobbles from Urkan e-Rub, which date from ca. 17,000-12,000 BC. They are engraved on both sides with complex geometric patterns. There is an excellent article outlining the art from this period, “Pleistocene Palaeoart of Asia”, that is worth a read.
This type of incised and polished pebbles have been found in many other sites, along with incised and carved animal bones, and even a carved bone spoon and bone dagger have also been found. Pierced marine shells are quite abundant, and show that they were carried over quite substantial distances. Most were strung and stained with red ochre, and probably used as jewellery. Experts think that they would have been traded, but that they were not a specialised or elite item.
It is interesting to note that over the period ca. 21,000-9500 BC experts have detected some 'microevolutionary' changes in skeletal morphology, possibly due to the use of tool technologies and changes in foraging strategies. Skeletons show changes in cranial and postcranial bone mass (gracilisation), a shift to small body sizes, an evolution in sexual dimorphism, and a shift away from what is termed “lateralisation of body robusticity” (in very simple terms meaning a shift away from the prevalent use of one arm, possibly due to less weapons training and more agro-pastoral activity). Burial activity increased substantially in the later part of this period, possibly simply due to an increase in population. Most graves were shallow earthen pits for individuals (in an extended position), although graves were also re-used. In the early period graves were simply covered with large unmodified stones, and the person was accompanied with some ground-stone objects and modified or unmodified animal bones. There are indications that body-binding became a common practice in the later part of this period. Over time burial positions varied, and grave goods increasingly included ground and chipped stone tools, bone objects (daggers and spoons), red ochre, decorated pebbles and shells, and animal parts (foxes and gazelles). Wild cattle parts were also found before domestication, hinting at their significance even for early Man. It is clear now that Man increasingly became dependent upon plant food before the domestication of either plants or animals. There was a slow shift from small-grained grasses towards cereals. By mixing harvesting and hunting, sites could be occupied year-round. There is strong evidence showing that Man had quite a broad and predicable diet of plants, and available animal species also remained more of less constant over the period (as did butchery and food processing practices). So it is still not clear why the move to domestication of plants and later animals. What is clear is that intensification of plant and animal sources was a very gradual process, over a much longer time than just during the Natufian period (ca. 12,500-9500 BC). The gazelle was the dominate meat source (up to 85%), but regional variations also included fallow deer, auroch, equids, hartebeest, roe deer, wolf, wild boar, hare, fox, tortoise, migratory birds, and even raptors.
The finding of marine shells several hundred kilometres inland, and the emergence of lithic industries, strongly suggest an active regional practice of trade and exchange, even in the early part of this period. However, there is no evidence for the trade of animal carcasses. This would not preclude that gazelle meat might be dried, stored and later traded. There are hints that domestication might have been driven by overexploitation of gazelle and other large prey. Smaller animals might have more easily been domesticated by a sedentary population. The domestication of plants might have been driven by the increase in the sedentary population. There are even suggestions that some animal species were considered more “attractive” than others, and that this drove the development of specialised technologies, such as traps and nets.
So by the later part of this period, we have the emergence of sedentary village life, an adoption of food production, and a rise in social complexity. We saw the gradual emergence of agricultural villages, with plant and animal intensification, long-term occupancy, standardised burial practices (with symbolic features), and some long-range interaction between communities (and not ignoring the early signs of a desire for artistic expression).
Pre-Pottery Neolithic B
During the period ca. 8700-6800 BC Man started to use flint tools and became more dependent upon domesticated animals (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B). Buildings started to become rectangular and floors and walls were made of polished plaster. Proto-pottery started to appear with the so-called White Ware, a kind of plaster that could be moulded using a basket shape, and then left to dry. Here again we already see 'physics' at work. This plaster was made by first pulverising limestone. Then it had to be heated to more than 1000°C. Then the reduced lime was mixed with ashes, straw, or gravel, making a lime plaster. Who knows if and when the Babylonian’s discovered that limestone could neutralise acidic soil, be used in a type of cement, and as an aggregate for foundations and roads. I wonder if/when they also started to use pulverised limestone in their medicines and cosmetics. And of course limestone is easy to carve and model.
Limestone itself appeared in the form of small simple round-based vessels in the early Halef Period (ca. 6100-5100 BC). Later, but in the same period, limestone mace heads (axes) have also been found. One particular example was found with the imprint of its curved wooden half. The same period also yielded a cut limestone bull's head and a limestone bull's hoof amulet. In later periods we would also see limestone slabs used as paving stones and temple walls made of limestone rather than mud bricks. And later still limestone would be more frequently seen being used along with alabaster for stone bowl rims and spouted vessels with handles (Ubaid Period ca. 4500 BC). Later still in the Uruk Period ca. 2900 BC limestone would be used for beads. Hoards of beads have been found in all sorts of shapes (cylinders, rings, …) and made of a vast variety of stone, and including beads of shells and clay. Many are perforated and could have been used as amulets, other might have been game pieces (a few limestone gamesmen pieces have been found as well). A few more elaborate pieces might have been furniture inlays.
Ceramic sculpture and figurines
Before pottery came ceramic sculpture. The Dolní Věstonice, a so-called Venus figurine, is the oldest known work of terra-cotta (baked earth) sculpture, and pre-dates the first ceramic pots and jars by about 14,000 years. This nude female figurine has been dated to ca. 29,000-25,000 BC, and therefore sits in the Gravettian tool-making culture (ca. 29,000-22,000 BC). This culture is characterised by a small pointed re-struck blade with a blunt but straight back, and a carving tool called a burin. They were also known for their hunting technique using nets (see Use of animals during the Gravettian period). This period has been associated with the early Venus figurines, but they also made figures of animals, i.e. bear, lion, mammoth, horse, fox, rhino and owl. More than 2,000 of these burnt clay figurines have been found, of which ca. 200 are Venus figurines.
The Gravettian culture possibly 'started' near modern-day Bulgaria, and spread out across Europe, and even as far as Siberia. When we say 'started' we mean first discovered through their defining artefacts, but experts feel that they may well have derived from a people who originally inhabited glacial Europe, and who would have been pushed south. There they would have mixed (possibly several times) with peoples moving from more temperate regions. The Gravettian were preceded by the Aurignacian culture (ca. 38,000-29,000 BC) who occupied a vast area from Spain to Crimea, including Greece, Italy, and possible as far as the south of the British Isles (which was still connected to France). There were also thought to have occupied the Levant, where there are signs of 'human' occupation dating back to ca. 1.4 million years ago. In Western Europe, the Gravettian culture was followed by the flint tool makers, the Solutrean industry (ca. 22,000-17,000 BC). The Gravettian people were not linked to their predecessors, the Aurignacians, nor to the Szeletians (ca. 30,000 BC) or to the Bohunicians (ca. 45,000-35,000 BC), both in Central Europe. Some experts feel that the type of flint tools they made suggests a link with the Ahmarian culture (ca. 39,000-24,000 BC), who originally occupied the Levant. It was this culture that successfully spread the Antelian culture (ca. 30,000-18,000 BC) and the Aurignacian culture (ca. 38,000-29,000 BC), and who’s burins and narrow blade points have been found as far away as France. It has been suggested that the Pavlovian culture (ca. 27,000-23,000 BC) was the one that bridged the gap between the Ahmarian culture of the Levant and the Gravettian culture that made the Dolní Věstonice.
In fact the Dolní Věstonice was not an isolated development. She was found near two kilns, which were surrounded by more than 7,000 fired ceramic fragments (and several thousand clay balls). This type of kiln was able to attain temperatures of perhaps 700°C, but clearly the process was not full under control since many of the fragments showed thermal cracking. It is not clear why this specific type of artefact was made. They were fragile, and thus probably not seen as practical or valuable. This general type of artefact (Venus figurines) were quite common, in fact figurines made of bone, ivory or stone date back to ca. 30,000 BC. The first (below) on the left is the Venus of Lespugue (tusk ivory, ca. 26,000-24,000 BC) The second one from the left is the Dolní Věstonice Venus. The third one is the Willendorf Venus (limestone, ca. 28,000-25,000 BC). The fourth one is the Venus of Moravany (mammoth tusk ivory, ca. 22,800 BC).
Generally these types of figurines were made of carved stone, ivory, or bone, but never fired clay. In fact the desire to make such pottery figurines died when the people who made them died out. Many experts highlight the fact that the Gravettian culture was remarkably complex. It included carvings and engravings, soft stone carving, and ceramic figurine production. Initially they manufactured burins and scrapers, but over time they started to manufacture microliths and pointed blades. They are said to have preferred to occupy their sites over prolonged periods of time. In the latter part of the Gravettian period they appeared to focus more and more on the female figurines.
The next oldest example of European 'ceramic art' is the Vela Spila Pottery (ca. 15,500-13,000 BC, in modern-day Croatia), which is a collection of 36 ceramic artefacts (see above for one example). We have to remember that the Upper Palaeolithic period (ca, 50,000-10,000 years ago) was a period when Man created textiles and weaving, complex bone, ivory and antler tools, and the figurative art we have already mentioned. But the collection found in Vela Spila shows that figurative art (and the diversity in the 36 artefacts) must have been a strong social tradition and not just an ephemeral experiment with a new material (i.e. baked clay). We do not know the link between the figurines of Gravettian period and the finds of Vela Spila, but we do know that the ceramic technologies developed from ca. 15,500 BC were lost after some 2,000 to 3,000 years.
Let's look in a little more detail at the material characteristics of the Dolní Věstonice. This may appear a little 'academic' but the experts asked the question "Was this Venus ceramic?". At the time an analysis determined that the Venus was made of silicon-containing ash and mammoth bone, and possibly some mammoth fat. So no aluminium oxide or potassium oxide that is always present in clay. Later they confirmed the presence of mammoth fat, and also found traces of loess, a local dust, but no aluminium or potassium. Later a new analysis found no bone or other organic components and no stone fragments. Later still experts confirmed that some animal heads found at the same site contained clay in the form 'terra cotta', so it looks as if this loess or local dust was used to make the animal statuettes. Today the definition of ceramic includes both animal and mineral material.
This short discussion highlights the difficulty is just defining what is (or was) a ceramic. As we turn to Mesopotamian pottery we are going to be faced with how to classify an incredible variety of designs (forms, decorations, etc.) made at different times and at different sites, with different types of clays, etc., and all being traded through more or less extensive networks. Analytical properties for archaeological ceramics can include colour, hardness, texture, porosity, petrographic microscopy, stereomicroscopy, X-ray diffraction, analysis of the clay, firing techniques, imitation of existing pottery, analysis of glazing, and decoration. And just as important - location/level (stratigraphy), shape/form/function, material found alongside the pottery, societal/social context, etc.
Let's start by looking at just one example of stratigraphy. In 1931-32 a German expedition identified 18 (I to XVIII) levels under a Ziggurat at Warka (Uruk), levels III-XVIII prehistoric, and 11 levels of prehistoric pottery with XIV to VII as early Uruk and VI to III as late Uruk. The Uruk levels are characterised by a new type/style of pottery, the use of a true potter's wheel, and innovations in architecture, glyphic and metalwork. However also the levels (periods) from VII are called Proto-literate (late 4000 BC) because they cover the invention of writing (level IV has since been divided into different proto-literate periods). At the time it was difficult to know if the pottery found came from other 'cultures' (even as far as Egypt) or if they represent a specific Mesopotamian-Uruk pottery culture (later many more Uruk sites have been found in South Mesopotamia).
Later studies of shape, form and function, showed that a large number of shapes were present both in the North and South, e.g. open bowls, 'flower pots', globular cooking bowls, jars with multiple spouts, shallow bowls with tripod legs, etc. Also a detailed analysis of shapes and forms helps avoid having a profusion of separate cultures when most are just later phases or luxury products of the same basic culture. This is not to belittle a specific sub-type, for example Jamdat Nasr (ca. 3100-2900 BC) is a late phase Uruk culture but one that produced a number of style and decoration variations and influenced developments outside Mesopotamia in Syria, Turkey and the Nile valley.
Concerning the societal context, no break was detected between the previous 'period' (late Ubaid) and early Uruk pottery. Ubaid pottery was found in a number of levels at Warka and both red and grey Uruk pottery was found at a number of Ubaid sites in both the North and South. How to tell the difference? Ubaid pottery was usually hand-made or made on a slow wheel and decorated with geometric designs in red and black paint, whereas Uruk pottery was wheel turned and had crudely drawn fish or pigs. What is important is that Ubaid styles continued into the Uruk period and there were even some Ubaid-style decoration on early Uruk pottery. This supports the idea of a gradual cultural continuity, and not an invasion producing rapid change.
Form, style and societal context are all about the way the physical properties of artefacts such as vessels relate to both form and function, and indirectly to settlement systems and economics. Some experts look at the ceramic technology and methods of manufacture. Others look at the aesthetic decisions about style, decoration and learning patterns within communities of potters. But what of usage? What were the different artefacts used for, how long did they last, and what did Mesopotamians do with broken vessels, pots, etc.? A particular vessel with specific properties and found in a specific context can provide information on the behaviour of its past users. There are lists of general functional categories, and even 'tests' to determine how a specific form might perform a specific task. And there are some basic assumptions that certain generic forms will be used for more or less the same task across time and cultures. Below we have some typical pottery profiles taken from a Mesopotamian site dating to ca. 6000 BC.
