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A French-Jordanian team of archaeologists discovers a unique ritual installation dedicated to mass hunting of gazelles during the Neolithic using gigantic traps ("Desert kites"), the earliest large-scale human built structures worldwide.
General view of the excavated site in Jibal al-Khashabiyeh area, eastern Jafr Basin, South eastern badia of Jordan. © Photo: SEBAP
The South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project (SEBAP), a French-Jordanian joint scientific program, co-directed by Dr. Wael J. Abu Azizeh and Prof. Mohammad B. Tarawneh, has made a major discovery during its last season in the southeastern desert of Jordan in October 2021. This discovery follows a number of important results obtained during the last seasons of the project. It is the outcome of a long-run research, culminating in a spectacular and unprecedented discovery.
In 2013, SEBAP identified the first occurrence of Late Prehistoric mass hunting traps known as "Desert kites" in a remote area of the south eastern desert of Jordan, to the east of the Jafr basin in Jibal al-Khashabiyeh area. Such structures are widespread across the Middle eastern and south west asian arid landscapes (mainly from central Saudi Arabia, through Jordan, Syria, Armenia, Turkey and as far as Kazakhstan). The "desert kites" are spectacular: constituted of two or more long walls converging towards an enclosure, these mega structures can reach over several kilometers in length, and they are sometimes organized in chains of contiguous and uninterrupted structures, maximizing the potential for wild game capture. While most of the recent research on such structures tended to attribute them to the 4th-3rd millennia BC, SEBAP was able to date the "kites" to as early as the Neolithic period, ca. 7000 BC (Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period, Late PPNB; through radiocarbon and OSL chronometric dating methods), pushing back in time the origin of the phenomenon to much earlier than previously thought. The desert kites in Jibal al-Khashabiyeh are in fact the earliest large-scale human built structures worldwide known to date.
These results had far-reaching consequences for our understanding of human developments in these regions, as they attest for the rise of extremely sophisticated mass hunting strategies, unexpected in such an early timeframe and necessitating a collaborative organization of the human groups. They evidence an exploitation of animal resources beyond subsistence purposes, involving exchange with human groups of neighboring regions. But the most significant result of these last years of research of SEBAP was certainly the discovery, for the first time ever in the Middle East, of the occupation campsites directly related to the hunters using the "Desert kites". While the relationship of the occupation with the kites is corroborated by an array of evidence (the proximity of the campsites to the kites, the contemporaneous dating of both site types, and the material remains including huge quantities of gazelle bones resulting from the processing activities related to mass hunting), the investigation of these campsites allows to provide invaluable information on the socio-economic, and techno-cultural background of the human groups involved in these hunting strategies. The settlements, represented by various organizations of semi-subterranean circular hut like dwelling units, provide during excavations an extremely rich and diversified material culture, with notably a specific lithic industry, which has led the team to define this occupation as a specific cultural entity termed the "Ghassanian" (in reference to a local toponym). While in the neighboring regions of the "Fertile Crescent" sedentary villagers communities were involved at the time in farming and herding, it clearly appears from the work undertaken that the "Ghassanians" were specialized hunters for which mass hunting of gazelle using "Desert kites" traps was at the center of their cultural, economic and even symbolic life in these marginal zones.
General view of the discovered ritual installation at site JKSH P52, Jibal al-Khashabiyeh area. © Photo: SEBAP
During 2021 season of SEBAP, archaeologists discovered a complex ritual installation, in an exceptional state of preservation, inside one of the "Ghassanian" hunters’ campsites. Like the associated "Desert kites", this installation dates back to the Neolithic period ca. 7000 BC.
The installation was constituted of two standing steles with anthropomorphic representations. The tallest of the two (ca. 1,12 m high) also bears a depiction of a "Desert kite" intermingled with the human figure. The second standing stone (ca. 70 cm high) exhibits a human figure with finely carved details. Behind the two standing stones, a structured deposit was unearthed. It was composed of nearly 150 marine fossils, many of them were carefully arranged, set vertically and following a specific orientation, along with a variety of stones of natural unusual shape, as well as a number of uncommon worked artefacts, including animal figurines and exceptional worked flint objects. The various finds, in addition to a ritual altar stone associated to a hearth, were organized within a reduced model of desert kite, built with stones in the middle of the campsite. This is the only architectural model of its kind known to date worldwide in a Neolithic context.
Detail view of the two steles of "Abu Ghassan" and "Ghassan", with the ritual deposit of marine fossils at the background, at site JKSH P52, Jibal al-Khashabiyeh. © Photo: SEBAP
This discovery is unprecedented, as it constitutes a unique testimony of a complex ritual arrangement, dating back to the Neolithic period. Every single component in itself is remarkable. Large standing anthropomorphic steles are not so common in the Near Eastern Neolithic, and the newly discovered testimonies provide an additional rare example of some of the oldest artistic expressions in the Middle East. The ritual nature of the deposit is compelling including an unexpected use of natural marine fossils in the symbolic and spiritual realm through the Neolithic. The altar and associated hearth suggest that some kind of sacrificial offerings must have been involved in the ritual process. The reminiscence of symbolism referring to the "Desert kites", evidenced by the depiction on one of the steles and even more in the three dimensional architectural model at the core of the installation indicates that mass hunting using the "Desert kites" was at the root of the ritual activities involved. The sacral symbolism and ritual performance evidenced were most likely devoted to invoke the supranatural forces for successful hunts and abundance of preys to capture. In this respect, the discovered installation is not only unique due to its exceptional state of preservation, but also due to the fact that it sheds an entire new light on the symbolism, artistic expression as well as spiritual culture of these hitherto unknown Neolithic populations specialized in mass hunting of gazelles using the "Desert kites".
Detail views of "Ghassan" stele in site JKSH P52, Jibal al-Khashabiyeh area. © Photos: SEBAP
Detail view of the ritual deposit of marine fossils, within the ritual installation excavated at site JKSH P52, Jibal al-Khashabiyeh. © Photos: SEBAP
Co-directors of the South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project:
Dr. Wael J. Abu Azizeh (Institut français du Proche-Orient, Ifpo)
Contact : wabuazizeh(at)gmail.com
Prof. Mohammad B. Tarawneh (Al Hussein Bin Talal University)
The South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project (SEBAP) is funded by: The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MEAE), The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), Al Hussein Bin Talal University (AHU)
With the support of: The Department of Antiquities of Jordan (DoAJ, Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities), The French Institute for the Near East (Ifpo), The Cultural Cooperation and Action Service (SCAC) of the French Embassy in Jordan, Archéorient laboratory (CNRS – Lyon 2 University)