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First Farmers Volume 53 Number 6, November/December 2000
by Bernadette Arnaud

A unique Syrian site, flooded after completion of a dam, yielded evidence of one the world's oldest settlements.

In July 1999, floodwaters from the Tishrin Dam, 75 miles from Aleppo in northern Syria, inundated Jerf el-Ahmar (Red Cliffs), one of the world's oldest settlements, dating to ca. 11,600 years ago. Syrian officials said that the dam would provide much needed electricity and water for irrigation, the same reason Turkish officials gave for the partial flooding of the classical site of Zeugma farther up the Euphrates. But for Danielle Stordeur and members of her Franco-Syrian research team, which had been excavating the site since 1995, the loss to archaeology was catastrophic. "There's been nothing similar found in the Middle East," said Stordeur, just days before the site was flooded. "Each discovery made here has done nothing but highlight the site's unique importance."

Stordeur's team had found more than 40 well-preserved houses, an unbelievable number from this period, revealing an evolution from round to rectangular living spaces. The team discovered small terra-cotta plaquettes bearing mnemonic symbols etched 5,000 years before the appearance of writing, and grains, such as wheat, that indicated the first traces of cultivation. Finally, just months before the flooding, Stordeur uncovered a ca. 11,600-year-old structure with benches lining its interior walls, suggesting that some sort of communal ritual activity occurred there.

Jerf el-Ahmar is actually a dozen villages piled one on top of the other and occupied between ca. 9600 and 8500 B.C. The site's many layers may help scholars better understand the evolution from round to rectangular dwellings. It was formerly thought that this transformation occurred around the end of the tenth millennium B.C., but the evidence was fragmentary and its stages poorly understood. "We discovered round houses in the oldest strata, and rectangular ones overlying them," Stordeur says. Some 11,000 years ago in this bend of the Euphrates, people learned how to set stones together to form right angles. This technique gave rise to a huge variety of rectangular, elliptical, and semicircular housing styles, the building blocks of small villages with planned open space. "There was collective civic management, an attempt at town planning," says Stordeur.

Bernadette Arnaud is ARCHAEOLOGY's Paris correspondent.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America