Invoking the Spirit
Prehistoric religion at Ain Ghazal
Two of the oldest temples in the worlddating back more than 8,000 yearshave recently been found at a site called Ain Ghazal, outside of Amman, Jordan. The site is already famous for its lifelike, nearly life-size plaster statues. With the two temples discovered in 1995 and 1996, as well as other finds, Ain Ghazal gives us a view of prehistoric religion that once would have been impossible. We can even trace changes in worship from period to period that provide important information about social changes in Ain Ghazal thousands of years before the invention of writing.
Ain Ghazal was settled in about 7200 B.C., in the Neolithic period. Scholars divide this period into Pre-Pottery Neolithic (c. 90005500 B.C.) and Pottery Neolithic (c. 55004000 B.C.). Ain Ghazal flourished in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic for almost 2,000 years. By 6200 B.C. the settlement had grown to occupy nearly 40 acres, almost four times the size of contemporaneous Jericho, only 30 miles away. Indeed, Ain Ghazal was one of the largest cities in the Neolithic Near East.
Ain Ghazal started, however, as a small hamlet of a couple hundred inhabitants during the middle period of the second of Pre-Pottery Neolithics three subdivisions (designated by the letters A, B and C). Thus Ain Ghazal had its beginnings in Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, which lasted for about 700 years, roughly from 7200 to 6500 B.C. (The dates have been confirmed by more than 40 carbon-14 tests on organic remains.)
Throughout this period, the settlement continually expanded and grew richer. The houses, spread over about 5 acres, were built of undressed fieldstones, coated with mud plaster and then finished with lime plaster. Floors were made of a fine layer of lime plaster applied over a lime-and-gravel base. And both walls and floors were painted over with a red pigment. Toward the end of Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, Ain Ghazals citizens sculpted the eerily anthropomorphic plaster statues shown above.
We learn about the inhabitants religious or spiritual concerns from figurines and from burials. Among the most intriguing finds from this period are more than 200 figurines, about 2.5 inches in length and made of clay or plaster. Some may well be toys, made for some Pre-Pottery Neolithic kids crawling around on a red plastered floor. A better-made one represents a sitting dog, perhaps the gift of a parent to a son or daughter.
Almost half the figurines are wild cattle, Bos primigenius (aurochs), as we know from comparison with actual bones that have been recovered. Several of the cattle figurines have depressions behind the head formed by a cord, perhaps indicating that calves were captured, haltered and reared until they reached the stage when they could be ritually slaughtered. Other cattle figures have slash marks, symbolic wounds impressed in the clay before the figurines were fired, which suggest some kind of sympathetic magic (the belief that one action causes a similar action elsewhere). Buried in a pit beneath a house floor we found two small examples of ritually killed cattle (cattle figurines pierced with flint bladelets and then buried), further evidence of some kind of cattle cult.
The more than 30 human figurines we recovered had several peculiarities. Almost none had both head and body; there were either bodiless heads or headless bodies. This practice is attested not only at Ain Ghazal but also at other sites in the southern Levant.
The clay figures were probably made by a shaman, who imbued them with the power either to achieve a desired effect or to prevent a feared one. When the figurines, with their magical potency, were no longer needed, or when the owner of a figurine died, the dangerous power was released by killing the figurinethat is, by breaking its head off and burying the head and body in different places.
Another peculiarity: Most of the human figurines, perhaps partly because of their broken state, show no indication of gender. Why? Were not sure.
When the gender is apparent, however, it appears to have had a specific purpose. Female figurines with distended abdomens and enlarged breasts represent pregnant women. Like the other human figurines, these too had the heads broken off before disposal. It is sometimes suggested that these so-called fertility figurines have something to do with a mother goddess cult. But there is no reason to conclude that they represent either a matriarchal religion or a female fertility cult. It is far more likely that they were talismans made to protect women during pregnancy.
Our analysis of the human bones recovered from the site indicates that there was a slight peak in death rates for females at 14 to 15 years of agethe age when women first gave birth. Whether or not this is significant, it remains a fact that in ancient times, pregnancy, especially giving birth, was the most dangerous period in any womans life. The Ain Ghazal fertility figurines should be understood simply as examples of human figurines that protected life and promoted happiness, though in this case specifically for women.
Beneath the floors of many houses at Ain Ghazal, we found actual human burials. This practice is also found at other contemporaneous sites in the Levant. For a long time, it was supposed that the people who lived at Ain Ghazal typically buried their dead beneath their houses. But that is not the case; most people, in fact, were buried away from the settlement. Under the floor of one house, for example, we found the remains of 12 people; but the house was occupied for about 400 yearsmeaning that the burial rate was one person every 33 years, or roughly one in each generation. Most common people, then, must have been buried away from the settlement. Only special people were buried under house floors; however, we still do not completely understand how Ain Ghazals inhabitants determined whom to bury beneath their houses. Skeletons found beneath houses include both males and females, ranging from 15 to more than 50 years in age. These unusual burials seem to reflect an ancestor cult of some kind; and it is widely believed that such cults played a central religious role throughout the Levant during this period. The in-house burials were probably related to the practice of burying clay figurinesbecause, as with the figurines, the human heads were removed from the body.
