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Exploring ornaments - 2023 Summer fieldwork

This summer Emma travelled to the village of Ilısu in Mardin province, southeast Türkiye to participate in the excavation of Neolithic burials at Boncuklu Tarla, investigate the artefacts and plan the next stages of the project’s fieldwork.

*Content warning: discussion of human burials

It is August and I have travelled to Boncuklu Tarla in southeast Türkiye to see in context the jewellery that we will study and to experience the excavation in progress. This summer is hot. Really, really hot. The landscape is parched, the ground is a mixture of wilted golden plants and rocky scrub. The workers who have spent their lives outside under the sun are complaining. Around the site is a haze of heat, accompanied by the buzzing of the overhead electric cables distributing electricity from the new hydroelectric dam that was the reason this excavation was started. Rescue archaeology, the surveying and excavation of potentially at-risk archaeological remains, is a fundamental part of large infrastructure projects. The site of Boncuklu Tarla is lucky, having been spared destruction by the dam and its rising waters, however, many others have now been either damaged or submerged, most famously the site of Hasankeyf, set into cliffs further up the Tigris River. Archaeologists have invested immense effort in recording as much as they can about these fascinating sources of information dating to every period of human history.

At Boncuklu Tarla the working day starts early to allow at least a short period of respite before the sun reaches its hottest and everyone retreats indoors. At 5 am we are in the field, a huge archaeological site stretching over a piece of relatively even ground in a large and dramatic landscape of mountains and valleys. It’s getting light but the sun hasn’t yet come up. The outlines of the areas previously excavated are visible among the tall oats that have coved the site while no one was here in the spring. As the sun rises above the mountain top, the oats catch the first rays, seeming to glow as they bob gently in the warm breeze. The electricity pylons marching across the landscape from the hydroelectric dam are silhouetted, bringing home the contrast between ancient and modern as we stand in one of the world’s earliest villages.

We are working right next to the new Ilısu dam which uses the legendary Tigris River to generate electricity. This means, of course, that we are right on the edge of Mesopotamia, the land of developing civilizations and millennia of ancient power struggles. Much earlier, it was also home to hunter gatherer groups who thrived in a world packed with natural resources – wild animals, fish, birds, plants, seeds and nuts. This environment was so enticing that these groups decided to stay permanently and swap their mobile way of life for villages of houses, first round and then rectangular, where they could comfortably lead their daily lives. They chose their locations well, considering access to resources, building materials and visibility. The skill that they showed in their constructions tells us that they already had building experience long before they settled here.

Exploring the lives of the people who lived here in the distant past is a complex task, like trying to solve a puzzle where the pieces are more than 10,000 years old and most of them are missing. As archaeologists we have many responsibilities while we do our research in the field: research questions and ethics, data sharing, government ministries’ requirements and budget restrictions among others. Archaeology is a slow process, work is targeted to answer specific questions that help ensure that we get the best research outcomes with a limited timeframe and budget. The aim of the Small things, Big stories team here at Boncuklu Tarla is to understand the role of jewellery in the lives and deaths of the people who lived at the site. Grave contexts are the closest that we can get not only to the people themselves but also to their personal possessions or to the gifts that they were given in death. At this site, as at many others of the same period, people were buried within their community, under the floors of the houses where they had lived. This means that there was a very strong sense both of place and of identity. Death was not a physical separation as we might think of it today, but rather, a continuation of a process. Villages became histories of the communities that lived in them, an encyclopaedia of lives lived, and experience gained. When we excavate, we see this history backwards, starting with the latest events.

Digging a grave context requires speed and skill. In this hot weather, the newly exposed soil dries and cracks, flaking off in chunks that take with them pieces of fragmented bone as well as the tiny beads that accompany the burials. Work must be efficient, but as these people were buried under their houses, layer on layer through time, bones were pushed aside and mixed, as people chose to stay within their community in life and death. It’s hard to understand how the bones relate to one another, how the individuals came to their final resting places, many are no longer articulated, adults and children, babies and the old are mixed. Our job is to untangle these individual stories as much as we can. Ornaments appear in predictable places on the bodies, Ergül, the excavation director, explains to me that there is little variation – necklaces, bracelets, earrings and labrets were the norm. Legs were not ornamented, at least not with things that the archaeological record has brought to us.

