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3.0 Tell-centric research

Tells play a prominent role in research into the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of southeast Europe. They provide chronological frameworks for regional culture histories, and give insights into the nature of early village-based social life (Bailey 1999).

As visible upstanding monuments, often appearing in rather flat monotonous terrains, it is not surprising that archaeological field research has tended to be drawn to these more obvious landscape features. As the number of regional surveys increase, and ever more non-tell, 'flat' occupation zones are identified, it is still the more well known, or visible, landmarks that are the target for excavation programmes (Whittle 1985, 37).

Once the site has been identified as a prehistoric settlement, and the mound objectified as the scope of study, methodologies are then constructed for the sampling of information contained within, be it limited exploratory soundings or complete excavation of the cultural deposits, the latter scenario being the ideology of much Palestinian and Bulgarian tell research in the 1950s (Kenyon 1957, 41; Todorova 1978, 3). Often the emphasis is on identifying changes in material culture typology, and as such the result of much tell-based work is impressive collections of ceramic pottery and figurines, and drawings of architectural remains such as floor plans with internal features. These assemblages usually have an air of the domestic and quotidian about them, reaffirming the idea that these are villages where people went about their daily lives, communities comprising smaller social groupings centred on individual houses.

The prominence of icons of domesticity in tell site reports, for example house floor plans, ovens, cooking pots, together with the overall conception of the monument as a coherent village made up of individual dwellings, is undoubtedly the inspiration behind many recent theoretical interpretations which have played on these themes. Hodder has suggested that the house, or the iconism of the house, embodied a contemporary principle he names domus, a metaphor for the controlling and taming of the wild, outside world. Social tensions inherent in increasingly sedentary communities were resolved by exercising this control, through daily activities such as the cultivation of wild plants and the rearing of wild animals (Hodder 1990). More recently, Bailey has suggested that the phenomenon of tells, demarcated villages incorporating aggregations of houses, is evidence of a contemporary 'ideology of the built environment' (Bailey 2000, 281). The village, elevated above its surroundings or encircled by ditches, served both to exclude outsiders but also to strengthen bonds between the occupants through communal ditch digging or replication of house floor plans within the village. Houses visible atop the mound also communicated to the wider world the coherence of the community, but also the identity of individual households within this grouping.

A number of themes are traceable in traditional tell research. Primarily the remit is reductionist in scale. The attractiveness of tells as concentrations of past human residues has led to the mound being prioritised, with little mention of the physical, geographical context in which it is embedded. In this way studies have been tell-centric. This has naturally led to the formation of an archaeological record which promotes interpretations featuring the recurrent themes of the house and village, with a tendency to treat people in the past as an amalgamated group, behaving in prescribed ways.

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Last updated: Thur Nov 11 2004