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Bladelets and flakes with two pairs of notches interpreted as Neolithic figurines. Source: Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity Publications Ltd

10,000-Year-Old Neolithic Figurines Discovered in Jordan Burials

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The historical time period for the mid-9th millennium BC onwards is known as the early Neolithic. At this time in the Near East human iconography began expanding, but archaeological theories to account for this development have been non-existent, until now.

A new paper published in the Journal Antiquity , by lead author Dr. Juan José Ibáñez, studies what is described as a “unique assemblage of flint artifacts from the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (8th millennium BC) that were discovered at the site of Kharaysin in Jordan. But these artifacts did not so much resemble the usual flint tools, but appear to be human forms . Because they were discovered in burials the team of researchers suggest they are Neolithic figurines, manufactured and discarded during mortuary rituals and remembrance ceremonies that included “the extraction, manipulation and redeposition of human remains.”

The Neolithic figurines found in Jordan were of differing shapes and sizes. (Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

The Neolithic figurines found in Jordan were of differing shapes and sizes. (Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Are 10,000-Year-Old Flint Figurines Relics From Neolithic Death Rituals?

The early expansion of human-shaped artifacts is generally associated with the growing requirement for material icons to support prevailing religious beliefs. This was greatly directed towards female deities during the early Neolithic, but several scholars have demonstrated that explicitly female figurines during the Near Eastern Neolithic were in the minority.

The newly discovered humans shaped artifacts have been interpreted as cultic objects, vehicles of magic, figures used in the teaching of initiation rites and as children’s toys, but according to Dr. Juan José Ibáñez, establishing their “original” and “actual” meaning is an essential step in understanding how psychological and social shifts took place during the transition to farming.

Searching for the Meaning of Ancient Notched Flints

Kharaysin, in the Zarqa River Valley in Jordan, measures approximately 25 hectares (62 acres) and is defined by four primary archaeological occupation levels. The earliest dates to the beginning of the 9th millennium BC, while the second level represents the second half of the 9th millennium BC. The third level was occupied at the beginning of the 8th millennium BC and the fourth level dates to the beginning of the 7th millennium BC. It was at the third level dating to the beginning of the 8th millennium BC that the flint artifacts had been crafted and buried in the ruins of rectangular houses with lime-plastered floors.

Orthophotograph of area A. (Image: Kharaysin archaeological team/ Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Orthophotograph of area A. (Image: Kharaysin archaeological team/ Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The paper presents an analysis of the flint objects, all of which exhibit two pairs of notch. This aspect suggests that these flint artifacts are figurines, deliberately carved to depict the human body in a form not previously documented, effectively proving the figurines represent “part of the widespread shift in symbolic thinking manifested in the proliferation of human iconography in the early Neolithic.”

In addition to morphologically analyzing the notched flints, 71 further flint artifacts, including blade fragments, bladelets or flakes displaying two pairs of opposed notches, were also subjected to technological analysis looking for wear marks, but almost all of the artifacts exhibited “no use-wear traces inside the notches, or on the edges adjacent to them,” according to the paper. Furthermore, only one blade displayed any signs of use-wear from having cut meat or hide on both of its sides, but this practical usage occurred “before the notches were made.”

Morphological Analysis Answers Questions About Neolithic Figurines

The new paper presents an alternative explanation for the morphology of the Kharaysin artifacts found in Jordan, arguing that they resemble the outline of a human body. The upper pair of notches are the narrowing of the neck while the lower pair represent the waist. This distinctly “violin-shaped outline” is also observed in two baked-clay figurines from the same period of occupation at Kharaysin, which further confirms the assertion that these notched flints were were figurines used in funerary rituals forming part of an “ancestor veneration cult” which practiced the retrieval and curation (and occasional plastering) of skulls.

Two clay human figurines found at the bottom of a 1.6-meter-deep pit located in J 105/110 at Kharaysin. (Image: Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Two clay human figurines found at the bottom of a 1.6-meter-deep pit located in J 105/110 at Kharaysin. (Image: Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

What this new paper does is document a new type of notched flint artifact from the first half of the 8th millennium BC at Kharaysin in Jordan, where splintered by-products from blade knapping were retouched with two notches to resemble a human form. And while these pairs of notches could have been used for hafting tools, many of the recovered artifacts have no clear functional edges, and most exhibit no evidence of use.

Tying up Loose Ends: What Were the Neolithic Figurines Used For?

After writing this article, I began struggling with the lack of data in the study pertaining to the specific aims of the ancient rituals in which these human-shaped artifacts were used. Were they intended to guard deceased bodies as their souls journeyed to the afterlife, to appease a Sun god, or perhaps to invoke the floods of a lunar goddess? In search of answers, I wrote to Dr. Juan José Ibáñez and asked a clear question: while your answer will always be subjective, what has your new study caused you to ruminate upon regarding the ritual "function" of these artifacts?

“This is always very difficult to know,” was the first line of the professors’ answer. He goes on to explain that the figurines were made with a simple technique and using an ubiquitous material. They were “not made by specialists but by common members of the community.” The figurines are quite varied: some are slim, others are bumpy, small or big. They therefore seem to be depicting “specific deceased persons” and the figurines and other funerary human iconography (such as modeled skulls) could suggest “that some kind of beliefs in afterlife existence were present.”

The paper, “Flint ‘figurines’ from the Early Neolithic site of Kharaysin, Jordan” by Juan José Ibáñez et al. is available from Antiquity Publications Ltd .

Top image: Bladelets and flakes with two pairs of notches interpreted as Neolithic figurines. Source: Kharaysin archaeological team / Antiquity Publications Ltd

By Ashley Cowie

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