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A Note on Iconography of “Yarmukian” Neolithic Figurines


©

Eliot Braun

Reprinted from: The Journal of Unproductive and Non-reproducible Knowledge Vol. .43/13

Abstract: The art of primitive cultures is in large part founded in the subconscious
awareness of humans to their surroundings and the natural milieu that impinged upon and
shaped their very modes of subsistence. It is generally accepted that artistic production
was humankind’s way of attempting (whether by propitiating forces of nature or making
symbolic attempts to control them) to produce a more congenial environment in which to
exist. Not unnaturally, to fulfill this function, the creative human mind was able to adapt
simple motifs from their physical world, and through the medium of artistic expression,
elevate them to superb heights of symbolic sacredness. This paper attempts to explain
how a group of Late Neolithic peoples in the southern Levant were likely to have adapted
several simple, natural motifs taken from their physical world and, through interpretative,
inspired art, elevate and transmogrify them into the very highest levels of sacred
symbolism. The large assemblage of terracotta figurines they have left us provides the
archaeologist with not only tangible evidence of these primitive peoples religious
aspirations, but also rarely encountered, secondary evidence of natural elements that were
part of their quotidian reality.

Key Words: Yarmukian Neolithic figurines; primary object; cognition


through abstraction; excremental vision

J.U.N.K. .43/13—Nov. 3003


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Cognition through abstraction, no matter how limited, was thus inherent in daily and seasonal life.
Ideological belief was as much a result of daily and seasonal life as it was a reflection of a cosmology
acknowledged at the time. Those who argue that an increasing knowledge of symbolism as it was used for
ideological purposes or for purposes of notation demonstrates an evolutionary step towards civilization are
basing their views on but one aspect of what has to be regarded as a total development to which all elements
of the culture contributed. This is never so clear as in the religious area. The holistic concept of man in nature
marks the mind of primitive man.
Walter A. Fairservis Jr. (1975:106) on Late Paleolithic Art from Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia

The milieu of the individual was largely the physical world…


Walter A. Fairservis Jr. (1975:117) on the Paleolithic site of Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia

Man1” to form male and female images


Introduction: The site of Sha’ar
in a variety of attitudes. Facial features
Hagolan was apparently first settled in include elongated, tapering heads
Late Neolithic times, a stage associated marked by very distinctive renderings of
with the earliest evidence of mass eyes in a style often declared reminiscent
production of pottery in the southern of “coffee beans” (Fig. 1:2). However,
Levant. The proximity of the site to the the elongated and deeply channeled
Yarmuk river basin has lent its name aspect of the eyes on Yarmukian
(“Yarmukian”) to that chrono-cultural figurines is equally, and likely, more
phase, (Stekelis 1972). The Yarmukian evocative of date stones. Dates (unlike
culture is especially noted for its coffee that seems to have been native to
distinctively painted and incised pottery the southern Arabian Peninsula and did
vessels (e.g. Garfinkel 1999:66-67) and not appear in the southern Levant until
a rather large group of highly modern times) are more likely to have
idiosyncratic, terracotta human figurines been available to the Neolithic denizens
(e.g. Fig. 1:2; Stekelis 1952; Garfinkel of Sha’ar Ha-Golan2. Thus, there is
2002:108-137). reason to believe that Yarmukians, as
did Paleolithic humans at Dolne
Vestonice, borrowed natural motifs from
These diminutive idols are particularly their surroundings and applied them to
noteworthy for their iconography, their art.
marked by elongated and exaggerated
features, as well as their segmented The result of the agglutinative technique
mode of construction that makes them in which Yarmukian figurines were
unique to their chrono-cultural milieu. fashioned largely determined their rather
This paper addresses the likely peculiar iconography. Since as a group
inspiration for these intriguingly they only superficially resemble
idiosyncratic aspects of Yarmukian
mobile art.
1
This well-recognized logo of the French tire
manufacturer, is a human-like representation
The figurines were fashioned in a fashioned of segment of inflated inner tubes.
2
Dates are known to have existed in the south
modular manner, with individual oval or Levantine segment of the Great Rift Valley at
rounded and bulging segments, stuck least as early as the Chalcolithic period
together in the manner of “Michelin- (Zaitschek 1980:225; Hopf 1983) and may well
have existed there earlier.

