New excavations at WF16, a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A site in southern Jordan

B. Finlayson, S. Mithen, M. Najjar, E. Jenkins & S. Smith

Figure 1
Figure 1. Location map of site WF16.
Click to enlarge.

WF16 is a Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) site discovered and evaluated during the Dana-Faynan Early Prehistory Project (Finlayson & Mithen 2007) (Figure 1, 36R 3390442N 0739824E). The PPNA (11500 - 10500 cal BP), originally identified during Kenyon's excavations at Jericho in the 1950s (Kenyon & Holland 1981), has been firmly established by subsequent excavations as the critical period of cultural and economic transition from hunting and gathering to farming in the Near East, notably at the site of Netiv Hagdud (Bar Yosef & Gopher 1997). However, the PPNA remains poorly understood owing to the small scale of most excavations, especially in the southern Levant, and the often poor preservation of PPNA deposits. Key questions concerning the extent to which wild plants were cultivated and animals managed, whether communities were mobile or sedentary, and the nature of cultural developments remain unanswered. Our evaluation of WF16 demonstrated the importance of the site to the ongoing debate, and made it clear that what was required was a large, open area excavation of a PPNA settlement to acquire sufficiently large assemblages of artefacts, faunal remains and botanical material to address these issues.

Arts and Humanities Research Council
Figure 2
Figure 2. A. General view of excavated area. B. Detail of southern structures under excavation.
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The current AHRC-funded project sets out to achieve this with three large field seasons (to be followed by a conservation season to help present the early Neolithic to visitors). The first season was conducted in spring 2008, and has produced significant results, although no specialist analysis has yet been conducted on any of the material recovered.

A single trench measuring 15m x 40m was opened (Figure 2A). The overburden was very rich in PPNA artefacts, suggesting that it represents deflated PPNA occupation material. Following the removal of the overburden the outlines of several sub-circular, yellowish-brown arcs of pisé walling were apparent across the trench, most clearly seen in the south (Figure 2B).

The remains in the north were different, resolving into a number of pisé and stone structures, several of which had been truncated by the excavation of a large midden pit (Figure 3A) 20m in diameter which dominates the north-eastern area of the trench and continues under the eastern baulk. Placing such a large dump close to the centre of the site and cutting through earlier structures (Figure 3B) indicates a major investment in time and energy, and suggests a community level planned activity.

We excavated the NW quadrant of one structural sequence (Structure S33) to its primary floor (Figure 4A). Lying on the floor surface was a number of finds, including an unusual long polished stone implement (Figure 4C). The structure appeared to have been intentionally and rapidly filled with over a metre of pisé or mud brick.

Figure 3
Figure 3. A. Large midden close to the centre of the site - in the north of the excavated area. B. Midden pit section showing pit cutting earlier structures.
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Figure 4
Figure 4. A. Structure S33. B. Inhumation in S33. C. Polished stone implement from the floor surface of S33.
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Figure 5
Figure 5. A. Burial B32 cranial fragments. B. Burial B39. C. Burial B39, detail of organic material preserved on plaster.
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Twenty seven burials were found. Most of these contained single inhumations (Figure 4B) but at least two were multiple burials, and secondary modification was common. Burials were closely associated with structures, either cut through the walls or under the floors. Burial B32 (Figure 5A) was the first excavated and contained the greatest number of individuals. It was initially identified as a deposit of ten large cranial fragments. The crania appear to have been carefully stacked. It is not known if any of them belong to the individual in the primary crouched adult burial below. The skull and mandible were removed from the primary skeleton, with the long bones of the left leg, as well as the tibia of the right leg, being moved from their original position and crossed over each other in the region where the skull would have been.

Burial B39 (Figure 5B) contains the bones of a skeleton placed in a semi-articulated state in a recut burial pit. The skull faced northwards and the front teeth rested against the pelvis, which had been placed here as part of a bundle of bones held in a basket or wrap visible from the clear impressions preserved on the plaster-like lining of the now-vanished organic material (Figure 5C). This plaster-like material has not yet been analysed, but in light of the significance of plaster in later PPNB burial practices, is of great interest.

Figure 6
Figure 6. A. Greenstone plaque (SF82). B. Shell pendant (SF406). CPlaque with domino-like motif (SF332). D. Bead with single perforation. E. Bead with double perforation. F. Limestone sculpture of a human face (SF238).
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Almost all the artefacts appear to be PPNA (Figure 6). A significant number (>100) of beads and pendants were recovered including pieces made on greenstone (malachite) and shell. Bead types include small spacers together with larger beads with both single and double perforated forms (Figures 6D & E). Decorated objects recovered include various incised stones, decorated shaft straighteners and more ambiguous items. Of special note are SF332 (Figure 6C) a domino-like decorated small plaque and SF82 (Figure 6A) a small greenstone plaque with an interesting motif strongly reminiscent of a similar artefact found at PPNA Netiv Hagdud. SF238 is a small limestone sculpture depicting a human face (Figure 6F). On the reverse of the piece is another human face, this time in an upside down position. To our knowledge this is the only such item yet discovered in the PPNA, although small stone sculptures depicting single human faces have been found at several large PPNA sites such as Mureybet, Jericho and Jerf al Ahmar (Ibáñez 2008, Holland 1982, Jamous & al-Maqdissi 2008).


Thanks are due to the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, the local Bedouin communities in Wadi Faynan, our team of professional archaeologists and students, the Council for British Research in the Levant and the University of Reading.


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* Author for correspondence.