Rags-to-Riches. Reflections on Knowledge, Resources and Power on the Creation of Inequalities in Prehistory

The proximity to the coast but also the connection to the Jordan allowed the people living at Tel Tsaf to participate in various exchange networks, which is reflected in numerous imports. The findings suggest craft specialization, the use of animal traction, early metallurgy and the labeling and restriction of access to goods, as well.

By Florian Klimscha
Eurasia Department of the German Archaeological Institute, Berlin
Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, HannoverDanny Rosenberg
Zinman Institute of Archaeology
University of HaifaTel Tsaf
March 2017

A Multi-Disciplinary Team from Several Countries Excavates at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley.
A Multi-Disciplinary Team from Several Countries
Excavates at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley.


The southern Levant is one of the most interesting concentrations of archaeological sites not only because of the vast climatic and ecological variety on a small area, but also because several key shifts in the development of human societies can be examined here in their generative stages. Among these, the transition from hunting and gathering to a sedentary way of life during the so-called Neolithic Revolution is probably the most important one, followed be the Urbanization during the Early Bronze Age. This is sometimes also called the Urban Revolution and widely considered to be one of the most important tipping points in the development of human societies. It is assumed to have led not only to larger and more densely populated settlements but also to full-time specialization, monumental architecture, the development of script and state, the establishment of regulated long-distance trade relations and many other aspects that set the foundation for urban environments like those we still live in today. Many researchers, starting with Oswald Spengler, consider this period the beginning of history and the end of prehistory – even though it starts before writing. Nonetheless, it is also in between those important shifts, the Neolithization and the Urbanization, that archaeologists discover interesting finds and contexts.

New and Old Research at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley

Tel Tsaf is such a site. Tel Tsaf is located near Beit She’an on the edge of the lowest terrace of the Jordan. The site consists of three hills with a total area of about 5 hectares. C14 dates set the later parts of the settlement to around 5,200 and 4,700 BC. There are no significant later buildings disturbing the prehistoric layers, which make the site ideal to understand the transition between the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic periods.

Chronologically it can be placed between the late Pottery Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic (Wadi Rabah culture) and the Late Chalcolithic (Ghassulian culture). It has therefore been suggested that Tel Tsaf represents a so-called Middle Chalcolithic, but there is considerable debate among scholars whether to assign this timespan to the Neolithic or to ascribe it to the Chalcolithic period. The discussion does not merely center on different names, but it is also based on different socio-economic concepts. This short essay is not the place to discuss this in detail, but one of the reasons for this apparent confusion is the problem that archaeologists face when they interpret the societies in this time period. Do they still belong to the assumedly egalitarian Neolithic or to the more “complex” Chalcolithic?

Who is rich and who is not? Defining wealth in pre-monetary societies.

This problem of beginning social differences can be approached from both theoretical and empirical perspectives: Inequality arises from the diverse distribution of values. This is possible on an individual level, but regions or societies can also have different access to values. How to define value, however, is another question.

For the longest time in human history, we know neither money nor similar means of payment that are both divisible and abstract. Therefore, values can best be seen in the claim to land or the resources available on it, or the access to coveted objects. Sometimes both are possible or conditional on each other. Access is provided either by an on-site presence or by the control of transport routes or networks through which valuable resources are circulated.

The production of surplus food is fundamental because it also allows full-time specialists to be exempted from daily food procurement. Of course, this also has consequences for the ability of a group to gain access to coveted resources through violence or exchange. Archaeologists often lack data about the details of such processes. Still, archaeological sources offer a temporal depth inaccessible to other sciences. Only through archeological sources are we ultimately able to fully grasp the origins and long-term course of phenomena such as the emergence of inequality.

Where and when are the earliest societies with inherited socio-economic differences found?

