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Journal ArticleDOI

Evidence of Neolithic settlement in the foothills of the Western al-Hajar Mountains

01 Nov 2018-Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy (Wiley)-Vol. 29, Iss: 2, pp 103-114

AbstractSystematic prospection and excavations in the Rustaq region of northern Oman, approximately 45 km from the coast in the foothills of the Western Hajar Mountains, have revealed an unexpectedly dense record of Neolithic sites. Besides surface scatters of lithic artefacts, excavation at the site of Hayy al‐Sarh recovered two stratified archaeological horizons (AHs). The upper horizon, AH I, contained pierced marine shells that provided an age of the archaeological material of about 6800 to 7500 years cal BP. Typologically the AH I lithic assemblage compares to the Suwayh facies defined at the coast 300 km to the east. Whether the marine shells and cultural affinities point towards exchange with coastal communities or possibly seasonal movement remains an open question at this state of research, but this new evidence for inland Neolithic settlement near Rustaq provides important new data that will help improve our understanding of spatial patterns of Neolithic demographic variability.

Topics: Foothills (52%)

Summary (3 min read)

Introduction

  • Compared to earlier periods of the Stone Age in Southeast (SE) Arabia, the Early to Mid-Holocene archaeological record is relatively well understood regarding chronology and material culture (Charpentier, 2008; Uerpmann et al., 2013).
  • In the context of these questions, significant issues include the spatial distribution of sites and the precision of the chronologies.
  • The project has uncovered a more or less continuous occupation sequence from the Early Bronze Age until at least the 1970s, broken only by occasional gaps in the record.
  • Systematic survey of the different geomorphological features has led to the documentation of Neolithic settlement of so-far unrecognized intensity.

Geographic setting

  • The Batinah plain of northern Oman is a narrow ~35 km wide sequence of alluvial fan and fan-related drainage features, and coastal deposits.
  • Weathered material from the mountains is the predominant sediment source for much of the plain, while rainfall across the mountain catchment activates the northeastwards flow of surface and subsurface drainage towards the coast.
  • Within zones proximal and medial to the mountains, a complex suite of fan deposits are indicative of higher rainfall throughout northern Oman in earlier times.
  • Further investigations will aim to elucidate the nature and timing of these phases of drainage activation; however, the authors tentatively ascribe them to wet phases during the Mid-Late Pleistocene.
  • Sedimentary exposures of this most recent phase of large-scale wadi activation are typified by multiple fining-up sequences of sub-angular-well-rounded pebbles and cobbles interbedded with coarse ophiolitic gravels, granules and sands.

Methods

  • To approach the potential Stone Age record of an unknown landscape, the authors hypothesized that the distribution of lithic raw material and water are key factors in shaping land use patterns and consequently the distribution of archaeological material in this landscape.
  • The higher, earlier terraces around Rustaq should thus have been magnets for prehistoric groups exploiting the region during the Pleistocene and Early to Mid-Holocene, due to the availability of lithic raw material, their proximity to wadi channels as well as their strategic advantages.
  • In contrast, the medium terraces display lower topographic variability and are generally of a low gradient.
  • Survey consisted of walking transects across different terraces around Rustaq, with a spacing of approximately 5 m between the three surveyors providing transect bands of 15 m width.
  • Where archaeological material was identified on the ground, GPS coordinates were recorded along with the estimated spatial extent of the scatter, followed by the collection of all identifiable archaeological material.

Results

  • Twenty-five days of such field work led to the identification of 18 loci featuring Stone Age lithic material, with a total surveyed area of approximately 15 km² and the collection of 1080 stone artifacts.
  • Material from seven of these loci was classified as Neolithic (Fig. 2), based on observed typo-technological characteristics.
  • Four of the Neolithic loci consist of lithic assemblages of either high or medium density or scatters extending over relatively large areas of more than 1000 m² (Tab. 1; Fig 2).

