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Interpreting the Late Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

Interpreting the Late Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia

Edited by O.P. Nieuwenhuyse, R. Bernbeck, P.M.M.G. Akkermans, and J. Rogasch (Papers on Archaeology from The Leiden Museum of Antiquities 9). Pp. 520, figs. 365. Brepols, Turnhout 2013. €110. ISBN 978-2-503-54001-6 (paper).

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This volume assembles 46 papers presented at the conference of the same title, which took place at the National Museum of Archaeology, Leiden, in March 2009. All contributions have been peer reviewed prior to publication. At first glance, this publication attracts the reader’s attention with its title, which promises to cover a period and region of considerable length and extent. The contributing authors represent many different academic institutions of Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and Japan, from universities, museums, and external research institutes, as well as local antiquities authorities. In their introduction, Bernbeck and Nieuwenhuyse emphasize that the conference included predominantly young and upcoming researchers (18). Nevertheless, contributions by senior scholars who have shaped the field are not missing.

The volume is arranged in six thematic sections with, in some instances, rather vague titles: (1) Lifeways in the Late Neolithic: Large Scale Issues; (2) Lifeways in the Late Neolithic: The Small Scale; (3) Materialities and Materials; (4) Diachronic processes; (5) Beyond the Northern Mesopotamian Core; and (6) Sites and Regions.

The introduction by Bernbeck and Nieuwenhuyse, two of the editors, introduces the volume, providing a background on the conference that resulted in the publication as well as on the topic itself. The authors raise key topics in the field, such as different research traditions, theoretical debates, and Late Neolithic social structure. In their introduction, they do not avoid the tedious task of organizing and presenting the stratigraphy of key sites, and they thus provide an essential chronological background for the entire volume.

The first section, on large-scale issues, includes papers with a broad geographic approach, covering ceramics (chs. 5, 8), the origin of the Halaf culture (ch. 7) as well as site structure, settlement patterns, and cultural interaction (chs. 2–4, 6). The second section, on “the small scale,” according to Bernbeck and Nieuwenhuyse (32), is devoted to quotidian and small-scale issues. The section includes papers discussing iconography and ritual (ch. 9), pottery decoration (chs. 10, 11), lithic industry (chs. 12, 13), spatial analysis (ch. 14), food preparation (ch. 15), and burial practice (chs. 16–18). Section 3 deals with individual material groups: stone vessels (chs. 21, 22), lithics (chs. 23, 24) and ceramics (chs. 25–7). The thematic distinctions between the first three sections are not evident. Chapters such as “Cultural Affinities and the Use of Lithics during the 8th to 7th Millennia Cal. BCE in the North Levant and Northern Mesopotamia” (ch. 23) by Maeda, discussing obsidian artifacts from Tell el-Kerkh and Akarçay Tepe, could fit in more than one of these sections. The same applies to “Sequencing Practices, Revealing Traditions: A Case Study on Painters’ Brushwork” (ch. 10) by Castro Gessner on ceramic painted designs from Early Halaf strata at Sabi Abyad and Fıstıklı Höyük.

Section 4 comprises four papers discussing chronological aspects of sealing practice (ch. 28), pottery (ch. 29), flint projectiles (ch. 30), and sling balls (ch. 31). Section 5 deals with the borders of the Halaf culture and neighboring regions, including the southern Levant (ch. 32), Turkey (chs. 33, 34), the Caucasus (ch. 35), and Iran (chs. 36, 37). The last section (6) consists of site reports for nine Halaf sites (chs. 38–46).

The general subdivision employed in this volume is of limited use, as papers within a section still vary greatly and do not form a coherent body. Nevertheless, this should not be seen as a failure of the editors but rather reflects the unresolvable difficulty of arranging conference papers of such varied foci, methods, periods, regions, and scope in one volume. The contributions rather stand by themselves and naturally relate to other papers in this volume. The chapters include informative titles and concise abstracts for the reader’s convenience. Unfortunately, the volume does not contain an index, which would have facilitated the use of the book immensely.

The “Late Neolithic” has been considered by Bernbeck and Nieuwenhuyse as the seventh and sixth millennia cal B.C.E. for this publication (19). This time period thus includes several distinct cultural entities, such as the Dark Faced Burnished Tradition, the pre-Halaf Pottery Neolithic, and the Halaf culture, with very different assemblages and social patterns. While their relation is discussed to some degree in individual papers (e.g., chs. 1, 7, 8, 32), a more organized approach, possibly within thematic sections, would have been helpful. Geographically, the publication focuses on northern Mesopotamia, although seven of the 46 contributions discuss topics outside these geographic boundaries, providing a wider frame.

The volume goes beyond simply a collection of papers, as it indeed succeeds in covering the main key topics and will thus be the “go to” publication to gain a quick up-to-date overview on specific questions. The book is well illustrated with black and white figures, although additional color plates, particularly for papers discussing Halafian ceramics, would have been welcome. It should be pointed out, however, that this volume does not replace a synthetic work on the topic (which is still missing) and is not suitable as a concise introduction to the later Neolithic of the region. Rather, it provides a collection of current views, approaches, and methods to be read in a wider review of available literature.

Collecting up-to-date key topics in one volume is of immense use for any researcher of Neolithic Mesopotamia. The volume appears well balanced, discussing established research projects and more recent approaches; no other similar publication is available for the later Neolithic. The wide geographic and chronological scope of this volume will make it a frequented handbook for the experienced student and scholars in the field, and it should not be missing in archaeological libraries. I only regret that this volume did not receive the honor of hardcover binding; no doubt the copies of this book both in offices and libraries will soon look battered as the result of frequent consultation by researchers.

Katharina Streit
Institute of Archaeology
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Book Review of Interpreting the Late Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia, edited by O.P. Nieuwenhuyse, R. Bernbeck, P.M.M.G. Akkermans, and J. Rogasch

Reviewed by Katharina Streit

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Streit

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