One fundamental category is 'cooking vessels', and almost all were short and squat with thick walls and a large base surface good for heat transfer and a restricted mouth to prevent evaporation (handles, lugs, etc. were optional rather than essential). Another is the unpainted 'cooking tray' (griddles). Then there are serving and eating vessels (e.g. open bowls). Many of these types of vessels were decorated, but there are signs that they had short lifespans. Often they were quite small, around 6-8 cm high and 10-20 cm in diameter (although family bowls were about 3 time larger in volume). Then there were the dry storage vessels, usually tall and wide so that its content could be scooped. Some had lids, but it appears that many would have been covered with a bowl. They had rolled-over or 'everted' rims, possibly to protect the contents against insects and/or to allow the use of a pliable cover. Dry seed pots appear to have had sharply everted rims to allow a cloth or hide covering. Vessels for long-term storage were taller and narrower, whilst temporary storage vessels were usually wider. A key element for some experts is that temporary storage vessels had a low centre of gravity for safety purposes. Most of these types of vessels were not to be moved and did not have handles or lugs. Oddly vessels for long-term storage were narrower and could not be emptied with a scoop. When handles were included on these type of vessels they were not strong enough to allow a full vessel to be lifted (probably used to tilt and empty them). Burnishing appears to have been reserved for liquid storage. Liquid storage vessels were much more varied (water, oil, beer). Long-term storage vessels were large and could not be moved when full. Smaller vessels were usually tall and narrow to aid in pouring. Oddly most liquid storage vessels did not have narrow necks, etc. just a mouth that could be covered. Experts think that wide mouths would be easier for filling and regular access. Vessels for storing honey, cheese, olives were covered with a cloth tied under the rolled rim. These types of vessels might be burnished or glazed, except for oil jars where the content sealed the porous walls. Information about water storage vessels is limited, but they were often globular with or without necks. Vessels for carrying water often had two or three handles, and all were designed to be carried by one person.
On any individual site you might find a mix of pottery shards dating from different periods. Some were painted, others burnished, others slip coated. Some of the simpler forms were found across divers periods. Some vertical-side vessels and bowls with flaring and carinated walls and a few smaller round bodied vessels were common to many periods. Earlier periods tended to have pottery for use rather than for liquid or long-term dry storage. Also water carrying vessels were missing in earlier periods, possible water was carried in skins. Early pottery would be quite thick walled, used for cooking, and often blackened inside and outside. Burnished pottery or pottery with a thick slip were for liquids. Experts think that carinated or decorated vessels were for specialised cooking and/or serving. On some sites goat bones were found which might indicate early dairy practices, and thus even yogurt making. Some flat trays could have been used for parching grain or bread baking. Generally on early sites vessel forms were limited and of small sizes. If we move to ca. 4200 BC we have small hamlets permanently occupied with mud-walled houses and storage bins. There is usually evidence of cultivation and domestication. Pottery was still straw-tempered and handmade, and with simple shapes and decoration. More vessels were burnished, and most appeared to have been wet-smoothed, i.e. the damp clay is smoothed using wet fingers or a spatular. About one-third of the vessels were slip-coated, but only about one in five was decorated with a simple black or red pattern (solid triangles). Shapes were still simple and almost all rims were pinched. Shapes remained simple but there was more variety in sizes. It looks as if some vessels were also used for storage. Cooking vessel lacked decoration and still had thick walls, and a flat worn or fire-blackened bottom. There are even patterns on the inner base suggesting that the content was stirred. Some pots have holes on the rim suggesting that they might have been suspended over a fire. Vessels used for serving were lighter, with thinner walls, and often painted. There were fewer low-walled flat vessels suggesting that they had a different way to prepare and consume cereals. Later still we would see forms made on a potters wheel, and later still forms made on a faster potter's wheel (ca. 2900-2600 BC). These later examples were more elegant in style and included an elaborate incision technique which is considered a natural advance in the potter's craft. At this point in time designs were not also related to local traditions but appeared to be inspired by designs from elsewhere, e.g. Iran, etc. We have just scratched the surface of what is possible from a detailed analysis of form and function in a social context.
Let's now have a look at colour. One issue here is that it is impossible to pull the colour itself apart from its name. Colour has been around for at least 100,000 years as seen on artefacts. But words for colours probably only dated from ca. 8000 BC, and the earliest text mentioning colours from ca. 3200 BC. Black and white were probably 'dark' and 'light', red could have just meant 'colourful' and might have been opposed to white or 'light'. Green, green-blue and green-yellow might all have been named the same colour and would have described anything from vegetation to gold. Dark blue was different and was related to the colour of lapis lazuli, and there might have been a variety of words for light blue. The mention of lapis lazuli highlights one feature of Mesopotamian colours, they were usually named after a material colour, and not based upon visible light. Gold would need a complex description and certainly not a simple yellow (which was named the same as green), silver was 'bright' or 'light' or even 'gleaming'. Since they associated colours with materials they did have specific colours for carnelian, jade, turquoise, amethyst, etc. In some early languages putting lapis lazuli and cornelian in the same text meant gold or golden. It was the Egyptians that gave a name for the colour of the sky, but still turquoise rather than its own colour.
The colour of Mesopotamian pottery, and in general all pottery, depends upon the clay composition and the firing conditions (atmosphere, temperature and duration of firing). Iron in the clay and a so-called oxidation firing will give it a reddish colour, while a reduction firing (reduced oxygen) gives a grey or black colour. A weak oxidation/reduction will usually produce a buff or yellowish colour, which maybe due to a lack of control in the firing atmosphere. Also a buff or cream body is often characteristic of a plant-based temper rather than a sand or sandy based temper.
In order to really understand the relationship between the raw materials used and the production technique (firing, etc.) samples need to be taken into a physics laboratory. Thin slices of pottery are needed for petrographic thin section analysis under a polarising petrographic microscope. The samples micro-morphology and vitrification microstructures can be seen using a scanning electron microscope. Chemical composition can be determined using a so-called energy-dispersive X-ray fluorescence spectrometer which can be attached to the electron microscope. And information on the mineral phases of the sample can be found using X-ray power diffraction. The firing atmosphere can be examined using the chemical state of the iron in the sample, using synchrotron radiation-induced X-ray absorption near-edge structure analysis.
The photographs above are not specific to Mesopotamia but they show the power of thin-slice microphotography to detect variations in pottery composition. These images were all taken from the same location and are classed as Neolithic, ca. 8000 BC. We have: a) is limestone, b) is phyllite, c) is mica and quartz, d) is tuff, e) is serpentinite, f) is grog, g) is polycrystalline quartz with limestone, and h) is clay and phyllite.
Back to Mesopotamian pottery, analysis shows that a cream colour is usually coarser in texture and includes an organic (straw) temper. The reddish brown or orange colour is finer in texture and includes feldspar, mica and quartz grains possibly taken from the silt of a river bed. Experts can also see the relative concentrations of elements (CaO, FeO, etc.) in the clay used, and this helps classify the clay as compared to other known samples and helps point to a likely site of origin. High FeO correlates with the reddish brown colour and a low concentration with a creamy or whitish colour. One important sign was that clays with higher CaO content were fired at below 800°C whereas higher concentrations of Ca silicates point to a firing temperature above 900°C. Glassy phase areas would be observed when a continuous vitrification phase begins above 1050°C. Knowing when certain components in the clay decompose helps fix a narrow range for the firing temperature (+/- 50°C). Also the distribution of vitrification in samples indicates if the firing temperatures were uniform, i.e. well controlled, characteristic of poor positioning in the oven or even of the use of open fires. Firing temperature is one thing but firing atmosphere is another, i.e. oxidation firing will form a trivalent iron and a reddish colour, and a reduction firing will form divalent iron and turn the colour to paste grey or black. Cream or buff colours are more difficult to predict. And the pottery can also be fired using a reduction technique but using an oxidising cooling phase to get mixed colours. Other techniques include firing organic-rich clays slowing and leaving the pottery in the oven for more time. Samples can be re-fired to see if the original oxidation firing was completed properly. All these techniques together help show how raw materials and firing techniques evolved with time, and even how new production processes might have been introduced from elsewhere. Experts are not left to just look at designs, form and decoration to classify pottery periods.
In Mesopotamia the earliest figurines were small stone human figures. They are very small, and the female figurine is almost a rectangular block with a slightly indented waist, a minute head, and no arms or legs. There are a few animal figurines made of solid pottery, much in the same way as clay spindles. They certainly date from before the Halef Period (so pre-6100 BC). There are a few broken artefacts with hollow bases that are considered to have been figurines, and where the same technique was used as for early unpainted pottery. Some of the earliest Mesopotamian figurines were hollow models of birds on a pedestal base, and could be theriomorphic vessels rather than figurines. Later came female figurines in clay, later ones more 'naturalistic' and earlier ones rather crude. There is no evidence to indicate if they were goddesses, human figures, or fertility symbols. Later figures were painted with what might be tattoos. Many of the female figurines are squatting, with pointed knees, pinched heads and arms encircling the breasts. Some later figurines had painted facial features. Some of the later figurines have round, turban-like headdresses, and are seated on little round stools. Several are painted with simple bands and 'tattoos' that could represent clothing or ornaments. More stylised figures appeared during the Ubaid Period (ca. 6500-3800 BC). There are also some horned animals (arguably bulls) and one mouse has been found.
The study of these figurines is important because the style, fabrication technique and subject, points to how different parts of Mesopotamia were in frequent contact with each other.
It would be amiss of us not to mention the so-called 'reptilian' figurines first discovered at Ur (ca. 3800-700 BC). In fact the site was occupied also during the Ubaid Period (ca. 6500-3800 BC) when the area was known to have been marshland. These figurines were found below the 'flood' deposits so may date from ca. 6000 BC. Some of the figurines are greenish resulting from overfiring, and have detail outlined in black. Others were not so hard fired and have a lighter colour and the detail outlined in black and red. They are quite large (14-17 cm high) and all the complete figurines are female. The heads are reptile like, but the bodies are slender and often holding a child. They were found along with numerous crude animal figures. Oddly the painting had no relationship to the physical form of the animal. Some less well executed male 'serpent' figurines have been found in cemeteries at other sites (but not in the graves). Later (ca. 4100-3000 BC) these figurines appear to have remained popular across many sites. Some variations involved the way the gashed eyes were modelled and some had pointed headdresses, but all had cylindrical bodies, legs together, and a splayed base.
Preparing the ground for early pottery
We know that early Man produced reed and gourd baskets, leather bags, and carved wood and bone bowls. They were useful for storage, but not for cooking with fire. Clay models (Venus figurines) were made and fired as early as ca. 27,000 BC. With sedentary living (post ca. 10,000 BC) winter storage became more important, and fired pottery was needed to hold liquids. The coil built pots, Jōmon pottery in Japan (ca. 10,000 BC), were some of the earliest Neolithic pottery (the technique 'arrived' in Europe with the Corded Ware culture ca. 2900 BC). Existing basketry involved wrapping and weaving (tying and braiding) string, jute and animal gut, thus also creating the original decoration of impressed designs upon the surface of the clay. It is not difficult to imagine that clay might have been used in baskets to try to find a way for it to hold liquids. Man knew that the fired figurines were hard and waterproof, so it was just a long process of trial and error that would have produced the first fired, clay lined basket with a hard, permanent, water tight interior that could be used for cooking. The earliest pots were first small vessels made from coils of clay pinched together by hand. Later a type of spatula would be used, and the walls were burnished to reduce porosity (a technique already used on lime floors). Then came the first painted pots and decorations, then the use of a liquid slip, then the application of spirals, coils, impressed patterns, stamped dies and figurative paintings (using the same paints as used in cave and wall paintings).
Worlds first pottery
All this is nothing more than an introduction to the worlds first pottery, that found in the Xianrendong Cave in China. Below on the left we have a vase that has been dated to be about 10,000 years old, however there is evidence (radiocarbon dating of shards) that the pottery was being made possibly as early as ca. 18,000-17,000 BC (or about 10,000 years before the emergence of agriculture). The second piece (right) comes from the Yuchanyan Cave, which was occupied for a long period ca. 19,000-11,800 BC. The pottery has been dated to ca. 16,300-13,400 BC. They are pieces of two cord-impressed pots or jars, thick-walled, and fired at a low temperature. Here there are no indications that the vessels were used for cooking.
The story goes that in the early 1960’s some pottery shards were found in caves in southern China (more than 500 shards from 2 different sites). These shards were found along with more than 600 stone objects (scrapers, points, blades, etc.), 300 bone artefacts (awls, needles, arrowheads, and fish darts), 26 perforated shells, and thousands of animal bones (a few human ones as well). In the mid-1970’s the shards were dated to be about 6,500 to 8,800 years old, based upon radiocarbon dating of one bone and one shell sample. These results were not considered reliable because they were inconsistent with the strata being excavated. Later excavations in the Liyuzui Cave yielded 2 shells from a similar strata, which were then dated at between 16,500 and 19,000 years old. Excavations continued, and this time pottery shards were dated to ca.13,600 BC. Then more than 30 carbon and bones samples were dated from the Xianrendong Cave, coving the period 10,400-15,600 BC. The culture in the south of China at the time was a transitional one (Late Pleistocene to Holocene), consisting of cave dwellers with a lithic industry (mostly chopping tools) who were cultivators of more than 40 species of wild rice. In fact there are 8 stratified layers in the Xianrendong Cave, all containing pottery body shards and some rim shards. The paste looks to be more or less the same, and always tempered with coarse grain quartzite grit. The colour is brown, and there are signs that some shards were not fired in a kiln. The thick-walled, round-based jars were either made from clay pieces or using the coiling method. Some have the surface touched with a blunt fork-like tool. Another type have plain surfaces from hand smoothening. Decoration is always V or U shaped denticulations on the rim, and puncture dots on the surface made with a small stick. Those jars made using the coil method were finished with a paddle wrapped in cord or fibre and the marks were left as stamps on the surface, i.e. cord-mark pottery. Similar types of pottery have been found both in Japan and Siberia. It was in 2009 that a new series of excavations and radiocarbon dating suggested a time range of ca. 18,000-17,000 BC for the earliest pottery shards. Evidence has now also been found that the pots were probably used for cooking.
