Mounds and Goddesses
The Earliest Farmers in Upper Mesopotamia

An exhibition at the University Museum,
the University of Tokyo

Western Asia, and especially Upper Mesopotamia (East Syria and North Iraq), is one of the key regions for understanding the development and spread of early farming in the Neolithic period.

Since a long time, Japanese archaeologists have contributed towards an understanding of these early farmers. The first Japanese excavation, carried out by the University of Tokyo, took place in 1956-57 at the artificial occupation mounds (or tells) of Telul eth-Thalathat in northern Iraq. The earliest layers there yielded farming settlements from ca. 8,500 years old, then the earliest evidence for farming in this region. One of the main objectives of University of Tokyo archaeologists has since been the research of the early farming communities in Upper Mesopotamia. The present exhibition commemorates the 50 years' anniversary of the archaeological investigations in this region by the University of Tokyo.

Over twenty archaeological sites have been excavated since 1956-57, foremost in Syria, Iraq and Iran, and ranging in time from the Palaeolithic to the Sasanian period (from ca. 500,000 BC to ca.7th century AD). In the exhibition thirteen of the most important sites are presented, mainly focusing on the Neolithic period. The Dederiyeh Cave in western Syria has provided important information about the so-called Natufian culture, in which the very first attempts to farming were made. Subsequent Neolithic cultural developments can be traced through the results of excavations at Tell Seker alAheimar and Tell Kashkashok in Syria, and Telul eth-Thalathat in Iraq. The Douara Cave (nr. Ⅱ) in southern Syria provides additional information on Neolithic adaptations to desert environments. The Chalcolithic period, following upon the Neolithic, is represented by Tell Kosak Shamali (in Syria), as well as by the upper layers of Telul eth-Thalathat (mound Ⅱ). Finally, the small Neolithic mounds in the Marv Dasht plain in southwestern Iran have revealed important information concerning the Neolithic way of life at the eastern border of Upper Mesopotamia.

The objective of the exhibition is to use the Japanese archaeological research in order to contribute to an understanding of the origin and the developments of farming communities in Upper Mesopota mia. Instead of presenting specific sites or periods, the exhibition is organized according to subjects. Featured in the centre of the exhibition hall is a scale model of a Neolithic mound (or tell). The model is surrounded by five groups of exhibition cases, respectively displaying information and objects about the natural environment, plants, animals, artefacts and ritual objects relating to Neolithic farming communities. This spatial arrangement of the exhibition is meant as a metaphor of the interaction of Neolithic mound dwellers with other-natural and non-natural-surrounding entities. At the same time, the display symbolizes the mound as a central source of information for archaeologists.

Most of the items exhibited are from the archaeological collections of the University Museum. Materials collected in the 1950-1960s have been subjected to modern scientific analyses mainly regarding subsistence and technology in the Neolithic period. This new research has resulted in important new insights in the socio-economic organization of early farming communities.

Most recently, the team from the University of Tokyo Museum has made a unique discovery at the Neolithic site of Seker al-Aheimar in Syria. In 9,000 years old deposits at the mound, they found one of the oldest and largests female clay figurines known from the Neolithic period in Western Asia. This is a very beautiful example of the well-known Neolithic 'mother-goddesses'. As a probable symbol of fertility, the object can be seen as an important symbol of the worldview of Neolithic farmers. The figurine has been conserved and studied in a joint project with the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums of Syria. As the figurine will return to her homeland in Syria, the exhibition Mounds and Goddesses: The Earliest Farmers in Upper Mesopotamia provides an unique opportunity to meet Neolithic people from Western Asia in Eastern Asia.