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November/December 2014


courts. It dates to about 9700


—before any known agricul-

ture. It is the largest known building of its era.

A meter-wide bench runs around about half its circumfer-

ence, decorated with a wave pattern like that found on stone

artifacts from the site and partly backed by another tier of

seats. A 1.2-meter-deep (4') channel runs its length, flanked at

one end by two stone platforms containing cup-shaped mor-

tars. Close by, archeologists uncovered broken pieces of stone

bowls. There are also postholes in the floor that they say are

likely to have held wooden pillars.

“Whether [the structure] was used for a functional activity

like grinding grain, or some ceremonial purpose such as feasting

or sacrifice, we don’t yet understand,” says Mithen. “But what

is really striking is its age, representing the very earliest period

of the Neolithic.” Although now backfilled for protection from

the elements, the building is still discernible from the depres-

sions just beneath the surface of the ground where I stand.

“When we first came here hoping to find a prehistoric site,

ideally of the Neolithic period, other archeologists told us

there was no chance,” Mithen recalls. “They said this region

of the Levant, at the very southern tip of the Fertile Crescent,

was a backwater. They argued that it was all happening in

the Mediterranean lands in the other side of the Jordan Val-

ley near Jericho, or hundreds of kilometers north in Turkey

where Göbeklı Tepe had just been discovered.”

Jericho and Göbeklı Tepe are two of the most important

previously known early Neolithic sites in the wider region.

Jericho, 125 kilometers (75 mi) north of Faynan in the West

Bank, was excavated first in the 1950s by British archeolo-

gist Kathleen Kenyon. Discoveries there include an 8.5-meter

(28') tower, a massive stone wall and a number of round

structures similar to those now known at Wadi Faynan.

Göbeklı Tepe, in southeastern Turkey, is unique for its elabo-

rately decorated, rectangular stone pillars—some standing

three meters (10') tall—excavated beginning in the 1990s by

the late German archeologist Klaus Schmidt.

In 2010, the team working at WF16 unearthed remains of what is now Wadi Faynan’s most astonishing discovery: an amphitheater-like

building that dates to 9700


, prior to known agriculture. It calls into question the assumption that agriculture brought on higher social

organization: Was it the other way around? The structure has been covered over to protect it against weathering until it can be studied further.

This artist’s depiction of the round, stone houses at Wadi Faynan in

its Neolithic heyday appears on a sign at the site.