Archaeology: Human burials from the Neolithic period at 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan
Human remains, and the study of them, make up a big part of archaeology. Not only can we tell their genders, their physical details (such as ethnicity) and diet, but we can also learn much about their society and religious beliefs as a whole.
When ‘Ain Ghazal, a Neolithic site from Jordan, was found in the 1970s, human remains were found, giving archaeologists the chance to understand more about this period in this region. The site can be divided into four distinct phases - the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (MPPNB), L ate Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (LPPNB), Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (PPNC), and the Yannoukian Pottery Neolithic, which span an occupation time from c. 7250 to 5000 BCE.
Human burials here show that they belong to a Levantine Pre-Pottery mortuary cult which included decapitating the deceased and burying them under the floors of the house. Excavations have revealed caches of skulls at separate places. Some of these skulls have been ‘re-modeled’ by the living with representations of facial tissue.
MPPNB (7250 – 6500 BCE):
General burials from this phase for infants include decapitation and burial in either the sub-floor or the courtyard. The skulls were removed after they had first been buried. Scholars have estimated that a third of adult burials were found in trash pits with their heads intact. This has suggested the possibility that infant deaths were given more respect at the time of their passing.
The rest of the infant remains were simply ‘thrown away’; large deposits of infant remains have also been found in trash pits, like adult bodies. “Infants, however, also occasionally occurred in contexts suggesting a ritual nature, such as foundation deposits in buildings or in subfloor pits”.
LPPNB (6500 – 6000 BCE):
Only four burials have been discovered from this period so scholars are unable to give accurate and reliable data regarding human burial and practices relating to this phase.
PPNC (6000 – 550 BCE):
There have been large amounts of human remains found from this phases, however, destruction of many internments during the Yannoukian period have left us with serious setbacks. We do know that the population’s general health had not changed much from the MPPNB phase and that roughly 50% of infants still died relatively early in their lives.
One noticeable feature in human burials here was the internment of the whole skeleton; the skulls of the deceased were still attached and continued to be buried in sub-floor pits. There has been at least one male that had been decapitated. This suggests that the ancestral cult/religion continued to be practiced, but had changed considerable over the centuries.
Yannoukian Pottery Neolithic (5500 – 5000 BCE):
Archaeologists have excavated a mass of human remains from the Yannoukian phase; however, not one complete skeleton has been found. This has led to some scholars suggesting that the inhabitants of this period chose to inter their dead outside of their settlements – however, it should be stressed that not one off-site cemetery has been found to date.
Rollefson, Gary O., Simmons, Alan H. & Kafafi, Zeidan (1992) Neolithic Cultures at 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, Journal of Field Archaeology, Boston University.