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Making and wearing semi-PRECIOUS stone beads in the Near East and the Nile Valley during the Neolithic: A biographical perspective and microwear approach

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What semi-precious stones reveal about groups of people

An EU-funded project explored the socio-economic and cultural values of the earliest semi-precious stones discovered in Neolithic sites in the Near East and the Nile Valley.

Society

Throughout the ages, adorning the body with ornaments has been connected to importance and social status. The ornaments themselves may have also helped to stimulate interactions and contributed to shaping individual and collective identities. With a focus on semi-precious stone beads, the EU-funded PRECIOUS project, with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme, set out to understand the production systems of these beads at a key turning point in human history. “Specifically, the emergence of fully farming economies during the 8th millennium BCE in the Near East and later during the 5th millennium BCE in the Nile Valley,” explains Hala Alarashi, MSCA fellow. The study of the manufacturing methods and the patterns and intensity of use of the beads will help to determine the technical and artisanal qualities of these artefacts. Furthermore, the analyses of these qualities in the light of archaeological contexts will provide crucial information regarding the techno-economic and symbolic behaviours while revealing aspects of the social organisation of these early farming communities.

Advancing research on prehistoric ornaments

“Was the increase in the demand for highly prestigious goods related to the socio-economic and cultural changes that occurred during the Neolithic? Were semi-precious stones preferred and sought after by all the Neolithic farming communities?” asks Alarashi. To answer these and other questions, beads discovered in burials from major Near Eastern and Nubian archaeological sites were analysed through a microwear quantitative approach. “Carnelian beads manufactured in traditional actual Indian and Yemenite workshops as well as stone beads created experimentally were characterised according to the same approach. Series of metrical data were acquired using confocal scanning microscopy and a metrological software,” outlines Alarashi. Discussing a key result of the project, Alarashi highlights: “PRECIOUS demonstrated differential finishing qualities based on the degrees of polishing and smoothing of the surfaces of carnelian beads found in Neolithic burials of certain Near Eastern villages.” Additionally, the funerary contexts in which the beads were found showed clear differences between individuals in relation to their ages rather than to their biological sexes. In other words, children had more varying qualities of beads than adults. “Therefore, the social status of children during the Neolithic appears critical for understanding the social organisation of the first farming communities in the Near East,” highlights Alarashi.

Leaving a mark on the field: confocal scanning microscopy

The project has developed a new method for bead studies that contributes to the improvement of the quality of data and their interpretation. “For the first time in the field of stone ornaments, high precision surface texture analysis is applied using the technique of the confocal scanning microscopy and metrology software. This method is chosen because it delivers quantitative data through the measurements of surface micro-texture and allows reliable comparisons through statistical tools,” notes Alarashi. The application of this quantitative method is a major step in the archaeological discipline of traceology and is particularly revolutionary in bead studies. PRECIOUS has also acquired the needed tools and provided key inputs that will serve as bases for adapting the quantitative approach to respond to future research questions. As for the next steps, Alarashi concludes: “From a scientific point of view, my next move will involve tracing possible cultural and socio economic interactions, exchanges and circulation of materials, objects, techniques and ideas in time and space.”

Keywords

PRECIOUS, beads, semi-precious stones, farming communities, Near East, Nile Valley, confocal scanning microscopy, traceology, Neolithic sites

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