Investigating the Early Neolithic of western Iran: the Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP)

Roger Matthews, Yaghoub Mohammadifar, Wendy Matthews & Abbass Motarjem

Introduction
Figure 1
Figure 1. Map showing the locations of Sheikh-e Abad and Jani.
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The Zagros mountain region and 'hilly flanks' are of major importance to the study of early sedentism and the origins of agriculture, as a heartland of wild animals and plants that were later domesticated. Research here in the 1950-60s was seminal in developing theories on the Neolithic transformation (Braidwood 1961). Principal among these was a proposed 'broad-spectrum revolution' in use of plant and animal resources (Flannery 1969).

CZAP is a new programme of UK-Iran research, investigating the origins of sedentism, domestication and agriculture in western Iran. Phase 1 investigates two Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in the upper and lower Central Zagros (Figure 1). The site of Sheikh-e Abad is in the upland cooler Zagros, in a fertile plain, 1430m asl, surrounded by 3000m-high peaks. Jani lies close to the foothills of the Mesopotamian Plain in the lower, warmer Zagros, in a small plain, 1280m asl, with 1500m-high ridges. Each site comprises 8-10m of occupation deposits covering c.1ha, four times larger than Ganj Dareh.

The importance of these sites lies in their early date and long occupation spanning c. 9800-7600 cal BC, and in their location on the most important route-way through the Zagros, later the Silk Road. This region provides great scope for investigation of east-west movements of people, animals, materials, ideas and practices in the first two millennia of the Early Holocene. The sites were identified during survey by Mohammadifar, Motarjem and Abdi, and are part of a cluster of important Neolithic sites in this region, including Asiab, Sarab, Ganj Dareh and Abdul Hosein.

Excavations at Sheikh-e Abad
Figure 2a
Figure 2a. View of Sheikh-e Abad and its environs, looking north.
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Figure 2b
Figure 2b. The mound of Sheikh-e Abad, looking north.
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Figure 2c
Figure 2c. Sheikh-e Abad to show location of trenches, looking west.
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Sheikh-e Abad lies north-east of Kermanshah. It is almost entirely a Pre-Pottery Neolithic mound with a c. 10m sequence of occupation deposits (Figures 2a-c). Trench 1, at the base of the mound, investigated early levels of ashy midden directly on natural soil (Figure 3a). A 14C date (Beta-258647) of 9810±60 cal BC from this midden makes Sheikh-e Abad the earliest Pre-Pottery Neolithic site yet found in Iran and one of the earliest in Southwest Asia. In Trench 2 we excavated 2.5m of deposits including ash layers related to in situ burning and food preparation, rich in charred plant remains, 14C dated (Beta-258646) to 7960±60 cal BC (Figure 3b).

Figure 3a
Figure 3a. Sheikh-e Abad Trench 1, south-east-facing section.
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Figure 3b
Figure 3b. Sheikh-e Abad Trench 2, east-facing section.
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In Trench 3 we exposed an area of 118m², revealing two buildings (Figure 4a). Building 1 comprises small rooms, one with a sub-floor infant burial. Cut into these rooms five Neolithic human burials were excavated, one with red ochre. Ash deposits in an adjacent open area are rich in animal bones and plant remains.

Figure 4a
Figure 4a. Sheikh-e Abad Trench 3, looking west.
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Figure 4b
Figure 4b. Sheikh-e Abad Trench 3, Building 2, deposit of wild goat and sheep skulls, looking south-east.
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Figure 4c
Figure 4c. Sheikh-e Abad Trench 3, Building 2, deposit of wild goat and sheep skulls.
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Figure 4d
Figure 4d. Sheikh-e Abad Trench 3, Building 2, after removal of wild goat and sheep skulls, looking south-east.
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Building 2 comprises a T-shaped room, 14C dated (Beta-258648) to 7590±40 cal BC. At the south end close to the floor there was an extraordinary range of items that suggest this room may have been a shrine. These included four skulls of large wild goats placed in pairs behind each other, with massive horns attached, up to 94cm long (Figures 4b-d). The eastern front skull had red ochre applied to its cheek and upper teeth. Behind these, a skull of a large wild sheep with horns had been placed. This shrine provides evidence for the association of ritual activities with early goat management and domestication in the region, attested from c. 8000 cal BC (Zeder 2005).