J.U.N.K. .43/13—Nov. 3003


Journal of Unproductable and Non-reproducible Knowledge Vol. 43/13

figurines from some neighboring a highly beloved specimen of canine


contemporary cultures, and are actually pulchritude and much cosseted family
stylistically unique for the Ancient Near companion. This crotchety canine, now
East, the question arises as to the origin in the twilight of her years, is called
of such an unusual method of upon by Nature to periodically request
construction. What was the inspiration release from her domestic nest to be let
for these elongated, segmented, out of doors for performance of
schematic approximations of human excrementitious functions. Since the age
physiognomy? Recent experiences of the of this animal is so advanced that she is
writer of these lines, have suggested a unable to wander far in search of
likely source of inspiration in the satisfactorily favorable olfactory-
physical world of the Neolithic peoples pleasing locations for their performance,
of Sha’ar Ha-Golan. these functions are accomplished no
further distant than the immediate
environs of this writer’s domicile.
Chance Discovery: This writer
possesses a domesticated animal of the
genus Canis, species familiaris, bearing
the appellation “Fizzy” (a testament to
the effervescent qualities eminently
visible in the typical pose featured in
Fig. 1:1).

Fig. 1. Canis Familiaris, breed—“Heinz


Terrier”: Fizzy.

This animal is a typical example of the


breed “Heinz Terrier”3, and, in addition,

3
This breed, not yet recognized by the
most prestigious trade paper: The Dog
Underwriter’s National Gazette (D. U.
N. G.), but application has been made
for recognition. The origin of the name
is in the nature of the breed, an exotic Fig. 2. Yarmukian figurine (based on
mélange of at leastl “57 varieties”. Garfinkel 2002:cover).

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Fig. 4. Prima faecies evidence (after Fizzy


2003), cf. Fig. 3.

On numerous such occasions it has come


to his attention that these selfsame
candidates for eventual conversion to
coprolites, bear uncanny resemblances to
Yarmukian figurines or segments
Fig. 3. Rendering of a Yarmukian Figurine thereof. Indeed, so obvious is the
(based on Garfinkel 2002:130). similitude between these ancient and
modern objects, it is deemed virtually
In lieu of willing progeny to supervise certain the inspiration for these Late
this interaction with the domestic Neolithic works of art should be sought
animal, it has fallen to this writer (in the in similar, contemporary Neolithic
interests of maintaining a minimal level primary objects.
of hygiene as well as reasonably clear
and direct access to his abode) to
periodically retrace said canine’s
wanderings in order to collect those
eminently visible and malodorous
deposits (henceforth “the primary
object” or prima fæces evidence)
resulting from this voiding activity.

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Fig. 5. Prima faecies evidence (After Fig. 6. A photo montage of prima faecies
Fizzy 2003). evidence in Fig. 5, with Chalcolithic date
stones superimposed as eyes in
imitation of a Yarmukian figurine.

Certainly canines are known to be


The Evidence: Most unfortunately, associated with man in the region at least
published reports on Neolithic sites in as early as the Epipaleolithic period (Bar
the southern Levant are, at least for the Yosef 1993; Perrot 1993:392), while
present, silent on the existence of this there is also some evidence of them from
particular sort of deposit that would have later Chalcolithic settlement contexts.
given inspiration to the Neolithic artists Related canines, jackals, wolves and
of Sha’ar Hagolan. That such objects foxes are also indigenous to the region
must have existed, is obvious from and so are likely to have come into
circumstantial evidence. Dogs and other contact with Neolithic people occupying
canines (wolves, foxes and jackals) were the Sha’ar Ha-Golan site. If we may
likely to be among the domesticated or assume that these denizens of yesteryear
wild animals (perhaps in search of food had visual and olfactory senses at least
scraps) that frequented the settlement or as sharp as those in modern human
came in contact with it in some populations, then contact between
peripheral manner. people and deposits left by these

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animals, either within the confines of


their settlements or nearby, is certain.

We may only speculate as to the degree


such visual displays and olfactory
emanations stimulated brains of
Neolithic peoples at Sha’ar Ha-Golan to
reproduce humanoid replicas using
similar motifs derived from their
surroundings. However, it may be
assumed that contact with primary
objects must have been direct and rather
immediate after canines deposited them.
One may even assume that some
encounters were tactile in nature.4

If we may assume the existence of date


palms in the region, and the known
sweet tooth canines have developed,
then it is not hard to see visualize the
inspiration for the motif used for eyes on
these Neolithic figurines. Canines would Fig. 7. A prima faecies article (after Fizzy
have consumed such delicacies as dates 2003) of the type that inspired fertility (or
fetidity?) figurines.
when available by “wolfing” them down,
stones and all. Ingested date stones, of
a primitive Yarmukian ancestor with
cellulose and other indigestible
such a vision would spark the urge in an
materials, would have been excreted in
artistically creative brain to duplicate a
the same way as straw is found in
naturally create effigy of such a clearly
ruminants’ dung. One, or even two
anthropomorphic subject. Such visions
strategically arranged such date stones
must have been at once both clear and
would have created an impression in
mystical. They would have inspired re-
Yarmukian people’s minds of a
creation of god-given (deus ex-canis)
schematic human model, complete with
effigies in materials more durable and
details such as eyes.
less offensive to human olfactory glands.

