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The Middle East Neolithic Transition: Integrated Community Approaches

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - MENTICA (The Middle East Neolithic Transition: Integrated Community Approaches)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-09-30

Our world is marked by ‘disruption’, major re-orderings of society through changing circumstances, including abrupt climate change, impacting on social and economic life. What lessons can we learn from the prehistoric past about disruption, and human engagement with it? One of the first global disruptions faced by human societies was the Neolithic transition from mobile forager-hunter to settled farmer-herder in the Epi-Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic periods of the Middle East, 17,000-7000 BCE. Human communities worked through this disruption, including climate change, to enable complex societies to thrive and to form the basis for later cities, empires and civilisations. In the MENTICA project we research the Early Neolithic transition in a core region through application of cutting-edge methods within a theoretical framework of community and ‘collective identity’ as interpretive concepts. This research addresses an integrated suite of ‘Grand Challenges for Archaeology’, including: human responses to abrupt climate change; the emergence of agricultural economies; the management and domestication of plants and animals; the multi-scalar organisation of human communities; the resilience and transformation of societies; the formation of human identities; and health and well-being in prehistory. These issues are of major importance to society today given the challenges faced by all of us within the context of rapid climate change and associated environmental impacts.

The prime research question is: how did EP-EN human communities negotiate disruption in their transition from mobile hunting and foraging to sedentary farming and herding? The project research objectives are: (1) to conduct state-of-the-art investigation at one Epi-Palaeolithic and two Early Neolithic sites in the EFC to generate multi-scalar, contextual evidence for investigation of the aims and objectives of Work Packages (WP) 1-6; (2) to examine ecological and socio-cultural aspects of the Epi-Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic transition, for inter-disciplinary insights into changing human-animal-plant-environment interrelations, at household, intra- and inter-community scales; (3) to analyse the results of WP1-6 in multi-scalar investigations of community networks, collective identities and resilience strategies; (4) to investigate the global significance of the EFC as a core zone, informing on societal engagement with disruptive changes, with significance for understanding challenges of today, including interconnections between environmental and social change.

The research comprises the first extensive archaeological investigation of Epi-Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic sites in the EFC, to provide the scale needed to examine issues of community and collective identity and networks. Investigations at the Early Neolithic sites in this project, Sheikh-e Abad in Iran and Bestansur in Iraq, enables us to examine the entire Early Neolithic period, 10,000 to 7000 BCE, and preceding comparative date at Zarzi from ca. 17,000 BCE.
Since the start of the project in October 2018, a considerable amount of relevant research has been conducted by the MENTICA team. A major season of fieldwork was carried out at the Early Neolithic archaeological site of Bestansur, Iraqi Kurdistan, in spring 2019. The results from that fieldwork continue to be analysed by all the project team. While excavation in Iran, as originally planned, has not yet been possible, we have been able to collaborate with Iranian colleagues through their excavations at a relevant site in Iran, Hotu Cave, with material from those excavations being made available to the MENTICA team for full analysis and publication.

Following the project Work Packages, in WP1, the archaeology of communities and Community Archaeology, we have excavated an extensive neighbourhood of Early Neolithic buildings at Bestansur in Iraq in order to investigate socio-cultural and environmental aspects of an early sedentary community, gaining new insights into the development of community identity in one of the world’s earliest settlements. Radiocarbon dating has established the major phase of occupation as spanning 7700-7100 BC. We have developed a Community Archaeology programme through close collaboration with Slemani Museum in Sulaimaniyah city, 30km from Bestansur, where we have together designed and constructed a brand-new Prehistory Gallery, including some of the finds from the project excavations at Bestansur. We have also engaged actively with communities local to Bestansur, including villagers, schoolteachers, schoolchildren, university staff and students, and heritage professionals, through regular open days and lecture events, which have been very well received.

In WP2, changing environments and community food-ways, we have made significant advances in investigating food procurement and dietary practices within their environmental and climatic contexts. The WP2 post-doctoral researcher, Charlotte Diffey, has analysed assemblages of charred plant remains to explore the early exploitation of cereals and pulses, as well as ongoing use of wild plant species as food and other resources. The WP2 PhD student, Donna de Groene, has made excellent progress in analysing the zooarchaeological remains from Bestansur, as well as in gaining access to comparative collections of relevant animal remains from the Early Neolithic sites of Ganj Dareh and Jarmo in museum collections in the USA. Current Iranian excavations at Hotu Cave, Iran, will shortly be providing us with a wealth of plant and animal remains with which further to advance our progress in WP2.

In WP3, creating communities: built environment design, use and social relations, the project excavations at Bestansur have uncovered a neighbourhood of Early Neolithic buildings and open spaces which enable building by building analysis. Led by project researcher, Wendy Matthews, and supported by WP3 PhD student, Alessandro Guaggenti, in-depth analysis of microstratigraphic sequences through the excavated buildings and deposits is generating insights at the micro and macro scales into practices of construction and use of space, interpreted through the lens of Social Network Analysis.

WP4, communities of the dead: demography, diet and disease, has been significantly advanced through activities led by the post-doctoral researcher, Sam Walsh, with detailed analysis of an assemblage of ca. 80 human individuals deliberately buried within one of the excavated buildings at Bestansur. Study of the human bones is shedding new light on aspects of diet, health and demography. WP5, connected communities of craft, has involved innovative application of analytical techniques by post-doctoral researcher Amy Richardson, in order to articulate networks of movement and interaction as materialised in the form of chert and obsidian tools as well as beads of shell and stone. WP6, communities and early global disruption: thematic investigations, will be fully investigated through the closing stages of the project, now extended to September 2024.
Significant further progress on the project's aims and objectives will result from upcoming seasons of new fieldwork in autumn 2021 and spring 2022. We anticipate fully meeting all the project's scientific objectives and ultimately shedding new light on one of most important transitions in the human narrative, that from mobile hunter-gatherer to settled farmer-herder.
Excavations in Building 5, Bestansur, Iraqi Kurdistan