The Child Burial

In 2018, during the first excavation season of the new Ba`ja Project "Household and Death"(www.exoriente.org/baja/; Gebel et al. 2017, 2019), a very elaborate child burial was discovered in one of the buildings of the Neolithic settlement of Ba`ja (Bienert and Gebel 2004; Fig.1). It is one of the most lavishly decorated burials of the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B in the Near East. Preliminary anthropological investigations let us suppose that it was an about 8-year-old girl. The grave construction comprised a stone cist of red sandstone slabs, a grave cover of deliberately destroyed white shiny Ordovician sandstone slabs and a white plaster cover. The bones of the child were completely stained with red pigment (Fig. 2). This contrast between red and white was repeated in the necklace which comprised more than 2575 beads of white shell and red limestone. The remarkable selection of red and white was intersected by two hematite, five turquoise beads and two dark-brown beads of yet undetermined raw material. Turquoise was probably imported from the Sinai Peninsula about 200 km southwest of Ba`ja (Hauptmann 2004), shells came from the Red Sea. The chains of the necklace were spaced by a sophisticated mother-of-pearl ring and held together behind the neck with a black double perforated buckle, that was apparently also made of hematite.


The fact that a child was buried in such a spectacular burial requires reconsidering former ideas about the emergence of social hierarchies (Gebel 2002, 2010; Benz 2000, 2012; Price and Bar-Yosef 2012; Özdoğan 2014). Whereas the rather homogeneous architecture of early Neolithic settlements in southern Jordan suggested heterarchical structures, archaeological data on burial customs hint at selected individuals or groups with high ranking status (e.g. Rollefson 2000, 2017; Goring-Morris 2005; Benz et al. 2019). The elaborate child burial from Ba`ja confirms increasing social differentiation and provides evidence that an outstanding status was ascribed to some children at a very early age in life (Molist et al. 2013; Hermansen 2017; Gebel et al. 2019).


This high scientific relevance is only topped by the potential the grave offers for a wide public: it provides insights to the Neolithic period via the fate of a young person. It thus creates lasting memories and opens a door for the understanding of one of the most fundamental turning points in human history, the transition from mobile foraging to sedentism and agriculture.

Fig. 1 Hidden in the mountains of the Greater Petra Area: the Neolithic settlement of Ba`ja, Jordan. (Photo: H.G.K. Gebel)

Fig. 2 The burial of the child, probably a girl of about 8 years, is one of the most lavishly decorated burials of the early Neolithic in the Near East. (Photo: M. Benz)