The excavations at Tell Sabi Abyad have yielded occupation layers which contain the oldest pottery known so far from Syria. Although it shows similarities with early pottery from other sites in the region, the presence of painted vessels is unique. This raises new questions as to the how and why of the first appearance of ceramics in the Near East.
The excavations on the north-western portion (termed “Operation III”) of the mound of Tell Sabi Abyad I up to 2005 uncovered occupation layers which we have dated to around 6700-6200 BC. The pottery from these occupation layers consisted mainly of coarse, plant-tempered material which we had already seen at other contemporary find spots in the Balikh valley dating from this period. We assumed at the time that we were dealing here with the oldest pottery from Syria.
Tell Sabi Abyad I, with the excavation in the so-called Operation III on the northwestern side of the mound. The deep trenches in this area yielded very early pottery.
As seasoned archaeologists we should have known better: more recent field work forces us to reconsider this suggestion... First, two deep soundings at Tell Sabi Abyad I uncovered occupation layers with pottery that was even older. In these trenches we found hitherto unknown pottery. In addition we began excavating at the small site of Tell Sabi Abyad III. Here an uninterrupted sequence appeared of occupation layers without pottery to layers with pottery. We now tentatively dare to argue that we have found the oldest pottery of Northeast Syria, dated at about 7000-6700 BC.
The small mound of Tell Sabi Abyad III, during the 2010 season of excavation. This site revealed some of the earliest pottery known in Syria, dated ca. 7000 to 6700 BC.
A most striking feature is the low sherd density when compared with the younger occupation levels at the site. In the upper layers we find a large number of sherds per cubic metre, but in the lower layers not more than a handful. Sometimes days went by without finding even a single sherd, and then suddenly a few would appear in a good context. Archaeologists traditionally make a sharp distinction between the so-called Pre- Pottery Neolithic and the Pottery Neolithic. The question thrusts itself upon us, however, how much pottery we archaeologists want to find before we decide that the borderline between the two periods has been crossed. In other words, how arbitrary is this borderline?
An example of the earliest pottery of Syria, found at Tell Sabi Abyad III
The pottery from the earliest layers differs considerably from that of the later occupation layers, in the first place in technology. The pottery is made of a fine, mineral-tempered fabric. The vessels have been moulded with care, and the walls are carefully smoothed or polished. The most surprising fact is that this pottery was sometimes decorated as well! Some bowls were covered with a red slip, others were painted with red motifs, such as wavy lines and zigzags.
At Tell Sabi Abyad III, too, very early pottery was found, similar to that of the oldest occupation layers of Tell Sabi Abyad I a few hundreds of metres to the south. And below these there are still older strata with no pottery at all, which we have dated to the late aceramic Neolithic (the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B). The occupational sequence seems to be uninterrupted.
What was the oldest pottery of Tell Sabi Abyad used for? What was its social, economic and symbolic meaning at Tell Sabi Abyad? And why did people at one time begin to make pottery?
Early painted pottery from Tell Sabi Abyad I (left) and Tell Sabi Abyad III (right)
To be honest, we cannot answer these questions yet. We will investigate them thoroughly in the years to come. But it has become clear by now that the oldest pottery at Tell Sabi Abyad does not stand alone. While several years ago we hardly knew anything about the introduction of pottery in the ancient Near East, it has now become a rapidly expanding area of investigation. The pottery of Tell Sabi Abyad compares well to that of other prehistoric sites in Syria and south-eastern Turkey, as for example Tell Halula, Akarcay Höyük, Mezraa Teleilat, and Tell Seker al-Aheimar. The presence of painted pottery at Tell Sabi Abyad is a unique feature to date. This suggests that there were regional differences in the outward appearance of the oldest pottery as well as in its functions. In other words, the reasons why people began using pottery for the first time may have differed from one place to another.
Most theories about the introduction of pottery in the Near East use the functionalist approach: they start out from the idea that making pottery is good for society as a whole. The positive effect of pottery on prehistoric communities is taken for granted. This assumption is too easy and should be reconsidered.
For example, many archaeologists take it for granted that pottery was good for prehistoric farmers because it allowed them to cook their food in it. Cooking the food was believed to improve not only the taste but hygiene as well. And so the population could grow, which gave rise to more complex societies in the end. But today researchers know that the coarse, plant-tempered pottery that is so characteristic of the period before the seventh millennium BC was not suitable for cooking over an open fire: the pots would simply crack because of “thermo shock”. The oldest, mineral-tempered clay of Tell Sabi Abyad is perhaps better suited to cooking, but whether it was really used for that purpose is still to be established. Genuine
was not found at Tell Sabi Abyad until a much later period (after 6200 BC).
More very early painted pottery, from the Operation III deep trenches at Tell Sabi Abyad I
Also, it is often thought that pottery is superior to other kinds of storage containers (such as stone pots and reed baskets). Storage was of course essential in prehistoric villages. But at Tell Sabi Abyad and other Neolithic sites long-term and large-scale storage does not appear to have been one of the functions of the early pottery. The pots are on the whole very small, they are difficult to close because they do not have necks as yet, and they are too porous to contain liquids. The development of pottery that was suitable for storage appears to have been a very gradual process. First the bowls were given an S-shaped wall, and this slowly developed into a genuine neck. At the same time the vessels were sometimes covered with a layer of gypsum to reduce the porosity of the walls. In the course of time the pots grew bigger as well.
Most interpretations, finally, assume that once pottery had been “invented”, the potters very soon began to understand all the different things one could do with clay. After a short, experimental phase with mainly undecorated and primitive pottery, the potters soon proceeded to make all kinds of complicated shapes and different types of decoration. Reality turns out to have been different, however. Our finds at Tell Sabi Abyad show an initial brief phase in which people experimented with painted pottery. This trend did not continue, however. As far as we can see now, people then gave up painting their pottery for centuries. Instead, people concentrated on the production of undecorated, coarse wares. It was not until around 6200 BC that people began to add painted decorations again. The question of why the Neolithic inhabitants of Tell Sabi Abyad initially stopped painting their pottery is unanswered for the time being.
The very oldest pottery of Tell Sabi Abyad is rare, of a high quality and striking in appearance. It was possibly suitable for serving food and drink, perhaps for cooking, but not for many other activities. It may have had a ritual function, or perhaps it served rather as a valuable trading article. In future years we shall investigate this pottery in detail. We will be looking at its technology, function and the style of decoration. In addition we will be investigating micro traces of food remains in the pottery. Hopefully this will give more insight into the intriguing question of what the earliest pottery meant to the occupants of Tell Sabi Abyad almost 9000 years ago.
Do you want to read more?
O.P. Nieuwenhuyse, P.M.M.G. Akkermans & J. van der Plicht (2010),
"Not So Coarse, Nor Always Plain – The Earliest Pottery of Syria", Antiquity 84, pp.71-85. Download pdf