The suggestion is that pottery was invented by affluent foragers whose livelihood was based upon diversified natural resources. The idea is that they needed to invent pottery to cook cereal food grains. The technique migrated to Japan sometime ca. 10,100-8000 BC, and into eastern Siberia ca. 10,000 BC (possibly from Japan). But there are signs that pottery may have migrated and been used in Japan as early as 14,500 BC.
The key idea here is that given that pottery was developed after agriculture in Mesopotamia, there was a suggestion that they were positively linked. I think the idea was that as Man turned from hunter-gathering to farming and animal husbandry, they needed some kind of water-tight cooking and storage containers. However, Chinese pottery (and the 'incipient' Japanese Jōmon pottery) was developed before agriculture. So it is now suggested that in fact pottery was invented possibly through a accident. A burning of a wattle basket, with a dry clay lining, could have been the accidental catalyst for the invention of pottery. What is sure now is that the earliest Chinese pottery was used for cooking rice. Another idea was that the invention of pottery was linked to a climate change, but the most recent dating of the earliest pottery places it firmly outside any major climate change periods.
Early Chinese pottery was not sophisticated, it was roughly made earthenware, fired in a bonfire for a short period of time. The shape, round bottom, avoided any sharp angles or rims that would be prone to cracks. Glazes were not used, and decoration was minimal and limited to the coiled rope motif of basketry. Jōmon culture (ca. 14,000-300 BC) was named from the decorative technique of leaving impressions on the outside of the pot, by pressing rope into the clay before firing (very similar to the early Chinese pattern). At ca. 14,000 BC Japan was still linked to continental Asia.
It is very difficult to piece together early (Paleolithic) Chinese history, and there is actually very little mention of pottery until ca. 9500 BC. However, we do know that Wushan Man lived in the Three Gorges area nearly 2 million years ago, and that Fengjie Man made ivory tools, polished stone, and possibly carved tusks ca. 130,000-150,000 years ago. Fengdu was a period ca. 100,000 years ago when Man started to produce 'real' stoneware, i.e. sharp-edged tools. In fact Paleolithic Man (through to ca. 40,000 BC) lived all over China, e.g. in Jinniushan, Zhoukoudian, Xujiayao, Guanyindong, and in the Three Gorges Region. This was still a culture that was seasonal, occupying sites for short periods, and making simple, basic tools. The regions provided an 'easy' hunting-gathering life-style. They did not over-exploit natural resources and probably felt little pressure to innovate to procure difficult resources. They tended to move frequently to find new food sources, and left their artefacts in many different sites. However, different regions provided a great variability in stone resources, and the different peoples learned to be flexible in the way they made their tools, e.g. some using quartz nodules from river beds, others making large regular flakes, and other using highly polished throwing stones.
We tend to forget that human pre-history (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) evolved different in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia (and elsewhere in the world). For example China was home to Homo erectus more than 1 million years ago (List of Paleolithic sites in China), and was awash with Neolithic cultures from about ca. 10,000 BC (List of Neolithic cultures in China).
Our pre-history pottery timeline (certainly incomplete) looks something like this:
Pit fired pottery (ca. 29,000-25,000 BC) - oldest known method of firing pottery
Venus of Dolní Věstonice (ca. 29,000-25,000 BC) - Moravian Basin - first known pottery kiln - most Venus figurines dated from the Gravettian tool-making period (ca. 26,000-21,000 BC) - the 30 female Mal’ta Venus figurines, dating from ca. 21,000 BC and made of mammoth ivory, were found near Lake Baikal in Siberia
Chinese Xianrendong Cave pottery (ca. 18,000-17,000 BC) - first pottery shards - first pottery wheel found in same Jiangxi province (ca. 18,000 BC)
Chinese Yuchanyan Cave pottery (ca. 16,300-15,500 BC) - Yangtze River Basin - pottery shards
Vela Spila pottery (in modern-day Croatia) - 36 ceramic artefacts (figurines) dated to ca. 15,000-13,000 BC
Japanese Jōmon pottery - Incipient (ca. 14,500-8000 BC) - small, round bottom deep cooking vessels - rudimentary cord or rope pattern, similar to early European Corded Ware (ca. 2900-2350 BC) - Odal Yamamoto I site (ca. 14,500 BC) with earthenware fragments from a pottery cooking vessel
Siberian Amur River Basin pottery (ca, 14,300-11,250 BC) - earliest pottery shards found along river basin in Russia/Inner Manchuria
Japanese Fukui Cave pottery (and radiocarbon dating and “calibration”)
I would like to digress here for a moment. The Wikipedia article on Japanese Jōmon pottery mentions pottery found in Fukui Cave as being from ca. 13,000-14,000 BC. Other articles mention ca. 14,000 BC, but yet other articles mention radiocarbon dating of ca. 10,500 BC. Other articles mention the radiocarbon dating of 11,000 BC, but also 14,000 BC after “calibration”. And yet they also mention the radiocarbon dating of the caves contents as pointing to ca. 10,700-10,300 BC.
In fact all radiocarbon measurements are termed in “before present” (BP), where the present is 1950. The technique is simple. It is based upon the proportion of radiocarbon found in a sample, but it assumes that atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations have always been the same (before 1950) and that the half-life is 5568 years. However, the proportion of radiocarbon in the atmosphere has in fact varied by a few % in the past, and the half-life is now measured at 5730 years. See “Calibration of radiocarbon dates” for further information. I have simply tried to pull together a coherent set of datas as best I can.
I actually think that for the Fukui Cave pottery things are even more intriguing. Radiocarbon dating only appeared after WW II, and until then experts thought that Jōmon pottery was made ca. 5,000-6,000 years ago. So it was a major surprise when the new dating method suggested that Jōmon pottery was ca. 9,000 years old, and that pottery making in Japan could date back some 12,000 years. This analysis was based upon charcoal and oyster shells samples found along with the pottery shards. Then results for carbon found along with shards in the Fukui Cave confirmed the 12,000 year prediction. But these shards were not found along with arrowpoints typical of the Jōmon period, but with microblades typical of a Paleolithic tradition. So the shards looked like they were linked to Jōmon, but the stone implements suggested Paleolithic cultures, thus the classification of “incipient” Jōmon pottery. There are signs that the cave was occupied nearly 40,000 years ago, and it is a unique site in Asia in presenting a continuity of occupation through such a long period (13,000 to 30,000 years ago). There are, of course, older sites in Japan, for example some sites are home to artefacts made from veined quartz, chert, and quartz rhyolite (choppers and chopping tools using the Levallois technique). These artefacts have strong similarities with artefacts found on mainland Asia, and could date back 40,000 years.
The Jōmon period is not just defined by its pottery. In the period ca. 8000-300 BC the people made canoes, bows and arrows, fish-hooks, saws, had domesticated dogs, and built houses with thatched roofs. Judging from the mounds of shells, they loved sea food. Unlike on mainland Asia there is little evidence of farming practices. Once Japan was separated from mainland Asia, there is still evidence of “cultural exchange” with Korea some 3000-4000 years ago.
The history of Jōmon pottery does not resolve the problem of why Man made pottery. Originally it was believed that Neolithic farmers needed pottery to store grain or boil nuts after the climate became warmer, i.e. that pottery was a mere byproduct of agriculture. But, at least for Jōmon pottery (and the earliest Chinese pottery), there is no real link between farming and the pottery. Now that the earliest pottery shards have been dated to ca. 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last Ice Age, a frigid period when plant-derived foods were scarce. The earliest Chinese pottery did not directly continue into later Chinese cultures, however in Japan Jōmon pottery continued to be made and developed for well in excess of 12,000 years.
The suggestion is now that pottery was needed by the hunter-gatherer for cooking with liquids to make edible difficult to consume moss, bark, and a few hardy plants, and possibly for collecting fish oil from boiled fish. In particular there appears to be a correlation between the increasing use of pottery and the increase in plant food in Man’s diet (and perhaps the increased difficulty in hunting meat). It has been suggested that pottery afforded the most effective survival strategy in eastern Japan as the climate became warmer and deciduous broadleaf forests spread throughout the region. Pottery allowed the Japanese people to boil and store food, and to weather out two period of rapid warming and cooling between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago. As we have already noted the Japanese moved very slowly to a primitive agriculture, and despite that the trade in pottery flourished throughout the archipelago.
Continuing our pre-history pottery timeline:
Mesopotamian “Neolithic Revolution” (ca. 10,000 BC) - transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and settlements
Ounjougou, Central Mali (ca. 9500 BC) - pottery making begins in sub-Saharan Africa - small bowls with imprinted decor - lithic industries associated with the Levallois technique, as early as 300,000 years ago
Chinese Nanzhuangtou culture (ca. 9500-9000 BC) - domesticated dog - millet cultivation - pottery shards (ca. 8200 BC)
Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (ca. 8500-5500 BC) - Mesopotamia
Japanese Jōmon pottery - Earliest/Initial (ca. 8000-5000 BC) - rising sea levels separated north and south islands - move to larger pots with more intricate and elaborate decoration
Korean Jeulmun pottery period (ca. 8000-1500 BC) - decorated pottery vessels
Egyptian faience (ca. 8000 BC) - oldest faience workshop in Egypt found in Abydos
Chinese Pengtoushan culture (ca. 7500-6100 BC) - domesticated rice - cord-marked pottery
Macedonian Sesklo culture (ca. 7510-6190 BC) - advanced agriculture and domestication of cattle - could be migrants from Asia Minor - very early use of pottery with flame motif and ring base - use of vegetable temper - figurines are quite unusual - abundance of statuettes of pregnant women - could be at the origin of the Danube civilisation
Chinese Peiligang culture (ca. 7000-5000 BC) - agriculture and animal husbandry - early pottery for cooking and storing grain - Jiahu site
Mesopotamian Ubaid culture (ca. 6500-3800 BC) - tools made of hard fired clay - from ca. 5000 BC fine buff or greenish coloured pottery decorated with geometric designs in brown or black paint
Chinese Houli culture (ca. 6500-5500 BC) - domesticated pig
Chinese Cishan culture (ca. 6500-5000 BC) - tripod pottery with cord markings - basins, pot supports, serving stands and drinking cups
Eastern European Bug-Dniester culture (ca. 6500-5500 BC) - pottery from ca. 6200 BC with pointed bottoms for cooking over a fire - decoration with wavy lines
Thessaly, Greece (ca. 6500-5800 BC) - many sites still not excavated - monochrome open pottery bowls - later deep cooking pots and large storage vessels
Mediterranean Cardium Pottery culture (ca. 6400-5500 BC) - also called Impressed Ware culture - possible deriving from the Levant - pottery impressed with sharp objects or shells
Chinese Xinglongwa culture (ca. 6200-5400 BC) - low temperature, cylindrical pottery
Comb Ceramic (ca. 6200-4000 BC) - pottery with geometric patterns made by comb-like tool - found in the Liao civilisation (ca. 6200 BC), in Finland (ca. 4200 BC) with the Pit-Comb Ware culture (ca. 4200-2000 BC), and also called Korean Pit-Comb Ware (ca. 4000 BC), or part of the Korean Jeulmum pottery period (ca. 8000-1500 BC)
Halaf culture (ca. 6100-5100 BC) - Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia - pottery produced by specialists - both unpainted, burnished, and painted - polychrome with geometric and animal motifs - painted pottery possible for “export”
Eastern European Cucuteni-Trypillian culture (ca. 6000-3500 BC) - hand-coiled pottery, smoothed by hand - elaborate swirling patterns and intricate design - coloured decoration, including black - figurines - an important early culture which would destroy and move their settlements every 60-80 years
Mesopotamian Hassuna culture (ca. 6000 BC) - early farmers - adobe dwellings - domesticate animals - pottery with cream slip and reddish paint in linear designs (replaces crude pottery) - female figurines
Chinese Dadiwan culture (ca. 5800-5400 BC) - large, rammed earth buildings, layered with burnt clay
Central European Körös culture (ca. 5800-5200 BC) - unpainted pottery bowls and cups, incised decoration, and frequently with four short feet, painted pottery is vary rare - “tomato-shaped or “flower-shaped” clay artefacts - zoomorphic and anthropomorphic clay figurines - three-legged or four-legged “altars” - clay stamp seals, spindle whorls, rings, balls
Central European Vinča culture (ca. 5700-4500 BC) - further developed farming technology producing some of the largest settlements in pre-historic Europe - may have use the cattle-driven plough - produced a two-stage method pottery with polished, multi-coloured finish, known as “Black-topped” or “Rainbow Ware” - figurines with open necked tunics and decorated skirts - some of the earliest copper tools in the world
Mesopotamian Sumer urban civilisation (founded ca. 5500 BC) - Copper and Early Bronze Age - proto-writing (ca. 3500 BC) - cuneiform (ca. 3000 BC) - took form in the Uruk period (ca. 4000 BC) - Eridu considered the worlds first city
Mesopotamian Samarra culture (ca. 5500-4800 BC) - evidence of irrigation - finely made pottery decorated with stylised animals, and geometric designs on dark backgrounds - pottery was widely exported - precursor of Ubaid period
Mesopotamian Halaf-Ubaid Transitional period (ca. 5500-5000 BC) - changing period of pottery styles
European Linear Pottery culture (ca. 5500-4500 BC) - or Linear Band Ware - a major cultural movement - initial spread of agriculture - potter was simple cups, bowls, vases, and jugs, without handles - no sign of metal
Chinese Xinie culture (ca. 5500-4800 BC) - wooden totem carving dated to ca. 5200 BC
Chinese Hemudu culture (ca. 5500-3300 BC) - lacquered wood - produced a black, thick, porous pottery (using charcoal powder) with plant and geometric painted designs - clay, ivory and jade figurines
Chinese Zhalbaogou culture (ca. 5400-4500 BC) - sand-tempered pottery vessels with geometric and zoomorphic designs - stone and clay human figurines
Southern Scandinavian Ertebølle culture (ca 5300 BC – 3950 BC) - a major cultural movement roughly contemporary to the Linear Pottery culture - used domestic grain but did not practice agriculture - pottery used the coil technique and was fired on an open bed of hot coals - beakers and lamps were common products
Chinese Beixin culture (ca. 5300-4100 BC) - animal domestication - weaving - ceremonial burials - abundant pottery shards
