Funerals and Feasts in Pre-Pottery Neolithic B

A recent article by Goring-Morris and Horwitz (2007) examined the evidence for funerary feasting in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B of the Near East. The site, Kfar HaHoresh located in northern Israel, is the first centralised mortuary-cum-cult site identified in the Neolithic of the Levant, and it has been suggested that the site functioned in a manner similar to the ancient Greek amphictyony, that is a central shrine serving neighbouring villages.

The site assemblage contained the same repertoire of lithic and faunal types found in many other PPNB village sites in the Mediterranean zone. The most common faunal taxon was mountain gazelle, followed by the Persian wild goat (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 904). All other large mammals – aurochs, wild boar and deer – were represented in low frequencies, and a broad spectrum of small carnivores (especially red fox), reptiles, rodents, bird and fish were also recovered (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 904).

Unlike the contemporary village, Kfar HaHoresh lacked obvious rectangular residential structures and was instead characterised by isolated L-shaped walls associated with human burials interred beneath lime-plastered surfaces. It is suggested that these surfaces might represent the cappings of burial pits rather than house floors, whilst the L-shaped walls may have served to demarcate burial locations or to prevent slopewash by acting as retaining embankments (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 904).

Both primary and secondary human inhumations were found at the site, the burials representing up to 60 individuals of both sexes and all ages (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 904). Fifteen of the primary burials had undergone post-depositional head removal (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 904). Skull caches were discovered in two locations and plastered skulls were recovered from three other locations (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 904). There was also purposeful secondary arrangements of human remains, including long bones placed into an oval around an edge of a pit containing numerous mandibles piled on top of two articulated burials (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 904). Many of the burials were notable for their association with polished coloured pebbles, marine shells, flint artefacts, lime fills and animal remains, especially those of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

Remains of a further pit were excavated in 1991. A total of 358 animal bones were found packed tightly within this. With the exception of a red fox proximal radius and a goat carpal, which may represent accidental inclusions, all the bones belong to Bos (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 906-907). The minimum number of individuals in the pit, based on the number of sided distal femora and state of fusion of this bone, was eight animals (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 907). Seven of these were identified as being at least 4 years of age, whilst the eighth was aged less than 2.5 years (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 907). Based on their large size and robusticity, all have been attributed to aurochs (Bos primigenius) rather than domestic cattle (Bos taurus) (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 907). Body weights and resultant carcass weights were calculated based upon an adult aurochs cow yielding a carcass weight of 280kg and an adult bull yielding c. 337kg. Thus a minimum meat estimate for one juvenile, six adult cows and one adult bull, would yield over 2000kg of meat (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 910).

It has been inferred that this pit, and the associated human interment, represents the remains of a mortuary feast, and as such it may be amongst the earliest evidence for such an event in the Near East (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 911). Such feasts would have required much planning, time and labour for their execution, and it is postulated that the aurochs were hunted and killed within a circumscribed period of time (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 911). At a time when goat and gazelle served as the staple animal protein, aurochs, which comprised a numerically less significant part of the diet, appears to have been a favoured taxon for symbolic depictions in statuettes, murals, stone-carvings and bas-reliefs (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 915). As such, it provides evidence for a common symbolic world that stretched from Central Turkey through to the Southern Levant (Goring-Morris and Horwitz, 2007: 915).

Reference: Goring-Morris, N and Horwitz, L K. 2007. Funerals and feasts during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B of the Near East. Antiquity 81: 902 – 919

See also: Eating the Dead

5 responses to “Funerals and Feasts in Pre-Pottery Neolithic B

  1. This is interesting material. Would you considering writing brief summaries prior to your more in-depth entries? It might make it a bit easier for non-specialists to digest.

  2. I will certainly consider that idea, yes.

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