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Half a million miniscule stone flakes give clues to Natufian culture — archaeologist

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Mar 19,2017 - Last updated at Mar 20,2017

Adam Valka with a selection of flaked-stone bifaces and burins excavated from the Early Natufian site of Wadi Hammeh 27 (Photo by Saeb Rawashdeh)

AMMAN — Hundreds of thousands of miniscule stone flakes, some only millimeters in length, the scattered results of the hammering and bashing of stones to make tools, are clues to the Epipaleolithic Natufian culture, an Australian archaeologist said. 

Adam Valka, an Australian archaeologist and PhD candidate at La Trobe University in Melbourne, was invited by his mentor Philip Edwards to join the team on his new dig at Wadi Hammeh 27, near Pella, in the northwestern corner of Jordan. 

“The recent excavations at Wadi Hammeh 27 were undertaken as part of the ‘Ice Age Villagers of the Levant: sedentism and social connections in the Natufian period’ project led by Dr Phillip Edwards,” said Valka.

 “It was from this new project that the flaked-stone assemblage that I am analysing for my PhD thesis was recovered,” he noted.

Wadi Hammeh 27 was a large settlement consisting of a number of large curvilinear structures situated on a spur located between the junction of the Wadi Al Himar and Wadi Al Hammeh. 

It dates to the Early Natufian Period, with the available radiocarbon data suggesting that the site was occupied for around 500 years between approximately 12,500 – 12,000 BC, the scholar noted.

The Natufians are notable for being an example of a sedentary and semi-sedentary culture before the advent of agriculture, while also founding one of the oldest cities in the world in Jericho. 

Prior to the recent excavations initiated in 2014, Wadi Hammeh 27 was excavated by Edwards between 1983 and 1990. These excavations focused primarily on uncovering an extensive horizontal exposure of the uppermost occupational surface of the site (Phase 1), with investigations into the earlier occupational phases, limited primary to a deep trench referred to in archaeological terminology as a sondage, he explained.

 This sondage, which covered a far smaller area than the Phase 1 exposure, was excavated in order to establish the depositional history of the settlement from its initial founding. In doing so, it was discovered that a number of Natufian burials had been dug into the travertine bedrock beneath the site, either before or during the initial establishment of the Wadi Hammeh 27 settlement. 

“The recent project was concerned with excavating a larger area of the interior of one of the two large Phase 1 structures [ie: the latest phase] down to the earliest deposits. In doing so, during the 2015 season we uncovered the remains of a curvilinear hut a fraction of the size of the later structure,” Valka explained.

While the Early Natufians created a variety of elaborate art objects and basaltic food processing implements, these are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the massive flaked-stone flint assemblage that they created, the expert states.

 “Unlike in the subsequent Neolithic period, the Natufians do not appear to have gone to much great length in terms of refuse disposal, instead simply allowing their rubbish to accumulate on the dirt floors of their structures,” he stressed. 

“As a result, they left an extraordinary amount of arteiactual debitage for us to investigate as archaeologists” Valka stated.

Debitage is the term for all of the material left over from the process of lithic reduction, or the refining and shaping of stone into tools through a process of percussion and hammering, which produced lithic flakes. 

“I have not yet obtained a complete count of the number of flaked-stone artefacts that were uncovered over three seasons, but it appears that it may reach a final count approaching half-a-million pieces. All of this from an area less than six by five metres wide,”  the archaeologist highlighted.

In terms of numerics, by far the most common class of artifact are the small angular fragments referred to as “chips”. 

“These minute objects were the byproduct of the flaking process, and each measure no more than a couple of millimetres in length,” he said,

“The Natufians were experts in creating tools from flint, with a large variety of finely retouched pieces hidden amongst the debitage. These include large numbers of sickle blades and bladelets, burins and scrapers likely used for working wood, bone and other materials, awls and borers, as well as the occasional bifacial axe and pick,” Valka noted.

According to the archaeologist, by far the most famous retouched flint object of the Natufian, however, were tiny geometric points called “lunates”. 

“As the name suggests, in the Early Natufian [period] these objects were reworked into a crescent shape using fine, bifacial “Helwan” retouch, most likely in order to function as dart points,” he said. 

Valka has spent months meticulously researching excavated objects, which he analyses at the American Centre of Oriental Research.

“One aspect of my research is centred on investigating potential diachronic trends in the multiple lithic assemblages deposited throughout the various occupational phases of the site,” he pointed out, adding that “ Flaked stone artifacts [lithics] are by far the most common class of artifact deposited at Wadi Hammeh 27, with my sample easily reaching the hundreds of thousands.”

However, any conclusion, he stressed, would be premature and inaccurate before he analyses the data collection 

“At the present time there does seem to be some differences between the lithic artifacts of the earlier and later occupational phases, most noticeably several tool types that appear only in the earlier occupation layers,” the scholar said. 

Valka is also looking at the distribution of artifacts across the excavated area.

“Again, I can’t really offer any concrete findings before I have a complete sample. There does, however, appear to be a noticeable difference between the interior and exterior deposits of the aforementioned smaller curvilinear hut,” he noted. 

 

“A larger percentage of large, unworked chunks appear in the exterior areas, suggesting that the Early Natufians may have employed a form of rudimentary refuse disposal through simply collecting and throwing obvious, large pieces by hand into the “toss-zone” immediately outside the entrance to the structure in order to free up space” the scholar pointed out.

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