Stone Age Dead Were Put on Display Before Being Buried in the Homes of the Living
In a now barren landscape lies the Neolithic archaeological site at Wadi Faynan, in Jordan. British researchers have just announced a major discovery of human remains in a number of graves in the settlement that dates back 11,000 years. The burials have been found in the same location as human habitations and show indications of what would now be considered grisly practices. It is believed that the find can help us to understand Stone Age people, offering us insights into their lives, belief system, and society.
Three Neolithic sites found at Wadi Faynan seasonal river site, southern Jordan. (Image: Researchgate)
The site, first excavated in 1997 and 2006, dates from approximately 11,500 to 10,000 years ago and is located some 121 miles (140 kilometers) south of the Jordanian capital Amman. Situated on a seasonal river plain, it was initially a camp for hunter-gathers who stayed in the area for limited periods and would hunt Ibex deer and gather fruit. It is speculated that they may have claimed ownership of the territory by burying their dead in the location. Over time the hunter-gatherers built houses and monumental structures in the area, as is described in a previous study published in Antiquity:
“A new type of communal and monumental structure from the earliest Neolithic in western Asia. A complement to the decorated stone pillars erected at Göbekli Tepe in the north, 'Wadi Faynan 16 Structure O75' in the southern Levant is a ritualised gathering place of a different kind. It serves to define wider western Asia as an arena of social experiment in the tenth millennium BC, one in which community seems to take precedence over economy.”
Excavation of Structure O75 looking towards the south-east showing the two-tier benches and moulded postholes. (Image: Researchgate)
Faynan appears to have become a sizeable settlement and, discerning that it was an important ritual center it is compared to Göbekli Tepe in Turkey to the north. The site was inhabited for many millennia, right down to the Byzantine era. It appears that the area became an industrial center in the Roman era when copper smelting was practiced in Faynan.
The discovery of the cemetery
Experts who have been working at Faynan uncovered a cemetery with ‘30 graves, that contained the remains of 40 individuals’ reports the Jordan Times. The remains were placed in graves under the floors of private houses and these were sealed with a rudimentary plaster. The skeletons are often in a sleeping or fetal position and had obviously been placed in the grave with great care and even tenderness. A preliminary investigation has shown that some bones were removed and that on occasion the graves were used for a second burial.
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Skeletal remains found in Wadi Faynan 16 (Image: Courtesy of Steven Mithen)
The graves are believed to hold the earliest human remains that have been found at Faynan. They could date back as far as 11,000 years old. The Archaeology News Network states that Steven Mithen, an expert on the period stated that these "burials include infants and children, indicating a high level of mortality within these prehistoric communities." It is clear that, despite developing sophisticated settlements, life at Faynan was precarious and often sadly short.
The experts discovered some evidence of what to modern eyes appear to be gruesome and macabre practices. It seems that the bones of the dead were brought to the site in packages made of plaster and fibers. Stranger yet, is that some of the heads of the dead may have been on display in the houses at Faynan. All the burials were in the settled area and there was no separate space for burials, which is the norm in most societies.
The Stone Age burials here are very different from the burials Shkārat Msaied, Jordan where the dead were dismembered and placed in a cist.
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A set of skulls found buried in a stone cist inside a prehistoric house at Shkārat Msaied in Jordan. Image: Moritz Kinsel, Shkārat Msaied Neolithic Project, University of Copenhagen.
The significance of the graves
It appears that the division between life and death was not clearly demarcated in Faynan at least in the Neolithic period. This is evidenced by the fact that the dead were placed with the living in the houses, something that was typical of the era in this region and beyond. There were no grave goods found in the graves, such as beads and this is according Archaeology News Network ‘characteristic of the Neolithic people’.
The Wadi Faynan site offers experts a unique opportunity to understand the development of human society. The recent discovery of the burials means that we can learn more about the beliefs of some of the earliest inhabitants of Faynan. This was a society that took care of their dead and did not see them as distinct from the living. The high levels of young people in the graves indicate that life was hard and that there was a high level of mortality in the settlement. This unique discovery can allow experts to understand the evolution of burial practices by comparing them to later burials at the site. The graves allow us an unrivaled insight into people in Neolithic society.
Top image: Skeletal remains found in Wadi Faynan 16 Source: Courtesy of Steven Mithen
By Ed Whelan