Central European Hamangia culture (ca. 5250-4500 BC) - extremely stylised figurines showing standing naked faceless women, including “The Thinker” and “The Sitting Woman” - pottery with complex geometric patterns based upon spiral motifs
Chinese Daxi culture (ca. 5000-3300 BC) - walled settlements - cylindrical bottles, white plates and red pottery
Chinese Majiabang culture (ca. 5000-3300 BC) - cultivated rice - domesticated pigs - jade ornaments
Chinese Yangshao culture (ca. 5000-3000 BC) - produced silk - fine white, red, and black painted pottery with human facial, animal, and geometric designs - children buried in painted pottery jars - ditched-enclosed Banpo settlement
Japanese Jōmon pottery - Early (ca. 5000-2500 BC) - rice cultivation leading to demand for ceramic cooking vessels - flat-bottomed pots superceded round or pointed pots of earlier period
Chinese Hongshan culture (ca. 4700-2900 BC) - monumental architecture - mural paintings painted pottery - jade pig dragons - clay figurines of pregnant women - clay female head with jade inlaid eyes - earliest evidence of feng shui
Central European Rössen culture (ca. 4600-4300 BC) - important transitional culture - pottery decorated with double incisions and with incrustation of white paint - burnished brown to gray-black vessels - tall footed bowls, rectangular sheet-made bowls and boat-shaped bowls
French Chasséen culture (ca. 4500-3500 BC) - sedentary farmers - pottery with little decoration
Egyptian pottery (starting ca. 4500 BC) - ceramic vessels, geometric figures, pottery, and faience beads - pyramids (2649-2150 BC) - earliest faience workshop in Egypt is said to date from ca. 5000 BC
Southeast European Boian culture (ca. 4300-3500 BC) - pottery polished after firing, geometric decoration, often with white clay and inlaid relief in black clay - use of graphite paint
North-Central European Funnelbeaker culture (ca. 4300-2800 BC) - named after characteristic ceramics, beakers and amphorae with funnel-shaped tops
North-East European Pit-Comb Ware culture (ca. 4200-2000 BC) - imprint of a comb on pottery - pottery influenced from Siberia and China - large pots with rounded or pointed bottoms
Chinese Dawenkou culture (ca. 4100-2600 BC) - long-stemmed cups
Mesopotamian Uruk culture (ca. 4000-3100 BC) - Early Bronze Age - emergence of cuneiform script - from ca. 3100 BC production of cheap, mass-produced clay beveled rim bowls - cylinder seals
Eastern European Cernavodă culture (ca. 4000-3200 BC) - similar pottery to that found in the southern Russian steppes
Central European Baden culture (ca. 3600-2800 BC) - cremation and anthropomorphic urns - examples of stroke-ornamented pottery - some of the earliest wheeled vehicles in Central Europe - wagon models in pottery
Central European Wartberg culture (ca. 3600-2800 BC) - also called the collared bottle culture from its coarse-made hand-made collared bottles, possible made as tomb ware - famous for its gallery graves and standing stones
Central European Globular Amphora culture (ca. 3400-2800 BC) - globular-shaped pots with tow or four handles - also buried animals with grave goods (a tradition with early Indo-European migrants)
Chinese Liangzhu culture (ca. 3400-2250 BC) - advanced agriculture with irrigation, rice paddies, and aquaculture - last Neolithic jade culture - cord-marked pottery, pottery pedestals, baked clay spindle whorls - soft-fired pottery decorated with red or black slip
Chinese Qujialing culture (ca. 3400-2600 BC) - ceramic balls, painted spindle whorls
Chinese Majiayao culture (ca.3300-2000 BC) - famous for its painted pottery, with a black pigment and sweeping parallel lines and dots
Harappan Civilisation (ca. 3300-1300 BC) - Indus Valley Civilisation (see also Mohenjo-Daro) - sculptures, seals, bronze vessels, pottery, shell work, gold jewellery, terra-cotta - the Mehrgarh site (inhabited from ca. 6500 BC) yielded evidence of pottery ca. 5500-4800 BC
Scandinavian Pitted Ware culture (ca. 3200-2300 BC) - pottery with horizontal rows of pits pressed into the body of the pot before firing - small animal figurines, including one that combine seal and human features
Danube Vučedol culture (ca. 3000-2200 BC) - contemporary with the Sumer period in Mesopotamia and the Early Dynastic period in Egypt - use of the war axe - numerous new cults - very characteristic pottery with bi-conical shape and non-functional handles suggesting symbolic meaning, see the “Vučedol Dove” - possible home to the earliest Indo-European calendar
Chinese Longshan culture (ca. 3000-1900 BC) - use of pottery wheels - highly polished black (egg-shell) pottery
European Cord Ware culture (ca. 2900-2350 BC) - Neolithic, Copper and Bronze Age culture across vast area of Europe - originally from the Yamna culture (ca. 3500-2300 BC) in the Pontic-Caspian steppe - pottery made with twisted cord impressed into wet clay to make with decorative patterns
Western European Bell-Beaker culture (ca. 2800-1800 BC) - distinctive pottery drinking vessels (possibly for beer and mead) - a true culture with metalwork in copper, gold and later bronze - found from the Iberian peninsula, through Britain, through to Sicily, and in across to Poland
Mesopotamian Assyrian Empire (ca. 2500-612 BC) - refined sculpture - clay seals - collection of astronomical observations and terrestrial omens
Mesopotamian Akkadian Empire (ca. 2334-2154 BC) - symbiosis with Sumerians
Japanese Jōmon pottery - Middle (ca. 2500-1500 BC) - demand for ceremonial ceramics - densely decorated - complex rims - female fertility figurines
Chinese Shijiahe culture (ca. 2500-2000 BC) - pottery figurines and jade work
Chinese Yueshi culture (ca. 1900-1500 BC) - early Bronze Age - ceramic ding-dou vessels
Chinese Elitou culture (ca. 1900-1500 BC) - early Bronze Age - ritual bronze vessels - earliest dings - bronze foundry
Mesopotamian Babylonian state (ca. 1894-539 BC, but possibly as early as ca. 2300 BC) - built massive structures of mud brick - drains made of lead - frescoes and enameled tiles - major advances in astronomy, mathematics, medicine and literature
Minoan pottery, Crete (ca. 2000 BC) - exported ca. 1800 BC - bold vivid designs
Korean Mumun pottery period (ca. 1500-300 BC) - Korean Bronze Age - intensive agriculture - plain cooking and storage vessels
Japanese Jōmon pottery - Late (ca. 1500-1000 BC) - agriculture becoming widespread - more ceremonial vessels - figurines
Japanese Jōmon pottery - Final (ca. 1000-100 BC) - all Jōmon pottery was made by hand, without aid of a wheel - black-burnished pottery - long-necked jars
Start of Classical Antiquity (ca. 800 BC)
Japanese Jōmon pottery - Epi (ca. 100 BC to 500 AD) - in competition with other styles, i.e. ceramics from the Iron Age Yayoi period.
Pottery and Archaeological Cultures
Having rapidly summarised the evolution of pottery it is perhaps useful here to look at the way pottery was used, as part of a recurring assemblage of artefacts from a specific time and place, to define archaeological cultures. The concept is to define a cultural group by its material culture, the functionality (functionalism) and aesthetics of what was made, and how the artefacts might have been used (as such these ideas were adopted from anthropology). This can help identify societies or ethnic groups, but actually might not relate to real groups of humans in the past. It was V. Gordon Childe (Australian, 1892-1957) who first proposed this idea. The 'why' things change over time was explained by the diffusion of forms from one group to another, or the physical migration of peoples from one place to another. In terms of pottery one might see one pottery style slowly absorb a decorative feature from a neighbour, an example of 'diffusionism'. In another case a variety of pottery types or styles might be suddenly replaced by a different type/style, and this could point to a new group migrating in to that region.
So most archaeological cultures are named after a type of artefact (e.g. Funnelbeaker culture) or a type site (Halstatt culture). It was in the 19th C that the word 'culture' was used for tribal groups, whereas 'civilisation' was used for urbanised peoples. However 'culture' started to be also used to describe a distinctive way of life (in effect being the same as 'civilisation'). In the mid-19th C 'culture' then began to be used to describe groups that could be characterised through the sites and region in which they were found. The idea of archaeological cultures only emerged in the 20th C, but it was the idea of a 'cultural history' that finally began to replace 'social evolutionism' as the dominant paradigm.
It was experts such as Gordon Childe who suggested that a 'people' or 'cultural group' should be defined by their 'material expression', i.e. what they left in terms of pots, implements, ornaments, burial rites and house forms that constantly occurred together. This is (of course) not the end of the story, since we can now see that some apparently monolithic cultures were in fact made up of different discrete societies. And, at the same time, some apparently different cultures were in fact just the same cultural group adapting to different specific local environments. The basic idea is that a 'culture' was a set of "regularly associated traits” in the material culture of a group or 'people' (but not strictly a biological race). Today the word 'culture' has become popular in the social sciences, but at that time the focus was only on material criteria (albeit a subjective selection of that material criteria).
Childe used the three-age system (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age) but introduced the idea of 'revolutions', and in particular the Neolithic Revolution which initiated the Neolithic era. He joined the Bronze Age and Iron Age, into one singular Urban Revolution (see Lewis H. Morgan, who also developed his three 'ages' of savagery, barbarism, and civilisation). The Neolithic Revolution was the move from hunter-gatherer to cultivator. The Urban Revolution was initiated with bronze metallurgy, and included larger settlements, craft specialists, the appearance of gods and kings, monumental architecture, naturalistic art, an increase in foreign trade, state organisation based upon residency rather than kinship, the invention of writing, and the emergence of the early sciences. This Urban Revolution came hand-in-hand with the stratification of classes and the oppression of the majority by a power elite. Some experts did not (and still do not) see the slow emergence of agricultural and urban development as revolutionary.
Concerning pottery, Childe argued that pots, etc. were made by women for women, and as such pottery could not be a radical innovation, but was a deliberate copy of earlier basketry technology, i.e. it looked like something they knew and were familiar with. On the other hand he saw pottery as the earliest conscious utilisation of a chemical change, and he strongly associated pottery with the appearance of agriculture and urbanisation. The Neolithic Revolution was such a compelling concept that the history of ceramic technology still appears to be associated with the arrival of agriculture (a concept disproven with early Chinese and Japanese pottery). In fact Neolithic Europe has been classified by pottery-using sites, that have been then classified as agricultural communities, even where there was no clear evidence of farming. When hunter-gatherers used pottery it was assumed that they had adopted it from farming communities and used it for foraging, i.e. the hunter-gatherer could not have been responsible for the creation and dispersal of early pottery.
Childe was one of the first people who looked for a system of social behaviour in which the known facts of prehistory could best be arranged. Until then collections were just that, static collections of relics taken from excavation sites. For some experts Childe tried to make those relics speak. He tried to fill in the blanks and link together pre-history societies through a chronology based upon pottery. Childe formulated the concept of the Neolithic Revolution, and he showed how food production, made possible the control of the consumption of food, making possible larger social units, and resulted in an ability to support an increased population.
It has been said that by looking at topics such as food production and population expansion Childe tried to make archaeology measurable, thus open to scientific criteria, and thus a true discipline in history (until then archaeology had been just a descriptive discipline). One weakness in this 'early' approach is that it did not tell us what stimulated the accumulation of wealth necessary for the specialisation implicit in a metal industry, nor did it tell us why (and how) metallurgy was responsible for the rise of large cities. And this approach also did not tell us why Jericho grew to become a large city before metallurgy was discovered. Childe extended his view to look at 'technological progress' in all parts of life, including funeral and burial practices. The issue was now to understand what exactly archaeology could discover about early societies, and what that meant in terms of theories about how societies developed. But our archaeological record is incomplete, and there is too much latitude of interpretation in developing theories of past societies. As an example, we know where the Neolithic flint mines were, we can study their mining techniques, we know how the tools were made, and we know where they were traded. But we do not know who, or how, the mines were owned. We don’t know if miners were paid. We don’t know if the work was full-time or seasonal. We know little or nothing about the families of miners, about the role of women, about slavery (or not), etc.
Scientific principles would dictate that archaeology should involve a process of knowledge and demonstration, its outcomes must be repeatable, and it must allow for predictions. But, at least for pre-history, archaeology was impotent, full of theories but little direct evidence. So archaeology tells us the 'means' of production (farming, metallurgy, etc.) but not how those means affected society at the time. Childe looked for patterns, and found 'diffusion' as one them, the way knowledge, technologies and social organisation moved from one society to another. And one way to understand 'diffusion' is to look at how tools were manufactured and what they were used for. We do not know the rituals involved in making a flint scraper, but we do understand how it was made, and, at least in part, what it was used for. We know that early Man searched for ores. We know that resources were key to the earliest pre-history societies. We know that metallurgy was directly related to the emergence of urban, totalitarian regimes. And that those regimes appeared to be necessary to provide the trade and markets (and patronage) for the development of the Bronze Age. We know that the smith and skilled craftsmen were free members of society, allowing them to innovate and improve their technologies, tools, and weapons. Even if most of the evidence is 'negative' rather than 'positive', Childe saw the bronze smith as being crucial to the development of society in pre-history Europe. But this does not explain why the megalithic cultures extended over a huge area of Europe, with almost no trace of bronze being used. So archaeology was both a descriptive and a classificatory tool, it help make sense of assemblages of artefacts, and it had (still has) its role in writing national histories.
