The Significance of Ba'ja for Early Near Eastern Neolithic Research

Hans Georg K. Gebel, Free University of Berlin


The Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of Ba'ja (1) is well-known for its extreme setting within the rugged sandstone formations north of Petra. Up to now, no other early sedentary community is known for choosing such a shielded and hidden location. But we should expect more such protected settings, or sites having defensive structures in early Neolithic times (cf. below). Many speculations have been discussed for why this choice was made. The hitherto unique evidence from southern Jordan ostensibly demands more than a pragmatic explanation. To mention just a few: Environmental stress caused conflict between neighboring LPPNB sites and as a result communities moved into more protected settings; the wealth created by the production of luxury goods (the sandstone rings in the case of Ba'ja) required cutting oneself off from the outside world; or even, an unknown symbolic / psychological factor made the setting ritually attractive because it was only accessible through the "vagina-type of channel" of the siq (gorge).


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Area D Area B Nord Area C Area B Süd Area F Area A


Many of these ideas are problematic on their own, but the common problem of all such approaches is that they are characterized by a single determinant cause. Our project today stresses that it was a combination of reasons that brought about the existence of Ba'ja in its remote location, all of which reflect significant elements and needs of early Near Eastern Neolithic complexity. This association of factors can possibly be seen at Ba'ja in a more pronounced way than it can be elsewhere. In this short contribution, I am only able to outline some of the more important considerations.

Throughout the western wing of the Fertile Crescent, and in many parts of the its east, the 9th and 8th millennia BC witnessed a series of regionally and temporarily diversified and confined, complex developments that had not been seen before. These are often characterized by unmatched and even hypertrophic features elsewhere, but they share one common trend: dissolving heterarchical structures in its broadestterms. Many of the main ingredients of the processes of early sedentary life are to be seen in the archaeological evidence from Ba'ja: the formation of completely new types of spatial, ritual, and social territories and therefore new forms of identity; an interaction that was strongly promoted by competition and the rapid cognitive processes inherent in natural resources management, technological innovation, and the creation of new social and symbolic paradigms; patterns of differentiation at all levels of settled life that allowed for new economic adaptations and deficit management that would have previously been impossible.

Ba'ja flourished in an environmentally sensitive area soon after sedentary life arrived in the region half a millennium before, during the MPPNB of the Greater Petra Area. Differing from the core areas of Near Eastern sedentary life, the potential reasons for the successful adaptation in the Greater Petra Area are clearer visible because of the more disadvantageous environmental conditions, and any intensification of human activity would result in a more drastic change in archaeological record. For example, the arrival of the so-called mega-site phenomenon (to which Ba'ja belongs) (Gebel 2002b), which introduced new social and socio-economic patterns to the area, is clearly mirrored in the Beidha-to-Ba'ja transformations. While this line of reasoning emphasizes that the narrow but diversified physiographic units of the Greater Petra Area make the region highly suitable for the study of environmental impact on Neolithization processes, there are also other arguments more directly linked to the peculiarities of Ba'ja:

The problems associated with the development of early Neolithic territorialism are reflected at Ba'ja in a very condensed way. On one hand, the assumed migration of village population from sites like Beidha into the naturally protected (but indefensible) setting of Ba'ja illustrates the tendency for the creation of shielded environments at the end of the Pre-Pottery periods (2). Ba'ja physiographically exhibits what socially happened in the mega-sites (es-Sifiya, 'Ain Jammam, Basta, 'Ain Ghazal, and others): Corporate organization now shelters and governs interests of the individual; kinship groups replace small families; an apparent differentiation in labor, subsistence, household and communal tasks, and in community governance which helps to strengthen these communities both socially and economically (Gebel 2002a,b). This development seems to have been the reaction to increasing conflicts between and within settlements during the late early Neolithic in the area. Fast-growing communities did not find the social answers to manage complexity and growth. Conflict may have been one of the reasons why these settlements collapsed by c. 6900 BC ("hiatus palestinien"). Ba'ja may prove to be a valuable resource in the area of Neolithic conflict studies.

