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A Burnt Storage Building, ca. 6100 BC

In 2003 excavations began in the so-called Operation II on the northeastern part of Tell Sabi Abyad. Towards the end of the 2003 campaign we came upon an orange-red, fiercely burnt layer. Of course this burnt layer reminded us at once of what has been called the Burnt Village, which we excavated on the southeastern side of Tell Sabi Abyad in the early 1990s. Was the Burnt Village, which has been dated to around 6000 BC, perhaps much more extensive than we have been thinking so far? In 2004 we investigated the burnt layer, with absolutely spectacular results.

 

The remains of a large, T-shaped building appeared, measuring approximately 10 by 7 metres. Thanks to the fire the over 8000 years old building has been preserved in a good condition. The thick walls are partly still standing to a height of 1.6 metres. The building consists of a long, narrow room with three adjoining rows of  smaller rooms at a right angle to it.

  

A very remarkable fact, indeed: the building had no doors at all...  Although we did find two openings, they were so small that they could not have functioned as doorways. Probably they are ventilation holes. People must have gained access to the building either through openings high up in the walls or through a number of openings in the roof or the ceiling. In view of the considerable thickness of the walls it is not impossible that the building had an upper storey originally.

An upper storey is also suggested by the distribution of the finds over  the rooms: all kinds of objects were not only found in places where one would initially expect them to be - that is to say, on the floors - but also high above the floors, between the remains of the burnt and collapsed walls, in the fill of the rooms. This means that at least part of the finds must have fallen off higher locations in the rooms during the fire and the collapse of the building.

  

Pieces of clay roof remains with impressions of reed mats

Everywhere in the building we found large pieces of burnt clay with impressions of reed mats and wooden beams. We also found parts of charred wooden beams in a number of rooms. Undoubtedly these are remains of the roof or, perhaps, of the floor between the lower and the upper storey. The burnt building yielded hundreds of finds of every nature. Particularly remarkable are the large numbers of grindstones and mortars of basalt and other kinds of stone. The mortars we found were especially round or square bowls.

  

These are precious products. In every farming society, grindstones and mortars are extremely important for the preparation of food. They are therefore treated and kept with due care. Moreover, it is important to  keep in mind that the stones that were needed for the manufacture of grindstones were not locally available. They had to be imported from far away. For example, the nearest basalt sources are in the mountainous area of Eastern Turkey at a distance of more than 100 kilometres from Tell Sabi Abyad.

  

Very important are the many 'tokens' (counting devices) and the dozens of clay sealings in the rooms of the burnt storage building. The tokens and the sealings functioned in regulating the storage of private property in the storage building. For details, go to: sealings.

 

This large 'knife' of obsidian is very striking. The blade is no less than 28 cm long. It takes very great skills and craftsmanship to manufacture a blade of this size. Obsidian is not found in Syria, but comes from the mountains in Eastern Turkey. No doubt this knife is an import product.

  

In one of the smallest rooms to the back of the building we found the skeleton of a young woman, between 14 and 20 years old at the time of death.  By now it has become clear that this person is not someone who died during the fire or the collapse of the building, but somebody who was purposely buried here. The deceased was lying on her left side in a crouching position and with the hands in front of the body – a position that was very characteristic for this period in prehistory. Funerary gifts were absent, with one exception: the right hand of the corpse rested on half of a stone mace head. It is not clear why just one half of the mace head was given to the deceased and where the other half went. Stone mace heads are rare and are usually associated with ritual and status symbols. Was the deceased perhaps someone who belonged to the higher ranks of the village community at Tell Sabi Abyad?

It is remarkable that the body was not buried underneath the floor but was placed on the floor of the room. Next the space was partly filled with soil to cover the body. This seems to have happened before the building burnt down. So the small room served as some kind of tomb, while the rest of the building was still in use for other purposes. Or was the dead person perhaps connected with the fire after all, be it in a very special way? Was the building perhaps set on fire exactly because it contained the grave of a, probably remarkable, person.

In recent years we have come upon more and more clues that the burnt buildings and the presence of dead people are closely linked. Examples of this in Syria are places such as Jerf al-Ahmar, Bouqras and, of course, the Burnt Village at Tell Sabi Abyad itself. We seem to be dealing here with complex funerary rituals, the exact meaning of which still eludes us.

On the basis of a series of radiocarbon dates, the burnt building can be dated at around 6100 BC. Contrary to what we thought initially, the burnt storage building therefore appears to have no direct connection with the Burnt Village.