Domuztepe, in south-central Turkey within the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, is one of the largest settlements from the Late Neolithic yet found. It covers around 20ha, some hidden beneath the build-up of the surrounding alluvial plain. By 5500 BC it held a staggeringly high population of about 2,000 people, and was occupied continuously for several thousands of years. What social structures and environmental factors could have sustained such a large group?

The Late Neolithic, c.6500-5500 BC, is a key period of change in prehistory: farming was well-established but larger settlements were only just beginning to evolve. Domuztepe is one of the few that bridges this elusive gap between early farming villages and later cities.

At first, there was a sense of disbelief that such a large site could date from this period: surely it could not all be prehistoric? A large Roman building has been found that was still in use c.AD 1000, as has a small Christian cemetery of a similar date. But these sit almost as an afterthought on the much larger Neolithic settlement: successive layers of buildings and middens gradually accumulated to form a mound 10m-14m high, covered in prehistoric artefacts – everywhere you turn, there is another potsherd, a lithic, or a piece of ground stone.

Nature’s largesse
Domuztepe sits on the edge of what used to be marshland – since drained to create an agricultural plain – and was once home to wild pigs, from which the site gets its name: domuz means ‘pig’ in Turkish.

Faunal and botanical remains at the site come from a variety of landscapes: fields, wetlands, steppe, and woodland. The inhabitants grew einkorn, emmer, and free-threshing wheat, barley, lentil, pea, and linseed; they collected – or grew – almonds, figs, pistachios, and plums or cherries. The wetland provided rushes for buildings, mats, and baskets. They kept domestic sheep and goats, as well as cattle and pigs. Faunal remains of more than 20 species of wild animals include deer, bear, and leopard. Evidence from burial contexts suggests dogs lived with the people and were important to them.

But, while the settlement clearly had relatively easy access to a variety of habitats, this diversity of resources alone would not have been enough to sustain Domuztepe’s large population in one place.

Grand designs
The inhabitants of Domuztepe did not cram themselves into densely packed living quarters. Instead, they maintained large-scale earthwork boundaries to define different functional spaces, and kept open areas specifically for burials.
Most of the houses were rectangular, with two or three rooms. Circular buildings were also found, but these are usually smaller, perhaps only 2-3m in diameter. People used earth, stones, plaster, rushes, woven matting, and wood for building. As is usual in archaeology, these buildings are known by excavating their foundations, which provides only limited information. But what makes Domuztepe exceptional are the unique pictures painted on pots showing what these houses looked like: they were surprisingly tall, probably with two floors, and a pitched roof thatched with rushes. Mats or carpets were spread out in front of them, and large pots or baskets stand between them.

This is an extract.  The full article can be found in issue 51 of Current World Archaeology, on sale now.

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