Excavations at Neolithic Bestansur, Iraqi Kurdistan

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Background

The overall aim of the Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP), within which excavations at Bestansur are situated, is to investigate the important transition from mobile hunting and foraging to sedentary farming and animal herding in one of the key heartlands of these changes, the ‘hilly flanks’ of the eastern Fertile Crescent. Five field seasons at Bestansur, Sulaimaniyah province, Iraqi Kurdistan, have established that the site is one of the most important Early Neolithic sites excavated in Iraq, with a series of neighbourhoods of clustered rectilinear buildings and materials from local and trans-regional networks spanning >1500km. The settlement was situated next to the second largest spring on the fertile Shahrizor Plain, and had access to rich biodiverse wild and managed food resources that included land-snails, fish, freshwater crab and molluscs, birds, pig, sheep, goat, deer and cattle.

During the spring 2016 excavations at Bestansur we aimed to complete excavation of an extraordinary Early Neolithic building, radiocarbon dated to 7650 cal BC.

This structure has multiple rooms with a large main room, 7.8 x 4.7m, approached through an impressive stone-lined threshold and ante-chamber. In the 2012-2015 excavations we recovered the remains of at least 28 human individuals, of whom 20 were aged 0-8 years and the remainder adults, male and female. Associated with the burials were beads of clay, shell and carnelian.

Report of 2016 Excavations at Bestansur – 26 March – 15 April 2016

Excavations at Bestansur in spring 2016 focused on Trench 10 (Fig. 1). We expanded Trench 10 to an area of 18 x 14m, which enabled us to expose a significant area of Neolithic architecture on the lower eastern slopes of the mound (Fig. 2).

Excavations concentrated firstly on investigation and analysis of the human burials below the floors of Space 50 and the stratigraphic context of these, and secondly on defining the extent of the building in which they were placed, Building 5, dated to c. 9700 BC. 

We established that there are an exceptional number of human remains interred within Space 50. The excavations this season increased the number of individuals identified from 28 to at least 55 individuals, with more remains detected but left preserved in the ground for future seasons. This number of individuals is higher than that found in many houses from other Neolithic sites, which at Tell Halula in Syria, for example, is c. 5-15 within single buildings. The high number within Building 5 is larger than expected for a single household and suggests that there were extensive and long-lived relations between communities of individuals at Bestansur.

Four principal groups of human remains were investigated in the south and east of Space 50. All of these represent selective burial of particular skeletal parts, predominantly of skulls, long bones and ribs. Two of these groups were of mixed age, C1804 and C1810. C1804 included a spread of red-pigment between clusters of bones (Fig. 3) and C1810 included traces of white mineral material on many bones and a skull as well as red pigment (Fig. 4). A third group predominantly comprised juveniles and infants, C1812. The fourth group comprised scattered remains of human bone in the fill below the floors associated with scattered beads of shell.

As the walls of Space 50 slope inwards, c. 10 cm of deposits have been left against the base and lower sections of the walls. These microstratigraphic sequences were carefully cleaned with an artist’s palette knife, photographed and drawn at 1:5 and 1:10 to investigate the history of the construction and use of Building 5 and the complex burial sequence throughout the foundation, occupation and infill of the Building.

The north of Building 5, the western narrow rooms and the northwest corner of Space 50 and adjacent buildings were defined by extending trench 10 to the northwest.

We will continue excavation of this extraordinary deposit and building in spring 2017 and beyond.

Human remains

Recording of human remains was conducted in the field and the laboratory by osteoarchaeologist Dr Sam Walsh.  We are very grateful for permission to export human bones and teeth for analysis, including diet, health and mobility.

Small finds

A total of 74 small finds were catalogued over the course of the season, almost all from Space 50. Finds predominantly included beads of shell, stone, and dentalium, as well as two cowrie shells. We also had some metal finds from later levels.

Later levels

We excavated several stone walls, pits and ovens which were situated above the Neolithic levels. According to associated pottery these levels date principally to the Iron Age.

Heavy residue processing and lithic analysis

A total of 22 flotation samples were processed, including sorting of heavy residues. All chipped stone materials from this season were fully recorded.

Outreach

We continued a programme of outreach activities, including engagement with many media and TV companies from across Iraq.

Acknowledgements

We are very grateful to Sulaimaniyah Directorate of Antiquities for all their support, in particular to the Director, Kamal Rasheed Raheem, the Director of the Museum, Hashim Hama, and our government representatives, Kamal Raof Aziz and Sami Jamil Hama Rashid, who have helped us in many ways and have contributed greatly to the success of the season. The excavation team comprised staff of the University of Reading and other UK universities, including Dr Sam Walsh, osteoarchaeologist, along with team members from Sulaimaniyah Directorate of Antiquities. We are grateful to them all for their hard work all season.

The excavations were financially supported by generous grants from the Gerald Averay Wainwright Fund of the University of Oxford and The British Institute for the Study of Iraq. We are very grateful to these bodies for their kind support.

Professor Roger Matthews and Dr Wendy Matthews, University of Reading