The Neolithic site at Bestansur (35°22'36.7 N, 045°38'44.4 E, ca. 550m asl) is located on the fertile Shahrizor Plain in the western foothills of the Central Zagros mountains, in Sulaimaniyah province, Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraq. The site lies close to a perennial spring and comprises extensive Early Neolithic occupation and later Neo-Assyrian and Sasanian levels, which form much of the 7.5m high central mound.

Excavations have been conducted at Bestansur since 2012 to investigate the nature and extent of the Early Neolithic occupation and their economy and society. Surface walking and artefact collection revealed an extensive spread of Neolithic materials, including chert and obsidian tools, in the fields on the west, south and east sides of the mound. On the basis of surface finds and the mound’s topography, ten 2 x 2m trenches were excavated in spring 2012, to investigate Neolithic occupation on the lower slopes of the mound and in the surrounding fields. The excavations established that intact Early Neolithic deposits are preserved across an area at least 100m east-west and 50m north-south.

Excavations in summer 2012 investigated the Early Neolithic architecture and activity areas identified in Trench 7, expanding the original trench to 6 x 6m. These excavations revealed a pisé building, with one room containing a substantial quantity of ground-stone tools. Outside the building, to the north-west, we excavated a series of extensive surfaces with intact remains of food preparation and consumption, including discrete deposits of edible snail-shell, burnt bone, charred lentils, heated stones and a clay-lined pit.

Trench 7

In the southwest quadrant of the trench we excavated a double human burial, with an adult male and adult female buried head to toe in tightly constricted positions. More than 700 chipped stone tools of chert and obsidian were recovered from Trench 7, as well as large quantities of chipped stone knapping debitage, ground-stone tools, a number of pierced stone discs and the base of a stone bowl.

We also conducted a gradiometry survey in summer 2012 to investigate the nature and extent of structural remains beneath the plough-soil in the fields surrounding the mound. We revealed a wide range of features including a large water channel and extensive buildings. To confirm the nature and presence of these buildings, we opened a 15 x 2m trench, Trench 11 close to Trench 7, and identified stone walls, probably Neo-Assyrian in date, and other features of Neolithic date detected through geophysical prospection.

Gradiometry survey results in the fields to the south, east and west of Bestansur mound

Returning to Bestansur for a third season in spring 2013, CZAP continued to explore the nature and scale of the Neolithic settlement. With a large team, five trenches were excavated and extensively sampled for scientific analysis of this early Neolithic community’s environment and life-ways. The excavations revealed a wide range of activities in exterior areas around the edge of mound and finely stratified occupation within the north of the mound.

South of the mound, a 6x6m trench was opened, around the initial 2x2m Trench 9 excavated in spring 2012. Here there was a large open area with a series of external fire installations, clay-lined features, deposits rich in animal bone (including red deer and a sheep skull), and lenses of ash, bounded by a wall to the south-west. East of the mound, previous investigations in the 2x2m Trench 10 were expanded to investigate further the nature and context of unusually high quantities of bone and lithic cores. The new 6x6m expansion revealed external areas with bone and lithics in situ, clay tokens and abundant worked bone. Below this, a substantial wall was revealed with well-preserved floors from an earlier phase of occupation.

Following the cutting down of a wooded area to the north of the mound, it was possible to clean a 15m section across the northern edge of the existing mound (Trench 12) and to excavate a step trench into the fields below (Trench 13). These yielded the first glimpses into the core of the Neolithic settlement, with fine plaster surfaces, layers of dung and ochre, comparable with Neolithic sites across the region, such as Çatalhöyük. In marked contrast with the trenches examining the peripheral activity areas, the fine stratigraphy of these surfaces in Trenches 12 and 13 contained tiny dentalium beads, fish and small mammal bones.

Trenches 12 and 13

Trench 14

Due to the success of the gradiometry survey in summer 2012, and the identification of a possible Neo-Assyrian building south-east of the mound, colleagues from the University of British Columbia conducted excavations in a 10x10m trench (Trench 14) to locate the later structures. These investigations found substantial stone architecture enclosing spaces containing in situ ceramics in abundance, including large storage jars.

The fourth field season at Bestansur yielded our most exciting discoveries to date. Trenches 12 and 13, at the north face of the tell, have revealed a series of dung-rich deposits, in close proximity to a building with internal and external activity areas. These domestic spaces contained a host of small finds, including more than 30 dentalium beads, a carnelian bead, a fragment of a rare flanged alabaster bracelet, small clay objects and two deposits of pierced stones, likely fishing net sinkers.

Trench 10 was expanded to cover a 12m by 9m area, focussing on the area of the wall identified in Spring 2013. The excavations located two distinct phases of a large porticoed building: the earlier walls in mud-brick (Building 8), with multiple applications of coloured plaster, and the latter in pisé with restricted plaster use (Building 5).