Above we see where Childe left archaeology at his death in 1957. In the 1960’s a new generation of archaeologists saw themselves as both fact finders and recorders of human achievements. The seeds of change were introduced in the 1940’s and 1950’s with radiocarbon dating, petrography and mineral characterisation, the understanding of health through skeletons (bioarchaeology), and looking at plant food remains (paleobotany and paleoethnobotany). It was these new analytic technologies that challenged archaeology. They showed that 'younger' cultures were in fact older than their 'parents', so questioning established concepts of diffusion, migration, and even invasion. So how does archaeology now explain change? The old idea was to collect the data, describe, classify and suggest an explanation. The new idea is to formulate hypotheses and seek out the data to confirm or refute them. The challenge is to explain human experience and behavioural rules, not just describe them (e.g. systems theory). But this approach also has its limits. Systems theory fails to model society accurately. It deals badly with migrations and invasion. It ignores human action as a force for change. It tends to work better with issues of trade, subsistence, and social structures (as do other approaches), it deals with ecological and environmental constrains, but not with human actions or cognitive issues. As far as I can see the next 'trend' was processual archaeology, which demanded better data and not more data (better excavations, better stratigraphy). Post-processual archaeology wanted to focus more on the study of mankind, but this ended up making propositions that could not be tested. As far as I can see the trend today is to look at the symbolic aspects of the behaviour of different peoples, e.g. a good example is their attitudes to cleanliness and dirt. Another trend is to look at how knowledge and power were created and exploited. There is certainly a place now in archaeology for looking at the role of women in pre-history societies. As you can almost certainly tell, this side-line text on the way pottery was used to identify archaeological periods has moved on to new ground. So I’m going to stop here, and if you are interested in this, check out the history of archaeology at Bad Archaeology.
The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B “Interaction Sphere”
The basic idea is that in Western Asia (Levant, Mesopotamia, ...) there was a prolonged cultural development that spanned Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and the preceding Epipalaeolithic periods (ca. 11,000-7000 BC). And between ca. 9000-8000 BC the so-called Pre-Pottery Neolithic B “interaction sphere” appeared. During that earlier period several food-producing economies appeared independently in different part of the world, and there is evidence that they were all forced to expand or move out of their traditional areas and to aggregate and settle in new geographic areas (colonisation). This was possibly driven by climatic and environmental change, and/or population pressure. What it did do is to push cultivators and hunter-gatherer closer together, a process of so-called acculturation. In our case, bring together the mobile foragers in the Levant area around Jericho, the sedentary foragers around Göbekli Tepe in the north and the mobile hunter-gatherers coming from the eastern part of Anatolia. In the Levantine Corridor (the western part of the Fertile Crescent, the eastern part being Mesopotamia) the 'well established' site sizes, architecture, settlement patterns and subsistence practices all changed during the period ca. 9000-8000 BC. There was a profusion of symbolic expression, numerous new settlements were created, and existing settlements expanded very rapidly.
Some experts suggest that the worlds first pan-regional culture (or supra-culture) emerged, centred around a new religion, the one of the “female and the bull”. Naturally some experts stress the similarities, whilst other focus on the differences that remained, but what is certain is that lithic technology was everywhere, rectangular architecture dominated, 'skull cult' rituals were commonplace, and there was a gradual consolidation of agro-pastoral economies.
The bull was certainly a subject of some veneration well before ca. 15,000 years ago. The bull and bison are to be found in almost all cave painting collections, e.g. in the Cave of Altamira. It is possible that some form of bull worship started in those caves. We know that a bull cult existed in Çatalhöyük in Anatolia ca. 7000 BC. There are bull shrines that simulate cave settings, and some even include bull-leaping. The female figurines (possibly later to become recognised as deities) are striking, being carved from marble, blue and brown limestone, schist, calcite, basalt, alabaster, and clay. But the vast majority of small figurines were of animals. Some of the bull paintings depict them being born from a Mother Goddess. Also the first stamp seals, possibly used for body and textile decoration, were also of bulls. In Mesopotamia the bull would develop from an object of cult veneration to the 'Great Bull', a symbol of divinity. It is a major god character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the winged bull and winged lion were symbols of royal Babylonian power. Later still, with the Greeks and Romans, the bull would become associated with the Sun, and be the principle symbol of spring and regeneration (i.e. Zeus arrived in Crete in the form of a white bull). Oddly enough shrines throughout early history were often reminiscent of caves, which might suggest that caves and cave paintings might in fact have had some religious-ritual significance.
Acculturation and early patterns of trade
When we talk of a pan-regional culture we are not suggesting a single centre of cultural and economic innovations. What happened was a diversity of distinct local cultures (i.e. poly-centric), but not implying cultural independence between regions. If we look for places were domestication appears to have first taken root, where the villages were the most structured (into buildings and sanctuaries), and where the rectangular architecture was the most evident, we see dominate centres of culture in the central part of the Fertile Crescent (north Syria and southeast Anatolia) and in the area of the western and central Zagros foothills. What is suggested during this period is a phase of cohabitation (ca. 10,500-8000 BC) leading to acculturation (ca. post-8000 BC), and all driven by trading networks (rather than migration). The original idea was that trade was based upon 'prestige goods', such as obsidian, sea shells, bitumen, turquoise, and marble. And it was the plant cultivators and herders (farmer-herders), who would develop agro-pastoralism, and later pottery, and who would be the driving force in the trade networks. The simple view of a trading network starts with the hunter. They needed projectile points and were certainly responsible for spreading lithic technologies across the entire region. Obsidian suitable for efficient knapping (e.g. high quality tools) was found in a small number of places (volcanic outcrops). Craftsmen would concentrate there and 'sell-on' their tools to hunters. Relationships would be established. But is it credible to suppose that such relationships founded a region supra-culture? In fact, the best obsidian sites did not produce more than about 5% of all the tools found in the region, and most of those produced remained locally (within 300 km). So today, obsidian is more likely an example of the absence of trade, than of the presence of trading networks.
What is suggested today is that (elite) trade certainly did exist, but that the real key was the exchange of 'life patterns', e.g. the exchange of social, ritual and economic patterns. And this exchange was actually driven by communities expanding across old regional and areal boundaries, fostering their group identities on to weaker groups. Those driving this process were the early food-producing communities, the farmer-herders. Pulse gathering and/or cultivation is one marker (as opposed to cereal cultivation). Pulses were cultivate in Anatolia, and later in the Zagros area, showing a clear 'expansionist' link (and not with the cereal producers of the Levant). This is reinforced with the appearance in the Zagros area of enormous sculpted pillars and free-standing figures typical of Anatolia. Colonist settlements also showed some unique characteristics. Firstly, the rectangular architecture and settlement plan appeared fully developed. Secondly, we can see a kind of agricultural package of domesticated plants all arriving together. Third, agriculture and animal herding appeared at the same time, i.e. no previous evidence of practices with local wild sheep.
Trade was not ignored, but it was not over long distances, preference was for local trade with kindred communities. The naviform reduction technology did involve the procurement of raw materials (blanks) and groups engaged in knapping. Craft specialisation did exist, and regional trade also. But the suggestion is that trade was not in terms of pure economics, but through kinship relations, shared group rituals and local meanings and practices, i.e. less 'trade' and more 'exchange'. And all originally driven by migration and colonisation.
So here the idea is that the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period was defined by an expansionist view rather than a trade view. Expansion created kin groups in adjacent areas (colonisation), and that the main driver was not the trading of 'commodities' within an opportunistic contact network, but the exchange of cultural artefacts as part of a social relationship. Trade could still happen, when driven by a communities collective interests. Contact networks would be dominate, and it is now thought that regional alliances and long-range trading networks would have be impossible to maintain over long periods of time.
When talking about migration and trading networks, it is perfectly logical to ask if early Man made maps. And the answer is yes, but the examples are extremely rare. There are perhaps 50 examples of pre-history maps or spatial representation. These are either in the form of pictographs (paintings) or petroglyphs (carvings). Maps could be in the form of rock paintings showing where animals (or birds or fish) could be found, or they could be some form of geometric or abstract marking. The caves that contain beautiful images of animals also contain thousands of non-naturalistic markings. It is often impossible to put a date to a collection of rock art. Some areas of caves were painted on and over for many, many generations, whilst other equally useful rock surfaces in the caves were left bare. Often dates are attributed to rock art based upon style or technique, or eventually dependent upon the objects depicted. Thus it is difficult to put a fixed date on some form of map on a rock face. However, most expert now think that rock art did have something to do with belief and religion, and that equally rock art was a “product of the moment” and not created to last beyond a given event. That means, at best, if a map is there then it is certainly linked to the context in which it is found. Secondly, it is not at all sure that a map would have been used for wayfinding (i.e. as a storage device for information), but more likely it would have had some ritual purpose. And finally, experts are often left asking if what they see is a plan or a profile.
So we have the first question, is it a map? The second question, were the elements we see all made at the same time? And the third question, what do the symbols represent?
Some experts feel that some complex associations of signs and symbols cut into rock surfaces could be maps, but we do not have the key to understanding them. There are some pictures that include mountains, huts, and even rivers, but these are probably not intended as maps, but rather back drops to pictures of animals or people. Finally most experts are of the opinion that any prehistoric map would have focussed less on providing directions and more on being an expression of abstract ideas such as emotions, i.e. it may look a bit like a map but it served a quite different purpose. In addition maps can have quite different applications. We can have topographical maps (picture maps and and plan maps), celestial maps and cosmological maps. The earliest topographical maps are said to represent hut or game enclosures, ca. 20,000 years ago. But much is open to interpretation, depending upon what represents a hut or enclosure. For example, below we have a line incision on a mammoth tusk found in Mezhirichi in the Ukraine, and dated to 12,000-11,000 BC. This is interpreted as being a river with dwellings on the banks, and fishing nets in the river.
There are few other examples of jars or rock paintings, that could be considered maps, but interpretation remains highly subjective and speculative. Below we have the silver Maikop vase (ca. 3000 BC), with naturalistically represented group of animals. The idea is that we can see a mountain profile (the Caucasus) and two rivers meeting in a sea or lake. If you want to delve deeper have a look at this chapter of Kurgan Culture that argues for the Indo-European culture as the founding fathers of both European and Middle-Eastern culture.
The oldest plans that almost everyone can agree on as maps, are the wall paintings in Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, which have been dated to ca. 6200 BC. The below wall painting almost 3 m long is said to show a plan of the town. The excavations of the town tend to confirm this plan. The double-peaked object are two cones of a volcano, a local source of obsidian.
I think we can all agree that the above wall painting looks like a map. Experts are looking to define what a simple map should be, and what a complex map (as above) should be. So a simple map should contain at least 6 cartographic elements, e.g. huts, enclosures, land-use signs, paths, rivers, etc. And complex maps should contain at least 18 cartographic elements. According to this definition almost all the earliest simple maps are found in a few square kilometers around Mont Bégo in the Ligurian Alps (and date from the late Neolithic period ca. 4500-3500 BC). Most of the other early maps are found in the Alps, notably Val Camonica in eastern Lombardy (see Rock Drawings in Val Camonica). This valley is home to over 300,000 recognised petroglyphs, from the Neolithic period through the Bronze Age. The below map (the Bedolina Map found in Capo di Ponte) is one that has been studied extensively, and covers a wall more than 4 m long and over 2 m high. Experts have noted that the map was constructed in at least 4 different stages. Some experts have suggested that the earliest part of the map dates to ca. 8000 BC, but the houses and accurate representation of cultivated land dates from the Bronze Age (ca. 1000-200 BC).
Celestial maps might be traceable back to megalithic monuments and stone alignments, which some experts have suggested are of astronomical significance. There is some fairly convincing evidence that collections of marks on rock walls (so-called, cup-and-ring marks) could be considered 'instructional charts' to help identify particular constellations. But the reality is that the different marks do not match perfectly to groups of constellations. So we are often left with a consensus that some stone carvings 'may' have had some religious significance or astronomical purpose. An occasionally mention may be made of a astronomical calendar. Some experts side with the idea that 'sky maps' are at best pictures of what someone might have seen. Others consider them as attempts at spacial representations, and as such of great value. In some ways this does not matter, because such rock carving are not really maps since the markings do not correlate to a distinct astrological entity, and the relationship between entities is not correct. We can look at the sky today, and calculate back to what that sky would have looked like at some past moment, so true star maps can easily be identified. And (for the moment) most, if not all, pre-historic 'maps' are not celestial maps.
Cosmological maps are maps (reasoned conceptions) of the universe, and the Babylonians are usually said to have created this type of map. Many experts feel that pre-historic peoples were too primitive, and were only interested (and capable) of maps of small areas. But cosmological maps are different from topographical or celestial maps. And experts strongly suggest that some convincing Babylonian cosmological map will have evolved (been transformed) from a more ancient form, e.g. most likely from the Neolithic period (after ca. 10,200 BC).
Experts have broken down cosmological thinking into two groups. The first is the 'flat earth' cosmologies with layers (heaven, earth, underworld) stacked on each other (with pillars for the Egyptians, and stairs for the Babylonians). And there are spherical cosmologies of Hinduism, and the Romans and the European Middle Ages. In all cases there is an axis mundi (a mountain, or tree of life) which is central or pivotal. Another very common geometric motif is the labyrinth, which is accepted to have cosmological connotations, and is liked often to the 'path' to the other world, the 'afterlife'. For some experts spirals and labyrinths are maps of the underworld.
