Book Review

PHILLIP C. EDWARDS (ed.). Wadi Hammeh 27: an early Natufian settlement at Pella in Jordan. xxvi+410 pages, 331 b&w illustrations, 87 tables. 2013. Leiden & Boston (MA): Brill; 978-90-04-23609-7 hardback €164 & $228.

Review by Anna Belfer-Cohen
Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

Belfer-Cohen image

The Natufian phenomenon is a unique occurrence in human history—a Levantine hunter-gatherer society portraying changes in all aspects of its existence—considered by many to be the precursor of the subsequent 'Neolithic revolution', and the shift from an extractive to a productive mode of living. The material evidence indicates intensive plant exploitation, sedentism, large settlements with durable architecture, burial grounds, artistic manifestations, and a dramatic rise in the range of raw materials used besides chipped flint (e.g. bone, basalt and limestone) resulting in a plethora of new artefacts such as groundstone utensils. Since the phenomenon was first recognised in the 1930s, each Natufian base-camp investigated has yielded data displaying both general Natufian characteristics and distinctive, particular attributes of its own.

This said, the site of Wadi Hammeh 27 stands out among all Natufian sites for a number of reasons: unique and impressive architectural features, good preservation of botanical material, unparalleled artefacts of basalt and bone, sickles comprising the hafts as well as the sickle pieces. It is the earliest of the large open-air Natufian sites, representing but one phase of the Natufian sequence, covering a relatively short time span of c. 500 of the c. 4000 years allotted to the Natufian via radiocarbon dating. Though over the years there have been quite a number of publications stemming from the Wadi Hammeh 27 excavation project, the detailed report under review here is a most welcome and valuable addition to our knowledge on the Natufians and their sites.

This final and comprehensive report is edited by P.C. Edwards, the director of the Wadi Hammeh 27 project since its beginnings in the 1980s. Of the book's 17 chapters, Edwards is the sole author of eight chapters dealing with the region and environment, stratigraphy, chronology and taphonomy, architecture and settlement plan, lithic industry, limestone artefacts, visual representations in stone and bone and, of course, the final chapter entitled 'Wadi Hammeh 27: postscript and prospects'. He is also the co-author of most of the other chapters dealing with spatial distribution and discard patterns, the basaltic artefacts, bone tool industry, and artefacts and manuports of various materials. There are only four chapters that do not bear his name: Chapter 7 on microwear analysis of retouched lithic artefacts, Chapter 13 on faunal remains, Chapter 14 on plant remains and Chapter 16, which is a short note on artificial modification of the incisors of one of the buried individuals.

Some of the data and analyses have been previously published, including information pertaining to artefact discard patterns and activity areas (Chapter 5), the basaltic artefacts (Chapter 8) and the burials (Chapter 15), but clearly there is a plethora of long-awaited new and valuable information regarding other aspects such as the stratigraphy and architecture at Wadi Hammeh 27. The chapters describing these aspects are exemplary in their clear and detailed presentation of the data, including the methodologies employed. Indeed, no stone has been left unturned—the interested reader will discover all the information and interpretations available concerning the site and the archaeological material recovered.

Though most of the information is rather technical, Edwards still manages to express his views concerning the wider implications of the data. Thus, for example, there is a short but illuminating discussion on the use of the structures and the identity of their occupants—I fully concur with his statement that "one cannot dismiss the effect of variant cultural traditions and community standards with respect to house type—because there is no reason to assume that Natufian period populations belonged to a single, self-conscious identity group" (p. 94). One can argue with Edwards about some of his interpretations, or his selective choice of comparative studies in the chapters presenting the lithic and non-lithic artefacts, but each and every chapter provides concise comparison with other Natufian assemblages and comments on more general issues regarding the Natufian phenomena, such as understanding what was harvested with the artefacts bearing a sickle sheen (Chapter 7) or the origins of the basaltic artefacts recovered at many Natufian sites including Wadi Hammeh 27 (Chapter 8).

This book is a treasure-trove for researchers specialising in the Natufian period and is a most significant addition to the data base of the Early Natufian in particular. Moreover, the patient reader will find in the short comments and summaries dispersed throughout the book interesting running commentaries on various topics regarding the broader issues currently at the forefront of Natufian research in particular, and the evolution of human society in general. Indeed, one can observe—behind the tables, graphs, figures and the methodical descriptions—the original and innovative way of thinking of those who took part in the Wadi Hammeh 27 project, not least that of P.C. Edwards. Unquestionably he should be congratulated on producing a detailed, down-to-earth site report infused with insights and original ideas. An illustration of this originality and innovative thinking—and a befitting conclusion for this review—are Edwards' comments, in the final chapter, where he opposes the prevalent notion that the Natufians can be seen as first and foremost the antecedents of the 'Neolithic revolution'. Rather, he suggests their existence is "reminiscent of the stable procurement strategies of the Jomon in prehistoric Japan which also did not lead clearly to an agrarian transition" (p. 390)—a most challenging and thought-provoking statement, and more fodder for the on-going debate concerning the part the Natufians played in the profound changes that human societies, on the whole, went through while becoming sedentary agriculturalists, on the path to becoming us.