Unknown Civilizations: Tell Mureybet


By Jaime Ortega.

Tell Mureybet

The site of Mureybet along the middle Euphrates in Syria, was occupied from the 12th to the 8th millennium BCE. It is one of the earliest known agriculture settlements from the Neolithic. In 1971, Jacques Cauvin began the excavation at Mureybet and identified 4 archeological levels, beginning with the Natufian pre-pottery, pre-agricultural culture. They lived in round houses made of limestone bricks, with a clay mortar. In later strata, houses became rectangular. The work on the site ended in 1993 with the filling up of Lake Assad. Artifacts from the Mureybet site, including a mother goddess figurines, are held at the National Museum of Antiquities, Damascus. Other important artifacts include counting tokens one of the earliest systems for transmitting information, predating writing by millennia.

The excavations have revealed four occupation phases I–IV, ranging from the Natufian up to the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic  (PPNB) and dating to 10,200–8,000 BC, based on AMS radiocarbon dates. Phase IA (10,200–9,700 BC) represents the Natufian occupation of Mureybet. It is characterized by hearths and cooking pits, but no dwelling structures have been identified. Among the crops that were harvested, and possibly even locally cultivated, were barley and rye. Very few sickle blades and querns were found. The inhabitants of Mureybet hunted gazelle and equids and fishing was also important. They had dogs, evidence for which is indirect at Mureybet but bones of which have been identified at nearby and contemporary Tell Abu Hureyra.

Phases IB, IIA and IIB (9,700–9,300 BC) make up the Khiamian, a poorly understood and sometimes disputed sub-phase straddling the transition from the Natufian to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A(PPNA). Mureybet is the only site where Khiamian deposits are associated with architectural remains. The oldest of these remains date to phase IB and consist of a round semi-subterranean structure with a diameter of 6 metres (20 ft). In the subsequent phases, slightly smaller round houses built at ground level also appeared, at least some of which were used simultaneously. The walls were built from compacted earth, sometimes reinforced with stones. Hearths and cooking pits were located outside the buildings. Harvested crops included barley, rye and Polygonum. Sickle blades and grinding stones are more common and show more use-wear, indicating that cereals became a more important component in the diet. The fauna at Mureybet changed significantly during phase IIB. Gazelle makes up 70% of the assemblage and small animals decrease in importance, although fish remained important. Toward the end of the Khiamian, equid hunting gained importance at the expense of gazelle.

Phases IIIA and IIIB (9,300–8,600 BC) represent the Mureybetian, a subphase of the PPNA that was named after Mureybet and is found in the area of the Middle Euphrates. Architecture diversified, with rectangular, multi-cellular buildings appearing next to the round buildings that were already known from the previous phases. Walls were built from cigar-shaped stones that were created by percussion and that were covered with earth.

Semi-subterranean structures also continued to be used and they are compared to similar structures found at nearby and contemporary Jerf el-Ahmar, where the structures are interpreted as special buildings with a communal function. Many rooms in the rectangular structures were so small that they could only have served for storage. Hearths and cooking pits lined with stones continued to be located in the outdoor areas.

The wild varieties of barley, rye and einkorn were consumed in phase III. Different lines of evidence suggest that these cereals were cultivated rather than gathered. Hunting of equids and aurochs was more important than of gazelle, while fish remains were rare in phase III contexts. Based on use-wear analysis, it could also be established that animal hides were processed at the site using bone and stone tools.The earliest known writing for record keeping evolved from a system of counting using small clay tokens. The earliest use of small clay tokens for counting were found in phase III. It coincided with a period of explosive rapid growth of the use of cereals in the Near East.

The last occupation phases, IVA (8,600–8,200 BC) and IVB (8,200–8,000 BC) date to the Early and Middle PPNB, respectively. No architecture has been encountered in phase IVA. No domesticated cereals were found, but this may be an effect of very small archaeobotanical sample that was retrieved from these phases. Hunting focused on equids, followed by aurochs. It could not be determined whether any domesticated animals were exploited in Mureybet. Mud-built walls of rectangular structures were uncovered in phase IVB. Domesticated sheep and goat were exploited in this period, and domesticated cattle may also have been present.



Later houses

In its early levels, Mureybet was a small village occupied by hunter-gatherers. Hunting was important and crops were first gathered and later cultivated, but they remained wild. During its final stages, domesticated animals were also present at the site.

When Mureybet was first occupied around 10,200 BC, the climate was colder and more humid than today, an effect of the onset of the Younger Dryas climate change event. The vegetation consisted of an open forest steppe with species like terebinth, almond and wild cereals

Important artifacts include counting tokens one of the earliest systems for transmitting information, predating writing by millennia and a number of ‘mother goddess’ carving and

The excavation of Mureybet has produced an abundance of lithic material. During all periods, flint was the main raw material from which tools were made. It was procured from local sources. Obsidian was much less common. Natufian tools include points, burins, scrapers, borers and herminettes, a kind of tool that was primarily used for woodwork.

Apart from the lithics, other artifact categories were also present in Mureybet in smaller quantities. Personal ornaments in the Natufian period consisted of pierced shells and small stone and shell discs. Among the three figurines from this phase was one with clear anthropomorphic characteristics. Other artifact categories include limestone vessels, stone querns, beads, pendants, including one from ivory and eight anthropomorphic figurines made from limestone and baked earth. Seven of these figurines could be identified as women.

Conclusions from the excavation, three languages in this report, the first is French, but starting on page 17 it repeats in English and later Arabic

Pisé (daub or building earth) from Jerf el Ahmar and Mureybet was examined and found to contain plant impressions made by the fine fraction of cereal chaff which had been added to the pisé as a tempering medium. Four wild grasses were identified from impressions, while over fifty taxa were identified from charred remains. Chaff tempering was present in all samples examined and was composed of spikelet bases and fragments of spikelets. Several aspects of these findings complement results obtained from charred remains. The sheer quantity of building material with chaff implies that cereals were widely available. De-husking and winnowing appear to have been carried out on a large scale, probably near the site. Firm evidence for wild rye confirms previous identifications for this period in the middle Euphrates, rye being difficult to distinguish from wild einkorn if only grain is available for identification. The quality of the chaff provides some evidence of crop processing.

Location of Mureybet


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