At this point we are drifting away from a scientific or technological viewpoint, and thus for those interested in this topic of pre-historic maps, you can continue and check out “Cartography in the Prehistoric Period in the Old World: Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa”.
Pre-Pottery Neolithic C
As far as I can see there was a period called Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (from ca. 6200 BC), but that Mesopotamia was really still the land of different tribes all evolving differently. The Hassuna culture were the first farmers in the North, and they were making their own pottery from ca. 6000 BC (including figurines). They developed sickles, grinding stones, and baking ovens. The Samarra culture (ca. 5500-4800 BC), also in northern Mesopotamia, appeared to have developed irrigation systems. Later they were also known for their pottery which was widely exported. The Halaf culture (ca. 6100-5100 BC) developed outside the region of Mesopotamia, but their pottery (including figurines) was found throughout the region. This pottery, clearly made by specialist potters, appears to have been traded throughout the region. There are indications (impression seals) that some pottery became recognised as personal property.
The work of an archaeologist
We have to remember that what archaeologists actually find are sites that have often been sporadically inhabited over a long period of time. They have to reconstruct the past, layer by layer, digging down from the recent past through into the far past, and try to date the things found by shape, material, usage, and using techniques such as C-14 dating. What you might find at the bottom (lets call it Stratum VII at around 400 cm) is ash, some small stones, no architectural elements, no bones or bodies, and if you find something useful you might determine that it dates from ca. 10,000 BC. Stratum VI, at about 250 cm (and thick 30-40 cm), might have quite a lot of medium size stones and, if you are lucky, a human burial, which you could date to ca. 9500 BC. Stratum V, quiet near Stratum VI, might have some stones placed as platforms or paved floors, and indications of the use of mortar. Your best effort on date would be ca. 8000-9000 BC. Stratum IV, at about 220 cm, might have rows of stones, and you best estimate would be ca. late 8000 BC. Stratum III, at about 180 cm, would have stone platforms built from pebbles of different sizes, and dating from ca. early 8000 BC. Stratum II, between 70-120 cm, might have raised floors, a high variety of pebbles, and some walls. Stratum I could be characterised by nicely ordered stone walls, paved floors, possible a pavement of small pebbles, dating from ca. 8800-6800 BC. But samples taken at different sites might place the same period at different depths, Stratum I in one place could be deeper than Stratum II in another place. Some layers will have ash, enabling C-14 dating, others not. Some layers might be so mixed up, that it is not possible to perform dating tests, other layers of a few 10‘s cm might represent a 1,000 years. Artefacts from different periods can be re-used, or just dug-up and then dumped. Some strata can be empty, other strata could have been looted for the most interesting artefacts. This is just to highlight the difficulty in fixing an absolute chronology for a site.
Through the different strata, finds can be of variable quality and type, ranging from chipped stone, ground stone, stone vessels, bone objects, ornaments, stone objects, and animal and human remains. Chipped tools can be cores, tools and debris, and include blades, bladelets, sickle blades, scrapers, borers and awls, and core flakes. Blades and bladelets can be denticulated, retouched, and notched. Flakes can be classified by their form and the likely striking technique and platform used. The raw materials can be noted, i.e. red chert, grayish black flint, and dark black obsidian are examples. One type of stone might point to a local source, whereas another might have come from a source hundreds of kilometers away. Signs will be studied to determine if the tools were made on site or “imported”, i.e. as with obsidian that was often imported and appears to have been considered a prestige tool. In some cases the absence of a particular tool, e.g. projectile points, might be just as important as a pile of stone blanks. Grinding stones cover a multitude of types, from stone mortars, bedrock mortars, pebble mortars, querns, pounders and pestles. Stone trenches and bowls will be found at different levels, later ones often polished. Bone awls and ornaments will be found, awls were particularly common and usually made from sheep/goat metapodial. Ornaments of bone and stone will be found, usually bracelets and necklaces. Even a smallish site will offer up possible more than 10,000 bones and bone fragments, most not identifiable with a particular species of animal. Again what is not there is often more intriguing. e.g. on one site there was an unusually small number of teeth found (missing also mandible and maxilla). Bone types show the types of animals found at the site, and fragmentation patterns show butchery activities and techniques. Burn marks on the bones indicate cooking practices. On one site you might find a dominance of sheep, goat or just caprine bones, along with a variety of others, including antelope, bird, cattle, canid, felidae, fish, gazelle, pig, rodent, and tortoise. You would need to find intact limb bones in order to try to distinguish between wild and domesticated species (although second phalanges can also be used). Joint articulation of animals would indicate the age of the animal when slaughtered (often less than mature).
From site to site there are no fixed rules, some sites can be small, others large (from 1000 to 2000 square meters in ca. 9000-8300 BC through to 150,000 square meters in ca. 6000 BC), some buried under no more than 1 meter of soil, other buried 8 meters underground. The early, smaller sites might be home to around 20-60 people, whilst the late, large settlement could be home to more than a 1,000 people (and perhaps as many as 4,000 people).
With the above we get a flavour of the effort needed in excavating and understanding a Neolithic site. And beyond the actual excavation, classification, description, etc. there is the interpretation, e.g. how did the population on the site evolve over time, why was the site abandoned ca. 8000 years ago, etc.
From Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, to B, to C
What is amazing is that, through Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B, average settlement sizes grew from 1,000 or 2,000 square meters up to 100,000 square meters or more. But then around ca. 6000 BC, in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic C period, settlement sizes started to rapidly shrink, returning to a few 1,000’s of square meters in the middle of the so-called Pottery Neolithic (ca. 4800 BC), before rapidly rising again with the Chalcolithic period (Copper Age).
As we move out of Pre-Pottery Neolithic B we have mega farming villages, a strong focus on grinding stones, projective points and knives. Some experts consider the Pre-Pottery Neolithic C period as the period when Man accomplished a full shift from hunting and gathering to farming. The number of rooms in a village increased, but room sizes decreased, and two-story building started to appear (some with internal staircases). Large fire hearths appeared external to houses, and cooking and storage facilities appear to have been shared amongst groups. Some of the architecture appears to suggest the arrival of public structures, e.g. larger buildings and walled areas. Animal domestication increased through both Pre-Pottery Neolithic B and C periods. Interestingly crushed marl replaced plaster on the floors, and rectangular family rooms became even smaller, whilst storage rooms became ubiquitous. Tools appear to suggest harvesting of reeds became important, e.g. increased use of the sickle, and projective points became smaller and lighter. All retouched lithic tools became shorter, wider, and thicker.
The classical explanation for the shift from Pre-Pottery Neolithic B to C is overexploitation and exhaustion of natural resources, leading to the disintegration of the mega farming villages, and the appearance of a mosaic of smaller, local communities each adapted to its specific environmental conditions. Climate change, endemic warfare, and demographic pressure, have all also been proposed as reasons for the collapse of Pre-Pottery Neolithic C society. There is evidence to suggest that the region of the Levant was hit ca. 6800-6400 BC (or ca. 6500-6100 BC depending upon sources) by a 'cold event' which could explain depopulation of sites. This so-called “8.2 kiloyear Cold Event” lasted for a period of between 160 and 400 years (possibly divided into two 'cold events'). Clearly, deforestation for construction purposes and for agriculture (crops and grazing land), did lead to soil erosion. This, when coupled with climate change and increasing demographic pressure, could explain the substantial changes during this period (prior to the widespread use of ceramics).
We saw that the key characteristics of Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, as compared to Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, was rectilinear architecture, public buildings, heave use of lime-plaster, naviform core lithic technology, extensive pan-regional trading networks, sub-domicile inhumation, post-mortem cranial removal, anthropomorphic figurines, wall paintings, and the gradual appearance of mega-sites. Behind the scenes we see social differentiation (both with an increased sense of identity and a degree of economic stratification), craft specialisation (in specialist buildings), and with the mega-sites, both 'internal' socio-economic integration (bringing together interdependent sub-groups) and 'externally' autonomous socio-cultural systems able to create and exchange exotic goods between each other and over very extended areas. Experts consider this period as 'complex', given the architecture, the subsistence practices, the exchange of exotic goods, and the iconography and mortuary practices. The move was to rectangular architecture and densely packed settlement structures included households that all had more of less the same private facilities and storage areas (in addition to communal spaces). Subsistence farming was certainly able to generate a surplus during the better years, but climate change did change the Zagros foothill region into a semi-arid scrub land (irrigation had not yet been developed). Exotic or 'prestige' artefacts, such as obsidian, sea shells, marble and turquoise (both for bead production), were moved over significant distances. Iconography included paintings, sculpture, architecturally integrated features, architectural reliefs, monuments, and figurines. Paintings included dance and hunting scenes, plaster statues could be over 1 m high, bulls horns were plastered directly into building walls, friezes ran the course of some interior walls, stone reliefs were found at ritual sites along with stone stelae. Figurines were common artefacts and of a variety of forms, and in Pre-Pottery Neolithic C they took on a more individual appearance. The number and variety increased throughout the entire Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. Mortuary practices included intramural inhumation, post-mortem cranial removal and the skull plastering 'skull cult', the application of red ochre, and grave accoutrements. The rapid appearance of complex mega-sites increased pressure of local resources, but also made innovation (problem solving) more likely. The sites are seen as constantly balancing demographic pressure, local environment management (agriculture, herding, wood resources), and the potential for innovation. The collapse of the mega-sites, during the 'Cold Event' ca. 6200 BC, was certainly due to a mix of factors, including a change in local environment through climate change. The idea is the mega-sites could not come up with a collective way to deal with the problem, leaving way for sub-groups to splinter away from the mega-community. Even the 'skull cult' was abandoned by most communities during this period, but rectilinear architecture remained as did the reliance on continued domestication of animals and plants. It is said that the same level of socio-cultural integration would not be seen again for nearly 3000 years, with the arrival of the Bronze Age (ca. 3300 BC).
Experts have tried to isolate a small number of 'latent' features that characterise this period, and to see if those features tell us why the society of mega-sites collapsed. The first 'latent' factor is the average number of rooms per house, the percentage with platforms, and the percentage with benches, e.g. division of space represents population, causal relationships, and even the increasing role of sacred spaces and burial rights. This is a complex issue, for example ovens are not correlated with population increases, suggesting that meal preparation and consumption remained communal. But ovens were also constructed on roof tops, and many may not have survived through to today. The second 'latent' feature is the number of houses with pillars, and the percentage of houses with burials. Pillars supported second floors, and are related to population growth, and the availability of (increasingly rare) wood for building. As families grew, ancestors became more venerated, and their skulls were recovered and used for family-community rituals. The third 'latent' feature is the rise of lithic artefacts from non-local industries, e.g prismatic blades, naviforms core technology, big blades industries, and the use of obsidian assemblages from distant sites. The increase of these non-local artefacts is negatively correlated with local flint knapping traditions. Obsidian consumption was not evenly distributed over the population of a site, suggesting its 'prestige' nature. However, it was sufficiently abundant to suggest that it served some functional purposes in households.
The next 'latent' factor was the shift with population increase from cattle/cow aurochs (Bos), wild boar (Sus), sheep (Ovis), and goat (Capra), to horse/ass (Equus) and stag/deer (Cervus). The first group were the species that provided the majority of meat, the second group were consumed less frequently, but were responsible for changes in diet breadth. The first group were easily accessible in the (original) woodland, low-lying marches and steppe, and has been associated with subsistence.
Interestingly, plant data is not a 'latent' factor, i.e. is not directly related to population growth. What is related, is diet breadth. Agriculture always provided the majority of the food eaten on all types of sites, but over dependence on a small group of plants was (probably) considered precarious because too dependent upon the climate. Wild plants were consumed, and used for matting, fuel and animal fodder, and stored as a buffer against crop failure. With the increase in population, agriculture, grazing, fuel and construction material increasingly 'pushed' wild plants further away from the mega-sites (making them more expensive to collect). But there is no evidence to suggest that any particular plant or group of plants was more important than any other, thus the 'latent' factor is just diet breadth. The conclusion was that mega-sites became dependent upon domesticated plants and animals.
These indicators, or 'latent' factors, show that mega-site depopulation was linked to climate change and the so-called “8.2 ka Cold Event” (actually two cold events in a 400 year period), but why exactly that happened is uncertain. It would have affected agriculture, thus animal herding, and probably gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. It would have affected forest clearance, and possibly even mud brick production. It is also most certain that the population of mega-sites was not stable (there was rapid growth), and given an unstable environment, and probably poorly managed resources (lack of central governance), the inevitable happened.
Early Mesopotamia - a transition period
The Halaf culture (ca. 6100-5100 BC), Hassuna culture (ca. 6000 BC) and Samarra culture (ca. 5500-4800 BC), all in northern Mesopotamia, were the precursors to the Ubaid period (ca. 5300-4300 BC), but between them we also had the Halaf-Ubaid Transitional period (ca. 5400-5000 BC) often seen as the northern Ubaid to distinguish it from the Ubaid in southern Mesopotamia (ca. 6500-3800 BC). The most telling thing about the transitional period was the evolution of pottery. An important element in including a transition period is to highlight the fact that different periods did not follow one to another, but often evolved incrementally and in parallel. It has even been suggested that the emergence of a Halaf-Ubaid tradition in northern Mesopotamia was due to a conscious effort to maintain a regional social identity. We should not downplay the question why the northern peoples gave up using their Halaf house forms and ceramics in order to use Ubaid forms instead?
