Elaborate 8,000-year-old Necklace from Child Burial Reveals Ancient Culture
A team of researchers from various European countries painstakingly reconstructed a decayed Neolithic necklace. The beads had been unearthed from an 8,000-year-old child's grave found at the renowned archaeological site of Ba‘ja in southern Jordan. New analysis has uncovered fascinating insights into trade, art, and social complexities of Neolithic culture.
Joining Beads Found in Grave Reveal Neolithic Necklace
Initially, they discovered over 2,500 beads of various styles, plus a perforated stone pendant and a mother-of-pearl ring, scattered in piles on or under the decayed skeleton’s chest and neck. But during the process of reconstruction, the team revealed that these artifacts were once part of an incredibly complex Neolithic necklace that had been placed around the neck of an unfortunate child before she was buried.
The beads used to make this intricately crafted ornament came in many different sizes, shapes and colors. They were made from shells and stones, and their mixture included some beads that could not have been sourced from locally available materials.
Location of the child burial at Ba’ja in Jordan where the Neolithic necklace was found. (PLoS ONE / CC BY 4.0)
This included a pair of shiny objects made of fossilized amber, a type of hardened tree resin that would have been considered highly valuable because it was so hard to find. Items like this could only have been acquired through some kind of economic exchange, which shows there was an expansive trade network in operation in the Levant during this part of the Neolithic period.
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The team of scientists and archaeologists are convinced that the necklace would not have been an object that the child owned, but would have been created exclusively for her burial ceremony. They believe the placing of such a finely made necklace displaying extraordinary craftsmanship indicates the child’s entombment was not a private affair.
“The lavishly endowed child laying down in an impressive burial, and the extraordinary ornament decorating the chest was intended to be shown, probably for a last sight,” the researchers wrote in a PLOS One article discussing their work. “In this sense, the death of the child should be seen as a public event gathering the people of Ba‘ja, families, friends, and probably members from other villages too.”
Image of the child burial and the distribution of the beads which once were part of a Neolithic necklace. (PLoS ONE / CC BY 4.0)
A Neolithic Culture that Valued its Children
The tomb that held the child was found during excavations that took place in Ba‘ja in 2018. The child’s skeleton was found in a fetal position, although the deceased would have been around eight years old at the time of death.
Based on the physiological characteristics of the now badly decayed skeleton, the researchers concluded that the skeletal remains had most likely belonged to a girl. The Neolithic tomb that held her body was made from stone, indicating that quite a bit of care was taken to make sure her grave would be preserved for a long time.
Because of the nature of her burial, the researchers are convinced the young girl was a person of high status. This could mean she was the daughter of a community leader or wealthy farmer, or it could be that she was honored in this way because she was a child, and her loss was considered highly tragic.
Ba‘ja was an early Neolithic farming settlement occupied between 7,400 and 6,800 BC. Over the years, archaeologists have unearthed 15 graves built beneath the floors of homes in Ba’ja, many of which belonged to infants. This could be another sign that the deaths of children were seen as terrible events worthy of special consideration by the people of this ancient community.
In ancient cultures, body adornments were considered powerful symbols of identity and meaning. They communicated important facts about a person’s life, about how they viewed themselves and about how they were viewed by others. Consequently, their use in burials can only be seen as a sign of respect, admiration and love, as could be the case with the Neolithic necklace found in the 8,000-year-old child burial.
As the team of European researchers note in their PLOS One article, the study of prehistoric funerary practices will inevitably reveal many relevant details about the social, cultural and economic practices and beliefs of ancient societies. It seems the people who resided in Ba’ja valued the lives of their children immensely, enough to guarantee that the death of a child would not be quickly forgotten.
Tubular shell beads (e) and the mother-of-pearl engraved ring (f) which once made up the Neolithic necklace. (PLoS ONE / CC BY 4.0)
Reconstructing the Neolithic Necklace, and the Society that Produced It
The Ba’ja necklace reconstruction project was led by archaeologist Hala Alarashi, an ancient body adornment expert affiliated with the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas in Spain and the Université Côte d’Azur in France.
Under Alarashi’s guidance, the researchers set out to do something that at first consideration might have seemed all but impossible: to determine what the original necklace looked like by first tracing the dispersal patterns of the beads that had fallen off its long-decayed strings and then by moving them backward in time and space to see how they might have once been joined together.
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Amazingly, despite the seeming complexity of such a task this method of reconstruction proved incredibly successful. Slowly and meticulously, the researchers were able to put the 2,500 beads back into their original places on new strings, creating an accurate reassembly of the necklace that had been worn by the deceased child more than 8,000 years ago.
The beads fit perfectly on 16 separate curved strings, which would have been joined at both ends before being hung around the child’s neck over an opening in the middle of the necklace. The stone pendant and mother-of-pearl ring were also part of the assemblage, presumably being used to hold the beads in place on each end. The researchers attached as many of the original beads as they could, although they did have to make substitutes for a few that were too badly decayed to be used.
The reconstructed necklace has been on display in the Petra Museum in southern Jordan. In fact, it is one of the oldest and most impressive Neolithic ornaments ever found in the Levant. In the words of the Alashari—and her fellow researchers—the details of its construction highlight “how complex the interactions between the social actors of the community of Ba‘ja had been–the bead-makers, the string / cordage makers, the travelers [traders], or mobile individuals, the familial or tribal authorities behind the demands of artistic creations, and other members of the society.”
Top image: The resulting reconstruction of the Neolithic necklace discovered in southern Jordan. Source: PLoS ONE / CC BY 4.0
By Nathan Falde
Alarashi H, Benz M, Gresky J, Burkhardt A, Fischer A, Gourichon L, et al. (2023). Threads of memory: Reviving the ornament of a dead child at the Neolithic village of Ba`ja (Jordan). PLoS ONE 18(8): e0288075. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0288075