Neolithic ritual complex discovered in Jordan

Two stelae are examples of some of the oldest artistic expressions in the Middle East.

Archaeologists in Jordan have discovered a ritual complex within a Neolithic hunters’ settlement that sheds light on wider activities linked with mass-hunting traps.

Image: © South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project

These traps, known as desert kites, consist of two or more long walls leading towards an enclosure, to herd together prey like gazelle. Such specialised mass-hunting strategies would have involved collaborative organisation. Several desert kites are known in the Jibal al-Khashabiyeh area, in the deserts of south-east Jordan. Work by the South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project (SEBAP), a joint French-Jordanian research project directed by Wael Abu-Azizeh and Mohammad Tarawneh, has dated them to c.7000 BC using radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating.

In recent years, the project, which is funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, and Al-Hussein Bin Talal University, with the support of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, the French Institute for the Near East, and the Cooperation and Cultural Action Service of the French Embassy in Jordan, has identified – for the first time in the region – campsites of the same date near the desert kites. Masses of gazelle bones were found within them. The settlements have also yielded worked stone objects pointing to a specific culture called the Ghassanian.

In October 2021, within one Ghassanian campsite, the SEBAP team identified a special installation, dating back to around 7000 BC and consisting of two stelae, a possible altar, and a deposit of items.

The two stelae are examples of some of the oldest artistic expressions in the Middle East. The tallest (at around 1.12m) depicts a human figure mixed with an image of a desert kite (above). The other – 70cm tall – has a human face with carefully carved features (below). Large anthropomorphic stelae like these are relatively rare in the Neolithic Middle East. The closest parallels, Wael Abu-Azizeh points out, are the more elaborate ‘Ain Ghazal statues discovered in Jordan in the 1980s, which are roughly contemporary or possibly slightly later than the newly discovered stelae. The purpose of these earlier finds remains uncertain, but, as Abu-Azizeh said, the two stelae from the campsite ‘are still standing in situ, clearly integrated and part of a ritual installation in an exceptional state of preservation.’

Image: © South Eastern Badia Archaeological Project.

The team uncovered a deposit behind these two decorated stones. The main part of this was nearly 150 marine fossils (many placed vertically), as well as a range of stones with unusual shapes and worked artefacts – among them flint objects and four small animal figurines resembling a possible bovid, an equid, a pig or boar, and an undetermined species. Along with a stone altar near a hearth that were possibly used for sacrificial purposes, these finds were placed within a miniature version of a desert kite built within the campsite using stones, which SEBAP researchers have described as the only known architectural model of its kind from the Neolithic.

Both the depiction of the desert kite on the stelae and the architectural model at the heart of the complex point to the link in this Neolithic culture between mass hunting and ritual performance, perhaps to ensure successful hunts and the abundance of animals.