Surface assemblages

  • The first high density site was identified at locus L2414 in the center of a flat area belonging to a ‘middle’ phase terrace southwest of the confluence of the Wadi Sahtan and Wadi Bani Awf (Fig. 2-1).
  • Technologically this assemblage features a focus on flake production (Tab. 2) and is characterized by high frequencies of faceted striking platforms (30 %) and edge preparation (32 %).
  • Two scrapers and one borer are other recognizable types that complement the tool assemblage.
  • The core assemblage provides evidence for reduction from single and multiple platform cores in equal proportions (Tab. 3).
  • The occurrence of typical bifacial points in L2423 and L2424 led us to conclude that both assemblages represent a Neolithic occupation.

Excavated assemblages

  • At L2423 three square meters were opened for test excavation (Fig. 5).
  • About 20 cm below this a second layer (AH II) was identified, also in all three excavated squares.
  • On about half of the flakes the authors identified a lip between the striking platform and the ventral side.
  • The small lithic assemblage from AH II is composed of one core and five flakes, including three so called chips (Fig. 7), which are flakes smaller than 2 cm (Tab. 2).
  • One of the cores is a relatively large single platform core featuring unidirectional scars.

Chronology

  • Observed typo-technological similarity among the surface assemblages and excavated horizon AH I at Hayy al-Sarh provides evidence for a period of human occupation of the Rustaq area during the Early-Mid-Holocene.
  • The bifacial, fusiform points with diamond shaped cross sections found at Hayy al-Sarh resemble the short thick fusiform point type (Type 1.B) from Suwayh 1 (Charpentier, 2008).
  • This suggests that the Neolithic finds from Rustaq may represent settlement activity in the region during the 5th millennium BC.
  • Fragments of the two shells of family Naticidae were prepared with diluted hydrochloric acid (1% HCl) and subsequent washing in Milli-Q water prior to leaching in 85% Phosphoric acid.

Discussion

  • Systematic field work around Rustaq, located in the foothills of the Western Hajar Mountains, has revealed evidence for a Neolithic occupation of the region.
  • Given the very few radiometrically dated and stratified inland sites from the Early to Mid-Holocene in SE Arabia, these questions are difficult to address at present.
  • Recent isotopic studies on human remains from Jebel Buhais 18, for example, indicate that the long-preferred interpretation of movement of the Buhais population to the Gulf coast in the west is less likely, despite a relatively straightforward route to this coast being provided by the Wadi Yudayyah.
  • In times of wadi activation, this area would probably be difficult to reach from the plain, given a relatively narrow passage between the plain and the mountain wadi.

Tables:

  • Neolithic sites described in the text.
  • Basic characteristics of the lithic cores in the collected assemblages.

Figures:

  • Low density sites, which are not discussed here, are shown by circles.
  • Up of the pierced shells showing the identical location of the holes.
  • C) Close-up of one hole showing markings related to the production of the holes.

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Citation for published item:
Bretzke, K. and Parton, A. and Lindauer, S. and Kennet, D. (2018) 'Evidence for Neolithic settlement in the
foothills of the Western al-Hajar Mountains.', Arabian archaeology and epigraphy., 29 (2). pp. 103-114.
Further information on publisher's website:
https://doi.org/10.1111/aae.12118
Publisher's copyright statement:
This is the accepted version of the following article: Bretzke, K., Parton, A., Lindauer, S. and Kennet, D. (2018).
Evidence for Neolithic settlement in the foothills of the Western al-Hajar Mountains. Arabian Archaeology and
Epigraphy 29(2): 103-114, which has been published in nal form at https://doi.org/10.1111/aae.12118. This article
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Title:
Evidence for Neolithic settlement in the foothills of the Western al-Hajar
Mountains
Running title:
Neolithic settlement in Rustaq
Authors:
Knut Bretzke
1
, Ash Parton
2,3
, Susanne Lindauer
4
, & Derek Kennet
5
1- University of Tübingen, Dept. Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, Schloss
Hohentübingen, D-72070 Tübingen, Germany
2- Mansfield College, University of Oxford, UK
3- Human Origins and Palaeoenvironments Research Group, Department of Social Sciences,
Oxford Brookes University, UK
4- Curt-Engelhorn-Zentrum für Archäometrie Mannheim, Germany
5- Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK
Conflict of Interest statement:
The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.
Acknowledgements:
We thank the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture for kind permission to conduct field
work in the Rustaq area. We thank Indie Jago and Anna Gosden for their commitment during
the surveys under not always easy conditions, Eike Neubert for kindly identifying the
gastropods and Amy Oechsner for drawing the lithics. We are also grateful to all other RBAS
team members for creating a warm, clean and research stimulating environment in Rustaq.
The Anglo-Omani Society in London generously funded the RBAS project. KB wishes to
thank the research project “The role of culture in early expansions of humans” of the
Heidelberg Academy of Science and Humanities for a travel grant and the Gerda Henkel
Stiftung (AZ 06/V/18) for financial support of research at site Hayy al-Sarh.

