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31 January 2004
Excavations of a prehistoric Iranian settlement

Last year, excavations began at Toll-e-Bashi: a prehistoric settlement in the Marv Dasht Plain northwest of Persepolis (Iran). At almost eight hectares in size, Toll-e-Bashi was assumed to be one of the major Bakun period sites (5th millennium BCE) in the region.  However, excavations focused on the smaller occupation of the Late Neolithic levels (late 7th to early 6th millennia BCE), as these early levels were easy to access.
     So far, archaeological investigations have revealed no evidence for human occupation in the region between the Epipalaeolithic and the Late Neolithic periods. Was there a hiatus in settlement, and if so, from where and when did Neolithic settlers enter the plain?  This occupational gap is suspect as other studies have identified evidence for the period in areas located on either side of the region.
     Investigations at Toll-e-Bashi will potentially challenge traditional accounts of Neolithization that understand this economic transition as an almost irreversible process. Prelimininary impressions from excavated data suggest hunting, gathering, herding, and agriculture were not the only alternative modes of subsistence for the people at Bashi. They also used aquatic resources such as fish and crabs to a significant extent. This is surprising as the site was inhabited at a time when the experts presume increasing specialization on a few resources.
     Judging by the limited data available, built space in the settlement decreased over time. In the early phases, at least one multi-room house was found, whereas the later layers contain mostly carefully treated exterior surfaces and multiple ovens. Again, ideas about Neolithization mostly include the expectation of the opposite development ­ from open settlement plans to tightly packed villages.
     A shift from hunting and gathering to an active manipulation of animals and plants likely brought with it new ways of perceiving 'nature.' According to ethnographers, modern-day hunters and gatherers often believe hunted game possess their own will; a successful hunt is a sign that the animal wanted to 'give' itself to the hunter. Intentionality of this kind may also be bestowed upon other natural phenomena; i.e. plants, wind, stones, etc. Nature is seen as a 'parent.' When moving toward more intensified agricultural practices, societies likely undergo changes in worldview characterized by a shift from a partnership with to a domination over nature in both daily praxis and ideology.
     Similar changes in Neolithic societies’ perceptions of the environment may be reflected in one type of item excavated at Bashi and elsewhere. These small clay objects with flat, circular bases occur in several distinct shapes and have often been called 'ear spools' or 'lip plugs' . These objects may have been memory tools, signifying a quantity or quality of some object or animal. If so, what is it that the inhabitants of Toll-e-Bashi needed to remember?  A group undergoing a fundamental change in relations to its natural environment is likely to be preoccupied with such a process. The idea of memorizing something in nature means that the inhabitants at Bashi had “cut out” and categorized a category of natural species or objects. They made them countable. If so, it is likely that Bashi’s inhabitants characterized their relationship with the natural environment partly as one of domination and manipulation.
     People at Bashi may also have begun to imitate nature. The painted ceramics of the earlier phase are almost completely focused on one major motif. On hilly slopes, excavation members found a wild plant which, when bearing fruit, strikingly resembles these motifs. In addition, the strong focus on one motif may have served a social function, unifying members of the community and setting them apart from neighboring ones.

Source: The Daily Star (23 January 2004)

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