Investigations at Jani
Figure 5a
Figure 5a. Jani, section through mound, looking south-east.
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Jani lies in the lower, warmer Zagros south-west of Kermanshah, 90km from Sheikh-e Abad. Investigations focused on a 60m-long section cut by a channel, which provides a unique insight into the interior of a Pre-Pottery Neolithic mound (Figures 5a-b). The section was cleaned, drawn, photographed and sampled, including for micromorphological analysis.


Figure 5b
Figure 5b. Jani, sampling of plaster floors for micromorphological analysis.
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The section provides an important insight into developments from periodic occupation associated with massive deposits of fire-cracked stones to more rapid accumulation of lenses of ash rich in charred plant remains with occasional surfaces. These were followed by construction of pits and fire installations, and then substantial architecture, with walls of 'boat-shaped' mud-bricks, comparable to those from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic levels at nearby Ganj Dareh (Smith 1990), and fine plaster floors.

Preliminary study of the lithics, animal bones and charred plant remains from Jani indicates strong comparison with Sheikh-e Abad, supported by a 14C date (Beta-258649) of 8140±60 cal BC, from mid-sequence.

Finds from both sites include a small clay figurine similar to those from nearby Sarab, an incised bone pendant, and several clay tokens or counters, one with decorated top (Figures 6a-c).

Figure 6a
Figure 6a. Clay figurine from Sheikh-e Abad, Trench 2.
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Figure 6b
Figure 6b. Incised and perforated bone pendant from Sheikh-e Abad, Trench 3.
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Figure 6c
Figure 6c. Decorated clay token from Sheikh-e Abad, Trench 3.
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Summary

At Sheikh-e Abad and Jani there is evidence of substantial long-lasting settlements of Pre-Pottery Neolithic date, with varied subsistence practices including an emphasis on hunting wild goat and sheep. Micromorphological analysis has identified widespread traces of herbivore dung pre- and post-dating c. 8000 cal BC, which together with zooarchaeology and archaeology enable interdisciplinary investigation of early animal management, independent of changes in bone morphology, which may take 500-1000 years (Zeder 2005). The use of wild goat and sheep skulls in ritual practices in Building 2 indicates that these animals had a significance beyond economic. There is currently no indication that people at either site engaged in agriculture involving cereals, but many of the wild plants available in the surrounding landscape were exploited, including lentils, pistachio and almond. Sheikh-e Abad and Jani are large, enduring sites of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, inhabited by hunter-foragers rather than farmers, with indications of early animal management. Excavations here illuminate one distinctive pathway in the Early Neolithic taken by human communities of the Fertile Crescent in the millennia after the end of the last Ice Age, with subsistence based on intensified exploitation of wild plants and animals.

Acknowledgements

Sincere gratitude to the Iranian Centre for Archaeological Research, the Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, the British Academy, the British Institute of Persian Studies, and all who assisted with the 2008 field season.

References

  • BRAIDWOOD, R. J. 1961. The Iranian prehistoric project. Iranica Antiqua 1: 3-7.
  • FLANNERY, K.V. 1969. The origins and ecological effects of early domestication in Iran and the Near East, in P.J. Ucko & G.W. Dimbleby (ed.) The domestication and exploitation of animals: 73-100. London: Duckworth.
  • SMITH, P.E.L. 1990. Architectural innovation and experimentation at Ganj Dareh, Iran. World Archaeology 21: 323-35.
  • ZEDER, M.A. 2005. A view from the Zagros: new perspectives on livestock domestication in the Fertile Crescent, in J.-D. Vigne, J. Peters & D. Helmer (ed.) First steps of animal domestication: 125-46. Oxford: Oxbow.

Author

* Author for correspondence

  • Roger Matthews*
    Institute of Archaeology UCL, 31-34 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PY, UK (Email: roger.matthews@ucl.ac.uk)
  • Yaghoub Mohammadifar*
    Department of Archaeology, Bu Ali Sina University, Hamedan, Hamedan Province, Iran-65174 (Email: yamohamadi@yahoo.com)
  • Wendy Matthews
    Department of Archaeology, University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 227, Reading RG6 6AB, UK (Email: w.matthews@reading.ac.uk)
  • Abbass Motarjem
    Department of Archaeology, Bu Ali Sina University, Hamedan, Hamedan Province, Iran-65174 (Email: motarjem@gmail.com)