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Over 100 objects have so far been recovered from the Neolithic cemetery which were apparently used for piercings. Source: Ergül Kodaş, Emma L Baysal & Kazım Özkan.

Early Neolithic Ceremonies in Turkey Found to Include Facial Piercings

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Something unexpected from the early Neolithic has been found in Turkey. During excavations in an ancient cemetery, a team of archaeologists from several institutions unearthed more than 100 small ornaments that were apparently used to fill piercings of the ear and lip.

At the early Neolithic site of Boncuklu Tarla, a lost settlement discovered during excavations in Turkey’s southeastern territory that began in 2008, researchers found the miniature jewelry pieces in the graves of adult men and women who may have lived and died as long as 11,000 years ago. The researchers believe the jewelry would have been awarded to young adults going through coming-of-age ceremonies, with their piercings representing a sign that they’d reached full maturity.

“The combination of contextual and physical anthropological evidence at Boncuklu Tarla confirms, for the first time, that personal ornamentation using body perforation was practiced early in the Neolithic period,” the Turkish archaeologists wrote in a new article just published in Antiquity.  “Typological comparison of ornaments between sites shows that these practices were widespread as early as the PPNA.”

The PPNA referenced here refers to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, a stage of the early Neolithic period that lasted in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) from 10,000 to 8,800 BC.

The excavation site at Boncuklu Tarla, where evidence has been found of ritual piercings from the early Neolithic (Emma Baysal)

The excavation site at Boncuklu Tarla, where evidence has been found of ritual piercings from the early Neolithic (Emma Baysal)

Objects that resembled earrings have been recovered at other ancient sites in Southwest Asia. But there was no evidence to show that they would have been inserted into pierced ears, or used to decorate any other part of the body.

The picture has now changed, following the recovery of the Boncuklu Tarla ornaments. What revealed the truth about their purpose was the location in the graves where they were found.

They were not discovered lying around the skeletal remains of the deceased, as is the case with most grave goods. Instead, they were found adjacent to the ears and in or around the mouths of the skeletons, a telltale sign they were used for the purposes of body decoration. This jewelry clearly had meaning to those who wore it, since it continued to adorn their bodies as they prepared to enter the afterlife.

Neolithic Rites of Passage Revealed

This unique discovery gave the Turkish archaeologists a golden opportunity to study piercing practices in pre-historic times.

“We wanted to find out about early examples of body perforations, what materials were used for decorative purposes and who was piercing their bodies,” explained study co-author Dr. Emma Baysal, an archaeologist from Ankara University, in an Antiquity press release.

These wear marks to the lower incisor of one of the individuals suggest long term wearing of a labret below the lower lip (Boncuklu Tarla Excavation Archive)

These wear marks to the lower incisor of one of the individuals suggest long term wearing of a labret below the lower lip (Boncuklu Tarla Excavation Archive)

The list of ornaments recovered from the ancient graves included 85 that are well-preserved and still complete. Most of the ornaments are simple objects, having been carved or chipped from pieces of limestone, obsidian, or smooth pebbles recovered from riverbeds. Their sizes and shapes are consistent with the idea that they were used in both ear and lower lip piercings.

While the skin and cartilage that would have been pierced decayed away long ago, the archaeologists did find some proof to verify their conclusions about the use of the ornaments. Several of the recovered skeletons showed distinctive patterns of wear on their bottom front teeth, and that same type of damage has been observed in people from other times and places who were known to have worn labrets (the name for the ornaments used with lip piercings).

A close examination of the skeletons showed that piercings were common to both men and women who lived in Boncuklu Tarla. But no jewelry was recovered from the burials of children, meaning the piercing ceremonies were reserved exclusively for adults.

While there is no way to prove for certain that body perforation and the wearing of decorative ornaments was associated with a rite of passage ceremony, the Turkish archaeologists believe this is the most likely explanation and purpose, given the persistence of such practices throughout human history.

“It shows that traditions that are still very much part of our lives today were already developed at the important transitional time when people first started to settle in permanent villages in western Asia more than 10,000 years ago,” Dr. Baysal stated.

For the ancient residents of Boncuklu Tarla, ritual piercings likely would have been dense with meaning.

“They had very complex ornamentation practices involving beads, bracelets and pendants, including a very highly developed symbolic world which was all expressed through the medium of the human body,”, Dr. Baysal said.

The Search for Meaning and Identity is Universal

Boncuklu Tarla is located in southeastern Turkey in the Mardin province, near the small village of Ilisu. It was inhabited from approximately 10300 to around 7100 BC, coinciding with the Neolithic transition that saw the replacement of the traditional hunting and foraging lifestyle with permanent settlements focused on agriculture. Excavations at Boncuklu Tarla have revealed multiple levels of residential structures, showing that the late-stage hunter-gatherers who congregated there were already in the process of changing the way they lived.

Beyond what can be learned from exploring their ancient ruins, the study of the body perforation and ornamentation practices of the people of Neolithic Boncuklu Tarla opens a fascinating new window into their cultural and metaphysical belief systems.

The Turkish archaeologists recognize that their groundbreaking study has implications for future work in their field, and could also lead to a reexamination of prehistoric finds that were made in the previously, specifically those that included the recovery of unidentified jewelry.

“Despite the remaining questions, many items of unknown use in ornament assemblages can now be reinterpreted in association with the human body, defining different permanent or temporary ways of constructing appearance as part of a community’s system of communication and structuring of individual and group identity,” the archaeologists wrote in their Antiquity article.

The continued existence of the practice of piercing shows that these ideas have relevance even today, where people are still searching for ways to establish an identity and either fit in with or stand out from the crowd.

Top image: Over 100 objects have so far been recovered from the Neolithic cemetery which were apparently used for piercings. Source: Ergül Kodaş, Emma L Baysal & Kazım Özkan.

By Nathan Falde

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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