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Villages

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.

Villages

The most characteristic form of rural settlement across Western Asia from the beginning of settled life down to the present day has been the village. It has formed, with towns and cities, an essential part of the settlement hierarchy. Many of the fundamental aspects of village life were first established by the people of ancient Western Asia and persisted there over a very long period of time.

Geographers define villages as clusters of five or more households, whose inhabitants are primarily engaged in agriculture and related pursuits. Villages usually contain a few workshops run by specialist artisans, and some of their inhabitants may conduct a little commerce. There are some modest distinctions of wealth and class among the inhabitants. Provision for religious needs often takes the form of a building constructed especially to accommodate rituals and ceremonies. Villages are located adjacent to good arable land with access to a regular supply of water. The villages of ancient Western Asia possessed several of these features, though not all were present at the beginning.

Villages across Western Asia had a characteristic form and structure that took shape at the inception of settled life more than ten thousand years ago. They were always nucleated—consisting of a tight cluster of houses with only narrow lanes between them and with few open public spaces. Nucleated villages are typically found in regions with few water sources, which obliged groups of people to build their houses close together near a spring or well. Such villages were relatively easy to defend, even without the protection of a circuit wall. Few villages in Western Asia had walls, but many needed the protection against marauding pastoral nomads such the dense agglomerations of buildings afforded. Some farming activities—preparing the soil for planting, animal herding, and constructing irrigation works—historically were performed by the community as a whole; and the village itself held some of the land adjacent to it in common. In such communities authority over access to land, water, and grazing rights was vested in a governing body or an individual. These villages were essentially self-sufficient in the necessities of life, but also participated in a larger world through their relations with nearby towns. They provided the towns with their surplus of food and their craft products, receiving in return goods not made in the village. At times of strong government, they were subject to a central political authority and owed it tribute.

Traditional village houses were built of locally available materials—stone in the uplands and mud brick on the plains. The rooms were often quite small because they were used mainly for sleeping and eating. The warm climate encouraged people to conduct most of their other activities such as food preparation, cooking, and crafts out-of-doors, in walled yards alongside their houses. It was there, too, that they kept their livestock and stored their crops. There was a sharp distinction between the private activities of the household within its walls and the public life of the village beyond. Traditionally, the household was the women's domain, while the men worked the fields and tended the livestock, with help from the women and children in labor-intensive times such as the harvest. The basic social and labor unit was the household, but lineage affinities were also an essential feature of traditional village societies in Western Asia.

The origins of these villages and their distinctive way of life lay in the first sedentary settlements formed by Epipaleolithic hunters and gatherers toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch. One of the oldest of these was a hut for a single household built at ῾Ein-Gev on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee by people of the Kebaran culture, about sixteen thousand years ago. [See ῾Ein-Gev.] The first true villages were established during the twelfth millennium BP (based on uncalibrated C-14 determinations). At ῾Ain Mallaha, a site of the Natufian culture, in the Upper Jordan Valley, and at Abu Hureyra on the Middle Euphrates River. At ῾Ain Mallaha a series of circular huts was set close together on a hillside near a spring. The Epipaleolithic village of Abu Hureyra I was composed of a series of multiroomed pit dwellings roofed with timber, branches, and reeds, later replaced by aboveground huts. Inhabited for one thousand five hundred years, this site was one of the first permanent villages established in Southwest Asia. Both settlements were inhabited by hunters and gatherers, demonstrating that village life began before the inception of farming.

The development of agriculture based on cultivated crops and herds of domesticated animals about 10,000 BP provided a firm economic basis for settled life. New villages were founded all across Western Asia, and they remained the predominant form of settlement for three thousand years. These Neolithic villages were much larger than those of the Epipaleolithic era, an indication of the growth in population that took place following the adoption of farming.

The houses in the earliest Neolithic villages were round or oval, with one or more rooms. These structures, architecturally similar to the huts found on Epipaleolithic sites, have been found in villages from Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Jericho in the west to Mefa'at on the eastern fringe of Mesopotamia. [See Jericho.] They seem to have been lived in by extended families. Later, the round houses were replaced by rectilinear ones with multiple rooms. It was a relatively easy task to extend such a structure, so the house could be expanded to accommodate a growing family. Diana Kirkbride (1966) and Brian Byrd (1994) have documented the change from round to rectilinear houses at Beidha in about 9000 bp and identified a large building in the center of the village that the community used for meetings and other events. [See Beidha.] The people of Jericho constructed a large stonewall around the village, in part for defense, and a stone tower inside, the earliest monumental architecture in the world.

The society of these early villages was largely egalitarian, with no individual enjoying significantly greater wealth than another. Burials under the floors of houses and special treatment of skulls suggest that people throughout the Levant and in Asia Minor revered their ancestors and believed in an afterlife. Special buildings for the dismemberment of the dead found at Çayönü and Nevali Çori in southeast Asia Minor provide the earliest evidence for the construction of ritual buildings. [See Çayönü; Nevali Çori.]

The inhabitants of these early villages engaged in some minor exchange of exotic goods, mainly obsidian from Asia Minor, other stones, and marine shells. Once pottery began to be made, in about 8000 bp, it too was exchanged. Such traffic, albeit on a modest scale, enabled these communities to maintain social contacts with each other that facilitated, for example, obtaining marriage partners. These contacts became more regular once the first towns developed after 7000 bp. The foundation of true urban settlements in the Halaf and Ubaid cultures (e.g., at Tell Ḥalaf in the northern Jezireh and Eridu and Tell ῾Uqair in southern Mesopotamia) marked the emergence of a settlement hierarchy that persisted into modern times. [See Ḥalaf, Tell; Ubaid; Eridu.] Trade in pottery, obsidian, and, doubtless, perishable goods increased between the villages and these new towns; however, each village continued to be self-sufficient in food.