For a long time, archaeology and social sciences alike have argued mostly based on theoretical grounds that social inequality should have emerged in the Ancient Near East during the Bronze Age. It was only through the systematic application of science-based dating methods that we became aware how different the prehistoric reality must have been from what we had assumed. This new understanding of the archaeological record still continues and has already lead to placing the emergence of inequality outside the Near East:

Currently it is argued by the majority of scholars that the oldest evidence for a social hierarchy based on personal wealth can be found in the Copper Age cemetery of Varna on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. It can be dated around the middle of the 5th millennium BC. In Varna there are tombs decorated with gold, large flint blades (of extraordinary quality) and a variety of axes made of copper and stone, next to poorer burials, which contained no gold and less copper and a poorest group that contained only ceramic pots. In addition to the metal, the flint blades are made by specialized craftsmen. These products are used by a small group to set themselves apart from their fellow humans. Such a context might well represent an elite based on wealth (“Besitzelite” sensu Max Weber). Different wealth can also be detected in simultaneous settlements, for instance in the distribution of prestigious items like large axe blades.

Research has been emphasizing the special role of metallurgy for this exceptional social evolution. Copper smelting and copper casting are processes with very complex production chains (“chaînes opératoires”). Control over resource extraction, trade routes and the production of artifacts seems to go hand-in-hand with the divergence of social roles and the perpetuation of social differences and status.

Metal Matters. Metallurgy around the Black Sea during the 5th Millennium

While Varna for a long time was thought to be an argument to break the traditional diffusionistic chains between Europe and the Near East, this perspective is nowadays obsolete and we see a much bigger picture:

In the 5th millennium, metallurgy is spread between the Balkans, the Caucasus, along the Jordan river and the Anatolian-Iranian highlands (perhaps even as far as Pakistan). It is thereby developed in culture-specific, diverse forms. However, this only happens where there is already a long tradition of producing ceramics at high temperatures, i.e. extensive pyrotechnic know-how.

Copper metallurgy is now the means in some of these societies to further increase existing social differences. For example, since the Early Neolithic, southeastern Europe has not only made practical use of copper, but also used it for social demarcation – such as ornaments or axes. Not only are these new objects much larger and heavier, but their raw material is very rare. Manufacturing copper objects is not possible without geographic knowledge, control over trade-routes, as well as detailed explanations and abstract knowledge of the production process.

Copper artefacts could therefore be monopolized. The rarity of the raw material helped to reinforce inequality, because in order to reach them, exchange networks had to be subtly manipulated, whereby one had to think about violence or the use of resources. This has led to a society in some regions, as we find it in Varna, where a small group has succeeded in accumulating wealth and knowledge and keeping others away from these values.

Comparable evidence for elaborate metallurgy and possibly also comparable social differences has been argued for in the Ghassulian culture of the southern Levant, for instance in the famous hoard from Nahal Mishmar in the Judean Desert, whose splendiferous “standards”, “crowns” and vessels are all unique and therefore might have been possessions of a similar social group as in Varna. The famous cemetery from Susa in Iran would be another such example.

Apparently in the 5th millennium “kings of metal” had established themselves at various places of southeastern Europe and western Asia.

The Neolithic Dream. How did some people become rich and others poor?

Metallurgy was certainly somehow connected to the emergence of poor and rich. However, it remains unclear whether it was its cause or an effect. Traditionally, the intensified smelting of copper has been linked with a re-organization of the available labor. In terms of argumentation, this premise rests above all on the complexity of the production chain. From the mining of the ores, their smelting, the casting of finished items to their circulation in trade networks, a significant number of people and especially highly specialized knowledge is needed. Finally, this combination has forced a streamlining of social control mechanisms and power. The archaeological findings of the southern Levant speak for the creation of a network in which different working processes are no longer operated equally intensively by all settlements. This leads to local concentrations on different activities. The resulting differentiation and specialization of crafts is considered to be an important factor in the emergence of complex societies at the end of the 4th millennium.

