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How ancient lentils reveal the origins of social inequality

The tripartite house at the site of Gurga Chiya in Iraqi Kurdistan. September 2017. A drone photo showing architecture at the bottom of a deep rectangular trench
The tripartite house at the site of Gurga Chiya in Iraqi Kurdistan. September 2017. Photograph: Mary Shepperson/courtesy of University College London

I should be in the Kurdish region of Iraq right now knee-deep in Late Chalcolitic archaeology, but instead I’m watching Bake Off in Crewe. The autumn excavation season in the Kurdish region is cancelled and most of the international teams have left, including the University College London project I was working on and the British Museum’s training excavation at Qalatga Darband. The cessation of international flights into and out of Iraqi Kurdistan, imposed by Baghdad after the Kurdish independence referendum on 25 September, has put a stop to archaeology in the region just at the best time of the year for digging.

It’s a shame, because before we were bundled off to the airport things were going very nicely at the modest mounded site of Gurga Chiya. After five seasons of work over six years we only needed another week to finish.

Gurga Chiya isn’t a flashy site; it doesn’t have a famous history (being prehistoric), or any buried gold or magnificent statues (except one small clay figurine of a goat, which is a little bit magnificent). What it does have is an important archaeological story about how people began to reorganise society into more complex, stratified forms. It also has lentils; lots and lots of lentils.

A baked clay figurine of a goat, recovered from the Uruk period Levels at Gurga Chiya. 4th millennium BC. Stylised goat model, complete except for the horns.
A slightly magnificent goat figurine, recovered from the Uruk period Levels at Gurga Chiya. 4th millennium BC. Photograph: Mary Shepperson/courtesy of University College London

The layer we’re excavating at the site dates to around 4,400 BC, according to our C14 samples, which places it near the end of a period called the Ubaid. In northern Mesopotamia the Ubaid covers about a thousand years (c.a. 5,300-4,300 BC) and it was a critical period of social transformation during which the foundations were laid for the birth of the first cities.

In the Ubaid period, people began more intensive, year-round cultivation, leading them to build larger, more permanent settlements. Unlike the preceding Halaf period society, which seems to have been essentially egalitarian with resources held communally, the late Ubaid period saw the introduction of significant competition and social stratification. Economic production became privatised, and authority – both religious and secular – appears to have been centralised.

As co-director Professor Robert Carter explains:

The weakening of a strong communal ideology surrounding food production and storage increased the potential for dominant families to emerge, either through consistently greater success, or through force or unequal conditions of exchange. This in turn created the preconditions of specialisation and social inequality upon which urban life was founded in Mesopotamia.”

Architecture changed in the Ubaid from semi-permanent, mostly circular structures to permanent, rectilinear buildings occupied by self-sufficient households. The ubiquitous structure of this new, more urban life was the tripartite house; a building with a large rectangular central space separating two suites of smaller rooms. It’s a tripartite house that we’re excavating at Gurga Chiya. The house sits on the south side of the settlement, off a broad, cobbled lane. Its walls are made of pisé – rammed earth – and after more than six thousand years they’re almost impossible to tell apart from the slightly less rammed earth surrounding them. Fortunately for me, as the excavator, the eastern half of the building is stuffed full of the house’s most unusual feature; a plague of carbonised lentils.

The tripartite house at Gurga Chiya under excavation. Ben removes a burial from one of the small rooms off the central hall.
The tripartite house at Gurga Chiya under excavation. Ben removes a burial from one of the small rooms off the central hall. Photograph: Mary Shepperson/courtesy of University College London

The lentils seem to have emanated from the entrance hall. The lower 30cm of the room fill is black with lentils; large parts are pretty much 100% lentil. From the entrance room the lentils have been spread to the adjacent rooms and beyond, probably after the building was abandoned, resulting in all the room deposits being full of little black spots, like poppy seeds in a cake. All the pottery fragments are covered in spots too, caused by the circular lentils being squashed onto them, leaving neat round dots. My colleague Ben and I ate some Ubaid lentils for a bet; they tasted mostly of dust, just like modern lentils.

Lentils emerging from the room deposit in the entrance hall of Gurga Chiya tripartite house.
Lentils emerging from the room deposit in the entrance hall of Gurga Chiya tripartite house. Photograph: Mary Shepperson/courtesy of University College London

The lentils have been a big help in defining the architecture because they run up to but not into the ancient walls. This has allowed me to check the accuracy of the walls defined at higher levels, which is handy when the walls themselves are in such a miserable state. Of course, the main reason the lentils are useful is in what they tell us about life in fifth millennium BCE Gurga Chiya. Like most excavations, we collect botanical samples from our room deposits using flotation. Sacks of deposit are selectively sampled and then put into a big tank of water. The soil dissolves, the large particles sink and are caught in a course mesh while the light bits; the charcoal, plant material, seeds and lentils, float to the surface. These are dried out and given to the archaeobotanist to deal with. Needless to say, our archaeobotanist Lara is sick to death of lentils, which make up around 90% of our botanical material, the remainder being mostly emmer wheat, barley, rye and oats.

A brief history of lentils

Lentils are one of the oldest crops to be cultivated by man. They were part of the “Neolithic package”: a set of innovations in plant and animal exploitation which facilitated the shift from hunter-gathers to early farming. Most of these innovations, including lentil domestication, originated not too far from Gurga Chiya in the region of northern Iraq, south eastern Turkey and north eastern Syria. DNA analysis has shown that domesticated lentils are most closely related to the wild taxon Lens culinaris ssp. orientalis which originated in this area. The earliest clearly domesticated lentils were found at the site of Tepe Sabz in Iran and date to 5,500-5000 BCE; a thousand years older than our Gurga Chiya lentils.

6,400 year old lentils, fresh from the ground. A cluster of small black lentils held in the excavator's hand.
6,400 year old lentils, fresh from the ground. Photograph: Mary Shepperson/courtesy of University College London

However, no other site has come close to yielding the quantity of lentils we have at Gurga Chiya. Botanical remains are usually dominated by cereals, which are easier to cultivate than lentils and pulses. An important factor may be that lentils, unlike cereals, are a good source of plant proteins, so perhaps lentil cultivation made up for other deficiencies in the Gurga Chiya diet.

It’s emblematic of the Ubaid that this large cache of lentils resides within a private house and not in a public building. It represents a valuable crop which was the property of an industrious farming family and did not belong to the wider community, as it would have in the previous more egalitarian periods. The Gurga Chiya lentils represent an accumulation of private wealth during a time which saw the birth of the chief mechanisms of social inequality.

In a curious symmetry, the modern Gurga Chiya diet is also dismally lentil-rich; the excavation team are rewarded with lentil soup for lunch every single day. Personally, I am not a fan.

The work at Gurga Chiya is a project of University College London and University College London Qatar, in collaboration with the Kurdish Regional Government and the Sulaymaniyah Directorate of Antiquities. It is co-directed by Prof. David Wengrow (UCL) and Prof. Robert Carter (UCLQ).

This article titled "How ancient lentils reveal the origins of social inequality" was written by Mary Shepperson, for on Wednesday 11 October 2017 07.30am


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