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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

Keffie Feldman

Ain Ghazal is located in Jordan, near the modern city of Amman. It was discovered during the construction of the Amman-Zarqua highway in the 1970s and was excavated by Gary Rollefson and his team over six seasons (1982-1985, 1988-1989, and one of survey in 1987). The excavation of the site was primarily a rescue mission against its potential destruction as a result of regional urbanization. Due to the nature of the excavation it was difficult for the team to approach each season with a coherent research proposal, however, despite this fact, they were able to obtain interesting information and contribute to the general understanding of Pre-pottery Neolithic culture in the Levant (Rollefson et. al. 1992: 443-44).

The site of Ain Ghazal was continuously inhabited from approximately 7,250 – 5,000 BCE. Over the course of the two millennia of occupation at the site, the people who lived there developed different techniques for acquiring and preparing food, building houses and other structures, and organizing themselves along social and religious lines (Rollefson and Kafafi. Chapter 1, Ain Ghazal Excavation reports). The changes in these practices can be identified in the material record, and the two millennia of occupation can be broken down into the following periods of development:

The period of settlement at Ain Ghazal with which we are particularly concerned is during the Middle and Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic. The population of the area during the seventh and sixth millennia BCE lived at the site year round. They practiced a combination of subsistence farming and hunting to procure their food. Evidence of animal bones at the site indicates that the inhabitants domesticated sheep (in the LPPNB), pigs (PPNC), and cattle (by the end of the PPNC or Yarmoukinan if not before) (Rollefson and Kafafi Ain Ghazal Excavation reports). They also grew wheat barley, lentils, peas, and chickpeas.

Much of the behavioral information about the people who lived at Ain Ghazal can be ascertained from their burial practices. The burial patterns at Ain Ghazal conform to the wider patterns of burial practices among populations in the Levantine Pre-Pottery Neolithic (Rollefson et. al. 1992: 461). A typical burial for non-infants was below the floor of house or in a courtyard. The body was deposited in a flexed position with the skull removed after the initial burial. However, about one third of adolescent and adult burials occurred in trash deposits in a variety of postures and always with the skull present and articulated to the body. Differences in these burials may suggest varied treatment and reverence of individuals, and therefore the practice of making social distinctions (Rollefson et. al. 1992: 461). Many of the buried skulls were treated with plaster which was molded into soft and naturalistic facial features. There is focus on the eyes which are either depicted as large and prominent, or appear to be closed either indicating sleep or death (Griffin. Chapter 5, Ain Ghazal Excavation reports). Some of the skulls were also painted. Caches of skulls disarticulated from their bodies were found intentionally buried in groups, oriented in the same direction (Rollefson and Kafafi: fig. 16). Of the fourteen skulls excavated from the site, many were found to have been buried beneath the floors of domestic structures. This practice may point towards the presence of an ancestor cult, a hero worshipper cult, enemy trophies, or apotropaic function (discussed in more detail in Griffin. Chapeter 5 Ain Ghazal Excavation reports).

One of the most interesting discoveries at Ain Ghazal were two caches of plaster statues intentionally buried beneath the floor of long-abandoned houses. Based on carbon-14 analysis of charcoal found in association with the statues, the first cache was dated to 6,750 +/- 80 BCE, and the second to 6,570 +/- 110 BCE (Grissom 1996). The depositional context of the two caches is the same. The statues were carefully laid in pits visibly dug for the purpose of their disposal, and they were generally laid in an east-west orientation. The statues of the two caches also share many stylistic similarities. Denise Schamndt-Besserat outlines these similarities exhibited on the statues in Chapter 6 of the Ain Ghazal Excavation reports. The statues are all anthropomorphic and are either full figures or busts. They were all in seemingly good state of preservation at the time of their deposition. The statues are made from plaster, which was used to cover the walls and floors of the domestic structures at Ain Ghazal, and also in the treatment of the skulls of the deceased. The head of the figures is emphasized and represents about one-fifth to one-sixth of the total size of the statues, it includes a recessed feature above the forehead possibly for a separate hairpiece or headdress. The statues were manufactured using a reed armature (Grissom 1996) and all are large in size (35-100 cm high), particularly as compared to contemporary Neolithic clay or stone figurines. The genitalia of the figures are systematically absent, except for the possibility of pudenda represented on one of the statues. Breasts are sometimes shown, but only in the statues of the earlier cache. Lastly, all the faces of the statues exhibit the same focus on the eyes. The eyes are disproportionately large, about twice the size of the nose and many times larger than the mouth. They are set far apart and are outlined with black bitumen. There are also stylistic differences between the two caches, which seems to indicate a trend towards standardization. The statues in the first cache are more naturalistic than those of the second. They are represented with arms, and the body is represented as more curvilinear, and varied positions than the treatment of the body and posture on the statues of the second cache. The use of paint is more prevalent on the statues of the first cache than on those of the second. The statues of the second cache are larger, more angular, and the arms are excluded. The introduction of the two-headed busts happened in the second cache. The visage is more standard on the statues of the second cache, whereas the figures in the first may possibly represent individuals.

These statues provide an interesting opportunity for analysis and interpretation using their depositional context and stylistic features. Given the absence of genitalia or secondary sexual characteristics, these statues provide a site for analysis about the presence and/or importance of sex and gender as it was conceived at this specific site. Many scholars have tried their hand at interpretations of the functions of these statues (as discussed by Schmandt-Bessart). They are largely held to represent the ancestors of those in the community, or variations on this theme. One can make the argument for this based on the similar treatment of the heads of these statues and the disarticulated and buried plastered skulls. The burial of the statues is also similar to the manner in which the people of Ain Ghazal buried their dead. However, what if these statues are not representations at all, but instead are enlivened objects themselves? What if they were buried in a similar manner to humans because they were thought to have died, or have lost their animate powers? These statues bring up equally many questions as answers, and for this reason will provide a rich site for future study.

Powerpoint presentation:

Document IconAin Ghazal.ppt


Grissom, C.A. 2000. "Neolithic statues from 'Ain Ghazal: construction and form" AJA 104: 25-45.

Rollefson, G.O.; 1983. "Ritual and ceremony at Neolithic 'Ain Ghazal (Jordan)" Paleorient 9: 29-38.

Rollefson, G.O.; 1986. "Neolithic 'Ain Ghazal (Jordan)- Ritual and ceremony II" Paleorient 12: 45-51.

Rollefson, G.O.; 1984. "Early Neolithic statuary from 'Ain Ghazal (Jordan)" Mitteilungen der Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft 116: 185-192.

Akkermans, Peter M.M.G. and Glenn M. Schwartz; 2003. The archaeology of Syria: from complex hunter-gatherers to early urban societies (ca. 16,000-300 BC). Cambridge World Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83ff.


Ain Ghazal Excavation reports

Statue Project

Preservation of statues and exhibition