Excavation is a face-close-to-the-earth activity when the artefacts are this small and delicate and the bones this fragmented and fragile. Tools must be tiny, a single misplaced breath knocks everything out of place. Hours are spent close to the dirt, in a sensual process of hands, eyes, hot wind in the hair, sweat on your back, colours in the soil, surfaces revealed. A glimpse of a bead slows the process, it’s likely part of a series, still held in their original positions by the supportive earth. This is archaeology by tweezers and dentist’s tools, of puffs of breath to lift the tiny blobs of soil that linger between bones and moments of celebration when another bead shows its face in the shadows. Eventually a row of tiny stone discs emerges and then another next to it. Some beads have fallen from their places, nestling in crevices in the bone. Other shapes appear, some much larger and more colourful. Green stones with polished surfaces glint under the sun. Sometimes there are pendants hanging down among the rows of beads. The soil around the burials, disturbed by the original inhabitants of Boncuklu Tarla, reveals how much more there originally was – here and there are labrets and earrings, separated from their wearers and leaving us wondering who they belonged to and what they might have looked like.

Recording these tiny artefacts, relating them to their wearers and enabling later reconstruction are vital stages of the archaeological process. It is rarely possible to photograph all ornaments at once. Instead, a layer is revealed as neatly as possible, photographed and then gently removed. The process is repeated until all the ornaments, and the skeleton itself, have been lifted and are ready to go to the lab or museum. Later the photographs will be used to work out how the ornaments were strung, what colours and shapes were used together and how they might have looked on the body. At this stage it is too early to tell if these were used in life and well as in death, but our later analyses should help us to answer this question.

Field archaeology, and particularly the various methodologies used in the field, have a profound impact on the results that we, as archaeologists, produce. Archaeology has always had a divide between those who work in the field and those who are in the lab, the excavation team and the post-excavation team. Many specialists don’t dig, but what we learned here this summer is that without seeing and feeling the excavation process and communicating carefully with those we work with, it is impossible to understand the artefacts that we will later study. Context is everything, in this case the relationship between artefacts, skeletons and living places is vital, reminding us that archaeology is an interdisciplinary exercise requiring cooperation between experts with very different skill sets. This summer I have learned vital details of the type of burials and ornaments that we are going to deal with and the unique set of challenges that this will pose for our team throughout the rest of the project. This is the first step in our process of producing the best and most accurate data that we can, to enable the most comprehensive and accurate interpretations. Knowing the quality of our material as well as its limits is the start of a program of research that will be both challenging and rewarding, asking us to question what we already know and find new ways to look at what is in front of us.

While at Boncuklu Tarla, I have learned that the people who lived here, who are slowly revealing themselves to us through their fragile remains, were not so different in their concerns from we who are excavating and studying them. They too were preoccupied with the practicalities of everyday life, and just like us, they spent a lot of time thinking about who they were and how to present themselves to the world. We know from their skeletons that they ate a good diet and did not suffer from the health problems brought by the later advent of farming. Perhaps because they lived in a relatively bountiful environment, they were able to spend a lot of time on other activities, on looking for interesting stones in the river, on thinking about how to drill and polish those stones and on combining and recombining the ornaments they made throughout their lives.

Emma L Baysal

20th September 2023

The site of Boncuklu Tarla was discovered in 2008 during prospection for the Ilısu Dam. Excavation was started by Mardin Museum in 2012 and has continued since 2017 under the direction of Ergül Kodaş of Mardin Artuklu University.

With thanks to: Excavation director and Small Things, Big Stories team member Ergül Kodaş and the rest of the Boncuklu Tarla excavation team. It was an honour and a pleasure learning new things from all of you.

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