1
Evidence for Neolithic settlement in the foothills of the Western al-Hajar
Mountains
Abstract
Systematic prospection and excavations in the Rustaq region of Northern Oman,
approximately 45 km from the coast in the foothills of the Western Hajar Mountains, have
revealed an unexpectedly dense record of Neolithic sites. Besides surface scatters of lithic
artifacts, excavation at site Hayy al-Sarh recovered two stratified archaeological horizons
(AHs). The upper horizon, AH I, contained pierced marine shells that provided an age of the
archaeological material of about 6,800 to 7,500 years cal BP. Typologically the AH I lithic
assemblage compares to the Suwayh facies defined at the coast 300 km to the east.
Whether the marine shells and cultural affinities point towards exchange with coastal
communities or possibly seasonal movement remains an open question at this state of
research, but this new evidence for inland Neolithic settlement near Rustaq provides
important new data that will help to improve our understanding of spatial patterns of Neolithic
demographic variability.
Key words: Neolithic, Rustaq, lithic artifacts, marine shells, excavation

2
Introduction
Compared to earlier periods of the Stone Age in Southeast (SE) Arabia, the Early to
Mid-Holocene archaeological record is relatively well understood regarding chronology
and material culture (Charpentier, 2008; Uerpmann et al., 2013). Despite this, important
topics such as the Paleolithic/Neolithic transition and the associated shift in subsistence;
the relationship between inland and coastal settlements; and how people coped with
climatic variability, are still debated (Cavulli and Scaruffi, 2013; Crassard and Drechsler,
2013; Crassard et al., 2013; Drechsler, 2010; Fedele, 2013; Hilbert, 2013; Lézine et al.,
2010). In the context of these questions, significant issues include the spatial distribution of
sites and the precision of the chronologies. Data from stratified inland sites are clearly
underrepresented compared to evidence from the coast where most of the record’s
excavated sites are located (Mery and Charpentier, 2013). Regarding the precision of
chronologies, the influence of the reservoir effect for example is one important topic that is
still debated (see Lindauer et al., 2017 for example).
The Rustaq Batinah Archaeological Survey (RBAS) project, a joint project undertaken by
Durham University UK, Sultan Qaboos University Oman and the Oman Ministry of
Heritage and Culture, has sought to contribute fresh data from new areas to the scientific
discourse. The RBAS conducted systematic field work on the Batinah plain in northern
Oman, which borders the northern foothills of the Western Hajar Mountains. The
project aims to study diachronic changes in settlement dynamics from the Stone Age
until modern times (Kennet et al., 2016). Systematic survey by the project between
2013 and 2018 recovered a rich prehistoric record including the first evidence for
Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements as well as pre-Islamic and
Islamic period settlement in this area (Kennet et al., 2016). The project has uncovered
a more or less continuous occupation sequence from the Early Bronze Age until at
least the 1970s, broken only by occasional gaps in the record.

