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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

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PRECIOUS (Making and wearing semi-PRECIOUS stone beads in the Near East and the Nile Valley during the Neolithic: A biographical perspective and microwear approach)

Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2022-01-31

Body ornaments are powerful wordless means of communication. They integrate deep immaterial and intimate values and draw the vision of the world of the people who made and display them. Beyond the embellishing function, adorning the body with symbols materialized by beads, tattoos or garments is a strong action likely to reinforce social bonds, stimulate interactions and contribute even to forging individual and collective identities. Beads, pearls and jewels are in addition excellent stimuli for curiosity and have always been generator of knowledge.
Exploring the Neolithic to trace back the mechanisms by which human communities innovated their body ornamentations with new materials and types of beads is akin of affording new insights into how the vast knowledge and meticulous skills of modern jewelry have first germinated and then flourished. Accordingly, PRECIOUS explores the significance of the earliest semi-precious stones discovered in the Near East and the Nile Valley. These colorful and resistant varieties of stones such as carnelian, agate, turquoise, and amazonite were transformed into beads and pendants with which the Neolithic communities composed necklaces, bracelets, diadems, etc. and adorned their bodies.
The major aim is to understand the production and use systems of these prestigious beads that have emerged and developed in parallel with the establishment of fully farming communities in the Near East during the 8th millennium cal. BC and later in the Nile Valley during the 5th millennium.
How to explain the increased demand for highly prestigious goods in the light of the major socio-economic changes occurred during the Neolithic? Did semi-precious stone bead crafts require skillful artisans and a high level of know-how? Were there significant differences in the production and use systems of semi-precious beads between the earliest farming communities of the Near-Eastern and those emerged in the Nile Valley via dispersal outside the Near-eastern core?
To answer these questions, beads discovered in burials from major Near Eastern and Nubian archaeological sites are analyzed through a microwear quantitative approach. 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 (CSM) and metrology software. This method is chosen because it delivers quantitative data through measurements of surface micro-texture that can be processed statistically, thus providing a robust interpretative frame.
The documentation of the technical and use-wear traces observed on the Neolithic stone beads is the first step and objective of the project. Their interpretation will rely on the second objective which consists in the creation of a microwear referential for comparison based on the analyses of ethnographic and experimental beads. The ethnographic collection is composed from a series of carnelian and agate beads manufactured in traditional modern Indian and Yemeni workshops, while the experimental one will be created to document specific drilling techniques and different modalities of use. The final objective will build on the results obtained to reconstruct the cycle of transformation (manufacture, uses and eventual recycling events) of the Neolithic semi-precious beads, classify their qualities and interpret them in the light of the archaeological, chronological and the biological identities of the individuals with which they were associated.
The project was developed through 5 main Work Packages. The first was dedicated to sampling archaeological beads based on the variabilities of stones, shapes and intensity of diagnostic microwear. The second developed the analytical protocol with which 3D micro-textures were produced and quantified using Confocal microscope and SensoMap software. The choice of the statistical methods to analyze the obtained quantitative data was also established during this package. The third and fourth packages aimed at the creation of a referential of comparison to allow the discrimination of techniques and uses modalities of the archaeological beads. Therefore, the established analytical protocol was applied on ethnographic carnelian and agate beads from India and Yemen and on experimental objects that were created during this package. The final package was dedicated to the reconstruction of the technical methods of the archaeological beads while evaluating the alterations due to the use. The results were then analyzed considering the archaeological contexts in which the beads were discovered.
The project was conducted during the period of the emergence of Covid-19 and its global spread. Despite the lockdown, travels restrictions and limitations in accessing the laboratory facilities, PRECIOUS obtained significant results and succeeded in conducting essential part of the work. First, it succeeded in the creation of an efficient and rigorous analytical protocol that combines scanning confocal microscopy and data exploitation using the metrology software. Second, it created a key-referential of quantifiable micro-textures for discrimination of past manufacturing techniques: on the one hand, carnelian beads representing the variabilities of traditional Indian and Yemenite polishing and drilling techniques, and on the other, experimental drillings on varieties of semi-precious stones. Third, through discriminate analyses, it demonstrated an unexpected finishing quality of beads from certain Near-Eastern sites. The analyses of these qualities considering the funerary contexts in which the beads were found show clear differences between individuals not in relation to their biological sex but their ages. In this respect, the status of children during the Neolithic appears as critical question for understanding the social organization of the first farming communities in the Near East.
The project results were disseminated during scientific meetings and international peer-reviewed papers, some already published, other are submitted or in preparations. PRECIOUS results were also presented on its own webpage ( and on other social media. The project produced also a carton animation of 6.5’ with the aim to disseminate the knowledge on the Neolithic way of life form the perspective of body ornaments and beads.
Craft specialization in prestigious goods such as semi-precious stone beads is a phenomenon that schoolers largely attribute to the development of Urban Societies and the control of political and social elites. PRECIOUS has proven that the technological skills, economic investments and organizational capacities needed to produce highly prestigious beads made from very attractive stones was a Neolithic key-innovation. It shows that different forms of specialization, independent from political and economic institutions existed since the Neolithic giving birth to a social group of highly skilled artisans.