In some societies, the head is regarded as a location of power. Perhaps by severing the deceaseds head, this power was thought to be released from a previously powerful person, thus making room for a successor. In that way, the next generations selected one could exercise the power for the benefit of the household.
Sometimes the severed skulls were simply placed in a separate location under the house floor. In other cases, skulls received special treatment. In more than half a dozen cases, skulls from Ain Ghazal were modeled with lime plaster to form death masks, creating what British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon (who found similar skulls at Jericho) called portrait skulls. One portrait skull from Ain Ghazal had been painted with red pigment. The back part of another skull had been coated with a black material, possibly bitumen, perhaps to represent hair. Similar portrait skulls are known not only from Jericho but from Beisamoun and Kfar HaHoresh, in the Jordan Valley, and from Tell Ramad, near Damascus. These sculptures were probably put on display inside a house or, perhaps, in some as yet undiscovered shrine, where family or clan members could consult them in times of distress.
Our most dramatic finds were two groups of plaster statues, which have now been displayed at sites around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Louvre and the National Museum in Amman. More than 30 anthropomorphic figures were discovered in two batches in 1983 and 1985. The first group dates to about 6700 B.C., while the other is at least 200 years younger. The figures are made of soft, yellow-white calcium carbonate, plastered over a core of reeds and twine; traces of pink paint are visible on the faces, and black bitumen and green copper ore appear around the eyes. Clear stylistic differences separate the older and younger groups of figures. The earlier groups more anatomically correct forms were replaced by the later statues more stylized forms. The faces of the earlier group are also more distinctive, suggesting that specific individuals may be depicted. The generalized features of the later group suggest that they may represent the ancients or perhaps the sculptors ancestors. Similar statues, although not in such fine condition, were found in Jericho in the 1930s and, more recently, at Nahal Hemar in Israel.
If, as I believe, the plastered portrait skulls represent known ancestors, these anthropomorphic statues probably represent mythical ancestors, the highest level of the ritual hierarchy at Ain Ghazal and in the Levant. These ancestors were probably regarded as the founders of kinship groups (lineages, clans), or of the Ain Ghazal community, or even of humanity itself.
Both the earlier and later groups contain some tall figures with legs and feet as well as some smaller busts that emphasize only the head and shoulders. The more complete statues may represent the ultimate ancestors of all people, with the smaller ones depicting the founders of specific lineages or clans.
Three busts from the later group have two heads each. This feature has led to all kinds of conjecture, and readers are welcome to exercise their own imaginations to explain this phenomenon.
During the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period, Ain Ghazal remained primarily an agricultural economy; the settlement grew and flourished for about three-quarters of a millennium. By about 6500 B.C., however, the inhabitants were experiencing severe strains due to sudden growth (the settlement doubled in size over only a few generations) and environmental degradation. Nearby forests were denuded as a result of the demand for woodneeded to stoke the fires to manufacture the charcoal to burn the limestone to make the plaster to cover the walls and floors of the houses. An area of several miles around the site was deforested. The removal of trees and brush also eliminated numerous wild-animal habitats. Also by 6500 B.C., cattle, pigs and perhaps sheep had been domesticated to replace the disappearing wild species.
All this prompted major changes in social organization, which are reflected in changes in architecture. Single-family houses were replaced to a large extent by two-story, multiple-family houses, where married brothers and married sisters pooled their resources in order to survive.
These social strains were also reflected in the religious sphere. Evidence from Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (7200 to 6500 B.C.) indicates that inhabitants worshiped as individuals, families or clans. In the period between 6500 and 6000 B.C. (Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), we observe a movement toward community-wide religious worship.
By 1996 we had uncovered two buildings that may have been shrines, though only for a single family or clan. One shrine appears to have been built when the earlier one went out of use. They are virtually identical, with an antechamber that leads into a small circular room about 8 feet in diameter. In the center of the circular room is a hole about 2 feet in diameter. Beneath the floor are four small channels that brought air from the outside into this hole. The joins between the floor and the wall are not perpendicular but slightly curved, like the sides of a bathtub. Similarly, at the edge of the hole in the center of the shrine, the plaster floor has a curved, bathtub-like shape at its edge, suggesting that something rose vertically from the hole. This could have been a central altar ventilated by subfloor channels that directed air into the bottom of a fire pit.
Local shrines like these may have been helpful in allaying anxieties brought on by the deteriorating economic situation. The new social reorganization emphasized kinship dependency, as an extended family moved into a single two-story residence. On the other hand, this emphasis on kinship cooperation brought with it a new strain in the social fabric as kinship groups, with their ritual shrines to support them, competed with one another for farmland, pasturage and general well-being. Kinship feuds could easily split society. A modification in religious organization, however, could counter this centrifugal forcein short, a temple serving the whole community and drawing the social segments together.