During the historical periods, the density of rural settlement waxed and waned according to political circumstances and fluctuations in rainfall. In times of political stability village life could prosper, but when order broke down it might be severely disrupted. Similarly, a series of dry years could lead to a sharp regression of villages along the extensive margins of the dry farming zone. Thus, numerous villages on the Middle Euphrates River were inhabited during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, but settlement sharply declined during the Late Bronze Age into the Iron Age; it seems that during the episodes of Mitannian and Hittite supremacy, rural settlement faltered. Numerous villages were founded in Roman and Byzantine times—two of the high points of rural settlement during the lengthy period of human occupation being considered here; many of those villages were abandoned during the decline of village life that took place as the Byzantine hold on Western Asia weakend.

The advent of urbanism created conditions in which institutions and individuals could acquire extensive estates farmed by a dependent peasantry, for example in Mesopotamia during the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods, on the ῾Amuq plain during the eighteenth century BCE, and in the extensive later domains of the Sasanian kings. The villages that housed those farmers were relatively impoverished, with little in the way of community facilities. Villages that controlled their own lands, especially in the more fertile regions, were more likely to enjoy a degree of prosperity.

One of the more distinctive features of Western Asia today is its mosaic of peoples: villages adjacent to each other may be inhabited by different ethnic groups with noticeably different material goods. Given the movements of peoples recorded in historical documents from earlier periods, it is likely that this pattern has ancient roots and may account for the differences in artifacts sometimes noted between contemporary sites.

The most striking element of village life in Western Asia is, however, its extraordinary continuity. The houses excavated in the Neolithic village of Abu Hureyra 2 on the Euphrates (c. 8000 bp) are similar in external shape and in many details of construction to those found in the region today. Similarly, the large, multiroomed dwellings found at the Ubaid site of Tell Madhhur in the Hamrin basin in eastern Mesopotamia inaugurated a type of house plan that was to remain typical of villages there into modern times. The farming economy on which the villagers themselves depended almost from the beginning—the cultivation of wheat, barley, and legumes and the raising of domestic animals (notably sheep, goats, and cattle)—has remained the basis of rural life.

[

See also Cities

.]

Bibliography

  • Amiry, Suad, and Vera Tamari. The Palestinian Village Home. London, 1989.
    Succinct, well-illustrated account of traditional village life
    .
  • Aurenche, Olivier. La maison orientale: L'architecture du Proche Orient ancient des origines au milieu du quatrième millénaire. 3 vols. Paris, 1981.
    Exhaustive and definitive account of every aspect of house construction and use in prestate times, with a discussion of the development of village organization. Amply illustrated
    .
  • Byrd, Brian F. “Public and Private, Domestic and Corporate: The Emergence of the Southwest Indian Village.” American Antiquity 59.4 (1994): 636–666.
    Analysis of the structural development of the Neolithic village of Beidha in Jordan, with an interpretation of its social significance
    .
  • Bar-Yosef, Ofer, and François R. Valla, eds. The Natufian Culture in the Levant. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1991.
    Series of essays in English and French presenting the results of the latest research on the Natufian and contemporary cultures in the Levant
    .
  • Chisholm, Michael. Rural Settlement and Land Use. 2d ed. London, 1968.
    Basic account by a geographer of the principles underlying the location and functions of rural settlements today, some of which may usefully be applied to understanding the past
    .
  • Flannery, Kent V. “The Origins of the Village as a Settlement Type in Mesoamerica and the Near East: A Comparative Study.” In Man, Settlement, and Urbanism, edited by Peter Ucko et al., pp. 23–53. Cambridge, Mass., 1972.
    Pioneering study of the development of early villages, mainly in Western Asia. Several of the social interpretations should now be revised in the light of more recent research
    .
  • Henrickson, Elizabeth F., and Ingolf Thuesen, eds. Upon This Foundation: The ῾Ubaid Reconsidered. Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Ancient Near East Studies, 10. Copenhagen, 1989.
    Recent research on the Ubaid culture, particularly useful for its analysis of buildings and discussion of cultural development
    .
  • Kirkbride, Diana. “Five Seasons at the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Village of Beidha in Jordan.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly (1966): 8–72.
    Comprehensive Summary of the principal campaign of excavations
    .
  • Moore, A. M. T. “The Development of Neolithic Societies in the Near East.” Advances in World Archaeology 4 (1985): 1–69.
    General description, with reference to relevant theories, of the development of farming and village life throughout Southwest Asia, with detailed reference to archaeological data
    .
  • Moore, A. M. T. “The Impact of Accelerator Dating at the Early Village of Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates.” Radiocarbon 34.3 (1992): 850–858.
    Succinct discussion of excavation results, with references to related studies
    .
  • Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. Rev. ed. London, 1994. Brilliant synthesis of early historical economy and society (c. 3000–1500 BCE),
    full of original insights. Postgate's account, based on the combined record of ancient texts and archaeology, has much to say about the relations between cities and their rural hinterlands
    .
  • Schirmer, Wulf. “Some Aspects of Building at the ‘Aceramic-Neolithic’ Settlement of Çayönü Tepesi.” World Archaeology 21 (1990): 363–387.
    Well-illustrated account of the various types of structures at Çayönü, including the skull building
    .
  • Schwartz, Glenn M., and Steven E. Falconer, eds. Archaeological Views from the Countryside: Village Communities in Early Complex Societies. Washington, D.C., 1994.
    Recent archaeological and archival studies of ancient villages in Western Asia and Mesoamerica. One of the few comparative examinations of this little-studied subject
    .

A. M. T. Moore

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