A 9,000-year-old "ritual wand" has been discovered in Syria

Illustration for article titled A 9,000-year-old "ritual wand" has been discovered in Syria

A Neolithic era staff engraved with two realistic human faces has been discovered near a graveyard where some 30 people were buried without their heads. Archaeologists are now trying to determine what the ancient Syrians used it for.


The bone wand was first uncovered during excavations in 2007 and 2009 at a site in southern Syria called Tell Qarassa. Strangely, the artifact and skeletons had previously been dug up and placed near an inhabited portion of the settlement. Juan José Ibáñez and his colleagues made the discovery before the civil war, but thankfully the area has escaped damage. The site dates back to the late ninth millennium BC.

The bone wand, which was found in a funerary layer, was likely carved from the rib of an auroch (a wild ancestor of the cow). It depicts two carved human faces and was likely used in funeral rituals. According to the archaeologists, it may be a depiction of powerful supernatural beings — or it could represent a new way of perceiving human identity and facing the inevitability of death. These ancient people may have believed that, by representing the dead in visual form, the living and the dead could be brought closer together.

Writing in LiveScience, Tia Ghose explains more:

The find marks a transition in culture toward more interest in the human form. Older artifacts typically showed stylized or schematic representations of humans, but realistic depictions of animals. Art unearthed in what is now Jordan and Anatolia from the same time period also employs delicate, natural representations of the human form, suggesting this trend emerged simultaneously in regions throughout the Middle East, [Frank] Braemer said. The artistic innovation may have been tied to the emerging desire to create material representations of identity and personhood, the authors write in the paper...It's also possible the heads on display were trophies from vanquished enemies, Braemer told Live Science.

Ultimately, however, the relic's purpose and symbolism remain unknown.

Read Ghose's entire article at Live Science. And be sure to check out the entire study at Antiquity: "The human face and the origins of the Neolithic: the carved bone wand from Tell Qarassa North, Syria."


Image: Ibanez et al, Antiquity, 2014.


Sean McArdle

When I see these discoveries, I always wonder how they can make the assumption that it was used for rituals, and has any kind of higher symbolism. Perhaps it is a 9,000 year old version of a happy meal toy. Or a piece of junk mail. Or some bored dude carved it after he bashed in his babies skull and ate its brain, because caveman.