Online Review: Book

The 2003 Excavations at Tol-e Baši, Iran: Social Life in a Neolithic Village

E.B. Banning


By Susan Pollock, Reinhard Bernbeck, and Kamyar Abdi (Archäologie in Iran und Turan 10). Pp. ix + 324, figs. 223, tables 134. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2010. €49.90. ISBN 978-3-8053-4261-2 (cloth).

This detailed report describes the goals and initial results of the Fars Archaeological Project, intended to be a multiseason excavation at Tol-e Baši in the Kor River basin, not far from Persepolis, but cut short, presumably, as U.S.-Iranian relations deteriorated over the issues of air surveillance and nuclear ambitions. Considering that this season consisted of less than three weeks of excavation and two weeks of analysis, this volume is a substantial and very useful work.

Chapter 1 outlines the project's goals. The overarching goal is to study Neolithicization as a social process over the Muški (ca. 6200–6000 B.C.E.), Jari (ca. 5500–5000), and Bākun (ca. 5000–4500) periods. In addition, they now identify a Baši phase (ca. 6000–5500) prior to the Jari. To accomplish this, one goal is to examine the changing subsistence practices of the inhabitants of Tol-e Baši and other sites in the Kor River basin and how these were interrelated with changing environmental conditions. So far, this is pretty typical of Neolithic projects, but the difference here is that the project directors are more interested in the "dialectics of subsistence practices and social relations" (8). For example, they make no assumption that households were the basic unit of socioeconomic organization. Consequently, one of their main goals is to experiment with methods that might help distinguish whether an ethic of community sharing, or one of interhousehold competition, may have held sway in these periods. In greater detail, accomplishing these goals requires establishing a precise chronology through accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating and stratigraphy to acquire more evidence for the settlement history of the site's environs, to marshal subsistence evidence in the form of faunal, macrobotanical, and phytolith remains, and to investigate the site's role in "stylistic zones" for the production of pottery, chipped and ground-stone tools, figurines, and other artifacts.

The volume provides clear information on the methods of surface survey (ch. 3), excavation and recording, as well as the stratigraphy of the excavated areas (ch. 4). We also find surprisingly rich publication of results, ranging from basic spatial analysis of the surface survey to reconstruct the settlement sequence and formation processes through extremely detailed and thorough analysis of the pottery to shorter—but still valuable—chapters on chipped stone, fauna, plant remains (including phytoliths), microartifacts, organic residues from pottery, and radiocarbon dates. There are also short chapters on a survey of nearby rockshelters and an ethnoarchaeological study in a nearby village that, until recently, was inhabited seasonally by agropastoralists who moved their herds into the mountains during spring and summer.

Chapter 22 concludes the book by pulling these various strands together and returning to the project's main objectives. Here, Pollock and Bernbeck attempt to put the results into a larger theoretical and historical framework, their major theme being the "suppression of materiality." They outline some spatial patterning in ordinary daily activities at the site that indicates that house interiors were used mainly for storage and shelter, with perhaps some cooking in winter, but that most activities took place in the open and in a highly social context. Most cooking appears to have involved indirect heating by stone boiling, and hearths, mats, and decorated pottery in outdoor areas may be associated with the social consumption of food and drink that may have mingled with outdoor productive activities. The objects that people made and used in these same contexts are noteworthy for their interchangeability or "absence of distinctiveness" (283). The authors see this lack of individuality or identifying markers as a symptom of the absence of attributions of value and a de-emphasis of materiality. Sharing, they suggest, was more important than barter, accumulation, or competition, and the objects were "just there to be used" (284). This also led to a low density of material items in general. However, against these general patterns and routines, Pollock and Bernbeck also want to highlight the uniqueness of every context they excavated, favoring an agent-centered practice-theory approach over a natural science one that would treat these differences as mere background noise. What they fail to accomplish satisfactorily is to reveal the tensions between these generalizing and particularizing forces. No doubt they are correct that the exceptions to the general patterns are at least sometimes historically interesting, as potentially in their example of the few "cylindrical objects" discarded indoors rather than in the usual outdoor spaces, yet they do not take this very far or make an argument that is likely to convince a more processually minded archaeologist that this is more than background noise. In addition, that this chapter does not make distinctions between the several periods of occupation implies a somewhat fossilized tradition of social relations over nearly two millennia that rather weakens the argument for a more "dynamic integration of the contingent and the repetitive" (279).

However, the authors clearly recognize that the interpretations they present here are also contingent and incomplete, and they are to be congratulated for having the courage to steer this volume beyond the safe haven of a merely thorough excavation report.

E.B. Banning
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto
19 Russell Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2S2


Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.