On the other hand, the intra-site limitations of space at Ba'ja, surrounded by vertical rocks and deep gorges, also provide an excellent location for studying the human ethology of early Neolithic space. Unlike "open" settlements, the unmodifiable spatial restrictions at Ba'ja display spatial regulation in a much more obvious way. The "domestication" of vertical space (multi-storeyed houses), a social life steadily modifying groundplans, and symbolic behavior supporting spatial interests are just some of this evidence at Ba'ja. The limited 1.2 to 1.5 hectare of dense housing areas on Ba'ja's intramontane basin offers the opportunity to excavate a Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic site to a fuller extent and with a better understanding of its spatial framework. Resulting sound insights into the social structure of Ba'ja's population, which is currently estimated to be around 600 inhabitants, can only have a regional and temporal relevance. However, these special conditions at Ba'ja allow for a more reliable analysis of early Neolithic social structure.

A new and additional argument for Ba'ja's location comes from the siq bordering the southern edge of the site. Here are ideal conditions for collecting the run-off water that drains down from the vast eastern catchment. Today, there is no spring nearby. Any potential spring-fed water source in an intact early Neolithic soil and arboreal environment would have been located too far away and too difficult to reach for the daily needs of a community this size. If we overthrow the discretely used but unproven axiom that early Neolithic people did not build dams for water management and storage, and look at the favorite topographical and hydrological conditions below the settlement, we find a strong argument for the harvesting of rain water as contributing to the choice of settlement location. The topic of water in Ba'ja may open another necessary discussion for a period that in other parts of the Near East (e.g. the Djezirah, northern Iraq) was followed by the first evidence of contour ditch irrigation.

We began to realize Ba'ja's potential for further study into the process of Neolithization in the Near East. Ba'ja is finding its role in this research. It will have to contribute to a new understanding of Near Eastern Neolithization, which appears necessary after other recent exciting insights that were inconceivable before(e.g. the Göbekli interaction sphere, the Cyprus "colonization"). This short piece tried to emphasize a few new starting points for the discussionon on behalf of Ba'ja.



The Seasons of Excavation


(1) designated as Ba'ja 1 in Gebel & Starck 1985 and Gebel 1986, and more recently as Ba'ja II (e.g. Bienert et al. 2002). The immediate site area is called locally al-Mehmad. For basic information on the site and its field research history cf. the references in Gebel & Hermansen 2001.

(2) This pattern could occur much earlier in areas with a longer settlement history and a developing settlement pattern, e.g. in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A mediterranean / semi-arid contact zones of Palestine.



1985 Gebel H.G. & Starck J.M.
Investigations into the stone age of the Petra area (Early Holocene research). A preliminary report on the 1984 campaigns. Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 29: 89-114.

1986 Gebel H.G.
Die Jungsteinzeit im Petra-Gebiet. In: M. Lindner (ed.), Petra. Neue Ausgrabungen und Entdeckungen: 273-308. München/Bad Windsheim, Delp.

2001 Gebel H.G.K. & B. Dahl Hermansen
LPPNB Ba'ja 2001. A short note. Neo-Lithics 2/01: 15-20. Berlin, ex oriente.

2002 Bienert H.D., Lamprichs R. & Vieweger D.
Ba'ja. Archäologie einer Landschaft in Jordanien. Bericht über archäologische Feldforschungen. In R.Eichmann (ed.), Ausgrabungen und Surveys im Vorderen Orient, I.Orient-Archäologie 5: 159-214. Rahden, M. Leideck.

2002a Gebel H.G.
The Neolithic of the Near East An essay on apolycentric process and other research problems. In: A.Hausleiter,S.Kerner, B.Müller-Neuhof (eds.), Material Culture and Mental Spheres. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 293: 313-324. Münster, Ugarit-Verlag.

2002b Gebel H.G.
Subsistenzformen, Siedlungsweisen und Prozesse des sozialen Wandels vom akeramischen bis zum keramischen Neolithikum, Teil II: Grundzüge sozialen Wandels im Neolithikum der südlichen Levante. Freiburg, Universiätsbibliothek.



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