That is precisely what we have found. It is a building unlike any other Ain Ghazal structure of the period. It has a natural dirt floor instead of the usual lime plaster. Compared to the family shrines, it is large. Inside, near the center of the building, we found three standing stones (also called orthostats), each about a foot and a half high. To one side of these stones is a floor altar about a foot and a half in diameter, made of uncontaminated clay repeatedly burned to the color and consistency of pottery. To the other side of the stones is a low stone platform. Between the three stones and the wall is a rectangular plaster hearth, painted red and surrounded by seven small stones.
Engaged into one of the walls of the building, we found a large stone over 2 feet high and 1 foot thick that appears to depict a stylized human being. It is made of pure white limestone.
A strong argument can be made that this is a public temple, a communal focal point that promoted social cohesion by organizing ritual worship on the community level. The earlier single-family shrines are very small and are located in residential areas. In contrast, this temple and a later, sixth-millennium B.C. temple are set aside from residential buildingssuggesting that they were used for public worship, not merely for family or clan worship.
The stylized human form on the stone in the wall may be a conscious effort to symbolize the members of the community in general, in direct contrast to the individualized features on the faces of the statues of the earlier period. This may have been the beginning of the end of the ancestor cult. The temple may indicate the need for full-time priests, as opposed to the part-time shamans of the earlier period.
In the next phase, Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (60005500 B.C.), economic conditions at Ain Ghazal became increasingly severe. By 6000 B.C. nearly half of the population had left to become pastoral nomads, taking with them the sheep and goats that competed for the same food needed by humans. This group left for the steppe and desert to the east at the beginning of the rainy season, returning only after the harvest in the late spring. The other half of Ain Ghazals population continued to live there and farm the adjacent land, as they had always done. No longer do we find plaster heads or skulls removed from bodies. If the ancestor cult continued, it must have done so in a very different way.
In addition, secondary burials now appear. The bones of the pastoralists were brought back to Ain Ghazal to be reinterred beneath floors or in courtyards near houses; the secondary burials took place in a section of Ain Ghazal that appears to have been reserved for part-time residents of the town. This conforms with the usual practice of part-time pastoralism.
About half of the burials from this period, notably the secondary burials, included the bones of (often immature) pigs. Perhaps these bones served as a totem stressing the ties of the part-time pastoralists with the permanent farming group. Pigs probably represented the mainstay of the sedentary, full-time farming segment of the population. The pig bones in the secondary burials of the pastoralists in effect said, We are one of you; we have returned.
As mentioned earlier, we found a second communal temple, this one dating to Pre-Pottery Neolithic C. It lies across the Zarqa River from the rest of the site (in our East Field), suggesting that it may have been built there to defuse tensions among the members of the Ain Ghazal communityboth permanent and part-time (the pastoralists). Since the temples western part was destroyed by erosion, we cannot be sure of its original extent. The temple is a rectangular building, measuring at least 11 by 21 feet and consisting of two rooms connected by a doorway. The eastern room, the main ritual area, included a raised altar with two large flat limestone slabs. Set in the center of the eastern wall, the altar was supported by three pairs of stones of somewhat irregular height, but in general about 2 feet high. Small stones filled in the spaces to even things up. In front of the altar, a burnt hearth of lime plaster was surrounded by seven flat stone slabs about 3 feet in diameter. A small rectangular cubicle (empty, unfortunately), consisting of limestone slabs, was set into the floor at the center of the northern wall. The floor of the room was made of yellow clay spread across a foundation of local river cobbles. This unusual floor did not extend into the western room, suggesting that the western room was not directly associated with the ritual activities carried out in the eastern room.
Although much of the western room had eroded away, we could see a low screen wall inside the doorway connecting the eastern and western rooms. Apparently this western room could be entered by anyone; the screen wall effectively blocked off the view of anyone in the western room who wanted to see what may have been practiced by the priests at the altar in the eastern room. The eastern room must have functioned as a kind of inner sanctum. As far as we know, this is the earliest indication of a holy of holies anywhere in the ancient Near East.
The newly discovered temples at Ain Ghazal reflect a community-wide organization of religious belief and ritual activity that cut across family interests, binding together a society that might otherwise have split apart from conflicting family claims and economic distress.
Beginning around 5500 B.C., ceramic technology appears to have been discovered simultaneously at several sites in the Levant. The Pre-Pottery Neolithic period was over. Suddenly liquids could be stored and transported. There were pots to cook in. Eventually, permanent records would be inscribed on tablets of clay. In Ain Ghazal, after nearly 2,000 years of continuous farming, the local fields simply could no longer support even a small permanent farming population. The last evidence of habitation at Ain Ghazal includes the flimsy remains of circular structures that are clearly ancestral to modern Bedouin tents. Ain Ghazal was too far gone to share in the benefits of the pottery revolution.
Burial Sites and Customs