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Yet another sensational discovery by Polish archaeologists in Syria
2007-06-21 12:03:51

Polish archaeologists working at a Syrian settlement at the foot of the Taurus Mountains have discovered another stone tower – the oldest one in the world, many dwellings and 27 human and 3 animal burial remains from the beginnings of animal farming and growing the first grains – said Prof. Ryszard F. Mazurowski from the Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at Warsaw University, who is heading the digs.

For the past ten years, Polish-Syrian research in Tell Qaramal, 25 km north of Aleppo and about 65 km south of the Taurus mountains, has been concentrated on traces of the early stages of the pre-ceramic Neolithic period, which covers a period of about 10,700 – 9,500 B.C.. This was the time when the first farming cultures were being established, with a transformation from a hunting-gathering economy to a farming economy, which included keeping animals such as sheep and goats, as well as cattle and pigs at a slightly later stage.

This model of farming soon became the basis of all civilisations in the Old World, slowly seeping through Anatolia to South-Eastern Europe, where it appeared more or less at the end of the seventh millennium B.C. – Prof. Mazurowski explained. He added that the first groups living by farming on Polish lands arrived at the very end of the sixth millennium.

The Tell Qaramel settlement examined by Polish archaeologists covers an area of about 4 ha and represents a stage of the pre-ceramic Neolithic Age. Previous excavations brought the discovery of four circular towers dating back to between the eleventh millennium and about 9,650 B.C. These are the oldest such buildings in the world. The professor says – “this is the biggest prehistoric discovery made by Polish archaeologists, and one of the greatest discoveries in the Near-East region for 60 years, since the discovery of Jericho”.

In the last season, the archaeologists examined the fourth tower – and discovered a fifth one. The diameters of both are over 6 metres, and their walls are 1.5 metres thick. “In the central parts of both towers with circular bases, and with walls partly set into the ground, there are huge hearths. We also found trapezium-shaped stone benches, which lead the dwellers of the settlement to the hearth from the north-western side, as well as from the south side – two parallel rows of vertically placed large stones, which formed the passage to the hearth for a person authorised to light and keep the fire” – Prof. Mazurowski explained.

According to him, the towers were a place where cults were practiced as well as presumably a place of assembly for the settlement’s inhabitants. This is suggested by the huge hearths made of pebbles and hand moulded silt – the researcher explains.

“Another revelation of the previous season was discovering numerous graves near an earlier examined temple” – the professor noted. This refers to 27 graves belonging to people, some of whom were posthumously decapitated (the heads were buried nearby). This was a common custom in the Near East at the time – the professor explained. There are also three animals – onagers (related to the horse and donkey) – buried there. Like humans, they were also sometimes buried after being decapitated.

“The bodies buried in an embryonic position suggests the belief in reincarnation. The dead were often buried in their houses, under the floor – in the belief that they would one day return” – the archaeologist explained.

The burials were found near one of two “temples”. One of them, relatively large (10.5 by 5 metres) was divided into three parts. A stele decorated with four recesses was discovered in its apse. In the centre, there is a platform – a kind of altar made from a white lime mass. Next to it there are also crescent shape benches and a well made hearth, where the meat of large animals – presumably buffaloes, gazelles and onagers – was sacrificed.

In the eastern wall of the sanctuary, archaeologists have come across a complete figure of a woman made from chalk, and a rather massive flint Jericho-type axe, which was obviously imported from the area of later Palestine.

The other smaller mud house, was a kind of sanctuary, as there were no traces of every day activities – Prof. Mazurowski explained. “I believe this is a sanctuary, as inside, archaeologists have come across a stone bucranium – a carved decoration resembling a buffalo-skull with large horns. A cave was made in one of the ends of the stone bucranium stylisation, where five natural bucrania were inserted – one into another – each with an 80cm horn span”.

The settlement has also revealed an extremely rich collection of every day use flint, bone and mostly stone objects, such as chlorite or lime vessels, or stone straightners used to stretch wooden arrow shafts, richly decorated in geometrical, animal and anthropomorphic patterns. They depict dancing humans and snakes, gazelles, tortoises, porcupines, fish and even plant motifs. “Though Tell Qaramel is about 180 km away from the Mediterranean, we even found depictions of an octopus (which is in part a woman), sea shells and turtles” – this proves that they were aware of the existence of the sea, they must have had contact with other human groups and even venture into those distant areas at times.

The professor emphasised that there are more objects from this period in Tell Qaramel than in the whole Near East – there are over 300 completely or partly preserved objects.

Prof. Mazurowski believes that the discovery in Tell Qaramel is one of the most important prehistoric discoveries in the Near East in the past 60 years. “These five towers are older than the tower in Jericho, which was considered to be the oldest tower in the world” – he said.

According to him, the research in Tell Qaramel confirms that the Neolithic culture was formed simultaneously in many regions of the Near East, creating a farming culture and establishing settlements with stone architecture and creating the first stages of a proto-urban organism. “We did not expect this in this part of Syria” – he noted.

“Before, it was assumed that the Neolithic culture spread from southern Levant, among others from Jericho. Now, it turns out that there was an equally ancient culture in the north, represented in Tell Qaramel. A series of elements of this culture are even older than those found in Palestine. Thus, in the Near East, the culture of the Old World has a more polycentric origin. The research in Tell Qaramel permits us to amend many deeply rooted beliefs about the Near East region and the transfer of this cultural model to Europe” – he added.

Prof. Mazurowski also informed that the Syrian authorities have offered him and the Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology at Warsaw University to sign an agreement for continuing excavations for another five years. They also offered to fund the publication of a book on the results of Polish research in Tell Qaramel in three languages: English, French and Arabic.

PAP - Nauka w Polsce, Anna Ślązak

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