In summer this would have had to have


Such an occurrence may be understood
occurred within a matter of a very few
as an “excremental vision”. It is not
days, otherwise desiccation of the
difficult to imagine that an encounter by
primary objects, caused by extreme heat
and especially direct sunlight, would
4
Such encounters remain common even today, have quickly robbed them of their
especially in urban settings, but they are more primary visual and olfactory
likely to end with loud pronouncements of
expletives rather than become inspiration for
characteristics. Winter with its wet spells
objects of veneration. would have wreaked havoc on the ability

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Journal of Unproductable and Non-reproducible Knowledge Vol. 43/13

of these objects to have visually Thus, must Neolithic people of the


stimulated Neolithic artists who Yarmukian Culture have been stimulated
encountered them, although they would to transmogrify multiple and simple
have maintained and perhaps even encounters that constituted excremental
increased their ability to stimulate visions, into others both profound and
olfactory senses. Thus, we may assume sacred. So moved to action were they
the responses to these encounters (see from these encounters with primary
below) took place in the in-between objects, they recreated these visions in
seasons of spring and autumn, when portable, durable terracotta, the better to
weather was most clement. preserve them. Proof of this ability is in
the hundreds of highly stylized terracotta
figurines retrieved from Sha’ar Ha-
From Excremental to Sacramental
Golan and other sites (e.g. Garfinkel
Vision: Neolithic peoples obviously had 2002: 107-139) Kafafi 2001: Figs. 20-
cognitive abilities now known to be 23). The obvious relationship of some of
extant in modern Homo Sapiens. One of these to fertility figurines suggests they
these is the ability of the brain to were believed to be endowed with
‘coordinate responses to artistic apotropaic qualities.
perceptions” (known for short as C. R.
A. P.) that derive from encounters with The large number of these terracotta
the most mundane and profane of objects attests to the obvious satisfactory
objects, and to remodel and restructure results Yarmukian peoples must have
them. achieved, otherwise they would not have
made them in such numbers. This,
This process is further enhanced by a despite obvious loss of olfactory
special secondary procedure triggered in stimulation found in the primary objects
the brain. Although little is known of that could not be duplicated in clay. One
this secondary response, there is may even presume that Neolithic
evidence to indicate that C. R. A. P. peoples were at least consigned to this
causes the human brain to enter into a loss in quality, if not delighted by it.
highly specialized mode of operation
known as “mode engendering responses The particular manifestation it took in
dealing with existential stimuli, or M. E. the Yarmukian Culture must be related
R. D. E. S for short. In this mode the to specific conditions and events. In the
brain then recreates and renders those case of Sha’ar Hagolan, the obvious
primary images into objects of divine source for most of the figurines of this
reverence.5 period, it is possible to postulate the
existence of one or more canines of the
5
This process and mode are also eminently Heinz Terrier breed, coming into contact
reversible, as may be observed in modern human
societies. Lest the reader question this, she or he
is reminded of the ability of the human brain to transmogrify distinctly sublime and sacred
create, through M. E. R. D. E. S and C. R. A. P., human visions, recreating them as equivalents of
the social equivalent of primary objects. The the primary object, albeit with just enough
practice is performed by modern politicians and original trappings to successfully convince
religious functionaries, who constantly gullible masses they maintain their original
demonstrate its efficaciousness. Some especially intent.
charismatic figures have done, and continue to

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with the population over a period of


time. The resultant interaction by
humans with primary objects they
deposited, sparked a religious experience
that entailed creation of numerous
figurines. One may even reconstruct
some early form of mass religious
revival undergone by the community at
Sha’ar Ha-Golan where these objects
abound; only a handful of additional
figurines of this type have been
recovered from other sites.

This type of human interaction with the


environment with its ultimate channeling
into sacred related activity is common to
all cultures and times. Such are the
inspirations that produce primary
spiritual experiences from which
mankind’s religions emerged.

Fig. 9. A natural ‘figurine’(After Fizzy


2003).

Fig. 8. A composite ‘figurine’ fashioned


from prima faecies evidence (After Fizzy
2003).

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Journal of Unproductable and Non-reproducible Knowledge Vol. 43/13

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Fizzy, C. F (Canis familiaris)


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Fizzy, C. F (Canis familiaris)


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