The Ubaid pottery was a marker of their identity, but so was the shift to standardised grave goods in community cemeteries. A distinctive standardised ceramic style signalled membership of a group with a shared identity (kinship, social ties, or through a common religious ideology). On the one hand the transition period showed that there emerged a widely shared set of beliefs and practices, which will eventually be called the Ubaid culture. But with the arrival of the Ubaid culture came also a personal identity as seen in personal ornaments, including nail-shaped labrets and lip plugs, and ear spools. This type of ornamentation was very rare in Halaf sites, but common during the later Ubaid periods. Here we have significant and easily recognised markers of Ubaid personal identity. Interestingly, the terra-cotta reptile-head figurines remained in the south, and never really replace the painted female figurines in the north (maybe local identities remained stronger in ritual contexts).
No matter how we look at it, a transition period is just that, a transition period. The Ubaid material culture and ideology did 'appear' to replace the Halaf culture. But, all was not lost. The Ubaid style did arrive gradually in the North, but it also left gradually. By ca. 4000 BC local northern styles had reemerged, with the so-called 'chaff-tempered', the Coba bowl tradition, sprig ware and impressed ware (as opposed to the Ubaid painted pottery).
Delving deeper into the world of early Mesopotamian pottery
The earliest type of pottery of the Hassuna (Tell Hassunah, ca. 6000 BC) culture was large, coarse straw-tempered storage jars (some actually used for infant burials). These jars had a carinate or ogee-like curve in the lower part, bases were narrow and flat, necks very short or absent, rims flat or gently tapered. They used lots of straw temper (controls shrinkage during firing), the outside was wet-smoothed, and taller examples often had un-pierced lugs near the rim. We have the first examples of lip dented for pouring. We have to remember at this time Man had still not started to construct “true” buildings, but lived in superimposed camp sites placed around hearths. The early Hassuna were certainly still semi-nomadic.
Then straw-tempering was dropped, and there appeared a pear-shaped jar with an out-turned rim. A lid was also found for one of these jars. Plain burnishing continued, but the first 'archaic painted' ware also appeared. This involved a cream or pinkish slip and an almost uniform glossy (burnished) red paint. There was also the 'standard incised' ware, with the clay mixed with a fine sand and occasionally a large white grit. Here they used a thin cream slip that sometime turned pink with firing. The slip covered the outside and the mouth of the vessel. Designs were drawn with a fine point, and were linear in style.
The next step was an almost white slip, used for a variety of types of jars and bowls. Rims were still tapered, but more out-turned than past designs. Bowls had the 'archaic painting', with designs made of zones of truncated chevrons, with crosshatching and some solid bands and the occasional figure. 'Standard incised' ware was the most common, with bowls and globular jars with short, out-turned necks. The herringbone design appeared, along with little scratches as a filler for the motif. 'Standard painted' ware was popular, but either cream, pink or even green. Red was now rare, but you could find brown and even almost black. Examples also included a combination of 'standard painted' and 'standard incised' wares. Designs did change somewhat, with jar rims and bowl profiles of different shapes appearing. Jar necks remained tapered, but the rims became flatter. We have finally entered a period where Man had started to build units with several rooms furnished with bread ovens and storage jars. Floors were tampered earth and ashes, and walls were made of smoothed mud. This is the period when graved were dug in the foundations of the houses. Bodies were contracted, the head pointing north, and there were no traces of burial gifts. Flint blades and points were common in all periods, but now we also find sickle blades in large numbers (some with traces of bitumen used to fix wooden handles). Finely polished turquoise beads also start to appear.
The next step was the introduction of the so-called 'husking tray', a large flat oval dish with the inner surface corrugated or pitted with a stick. Some globular jars acquired short, straight necks. A new, and striking, design motif appeared, wide crosshatched zones in a cruciform arrangement. A "standard painted-and-incised” ware design included bowls with incised decoration outside and a painted band just inside the rim. Here we see for the first time areas set aside for pottery. Burials started to include objects, suggesting some idea of an afterlife.
The 'standard incised' ware became very popular, and the “stand painted-and-incised” model was also used on squat, short-necked jars. About this time pottery from other cultures (i.e. Samarra, so post ca. 5500 BC) was also found, suggesting some degree of exchange or even trade.
As you might guess, sherds show that pottery was becoming commonplace. 'Standard incised' ware was common, as was the herringbone decoration. Rims were all out-turned. Bowls had slightly tapered rims, and increasingly the solidly painted design became popular. A new, deep bowl, appeared. Samarra pottery started to become popular, particularly the monochrome, bright pink and red variety. It is not clear if the Samarra design was imported or made locally. Finally here we have houses with open courtyards, rooms paved with a mixture of clay and chopped straw, and ovens, hearths and grain bins. The grain bins are in themselves interesting because they are like large pots having the same shape as large storage jars. Early versions were of unbaked straw-tempered clay coated on the outside with bitumen, and lined with gypsum plaster. They were between 60 cm and 150 cm diameter. In this world where pottery was being developed, we find virtually no older stone vessels. But in the later periods we also fine crude female figurines made of clay. Finally throughout this period we find an abundance of animal bones, i.e. ox, ass, sheep, goat, gazelle, pig, and hare.
The Samarra culture (ca. 5500-4800 BC, or ca. 5500-3900 BC, depending upon source) developed a distinctive painted pottery. The walls were “sandy” or rough, and quite thick. It looks as if a primitive tournette was used (not a true potter’s wheel). Firing was uneven, and many pieces were over-fired, or even vitrified. This changed the colour of the paint from light red through to reddish brown, or even gray-green. No Samarra pottery was polychrome, and none of the pottery was burnished, but there was a multitude of shapes and forms. The Samarra pottery is characterised by the designs, mostly geometric using straight lines, and lots of multiple parallel lines. Most characteristic were multiple narrow plain bands. Stepped patterns were also common, as was a fringe design inside bowls. Specific to this pottery was also the filling in of the background, leaving the design areas unpainted. Images of women, fish, scorpions, birds were also found (usually on the interior of plates). They combined incision and painting only on jars.
Pottery from Nineveh (ca. 6000 BC) was quite varied, and mostly simple incised ware, poorly fired and un-burnished. Incisions were simple, i.e. lines, chevrons, zigzags, and herringbone. Characteristic is small gouges taken out for the exterior, i.e. so-called 'punctate ware'. It has been suggested that many of the designs and motifs were copied from others, mostly Samarra.
The reality is that almost all large 'Tell’s' (man-made hills) had some form of pottery manufacturing, each with their preferred shapes and designs, often copied from others. Samarra sherds are found almost everywhere.
The most famous of the early pottery cultures was that of Tell Al-Halaf (ca. 6100-5400 BC). Things started with a coarse unpainted pottery, often actually called pre-Halaf, whereas the Halaf culture is associated with their later painted pottery. The earliest true pottery was made of coarse gritty clay, and was badly fired. The slip was grey, yellow-brown, or red. Black was rare and surfaces usually well burnished. Red vessels appear to have been better made, and are of finer quality. Bowls were popular, with flat bases and flared rims. Even the coarsest un-burnished domestic ware had loop handles, spouts (or hole-mouths), and formed rims. There are a few early examples of nude figures worked in relief. Samarra pottery can also be found there, and there are clear signs that its designs and motifs were copied. Even in the pre-Halaf period they made simple figurines and animal figures.
The Halaf culture is actually defined by a variety of sites, Tell Arpachiyah, Tepe Gawra, Tell Hassuna, Nineveh, Tell Brak, Tell Aswad and Tell Al-Halaf itself. One must be careful, since many sites had an earlier “domestic” culture, then became classified as part of the Halaf culture, before transitioning to the Ubaid period.
Generally the Halaf period is divided into early, middle and late phases.
The early phase involved pottery with a buff, cream or pinkish colour, often burnished. The pottery was almost always painted either red of black, mat or lustrous, with a monochrome decoration. The favourite design was a continuous zone of crosshatched lozenges. The firing was not properly managed, producing a variety of tones. The most common form was a concave-sided, flat-based bowl, bit they also made rough “cooking pots”. The middle phase involved the use of slip and burnishing. The “cream bowl”, a peculiar shallow bowl with rounded base, was the most characteristic of this middle period. They also made tiny bowls with long tubular spouts at right angles, and the earliest pot with pierced lug handles comes from this period. Designs in the middle phase were more “open”, with widely spaced zigzags, and lines, and heavy zones of crosshatching, etc. vanished. The cream bowl had a design based upon its body parts, solid colour on the base and “metopes” on the upper part. In a transition period between middle and late periods there appeared a horizontally ribbed ware and a coil ware with nicked ribs. The most common item in the late phase was the simple (but finely made), shallow, flat-based polychrome plate. Patterns were built around filled checkers or squares and diagonals. One specific design involved squares containing a St. Andrew’s cross. Other designs included a “double-ax”, a “butterfly”, and interlocking triangles. Unjoined decorative elements were rare. All the designs are polychrome, with shades of red and black as the main colours (with some detail outlined in white). Late period pottery is superior in all ways, quality of clay, firng, slip, draftsmanship, use of colour, etc.
Along side the pottery, the Halaf period is also characterised by its figurines. The early phase included crude clay figures of birds, and the female figurine appeared in the middle period. One type was crude but “naturalistic”, the other stylised (some represented pregnant females). These are just some of the “Venus” figurines found throughout the ancient world. Oddly enough, only one late period female figurine has been found, however the bird figurine remained popular. Heads of horned animals, possibly bulls, were also popular. Stone “seal pendants” were also characteristic of the Halaf culture, in particular the early period.
Alongside pottery, Man continued to make and use simple flint flakes and blades, and stone axes, including hammer-axes. Ornaments included the bull’s head, amulets, and pendants. The necklace of obsidian beads appeared in the late period, although decorative beads on clothes probably date from earlier periods.
We have already mentioned in passing the Ubaid period (ca. 6500-3800 BC), which was the dominate culture in both North and South Mesopotamia between ca. 5300-4300 BC, but was succeeded by the Chalcolithic period in the North. This culture pioneered the growing of grains in the extreme conditions of aridity in the South. They later developed an extensive canal network for intensive irrigation agriculture. This appears to have gone hand-in-hand with the introduction of centralised coordination of labour. It is said that irrigation, the plough, and collective labour were all introduced into the South from northern Mesopotamia. We have already mentioned that in the period ca. 4500-4000 BC the Ubaid culture was adopted by the Halaf culture. Here we have the first appearance of temples and the growth of centralised large sites. We have the appearance of a buff or greenish coloured pottery with geometric design in brown or black paint. Specialised craftspeople appeared, such as potters, weavers and metalworkers. The Ubaid culture was one of domesticated agriculture and animal husbandry practiced in sedentary communities. I am not sure if this was linked with the appearance of centralised collective labour, but an analysis of grave goods suggests the society became more stratified and less egalitarian. There are strong suggestions that sailing was invented during the middle-late Ubaid period (ca. 4500-4000 BC).
The Ubaid period developed quite differently in north and south Mesopotamia, and even from one Tell to another. I will try to summarise the more basic features and evolutions of the Ubaid period, recognising that variations could be substantial from one place to another and from one period to another. Generally, early Ubaid pottery was of a poorer quality than the late Halaf painted pottery. It was coarser, gritty, and of a buff, light brown, green, or greenish gray. Although well baked it was less robust. The red, black or brown paint was dull and flaky. Motifs were simple chevrons, arrows, wavy lines, triangles, ladders, zigzags, “butterflies”, circles, and crosshatched bands. Handles were more common, but forms were few and simple. Bowls were particularly common, with a bell-shaped bowl being a new creation. Decoration was on the outside, and the inside was left plain. Undoubtedly the most unusual and interesting type of vessel was a lenticular, hole-mouth form with a long, tubular, bell-mounted spout. The decoration was also unusual, with a dark paint and panels in with small patterns were painted. With time, if anything, quality declined even further. The number of shapes were reduced, the odd shapes disappeared, as did spouts, handles, and inner-ledge rims. All pottery was still handmade. The motifs were fewer, and the workmanship cruder. By the mid-Ubaid period, all Halaf pottery had disappeared. Then things started to pick up again, pottery was fired better, was harder, and new forms and new painted motifs appeared. The most popular was a bowl with large flared, almost-straight, sides. Designs appeared that involved broad sweeping lines and curves. The beaker appeared, gently curved with a slightly flared rim. They were carefully made, had thin walls, and were well fired. Brown, bister or black were common colours. They were hand painted, and a new decoration appeared, the “flower”, a bit like an arrow with a heavy base. In the latter period, pottery urns were used for burials. Some of the pottery was still handmade, but the tournette was now widely employed. Baking was good, sometime almost vitrified, and surface treatment was common (there was also an increase in undecorated pottery). The outstanding feature of this later period was the ring base, which appeared on all types of vessels, including bowls. In fact ring-based bowls were very popular, with the shallower ones home to elaborate decoration (including animal figures). In the list later period, breakers disappeared, replaced by ring-based cups. Storage jars reappeared as well.
It is the female figurines that best show that there was a strong contact between the Halaf and Ubaid cultures. The forms were more or less taken over from one culture to the other. Clay spindle whorls, used to maintain the speed of the spin, were very common in the Ubaid culture, and other conical clay objects are thought to have been games pieces. Other clay objects with piercings are considered to have been cult objects. Stone vessels and tools continued to be used, and small stone mortars have been found for grinding paint. Hafted bone tools were very common during this period, including spatulas, scrapers, awls and needles. Personal ornaments were less frequently used, although the stone pendant remained popular. Beads were worn all over the body, i.e. necklaces, bracelets, armlets, anklets, girdles, and headdresses. These items were often found in graves. Stamp seals and impressions (including seal pendants) were very common, most were found near what were probably temples. Seals with animal motifs became very popular, but quadrupeds were usually not included with birds, snakes or fish, nor were they the main subject of a seal decoration. The male appears often on seals, but not women. The very late Ubaid period involved an increase in the complexity of designs, which might be linked with the first use of metal tools. But this assertion is questionable, because very, very few metal objects have been found in Ubaid sites. The most unusual object found for this period were bone playing-pipes.
