Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Burial reveals complex origins of metallurgy

The origin of metallurgy in the ancient Near East is well attested in the southern Levant, with rich assemblages of copper artefacts from the Nahal Mishmar cave and the unique gold rings of the Nahal Qanah cave, confirming this as the main centre during the second half of the 5th millennium CalBC. However many important questions about Chalcolithic metallurgy in the southern Levant remain unanswered, such as, where do the materials used in the processes come from, where were the final goods produced, and what were the dynamics of production? New questions continue to arise as recent discoveries force previous interpretations to be reconsidered.

New evidence has come to light in the form of a copper awl from a Middle Chalcolithic burial at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, Israel, suggesting that cast metal technology was introduced to the region as early as the late 6th millennium CalBC.

Middle Chalcolithic phase

Tel Tsaf is an archaeological site  south-east of Beit She’an, and in 2004–2007 a large excavation project was conducted by Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tel Tsaf is dated to ca. 5100–4600 CalBC, sometimes called the Middle Chalcolithic, a little-known period in the archaeology of the Levant, post-dating the Wadi Rabah phase and pre-dating the Ghassulian Chalcolithic phase.

The complex mud-brick architectural settings include courtyard buildings combining rectilinear, rounded rooms and grain silos, as well as a large number of cooking facilities. Four burials were uncovered, two of which were found inside grain silos. The silos uncovered in courtyard structures reached a storage capacity estimated at 15–30 tons of grain, far beyond the yearly needs of a family; a clear indication of the accumulation of surpluses on a scale unprecedented in the ancient Near East.

Tel Tsaf contained a rich assemblage of over 2,500 beads made of ostrich egg-shell, obsidian items originating in Anatolia or Armenia, four Ubaid pottery shards imported from either north Syria or Mesopotamia and a Nilotic shell from Egypt. These finds exhibit connections of unexpected distance and diversity.

A small find with greater implications

A paper presented in the Open Access journal PLOSone examines the chemical composition of the tiny copper awl and reviews its context for the first time.

The object was found in the grave of an articulated skeleton of an adult female who was approximately 40 years old. It is described as an elongated pin made of cast copper, with a rounded cross-section. It is 41 mm long with a maximum diameter (near the base and at the middle of its length) of 5 mm. The diameter near its tip is 1 mm. The colour of its exterior is green due to oxidization and corrosion, while the core is reddish. The narrower tip bears signs of rotational movement and remains of a wooden handle were noted on the base at the opposite end, suggesting its use as an awl. Unfortunately this artefact was completely corroded, so it was impossible to examine the structure of the metal and production technique, however, the composition was possible using Niton ED-XRF analysis.

High status trading family

The results indicate that it was made from a natural tin-copper and brought from a distant source, probably the Caucasus, and transported to the Jordan Valley via long-distance exchange networks, which also brought obsidian, groundstone items and other goods from Armenia, Anatolia and Syria through the Levantine Corridor. This infers a high status on the occupants of Courtyard Building I; a family or selected group within the community that quite possibly controlled local cultivation and storage of grain as well as long-distance trade.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Burial reveals complex origins of metallurgy”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 27, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/05/2014/burial-reveals-complex-origins-of-metallurgy

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