At the end of the 1988 campaign in the so-called Operation I in the southeastern part of Tell Sabi Abyad a peculiar orange-red layer came to the surface. In 1991 and later years we investigated this phenomenon on a large scale. To our surprise a well-preserved village was uncovered that had been destroyed by fire around 6000 BC.
Rich inventories were recovered from the burned buildings, including pottery, stone vessels, flint and obsidian implements, ground-stone tools, figurines, personal ornaments, and hundreds of clay sealings with stamp-seal impressions.
The Burnt Village covered an area of about 1 hectare, although this space was not wholly occupied by houses. There were extensive open areas on the outskirts of the settlement provided with fireplaces, ovens and pits, as well as extensive dumps containing ashes and other household waste. The heart of the village consisted of a series of regular rectangular structures, varying in dimension between 50 and 90 square metres. They were usually divided into three rows or wings, each of which consisted of a series of very small cubicles.
The buildings had 15 or more such rooms, each only between 3 and 5 square metres, and have been interpreted as granaries and storehouses. In some of the rooms there were large amounts of grain. Others contained lareg quantities of sealed products, pottery and domestic utensils. Probably these multi-roomed structures were central warehouses of some sort, used for storage by large groups of people.
Some of the rooms had normal doorways, while others had portholes of such restricted size that one had to crawl through them on hands and knees. Occasionally no passage at all was present; apparently these rooms were accessible from the roof only. Charred beams and hard-burnt clay pieces with impressions of reeds and circular wooden poles in the various houses revealed that the roofs had all been made in the same way: wooden rafters were placed at regular intervals and covered with reed mats, in their turn covered with a thick mud layer.
There is evidence that people habitually walked on the roofs and that various kinds of activities were carried out there, including rituals possibly associated with fire and death. On the edges of one roof were a number of large emblematic clay ‘torsos’, containing the horns of wild sheep and the limbs of cattle. The meaning of these objects remains puzzling, but they should most likely be associated with a ritual context. It is probably no coincidence that the corpses of two adults were deposited on the roof of the same building (their skeletal remains were found in the fill of the building, amidst burnt materials), suggestive of a link between the ‘torsos’ and funerary practice. That the settlement ended in a conflagration may itself be interpreted as a deliberate ritual act of burial and abandonment. In some modern communities people still burn the house when the inhabitant has died.
The enigmatic clay "torsos". Right: broken "torso" with wild sheep horn inside.
Ovens and hearthplaces – the foci of daily domestic life – were rare in the buildings of the Burnt Village but could be found in small auxiliary structures, in walled courtyards, or in the clearances between. Here stood white-plastered circular structures (so-called tholoi) up to 4 m in diameter, sometimes sub-divided into smaller compartments. The larger tholoi probably served for living and reception, the others for the preparation of food, the stabling of domestic animals, and the storage of all kinds of goods. Some of these buildings seem to have had a beehive shape, while others probably had flat or pitched roofs.
The focal point in the largest tholoi must have been the hearth against the wall, ca. 1.5 m in diameter, where people sate and ate and mused about their day-to-day worries. The tholoi often had a restricted lifetime: most showed no signs of repair and, after a rather short period of time, seem to have been simply supplanted by new ones, founded upon the lower, levelled building remains. Only the largest tholoi experienced longer occupation, given the repeated renewal of their central hearthplaces.
Hundreds of clay sealings with stamp-seal impressions were found in the burnt storehouses.
3D Reconstruction of the Burnt Village at Tell Sabi Abyad, ca. 6000 BC (drawing: Martin Hense, Rotterdam)