Our understanding of the evolution of social complexity is incomplete and the models that follow are in many ways obsolete. Important find complexes such as the hoard of the Cave of the Treasure at Nahal Mishmar can nowadays be set in the second half of the 5th millennium. Varna is even older. Yet these finds already feature many aspects of metal technology, like complex casting technologies or the mixing of ores that were traditionally expected only at an advanced stage of the assumed technological evolution. Thus, the logic of well-known models is counteracted by the apparent climax of an assumed development apparently set at the beginning.

This is, by the way, not blurred by my focus on rich graves and hoards, but can be substantiated by settlement evidence: The genesis of urban social structures is nowadays also seen in regions, which were formerly regarded as peripheral. In Tell Brak, Upper Mesopotamia, for example, the beginnings of monumental architecture, bureaucratic administration and specialization can already be identified in the late 5th millennium – until very recently this development was seen as having diffused from Lower Mesopotamia to the North.

If, of course, proto-urban structures and specialized metallurgy can be found already in the late 5th millennium, their research must not focus on just this period, but needs to also include the previous chronological periods. Without an understanding of their beginnings, it can only be speculated about the reasons for later socio-technical change.

You have probably wondered, dear readers, where this is all leading to, and therefore let’s come back to Tel Tsaf. Tel Tsaf is one of the few known examples where we can research the prelude to the splendor of the Chalcolithic period. Tel Tsaf is part of a region where this period is still terra incognita. Thus the excavations can also help to deal with much broader problems (apart from helping to solve chronological puzzles). Tel Tsaf is one of the few sites in the Levant where there is an undisturbed stratigraphic sequence from the late 6th to the middle of the 5th millennium. This is exactly the time, where we currently assume the evolution from egalitarian villages to complex societies. While this does not suggest, that all people were equal in any Neolithic village (in many ethnographically documented “egalitarian” societies women, for instance, are disadvantaged or discriminated against), it assumes, that this status had to be gained in life and ended with death. Excavations at sites like Tsaf will help us gaining an idea how this was changed and more permanent inequalities were inscribed into a society – or at least they will allow us excluding certain scenarios and thereby in the long run approach the most probable scenarios by eliminating the impossible ones.

Tel Tsaf: Elite-controlled crop monopoly vs. prehistoric kibbutz life

The proximity to the coast but also the connection to the Jordan allowed the people living at Tel Tsaf to participate in various exchange networks, which is reflected in numerous imports. The findings suggest craft specialization, the use of animal traction, early metallurgy and the labeling and restriction of access to goods, as well.

Excavations have resulted in the discovery of a previously unknown concentration of silos at Tel Tsaf. If one accepts this interpretation, which is an archaeological problem that will have to be discussed elsewhere, the reconstructed volumes of the silos show that between 15.2 and 36.1 tons of grain per courtyard house could be stored. That would be multiple times the amount needed annually by such a household. In this area a large number of sealings have been found with sieving. Crops were carried to this place, stored in the silos and either during the filling or depletion of the silos, the amount of grain was somehow counted (assumedly in multiples of a standard volume) and thereby seals were broken. Furthermore, a total of four burials were found in this area, two of which were found inside the silos, two more in the immediate vicinity.

The emergence of stratified societies is linked to the emergence of social elites. These groups must have been able to accumulate the means of production, resources and power. The process of monopolization in the long run, however, is difficult to grasp archaeologically. Tel Tsaf offers the opportunity to question this process critically. In addition to the concentration of silos, which has so far been interpreted as evidence for elites, the occurrence of burials and cooking pits in the courtyards makes it possible to relate important socio-historical factors to each other. One interpretation of the Tel Tsaf silos was that they were the result of a parasitic elite that was able to control harvests as well as the storage and distribution of the crops inside the village. This would be a classic Marxist reading, which certainly has its strength. The excavation results, nevertheless, also allow constructing other scenarios.

