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New Data on the Chalcolithic Period - The ASOR Blog

New Data on the Chalcolithic Period

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Marj Rabba and the Galilee Prehistory Project

4-Yorke-Rowan-BlogBy: Yorke Rowan, The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow

Traditionally less scholarly attention has been focused on the southern Levantine 5th and early 4th millennia BCE (the Chalcolithic period, or the “Ghassulian” period after the type site of Tulaylat al-Ghassul) than on the earlier Neolithic Period or the later biblical periods. However, not long after the fundamental changes of the Neolithic “Revolution,” major cultural and demographic changes occur. The Chalcolithic period (c. 4500-3700 BCE) sees an increase in socio-economic differentiation, long distance trade in prestige goods, specialized craft production, public ritual architecture, and possible evidence for the initial emergence of hierarchy and political leadership. With the expansion of Chalcolithic villages in size and number, horticulture and the secondary products of animals played increasingly important roles in the economy. Craft production exhibited great technological expertise and investment, with materials procured over medium to long distances, and new techniques innovated, from stone working to copper metallurgy. Mortuary practices also became more diverse, with a dramatic but uneven increase in associated status goods. The causes for these dramatic shifts remain obscure, as does the degree of social complexity.

Marj Rabba, south field. Ground penetrating radar by T. Urban demonstrates many subsurface architectural remains, including rooms and walls, presumably dating to the Chalcolithic (see Urban, Rowan and Kersel 2014).

Marj Rabba, south field. Ground penetrating radar by T. Urban demonstrates many subsurface architectural remains, including rooms and walls, presumably dating to the Chalcolithic (see Urban, Rowan and Kersel 2014).

The Galilee Prehistory Project is designed to address these and other questions by examining the dramatic changes in the relationship of villages, mortuary sites, and the lives of people living in the Galilee during late prehistory. More specifically, the goal is to examine material culture and biological data such as botanical and faunal remains from the Galilee for comparison with other regions of the southern Levant in order to better understand the livelihood of the inhabitants.

Excavations and surveys of Marj Rabba constitute the initial field project of the Galilee Prehistory Project. Located in the lower Galilee, Marj Rabba is located near the modern town of Sakhnin, one kilometer north of the Roman period site of Yodfat. The excellent architectural preservation, rich material culture, and substantial faunal assemblage makes this an essential site for understanding aspects of social complexity and ancient economy, setting a baseline for future comparisons to other Chalcolithic sites within and outside the Galilee.

Orthophotographic map using UAV derived images (A.C. Hill, image courtesy of the Galilee Prehistory Project).

Orthophotographic map using UAV derived images (A.C. Hill, image courtesy of the Galilee Prehistory Project).

After five seasons of excavation, intensive surveying of the site surface, and geophysical research (magnetometry and ground penetrating radar), our field research program at Marj Rabba will conclude in 2014. During my stay at the Albright in 2013-14, NEH fellowship support was used to begin work on a final report titled Marj Rabba: Excavations of a Chalcolithic Village in the Lower Galilee (2009-2014). When completed, this report will be submitted to the Oriental Institute Publications (OIP) series at the University of Chicago for peer review and publication. The excavated material is currently housed at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, which facilitated work on the material and provided a central place for other scholars involved with the project. This year was dedicated to completing the analysis of the material culture, digitizing plans, and collecting specialist reports.

This was a very productive year for  analysis and synthesis of the Galilee Prehistory Project material remains. Dina Shalem of the Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee is working on the last of the ceramics and intends to have a final report ready by this fall. Pottery reconstruction is now completed, although only limited pieces could be refitted. Ground stone analysis is completed, and selected objects are being illustrated. The final two seasons of fauna were shipped to Max Price of Harvard University for analysis, and should be completed by the fall. A special study of bone tools will be conducted by Austin (Chad) Hill of the University of Connecticut, and should also be ready by the fall. Small finds from Marj Rabba are not particularly numerous and the preliminary analysis is complete; these finds are also with the illustrator. The massive chipped stone debitage and tools assemblage will require additional months of analysis. In completing the analysis of the botanical remains from the site, Phil Graham of the University of Connecticut confirmed that ancient plants can be recovered by using careful collection methodology, contrary to assumptions for the region. Final plans and phase maps are nearing completion. In short, great strides were made toward the final report, but substantial work remains to be completed.

Aerial photograph of Marj Rabba, Areas AA and BB, taken from a hexacopter using a GoPro (Photo by A.C. Hill).

Aerial photograph of Marj Rabba, Areas AA and BB, taken from a hexacopter using a GoPro (Photo by A.C. Hill).

This year, three peer-reviewed journal articles and a book chapter about various aspects of the excavations and survey at Marj Rabba were published. The results of the geophysical survey, carried out by Thomas Urban of Oxford University appeared in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Two methods, magnetic gradiometry and ground penetrating radar, were employed at the site in order to identify subsurface features to the south, north and east of the current excavation area. Marj Rabba features shallow limestone structures in a terra rossa matrix, which is generally considered unsuitable for ground penetrating radar (GPR) due to weak signals, particularly within the relatively high frequency range typically used in archaeological GPR surveys. The small stones scattered across the landscape and in the subsoil aggravate the weak signals, and can also obscure the sub-surface archaeological features. Despite these factors, GPR was successful. We argue that using the lower antenna frequency and close transect spacing resulted in well-delineated architectural features (Figure 1). The GPR survey at Marj Rabba revealed a number of potential archaeological features in each survey area, confirming the surface survey and expanding the probable range of well-preserved architecture, presumably Chalcolithic structures.

Another paper, appearing in Paléorient, contrasts the faunal assemblage found at Marj Rabba to those from sites located in the Negev, Golan and Jordan River Valley. With Max Price of Harvard University, Michael Buckley of Birmingham University and Morag Kersel of DePaul University we argue that people at Marj Rabba relied on a combination of animal management strategies rather than on a specialized form of animal husbandry. Typical of other Chalcolithic sites, sheep, goat and cattle were common, the latter with evidence of their use in plowing. At roughly one third of the total fauna, the abundant proportions of domesticated pigs indicate an important animal resource in the lower Galilee, one virtually absent at the more arid Negev sites.

A paper with Austin “Chad” Hill and Morag Kersel for a thematic issue of Near Eastern Archaeology discusses the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other aerial photographic techniques for comprehensive site documentation. At Marj Rabba, we use a variety of photographic tools, from fixed and rotary wing UAVs to pole-mounted cameras, in order to record the site, the excavations and the landscape (Figure 2). Aerial photography is not new to archaeology, but recent technological advances allow increased precision, and sophisticated mapping and modeling.

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