It's very difficult to isolate a true comparative view of the different styles mentioned above. The above panel shows the variety and evolution of decorated pottery (not to scale) in proto-historic Mesopotamia: 1. Neolithic (Jarmo); 2 – 3, Hassuna culture (3 is an incised jar); 4 – 6, Samarra culture; 7, Eridu (Ubaid 1) culture; 8, Hajji Muhammad (Ubaid 2) culture; 9–10, Halaf culture; 11–13, Ubaid 3 and 4 cultures; 14-15, Nineveh V culture; 16 Jemdat Nasr culture. This covers the period ca. 7000 BC through to ca. 2900 BC.
Above we have read about pre-pottery and pottery, the techniques for making pottery, the shape, the decoration, etc. So what is pyrotechnology? And what is ceramic pyrotechnology? Firstly, it's not pyrotechnics as defined by Wikipedia, at least not in the pre-history sense. And we have already mentioned fire, so we know that cooking keeping warm, and providing light were probably most important early uses of pyrotechnology. Let's just define pyrotechnology as "the deliberate and controlled use of primitive combustion processes". This may sound like we are just playing with words, but what we want to do is focus on how man mastered fire and made it a tool, and not on the fact that it kept him warm and gave him something new to eat.
Sites with burnt wood and flint have been dated back to ca. 800,000 years ago (some say more than 1 million years ago in South Africa). Ash has been identified and dated back some ca. 600,000 years (but some experts still question the evidence from Zhoukoudian in China). Fire-hardened wooden spears have been dated back to ca. 400,000 years ago (in Europe). Direct evidence of the control and use of fire certainly dates back to ca. 250,000 years ago, e.g. sites showing that fire was used regularly and under full control. There are some indications that fire was used perhaps 1.5 million years ago, but they may have been just bushfires, or the use might have been random and not regular. Some experts think that burnt bones are a proxy for intentional use of fire, other disagree. These experts have the same concerns over burnt lithics. Everyone appears to be on 'solid ground' when discussing the use of fire by Homo sapiens, starting ca, 300,000 years ago (the Middle Stone Age). Experts look for a combination of features, e.g. charcoal, hearths, burnt elements such as bone and stone, charred plant material, carbonised seeds, heat-fractured stone, heat-treated stone tools, burnt seashells and ostrich eggshells, and ash layers indicating protracted use.
From ca. 10,000 BC pyrotechnics became another 'science of crafts' as it became an 'industry'. Man evolved and innovated, baking bread in an oven, roasting gypsum to obtain 'paster of Paris', firing pottery in a kiln, and working copper in a furnace.
There are a whole series of laboratory tools that can look for the chemical and mineralogical transformation of bone, flint, calcite, clay, ores, metals, etc. when exposed to heat. It can also be possible to identify the likely combustion temperature. Ash deposits have helped understand better hominid behaviour, e.g. length of occupation of site and the use of fuel. Initially Man appears to have used small-leaved branches, then later large quantities of dried grasses with wood, and finally just large quantities of wood. Some data would suggest that Man took sometime to work out the best features of firewood. i.e. he burnt just anything at hand. But Man also was partial to aromatic leaves and bark, maybe as an insect repellant. It is possible that bones were thrown (back) on the fire, producing more light than heat. Temperatures in simple wood fires can range from 500°C to more than 700°C depending upon both the type of wood, and the time the fire is continuously feed (presumably producing some hot burning charcoal in the process).
We have already also mentioned that ca. 12,000 BC Man started to 'roast' stones and flint to make them easier to work. Roasting is relative term, too hot with crack stones, but keeping them at 200-300°C for 2-3 days makes them easier to knapp.
And we have also mentioned the 'firing' of clay figurines, which resulted in the worlds first pottery. But maybe not, since pottery usually needs a higher and better controlled temperature.
We have already mentioned the extensive production and use of lime-plaster, in the period ca. 7200-6000 BC (although the invention of lime-plaster could date back to ca. 12,000 BC). It is a multi-step process that involves heating limestone at 800-900°C and as such can be considered the first and true pyrotechnology. It took some considerable time for lime-plaster to 'catch on' but a number of substantial innovation followed in its path. The addition of mineral aggregates, the use of surface slips, burnishing, fibre reinforcement, and even the use of composite materials. Some experts have suggested that it was with lime-plaster that craft specialisation really found a place in society. The innovations to lime-plaster set the stage for pottery plaster, and provided some useful tools later used in metal smelting.
Here we are going to look at the chemistry of lime-plaster. Strictly speaking, 'lime' can either be calcium oxide (CaO or quicklime or burnt-lime) or calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2 or slaked lime). You start by burning limestone to get quicklime (needs over 900°C). You mix it with water (slaked) and a paste called slaked lime forms. You then apply it, keep it moist, and it will harden slowly because it reacts with the carbon dioxide in the air, forming calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and water (this process is called carbonatation). Hard it's quite resistant and is not too affected by water. Wikipedia lists a number of useful qualities. To make it even harder you can mix it with horse hair and pozzolan, a class of siliceous and aluminous materials. Pozzolan reacts with calcium hydroxide to form a cement like compound CaH2SiO4 (Portland cement is a mix with a calcium silicate such as 3CaO.SiO2).
You must have guessed that the pyrotechnology is about obtaining the 900°C, a minimum but still difficult to achieve. They would have had to stack crushed limestone alternately with a good fuel (dung is often mentioned) in a stone-lined pit. Then cover it with wood and charcoal, put stones over the top and light it. This type of kiln could produce quite a lot of quicklime, but it would consume a lot of wood. The time for a large kiln to get to 900°C and burn up all the limestone could 10-12 hours. To do a single floor of a sizeable Stone Age building might require 2-3 tons, so perhaps as many as 10-15 runs from a large kiln. What they achieved was significant, yet it would take at least another 1,000 years before Man would come up with what was in many ways a modest additional technical innovation, pottery. Man used lime-plaster for floors and walls, for sticking a tool or weapon to a shaft (hafting), for sculpting masks and faces of skulls, for making small sculptures, and for a form of vessel called 'white ware' (often classed as pottery, but it was just a limestone plaster left to harden).
The next step in pyrotechnology was the manufacture of the first ceramics, perhaps ca. 7000 BC in the Near East (and earlier in the Far East). Man put together moulding of raw clay for sun baking with the way to burn limestone, and made ceramics. Some experts see the deliberate use of high temperature and long heating times to alter the physiochemical properties of clay, the first true invention of Man. It was the start of a long technological revolution that included vitreous materials, metallurgy, and glass.
We tend to forget that Man did not just take clay and bake it. First he had to look for a good natural clay containing argillaceous minerals, fine grain, and good plasticity. The the had to remove stone fragments by levigation (smoothing as opposed to comminution) by siving and suspension in water. Then depending upon what is desired as a product crushed quartz, pebbles, feldspars, limestone, shells are added. Then this new mix must be wedged and kneaded by hand until fully homogenised and all the pair pockets removed. This is what many people call the 'fabric'. Initially vessels were cut from the 'fabric' or built up using the coil technique (building the walls with a coils of rope-like clay). The vessel would then be painted and decorated. The wheel was invented permitting a larger variety of shapes and decorations.
Firing causes permanent physicochemical changes. At 100°C to 200°C this just removes the water. At 400°C to 800°C the chemical bond of hydroxyl (OH) water is removed. At 800°C to 1000°C solid-state reactions (vitrification) starts, and the clay is permanently changed into a ceramic. The ability to achieve 800°C or 1000°C is considered a measure of the technological level of a society.
Initially the archaeologist-scientist used the optical microscope (microstructure) and X-ray crystallography and in particular powder diffraction (elemental composition including phase identification). Then came measurement techniques for harness and porosity, Mössbauer Spectroscopy (isotopic composition) and the use of the Scanning Electron Microscopy. The breakthrough technique was the Analytical Scanning Electron Microscope in the 80's, where what is now termed Energy-Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy is associated with the Scanning Electron Microscope. The scanning electron microscope involves a beam of electrons hitting a sample. The microscope looks at the elections backscattered from the surface of the sample. It can also look at the transmitted electrons. The sample also emits characteristic X-rays which is a 'fingerprint' of each element in the sample. So you see the surface characteristics of the sample, and its electronic structure, chemical and elemental composition.
In this article the authors present results on the interior of ceramics using different techniques. Firstly we have some images using an optical microscope. In A we can see the sandwich structure of the ceramic, with the slip and core. In B there is a poorly decomposed calcite nodule. In C we can see the clay matrix with the quartz grains in the matrix. And in D we can see a particular impurity in the original clay.
Below we have what many people call a 'diffractogram' of the crystalline phase of the matrix. You can see identified numerous molecules such as calcite hematite, and quartz.
And below we have an SEM-EDX example from a scanning electron microscope with energy-dispersed X-ray diffraction. We have samples for two different vitreous components typifying the sinter structure of the core. With this type of tool we can see that the enrichment on calcium in the external part (Area 2) of the ceramic and in the core as accessed through a crack (Area 1).
Ceramic pyrotechnology, as shown above, can tell us much about how a particular ceramic item was made. The starting point is the sintering of the clay, where the atoms of the materials diffuse across boundaries of the particles and create one solid piece, This usually requires at least 900°C or better still 1050°C. The interaction between the particles in the matrix is responsible for strengthening the vessel, and this interaction occurs at both the atomic and molecular level. Small additives hinder the motion of dislocations, and therefore plastic deformation is restricted due to the inherent tensile strength of the artefact. So understanding sintering and phase decomposition helps determine the original manufacturing process. And one of the most important phase transformation is crystallisation at high temperatures (greater than 900°C). This stabilised and hardens the structure. The sinter temperature is when the grain boundaries become damaged and a new recrystallisation occurs. When the solid phase enters the 'sintered phase', the ceramic matrix becomes unstable (change of viscosity) and then recrystallises. Normally this can be seen with a microscope, and the surface will indicate if the sintering temperature was reached. Under the microscope one should be able to see the matrix surrounding the crystalline constituents, the additives scattered in the matrix and having differing sizes and geometries, and pores. The pores occur because the matrix shrinks upon firing, and because of the way the artefact is cooled. The colours also help, with internal dark colours point to an incomplete firing, or the presence of organic material. Optical microscopy (as seen on the photograph above) can be used to look at the crystalline phase on the surface and in samples taken in the interior, and this can point to how regular or irregular was the firing process. Calcites are useful because if they are decomposed to calcium oxide it suggests a temperature in excess of ca. 800°C. The minerals making up the artefact can be detected using X-ray diffraction (as in the above graph), and the crystal structure database covers all the usual powder-diffraction patterns. And thus one can see the low and high temperature minerals formed from the raw materials, e.g. calcite would point to lower-temperature phases (over ca. 300°C) and hematite to higher-temperature phases (above ca. 950°C). The SEM-EDX (as seen in the photograph with spectra above) shows the sinter structure and the elemental distribution in different parts of the vessel. Additional techniques such as Atomic-Force Microscopy can be used to examine nano-scale areas.
What all this boils down to is that examining sintering in ceramics is a way to look at the kiln used and how well the firing was carried out. It provides an indirect way of assessing the maturity of the pottery technique, and we are talking about examples made more than 7,000 years ago. In addition determining the elemental composition is a way to classify the ceramic and clay used (independent of appearance) and the trace elements in the clay can help distinguish between pottery of different origins.
Here is another article which is more like a review of how SEM-EDX works and how it is applied to archaeological ceramics.
Now all this might sound interesting to those with a technical bent, but those with other expertise might question the usefulness and investment made in such work. Well, we know that during the 4th millennium BC city-states emerged both in the Uruk culture of South Mesopotamia and in the North (even as far as Syria and southeastern Anatolia. During the 2nd half of the 4th millennium BC people moved out of the South and into surrounding areas. The classical explanation for this 'Uruk expansion' was the quest for raw materials, and the settlements were seen as facilitating trade back to the urban centres of southern Mesopotamia. So if archaeologist look at the samples of pottery, they would expect to see pottery arriving (or even moving back and forth) between the settlements and the city-states. If not trade in pottery itself, then at least trade in the contents. This view was all the more reasonable since there was a strong uniformity in both pottery forms and decoration across the entire region. But because the characterisation of the clay used for the pottery can be done to such a fine degree it is possible to affirm that there was no trade in ceramic vessels of any size among sites in the trading network. All the pottery was produced locally. So pottery is not a proxy for trade in the region, which of course might suggest that the different settlements and city-states were not so closely connected as experts thought. This is not to say that trade in the region (and outside the region) was not taking place. Cuneiform text attest to an active trade in stone and metals, wood, wool and textiles, and tools (also 'aromatic substances' are mentioned). It is also possible that grains such as barley were traded in such quantities that pottery vessels were simply too small. See this article for another perspective on long-distance trade in Mesopotamia (pottery is not mentioned once). So what we have with ceramic pyrotechnologies is another perspective (along with precise analytical methods) in the modern archaeologists toolbox.
Metallic pyrotechnology will be discussed also on the next webpage with the introduction of metallurgy.
Let's move on to irrigation and metallurgy
It's difficult to 'call a day' on Mesopotamian pottery, it's such a vast and complex subject. But I've found the perfect ending to this webpage.
Recently (2018) the chemical signature of fermentation has been found in some during vessels that also contained the chemical signature of barley. This is the first time that archaeologists have actually discovered Mesopotamian barley beer. From writings and drawing we know that beer was important in the ancient world., but now we have the actual formula for a barley beer from 2.500 years ago. Everyone drank beer, and it was even included in accounting texts as a daily ration. Some byproducts of beer making date back to ca. 4000 BC, but with these new results we could soon be tasting a new recipe for beer (ref. Smithsonian Magazine).