The Year 2000 Season of Excavation at Late PPNB Ba'ja

Hans Georg K. Gebel and Bo Dahl Hermansen
(Institut für Vorderasiatische Altertumskunde, Freie Universität Berlin; Carsten Niebuhr Institute, Copenhagen University)


Short Report on the 1999 Season

The major results of the 2000 excavations included

Topographic conditions in the siq were studied, and there may have been excellent possibilities for water storage using simple dams. Just below the site, two spots of the gorge's course are right-angled and have vertical steep sides that immediately stop the water from flushing down from the drainage catchment. After these natural right-angled barriers, the course goes through extremely narrow passages (1-2m), easy to block by a dam. One of the situations allows for easy storage of a larger quantity of water (180 m3, provided there was a similar topography as today). Our considerations have reached a point where we do not exclude Neolithic water dams below Ba'ja, adding a new aspect to our understanding of why this „extreme“ site setting was chosen. However, Ba'ja is also a protected setting, and we continue to search for evidence for arguments related to territorial stress as a reason to choose the location.
An additional 300 m2 of the 1.2-1.5 ha settlement were investigated in 2000. Excavations revealed clearly that all the space of the site's setting was densely occupied by structures, including even extremely sloping terrain (ca. 45°) with walls preserved up to 3.70 m (Test Unit 5 in 2000). Area D shows that ground plans extended onto flat rock surfaces immediately above the vertical walls of gorges.
Workshops for the production of sandstone rings are now known from all the domestic areas, indicating that each household contributed to this source of wealth for the settlement. They seem to have flourished in the basements, as indicated by the waste and extremely thin layers of sandstone dust deposited during grinding the rings' surfaces. The waste material witnesses to a more complex chaîne opératoire than thought before, including "individualized" features and failure management.
More evidence for the practice of caching objects such as celts and small stone bowls in and between walls and floors was found, as well as a case of arranged human bones sealed off by a basespement‘s floor plaster, and animal remains arranged between two walls. The meaning of the "magic caching" remains unclear and needs additional evidence to be considered on a broader basis.
In the 1999 opened Area D on the site‘s summit more of the basement of the large building (Fig. 2) - covering some 75-80 m2 - was exposed. The central room/ courtyard of the two-storeyed house built on two different terraces/levels contained small rooms in its earlier phase. If climate was tolerable, daily life would be expected to have mainly used the upper story and roof; the lower rooms have evidence of sandstone ring workshops and animal bone disposal. The house contains, like others, remains of indoor staircases, and along its western side a narrow lane leading to the edge of the gorge to the north (here, and down in the clefts of the gorge, we found huge LPPNB garbage layers; Test Unit 2).

The admixtures of plaster is much more diversified and specialized to purposes than expected (analysis by the Wilhelm Dyckerhoff Institut für Baustofftechnologie, Wiesbaden).
In the flat central part of the otherwise steeply sloped settlement evidence of a plaza was found. It is bordered in the east by at least one regularly buttressed house front (Fig. 3), and it was accessible through a gate-like structure in a topographically "strategic" position in the west. The deep sounding in Area C exposed what now clearly is a stairwell attached to the outside of the (buttressed) house, leading from/to the plaza in the later phases of the building (Fig. 3). Here there is likely red-stained plaster evidence on the exterior house walls, too. The access to the plaza in the west is some 1.5m wide with the (broken) lintels still in situ. The distance between both spots (NE-SW- axis of the supposed plaza) is ca. 35 m.
A true burial chamber was encountered in one of the houses. It is very small (ca. 0.6 m2) and contained in its upper layer the remains of at least 7 skulls, together with post-cranial bones that partly still rested in the anatomic order of the burial position. Bones (or the bodies) were partly strewn with red pigments. Arrowheads stained in red, parts of necklaces, and a beautiful mother-of-pearl paillette (below the head of a newborn) were found in the grave. The position of the chamber makes clear that repetitive burying inside the house‘s basement must have taken place during its inhabitation.
One of the burial chamber walls was intentionally set in front of a figurative wall painting in fresco technique (red pigments from crushed/ soaked sandstone painted in the wet suface of the wall plaster), which depicts fragments of abstract motifs with radiating rays (coming out of a human figure?) and a ladder-like image (Fig. 4).

The prestigious character of the architectural layout, the burial chamber hiding a fresco with mysterious symbols, and other features, lead us now to think that Ba'ja is more than just a rural settlement involved in long-distance exchange of sandstone rings. This last season of excavations has opened exciting insights into the world of beliefs and rituals of these early herders and farmers. The most pressing question now puzzling us is whether the wall painting connected with the multiple burial contains information on mortuary beliefs some 9000 years ago in Ba'ja, and: Do we really not have settlement systems with various levels in the LPPNB of the area? Plans for our next season have started.



Fig. 3. Buttressed LPPNB house wall bordering the Ba'ja communal space. Photo: H.G.K. Gebel.








Fig. 4. LPPNB wall fresco from Balja (detail from upper layer of painted plaster). Drawing: H.G.K. Gebel.

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