3
The Stone Age work group of the RBAS focused its resources on the foothills of the
Western Hajar Mountains in the area around the town of Rustaq (Fig. 1). Here, the RBAS
identified a number of promising landscape features, including apparent Pleistocene-age
terraces and lithic raw material sources (Parton, 2015). Systematic survey of the different
geomorphological features has led to the documentation of Neolithic settlement of so-far
unrecognized intensity. Evidence for Paleolithic settlement in the region was also
documented, but at a much lower density. In this paper we focus on the presentation of the
Neolithic evidence.
Geographic setting
The Batinah plain of northern Oman is a narrow ~35 km wide sequence of alluvial fan
and fan-related drainage features, and coastal deposits. The plain is bordered to the
south-east by the Western Hajar Mountains, which run in an arc parallel to the coast of
the Gulf of Oman and are composed of Mesozoic rocks of the Neotethys margin, Late
Cretaceous-Paleogene thrust faults, Paleogene sediments and post-orogenic faults
(Glennie et al., 1974; Lippard et al., 1986; Rodgers and Gunatilaka, 2002; Searle and
Cox, 1999). Weathered material from the mountains is the predominant sediment
source for much of the plain, while rainfall across the mountain catchment activates
the northeastwards flow of surface and subsurface drainage towards the coast. Within
zones proximal and medial to the mountains, a complex suite of fan deposits are
indicative of higher rainfall throughout northern Oman in earlier times. Phases of large-
scale fan drainage activation in central Oman and along the western flanks of the
mountains have been attributed to incursions of moisture driven by the northward
displacement and intensification of the Indian Ocean Monsoon system (Blechschmidt
et al., 2009; Farrant et al., 2012; Parton et al., 2015). Along the eastern flanks of the

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Abstract: Paleohydrological and archaeological evidence from the Southern and SouthEastern Arabian Peninsula reveal strong relations between phases of human settlements and climate change linked to the Indian monsoon system. During the early to mid-Holocene, large freshwater lakes extended in the lowland deserts of Ramlat as-Sab'atayn (Yemen) and Wahiba Sands (Oman), which were very similar to those occurring in the North, in the Rub' al-Khali (Saudi Arabia), at that time. Many archaeological sites, characterized by scattered stone artefacts, ostrich-eggshells and bones around hearths, are related to this lacustrine phase, which culminated around 10 000–8000 cal yr B.P. in the lowland deserts before the lakes progressively dried up. The last record of freshwater bodies' extensions date back 7300 cal yr B.P. at Shabwa (Yemen) and 7500 cal yr B.P. at al-Haid (Oman). Then, freshwater was probably available only from seasonal runoff from adjacent highlands, where paleolakes persisted into the late Holocene. Dry climate conditions in the inland desert of Yemen during the late Holocene coincide with a phase of intensive human inhabitation as testified by development of irrigation in the piedmontane areas, numerous necropolises of built collective burials and houses.

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Abstract: A vast bajada consisting of coalescing low-gradient (< 0.3°) alluvial fans exceeding 100 km in length formed along the southwestern margin of the Oman Mountains. It comprises an old fan sequence of inferred Miocene to Pliocene age termed Barzaman Formation, diagenetically highly altered to dolomitic clays, and a thin veneer of weakly cemented Quaternary gravels. A combination of remote sensing, lithological analyses and luminescence dating is used to interpret the complex aggradation history of the Quaternary alluvial fans from the interior of Oman in the context of independent regional climate records. From satellite imagery and clast analysis four fans can be discerned in the study area. While two early periods of fan formation are tentatively correlated to the Miocene–Pliocene and the Early Pleistocene, luminescence dating allows the distinction of five phases of fan aggradation during the Middle–Late Pleistocene. These phases are correlated with pluvial periods from Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 11 through 3, when southern Arabia was affected by monsoonal precipitation. It is concluded that the aggradation of the alluvial fans was triggered by the interplay of increased sediment production during arid periods and high rainfall with enhanced erosion of hillslopes and transport rates during strong monsoon phases. However, the lack of fine-grained sediments, bioturbation and organic material implies that although the Quaternary fans are sourced by monsoonal rains they formed in a semi-arid environment. Thus, it appears that, in contrast to the Oman Mountains, the interior was not directly affected by monsoonal precipitation.

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Frequently Asked Questions (1)
Q1. What are the contributions mentioned in the paper "Evidence for neolithic settlement in the foothills of the western al-hajar mountains running title: neolithic settlement in rustaq" ?

The upper horizon, AH I, contained pierced marine shells that provided an age of the archaeological material of about 6,800 to 7,500 years cal BP. Whether the marine shells and cultural affinities point towards exchange with coastal communities or possibly seasonal movement remains an open question at this state of research, but this new evidence for inland Neolithic settlement near Rustaq provides important new data that will help to improve their understanding of spatial patterns of Neolithic demographic variability.