Beauty among ashes

By now it is nothing unusual at Tell Halif to come down on floors with plenty of pottery remains. Only, this one was a few centimetres higher than we expected. We were quite excited when we found it, especially as we slowly uncovered this low-fired clay vessel (here shown with strings to apportion off the area).
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It’s a nice hand-made-vessel (as opposed to wheel-made), maybe a vat or a hearth. There was ash near it and partly under it. Of course, I wanted it cleaned. So one of the crew carefully removed the soil from around it, also partly going underneath the cracked vessel.
And there, in the dirt and ash, she made the first great discovery:
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A small ivory palette. Apart from being quite beautiful itself, we think it’s got something to do with beauty treatment – maybe to mix makeup, maybe a handle of a comb, maybe a small jewellery box. The suspicion got confirmed when we found 30 beads in that area, there under and around the hand-made-vessel. I don’t have any picture of those beads. Most of them were very small and they yet have to be cleaned. After the first find of a bead, two people spent nearly an hour going through the ash and soil recovering the little things.

Finding such nice items in the ash and dirt underneath a crude vessel raises questions. What did they do there? Was somebody trying to hide them? Did the hand-made-vessel fall on the jewellery? Most archaeologists would argue that an item made from ivory indicates that someone from the higher social class lived here. After all, ivory was a trade item and such an intricately-carved pieced can’t have been cheap. On the other hand, if this really was a hoard, if this was really someone’s riches, that were hidden, then the riches were not much. A small ivory palette – a sheep should pay for that. Who knows what the story behind the artifact was?
I think that it is problematic if we make sweeping conclusions from a few isolated finds. Archaeologists often have few things to go by. Therefore, categories of social class (such as elite, working class, peasant, etc.), administration (public, private, state), development (band, tribe, chieftainship, state), and mode of production (subsistence, industrial) are often invoked and applied. But rather than ordering our inference, these categories may misguide how we think about the past. We have to get a more flexible, and at the same time more accurate, picture of the past. Maybe when everything is evaluated, we can say that the people in this house probably were wealthier than their neighbours, but this has to be done after analysis.

Still, for the moment we can enjoy the beauty of these little artifacts and imagine the circumstances that led to jewellery being concealed by a crude vessel.

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This entry was posted in Archaeology, artifacts, destruction, excavations, Tell Halif and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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