Excavation of Jarmo (1948–1954)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010



Jarmo is an archeological site located in northern Iraq on the foothills of the Zagros Mountains.

From the beginning of his career Robert Braidwood (1907–2003) was interested in the theories of Gordon Childe and others about the origins of civilizations. After World War II he began to search for a Near Eastern site that would provide evidence of the “Neolithic revolution.” Following the theories of Childe, this was widely believed to have been the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding communities. As such this transition would represent the first rung on the ladder to the later development of early urban or city-state–based civilization, one likely triggered by environmental and population pressures.

Jarmo was a small village site in northwestern Iraqi Kurdistan, on the “hilly flanks” of the Zagros Mountains. Braidwood deliberately chose a site in a topographic zone where wild resources overlapped with domesticated ones, and where farming without irrigation would have been possible. The data from such a site would be different from what would have been obtained at sites in the “the fertile crescent” closer to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Braidwood and his team discovered that this small village had been occupied by a community between 100 and 150 people for several centuries during the seventh millennium BC. The deployment of a multidisciplinary team comprised of paleobotanists, zoologists and geologists, radiocarbon and ceramic experts, anthropologists, and archaeologists made it possible to recover and analyze plant and animal evidence at the site, along with the more traditional architectural and artifactual evidence.

The people of Jarmo had lived in rectilinear household complexes made from mud bricks. Their economy was based on growing and harvesting domestic emmer and eikorn wheat, barley, and lentils. They also harvested wild plants, such as field peas, pistachio nuts, acorns, and wild wheat and barley, and kept dogs, domestic goats, sheep, and later, pigs. However, they also hunted wild animals, such as cattle, onager, and other small mammals. The bones of lions, leopards, small wildcats, foxes, and lynxes were also found at the site, killed either for their pelts or to protect the occupants and their flocks.

The inhabitants of Jarmo made a variety of flint and obsidian tools ranging from large to very small sizes. Many milling and grinding stones were found as well as small celts and chisel-like implements and some stone beads, pendants, and bracelets. A small amount of obsidian was imported from Anatolia, and then worked at the site. Other imports included turquoise and marine shells. Stone bowls were made from local limestone, and a small amount of pottery was produced (an innovation that seems to have originated elsewhere) there. Many small clay figurines (human, animal, and geometric) were found, along with many bone tools (such as awls or perforators), bone spoons, and beads.

Our understanding of and interest in the transformation from huntergathering to food production has changed since the 1950s, when research focused on the environmental and population pressures that contributed to its occurrence. Prehistorians now focus on understanding the social reasons for the transformation, and the social and cultural consequences of such a major change in lifestyle. However, the importance of Braidwood’s work at Jarmo has not changed. It provided the empirical evidence that such great cultural and economic changes had occurred, evidence as to how these early communities had changed from wild to domesticated resources, and evidence that this evolution had taken place over a longer period than had been thought. For many years Jarmo was the oldest agricultural and pastoral community in the world. The interdisciplinary fieldwork Braidwood pioneered became the model for fieldwork investigations of important regional cultural and economic transitions, not only in western Asia, but also all over the world. The archaeological techniques and methodology Braidwood pioneered at Jarmo became central to mainstream archaeological research design.

Further Reading Braidwood, R. J., and L. S. Braidwood. 1950. Jarmo: a village of early farmers in Iraq. Antiquity 24: 189–195. Braidwood, R. J., and G. R. Willey, eds. 1962. Courses towards urban life. Chicago: Aldine. Watson, P. J. 1999. Robert John Braidwood, 1907-. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: The great archaeologists, ed. T. Murray, 495–506. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Willey, G. R., ed. 1982. Archaeological researches in retrospect. Washington, DC: University Press of America.

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