One of the richest burials from the period, including 1668 beads of mollusk and ostrich egg shells, sewed to a belt over the hip, also derives from just this area, where it was placed inside a silo, as well as evidence for metallurgy. New excavations have also been able to bring forward other arguments for ritual activity in this area associated with the courtyard. The most striking find is a broken ceramic pot that has emerged from this house. The vessel was found under a floor in a layer that we currently interpret as filling after abandonment of the oldest construction phase. The jar is unique in the Levant so far, and we have recently proposed an interpretation as a miniature silo that may have been used as part of rituals.

A yet unique vessel that the excavators interpret as depicting a silo was found at Tel Tsaf and is assumedly connected with ritual activity related to the filling (or emptying) of the silos. The model is presented by Yael Rosenberg.
A yet unique vessel that the excavators interpret
as depicting a silo was found at Tel Tsaf and is
assumedly connected with ritual activity related
to the filling (or emptying) of the silos. The model
is presented by Yael Rosenberg.

For the southern and middle Levant, the connection between silos and rich burials has been noted several times, for instance, in the Eneolithic cemetery of Byblos in Lebanon or in late-Chalcolithic funerary vessels from burial caves in Israel.

Yet, this does not necessarily contradict the thesis that a small group was in control of the area and the division of resources. However, it is questionable whether we need to imagine the rise of these potentates through the control of exchange relations, the possession of coercive means or the exploitation of value creation chains, or whether the finds rather suggest that we have to focus more on the ideological exaggeration of this group of people. In other words: Was it the control of spirituality that resulted in unequal distribution of valuables.

Social inequality manifests itself in the later Late Chalcolithic, but even then, it is less manifest in the wealth of individual tombs or houses (like in Varna or Susa), but rather in the extraordinary wealth and conspicuous consumption within hoards. This, however, advocates that the paths towards inherited inequality were manifold and certainly not simply determined by the use of ignorance of specific technology.

One of the oldest examples of early metallurgy was found at Tel Tsaf in the form of a small awl. Within the southern Levant this find could possibly mark the beginnings of metallurgy.
One of the oldest examples of early metallurgy
was found at Tel Tsaf in the form of a small awl.
Within the southern Levant this find could
possibly mark the beginnings of metallurgy.

Technological innovations, nevertheless, might have increased the social gap, and the possibility to monopolize metal sources or trade routes was certainly an important factor to maintain inequalities. Yet, the influence of copper metallurgy on lithic technology was quite limited (and this is also different from southeastern Europe). Metallurgy therefore was not the motor for social inequality, but rather it became an important part of rituals. It seems to have been one step further on the road that was started at Tel Tsaf. Some people were able to skim the ritual “market”, and this points the discussion into a hitherto neglected direction. It was not economy or technology which created inequalities but the previous engagement in (and control of) religion.

Further reading

Freikman M. and Garfinkel Y. 2017. Sealings before cities: new evidence on the beginnings of administration in the ancient Near East. Levant 49, 2017, 24-45.

Rosenberg, D., Garfinkel, Y. and Klimscha F. 2017. Large scale storage and storage symbolism in the ancient Near East: A clay silo model from Tel Tsaf. Antiquity 91(358): 885-900.

Garfinkel Y., Klimscha F., Shalev S. and Rosenberg D. 2014. The beginning of metallurgy in the Southern Levant: a late 6th millennium CalBC copper from Tel Tsaf, Israel. PLoS ONE 9(3): e92591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092591

Rosenberg D., Klimscha F., Graham P. Hill C., Weissbrod L., Katlav I., Love S., Boaretto E., Pinsky S. and Hubbard E. 2014. Back to Tel Tsaf: a preliminary report on the 2013 season of the renewed project. Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society 44: 148–179.

Garfinkel Y., Ben-Shlomo D. and Kuperman T. 2009. Large-scale storage of grain surplus in the sixth millennium BC: the silos of Tel Tsaf. Antiquity 83: 309–325.

Klimscha, F. 2016. Another Great Transformation. Zeitschrift für Orient Archäologie 6, 2013 [2014], 82-112.

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