Building 5 was found to contain defined spaces, including a large oven with multiple layers of ash containing a large ground stone and a stone macehead, and a room beneath which three human skulls and associated skeletal remains were scattered, interspersed with many dentalium, mollusc and crab-claw beads. Lining the walls of the uppermost phase of Building 5’s portico, a strikingly engraved stone bears an elaborate network of lines and dots scored deeply into the surface.

Continued investigations of Building 5 during the fifth season at Bestansur have revealed a huge room (4.5m x 8m), containing the remains of a large number of individuals, in various states of articulation, deposited in the packing below the floor of Space 50. Further personal adornments and objects were recovered from the packing, including a headless clay figurine.

The expansion of Trench 10 into the mound, to the north and west, has revealed the plan of Building 5. Further contemporary buildings have been identified, including Building 10 abutting the north wall of Building 5, and Building 9 to the east of Building 5. Each of the buildings located in Trench 10 have distinctive materials in their construction, including the colour of mudbrick used for Buildings 8, 9 and 10, the application of plasters and the presence of matting.

External areas surrounding the buildings provide evidence for activities conducted in these spaces. Hearths relating to each building have been located, with butchery and stone-working debris and the deliberate deposition of worked clay objects. Conservation techniques applied by Jessica Johnson (Academic Director, University of Delaware and Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage) have helped to retrieve a number of these lightly-fired abstract and anthropomorphic shapes intact.

Through boreholes and column-sampling taken by Rob Batchelor (QUEST), investigations into the early site formation processes and environmental history of Bestansur are underway at the University of Reading. A public outreach programme was developed by Rhi Smith (MERL), engaging local teachers with the history and significance of the site, as well as the archaeological and scientific processes employed by the team.

The sixth field season at Bestansur, conducted in Spring 2016, comprised a small team including Roger Matthews, Wendy Matthews and Kamal Rasheed Raheem (Co-Directors), Kamal Rauf Aziz and Sami Jamil Hama Rashid (Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate), Amy Richardson (University of Oxford), Sam Walsh (UCLAN), Adam Stone (University of Reading) and Tom Moore (University of Reading). The excavations were financially supported by generous grants from the Gerald Averay Wainwright Fund of the University of Oxford and the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. We are very grateful to these bodies for their kind support. Whilst in the field, we continued a programme of outreach activities, including engagement with many media and TV companies, including Rudaw TV.

We expanded Trench 10 to an area of 18 x 14m, which enabled us to expose a significant area of Neolithic architecture on the lower eastern slopes of the mound. This season’s excavations in Trench 10 were focused firstly on investigation and analysis of the human burials below the floors of Space 50 and the stratigraphic context of these, and secondly on defining the extent of the building in which they were placed, Building 5, radiocarbon dated to c. 7700 BC. The north of Building 5, the western narrow rooms and the northwest corner of Space 50 and adjacent buildings were defined by extending Trench 10 to the northwest.

Trench 10 aerial view, courtesy of Dr Tobin Hartnell & Mohammed Anwer

We established that there are an exceptional number of human remains interred within Space 50. The excavations this season increased the number of individuals identified to more than 55 people, with more remains detected but left preserved in the ground for the next season. This number of individuals is higher than that found in many houses from other Neolithic sites of the Middle East, such as Tell Halula in Syria, for example, where 5-15 individuals were buried within single buildings. The high number within Building 5 at Bestansur is larger than expected for a single household and suggests that there were extensive and long-lived relations between communities of individuals.

Recording of human remains was conducted in the field and the laboratory by osteoarchaeologist Dr Sam Walsh. Four principal groups of human remains were investigated in the south and east of Space 50. All of these represent selective burial of particular skeletal parts, predominantly of skulls, long bones and ribs. Two of these groups were of mixed age groups. One deposit included a spread of red-pigment between clusters of bones and another deposit included traces of white mineral material on many bones and a skull as well as red pigment. A third group comprised predominantly juveniles and infants. The fourth group included scattered remains of human bone in the fill below the floors associated with scattered beads of shell. An unusual bead of carnelian, imported from Iran or Afghanistan, was also found.

As the walls of Space 50 slope inwards, c. 10 cm of deposits have been left against the base and lower sections of the walls. These microstratigraphic sequences were carefully cleaned with an artist’s palette knife, photographed and drawn at 1:5 and 1:10 to investigate the history of the construction and use of Building 5 and the complex burial sequence throughout the foundation, occupation and infill of the building.

We are very grateful to the Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate for permission to export human bones and teeth for analysis, including diet, health and mobility. We will be carrying out a full programme of analysis of this very special assemblage of human remains from the Early Neolithic period. We have continued excavation of this extraordinary deposit and building in spring 2017 and beyond.