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Delving into the magnificent world of the beads – 2023 Museum study session

Into the late autumn and early winter of 2023, Emma and Sera visited the fairy-tale-like old city of Mardin to start the study of personal ornaments from Neolithic Boncuklu Tarla. As the material is housed in the Mardin Archaeology Museum, Sera spent two weeks there to begin the technological and use-wear analysis of the beads, as well as to collect archival data with the rest of the team to understand the assemblage and contexts.

Settling in, making friends, finding coffee (and repelling the evil eye)

On 22 November, Emma and I arrived in Mardin. The crowded bus taking us from the airport to the old city climbed through the hills as we were squeezed in the backseat in between passengers, trying to hold tightly the microscope case. Then, as we arrived in the city, we suddenly became “besties” with the driver. He shared his falafel with us, the best I ever tried, made by a small Syrian shop in the old town. Even in the next days, when we ran into the bus as it toured through the tiny, narrow streets of the city, the driver didn’t pass by without saying hi to us.

Mardin is a beautiful, steep, and narrow city that makes you feel gigantic when trying to climb up or down the narrow stairs in your chunky boots. Not the best feeling if you are shy, introverted, and have the ultimate tourist look. You catch eyes! And it feels even weirder when you have several bags carrying equipment hanging from several parts of your body, trying to reach the museum. This was us the day after we arrived.

A cat wandering the streets of the old city of Mardin

With bags and equipment hanging from our arms, we were at the museum at 09:00 am sharp, determined to make the most of the days for our study. This was I guess very naïve of us, as we had to first overcome some bureaucratic issues. Here I think a little explanation is due. Each year at the end of excavations, small finds such as beads, pendants, labrets—the very things that are at the core of our project—are handed over to the local museum for conservation, display, or storage. Then, if you want to study material from old excavation years, or anything that is already in the museum, you need an official application and permit. But sometimes things can get complicated. And we were a bit on the unlucky side—the next day, Emma and I each got one of the local “Assyrian evil eye beads”, just in case.

A view from the administrative unit of the museum

But I have to say, we had the perfect host: Nejla, an archaeologist working at the museum. She greeted us at the entrance, helped us through all the issues, supplied us with lots of tea, Turkish coffee, and treated us to an amazing lunch (the Mardin tabağı, a dish that includes a bit of everything). The next day, our luck multiplied. We finally made it to the conservation laboratory of the museum located in a beautiful old stone building converted into an annex. We set up our microscope and we were finally united with a box of beads waiting to reveal to us their secrets of how they were made and used.

Ergül, Emma and Sera in front of the Mardin Museum

The following two weeks, my days were filled with measuring, analysing, and recording the beads, while Onur, a team member of the project from Mardin Artuklu University, photographed them and Asiye, the conservator of the museum supplied us with coffee and tea consistently. As days passed, we became good friends, sharing details of our lives, some gossip, our lunches, and they even took me out for a little ritual (kurşun dökme) to repel the evil eye—well, combined with the evil eye bead, this must have worked! I can’t pass here without mentioning my other constant coffee supplier: the Artukbey Café. The best place in the old city to find filter coffee. This is the place to go if you need, like me, a big cup of proper, dark filter coffee in the mornings to be able to function like a regular human being.

The view in front of me as I was being rescued from the evil eye with an ancient ritual—or more like, experiencing a little touristic sample of what was once an ancient ritual in Anatolia*

The magnificent world of the beads: our study methods and some preliminary observations

One of the main questions of our project is to understand how ornaments were produced, and if the beads from burials were used in life as well as in death. To understand this we apply a well-established methodology used in the archaeological study of personal ornaments. In the first step, we establish typological categories based on forms and sizes. We measure the length, width, thickness, and perforation diameter of each ornament with a digital calliper. We then weigh each object. Another piece of information we record is the colour, lustre, and transparency of stone ornaments. Based on this and with comparisons with the literature, we generate preliminary categories for the minerals or rock types used.

Then, all objects go under the microscope for low-power microwear analysis. In this study, we used a Zeiss Stemi 305 stereomicroscope with magnifications ranging from 8x to 40x. Each trace observed under the microscope is recorded in a dedicated recording sheet per object with a basic sketch of the object where we note the location of each type of trace we observe. We qualitatively describe the types of traces (e.g., striations, polish, rounding, deformation) and their characteristics. Most of the time, different types of traces appear together on the same object. One has to understand their relationship to each other and their micro-chronologies, as well as their locations on the bead. This allows us to decide if a certain trace belongs to a production stage (e.g., abrasion striations) or use (e.g., a striation made by continuous contact with a surface or friction by possibly a string). Then, combining all the data, we can reconstruct the biography of each ornament from production to use and discard.

Sera in her little working station in the museum

At first glance, one can’t help noticing how eye-catching the beads are. However, they actually represent a rather narrow colour range, a palette in consistency with the Early Neolithic assemblages across Western Asia: dominated by green minerals, alongside some white, beige, and reddish talc/limestone varieties, as well as some white, greyish and blue-green phosphate varieties. One fascinating, and also unique aspect for such an early period though, is the use of obsidian to make personal ornaments, which was so far known to have become more common during the later phases of the Neolithic. The typology, on the other hand, is super diverse and incorporates well-known forms for the Early Neolithic (such as small discs and the larger lozenge and/or butterfly beads) as well as rather unique types such as long cylindrical beads, cylinders with spiral decoration, and most amazingly, labrets and zoomorphic pendants!

Micro-photo of the perforation edge of a bead

My other fascination was the high prevalence of use-wear within the studied assemblage, indicating diverse and prolonged use-lives for the beads before being assembled into composite ornaments that were deposited in the graves. This first study mission has shown that once we complete our studies, we will be confidently able to reconstruct the production and use processes of ornaments, and their relations to the individuals of the Boncuklu Tarla community, as well as their relationships with other sites in the wider region.

I would like to end this blog post with thanks to the excavation director and Small Things, Big Stories team member Ergül Kodaş, Mardin Museum director Abdulgani Tarkan, my colleague and team member Onur Dinç, and the museum staff Nejla Tur and Asiye Atay. Thank you all for all the help and for making me feel at home. I hope to see you all again very soon!

*The kurşun dökme ritual (can be translated as “lead pouring”) is an ancient tradition practiced with the belief that by pouring melted lead into cold water, the smoke produced would ward off the evil eye, cure sicknesses, or prevent bad fortune. In this ritual, the person sits under a cloth covering their head. The practitioner pours melted lead inside a bowl of water above that cloth and then once the lead cools off inside the water, the unique shapes it takes are interpreted as a signifier of the person’s fortune.

Sera Yelözer

25th of December 2023

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