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Wadi Fayan. Image: APAAME, FlickrWadi Fayan. Image: APAAME, Flickr

Archaeologists unravel the origins of architecture

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Recent excavations of a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) site at Wadi Faynan (WF16) in southern Jordan have revealed remarkable evidence of architectural developments in the early Neolithic.

A paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports the discovery of a large, oval-shaped building at a site in southern Jordan called Wadi Faynan 16 (WF16). The archaeological team led by Bill Finlayson, director of the Council for British Research in the Levant in London and Steven Mithen from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, claim that this find sheds light on both special purpose structures and “domestic” settlement, allowing fresh insights into the development of increasingly sedentary communities and the social systems they supported.

Location of the WF16 site. Image copyright Professor Steven Mithen

Location of the WF16 site. Image copyright Professor Steven Mithen

The development of sedentary communities is a central part of the Neolithic process and  architecture with its ideas of home and household have been important to the debate. There has been discussion on the role of communal buildings and the organization of early sedentary communities since the discovery of the tower at Jericho around sixty years ago.

The discovery of a large, amphitheatre-like building at the site in southern Jordan adds to a growing body of evidence that the earliest permanent buildings might not have been houses, but ‘community centres‘. The find, researchers say, suggests that during the advent of agriculture these early farmers may have at first come together in communal activities, prior to congregating in villages.

Early settlers lived at WF16 between 11,600 and 10,200 years ago, cultivating plants such as wild barley, pistachio and fig trees, and hunting or herding wild goats, cattle and gazelle.

Recently, the focus has been on northern Levantine PPNA sites, such as Jerf el Ahmar, or the emergence of ritual buildings in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B of the southern Levant. Much of the debate revolves around a division between what is interpreted as domestic space, contrasted with “special purpose” buildings. The authors are quoted as saying “recent evidence allows a fresh examination of the nature of early Neolithic communities.”

Our recent evidence allows a fresh examination of the nature of early Neolithic communities.

The structure is recorded as Building 075 constructed of mud-brick, with a smooth floor of mud plaster, and at 22 x 19 metres is large for the period. The central area is surrounded by a long bench about a metre deep and half a metre high. In parts of the building there is a second bench above the first one that forms an additional tier of seating. Along the southern side of the building the lower bench is decorated with a wave pattern incised into the mud-brick.

View of the large community building. Image copyright Professor Steven Mithen

View of the large community building. Image copyright Professor Steven Mithen

Thus the structure echoes the architecture of the Jerf el Ahmar community building – but building 075 is about three times larger. The building’s central area also contains a series of stone mortars set into plaster platforms on the floor, which may have been used to process wild plants. The structure includes a number of post-holes which the team think might have held up a roof that covered at least part of the building. The team also found two other, smaller structures nearby, which it interprets as storehouses for cereals and other food resources.

In this time period there may have been little distinction between ritual and household activities and that people lived and worked as a community

These three buildings were found within a cluster of smaller structures, though none of these buildings appear to be individual family homes. The researchers suggest that in this time period there may have been little distinction between ritual and household activities and that people lived and worked as a community.

View of the WF16 site. Image copyright Professor Steven Mithen

View of the WF16 site. Image copyright Professor Steven Mithen

Archaeologist Trevor Watkins, emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh is quoted in Science Now magazine that he “agrees strongly” with the conclusions that the social changes taking place during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming were at least as important as the later economic changes that led to full-blown domestication of plants and animals. However, he thinks that it is still possible that some of the other buildings at WF16 were used as domestic dwellings. Nevertheless, Watkins says, “the communal activities at WF16 and other Neolithic sites probably created powerful bonds of collective identity in the earliest farmers that kept them together in stable societies over many generations.”

Learn more

Mithen, S.J., Finlayson, B., Pirie, A., Carruthers, D. & Kennedy, A. 2000, WF16: ‘New evidence for economic and technological diversity in the PPNA.’ Current Anthropology 41, 655-662.

Finlayson, A., Mithen, S.J.., Pirie, A., Carruthers, D., Kennedy, A. & Tipping, R. 2000. ‘The Dana-Faynan-Ghuwayr Early Prehistory project 1997 and 1998 field seasons.‘ Levant 32, 1-26.

Finlayson, B, Pirie, A. and Mithen, S.J. 2001. The Dana-Faynan-Al-Ghuwayr Early Prehistory Project, Spring 2000 Season, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, XLIV,19-36.

Finlayson, B. & Mithen S.J. 2007. The Early Prehistory of Wadi Faynan, Southern Jordan: Archaeological Survey of Wadis Faynan, Ghuwayr and Al Bustan and Evaluation of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Site of WF16. Levant Supplementary Series 4. Oxbow Books with the CBRL.

Mithen, S.J., Austin, P., Kennedy, A., Emberson, H., Lancaster, N. & Finlayson B. 2007. Early Neolithic woodland composition and exploitation in the Southern Levant: a comparison between archaeobotanical remains from WF16 and present-day woodland at Hammam Adethni. Environmental Archaeology 12(1). 49-70

Mithen, S.J., Finlayson, B & Shaffrey, R. 2005. Sexual Symbolism in the Early Neolithic of the Southern Levant: Pestles and Mortars from WF16. Documenta Praehistoria XXXII. 103-110

Smith, S.J. 2007. The form and function of the el Khiam point at WF16 and Dhra’: Issues for interpreting chipped stone assemblage variability. In Astruc, L, Binder, D and Briois, F (eds) Technical Systems and Near Eastern PPN Communities. Proceedings of the 5th International Workshop. Frejus 2004. Éditions APDCA.


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