Halafian Culture Flourishes in Northern Mesopotamia

Halafian culture, transitional between farming villages and early cities, developed increasing social and technological complexity, including sophisticated ceramics, perhaps draft animal power, burial ceremonialism, and mud-brick architecture, with defensive works.

Summary of Event

Early twentieth century archaeological work recognized the high-quality ceramics associated with the Halafian period. Between 1911 and 1929, Max von Oppenheim worked at Tell Halaf on the Syrian-Turkish border, roughly 205 miles (330 kilometers) northeast of Aleppo, Syria. Large quantities of pottery were recovered, and several occupations of the site were exposed. The earliest settlement was a sixth millennium b.c.e. community, which provided the name for the broad cultural distribution that stretches across northern Mesopotamia. In the 1930’s, Max Mallowan’s excavations at Arpachiyah, a small agricultural village about 3.5 miles (6 kilometers) east of Nineveh (near Mosul, Iraq), contributed to the chronological positioning of the Halafian culture in the Mesopotamian sequence, in addition to describing the ceramic trends. Since the period of Mallowan’s work, important fieldwork has been accomplished by Iraqi, British, Russian, and American archaeologists. Although considerable substantive information has been recovered on the cultural and technological aspects of the Halafian period, problems persist regarding understanding both the mechanisms responsible for the diffusion of Halafian culture and the political and social organization of this evolving agrarian economy.

Halafian agricultural villages were situated in fertile regions; however, sites were not always located in proximity to major tributaries. In most areas, annual rainfall was adequate to permit nonhydraulic farming. Halafian village sites vary in size: Domuztepe in southern Turkey is about 8 acres (20 hectares); Tell es-Sawwan in Iraq is about 26,000 square yards (about 24,000 square meters). Population numbers for Halafian villages are estimated at between thirty and two hundred individuals. During the immediate post-Halaf at the site of Domuztepe, however, the population may have approached fifteen hundred to two thousand individuals.

The Halafian agriculturalists were engaged in a mixed farming economy. At Tell es-Sawwan, rudimentary irrigation was initiated. Crops grown included wheat, barley, lentils, flax, vetch, and chickpeas. A number of wild species were also collected, including pistachio and ryegrass. Domesticated fauna included sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs. Wild faunal remains from Halafian sites suggest the importance of hunting for furs or meat. Patty Jo Watson and Steven LeBlanc, excavators of Girikihaciyan in southeastern Turkey, have suggested that cattle may have been used to pull plows, as they were kept alive longer than other domesticates. Another reason for their longevity may be tied to the development of dairy activities.

The proximity of Tell es-Sawwan to the Tigris and the fish remains recovered attest to the dietary variability of the Halafian people, which reflected their local environmental resources. Fish remains, however, are not common in Halafian sites.

Halafian cultural remains include various stone tools for processing cereals (grain grinders, pestles, and mortars), axes, mace heads, and bowls constructed from obsidian, alabaster, and sandstone. Spindle whorls, pendants, beads, zoomorphic figurines, a variety of bone and horn tools, and flint blades and scrapers suggest a tool kit consistent with expanding economic and ceremonial functions. Ovoid clay pellets discovered at different sites have been interpreted as sling missiles, perhaps used for defensive purposes.

Halafian ceramics are among the most sophisticated to be produced in prehistory. Pottery was fired evenly at about 900 degrees Fahrenheit (482 degrees Celsius), giving it a porcelain-like finish. Colors range from red to orange and black to brown. Vessels and plates used for ceremonies and special occasions were particularly spectacular in design, while others remained unpainted. The Burnt House at Arpachiyah, excavated by Mallowan in the 1930’s, provided ceramic examples that established the Halaf as a period of high technical achievement. Ceramics—bowls of varied styles, jars, and plates—were produced in large quantities and bore geometric, zoomorphic, and anthropomorphic motifs. At Yarim Tepe II in Iraq, the earliest pottery kilns were excavated by a Russian expedition and dated to the fifth millennium b.c.e. Halafian culture was engaged in incipient metallurgy: Small copper artifacts, as well as copper ore, were discovered at Yarim Tepe II.

Halafian village architecture does not suggest deliberate planning. Domestic structures are circular or rectilinear. Stone foundations were used on certain, but not all, units. The use of mud brick dates to the sixth millennium b.c.e. in northern Mesopotamia and is the basic construction material. The earliest Halafian dwellings were round, slightly over one yard (one meter) in diameter, with a domed or flat roof. In the fifth millennium b.c.e., rectangular, single-story structures of varied dimensions are the usual architectural form. Houses were small: At Girikihaciyan, circular dwellings ranged from about 2.5 to about 5 yards (2.25 to 4.5 meters) in diameter. Individual rooms within rectangular structures at Yarim Tepe II were about 2 yards (1.65 meters) by slightly over 1 yard (1.2 meters) in width. Halafian buildings embraced a range of shapes and room sizes: At Tell Sabi Abyad in northern Syria, one structure was 12 yards (11 meters) long by 3.5 yards (3 meters) wide and contained long, narrow rooms. It was common to plaster floors and occasionally walls by using a gypsum-based material.


Although Halafian agricultural villages convey the appearance of small mud-brick domesticate units, ovens, kilns, and granary structures, the culture approximates an intermediate stage between the small Neolithic food-producing village and the first true Mesopotamian cities. A number of evolving institutional formats attest to this: trade, craft production, property control, ideological orientation, and defense.

Regional trade, a feature of early civilization, was present in Halafian culture and is evidenced by the movement of obsidian from volcanic sources to communities that processed the raw material into a variety of products, including bowls, tools, and plaques. In addition, Halafian ceramics were distributed over northern Mesopotamia.

The use of stamping seals has an ancient lineage in Mesopotamia, including in Halafian culture. Seals of lithic (stone) material and of various shapes bore geometric motifs. These seals may reflect a developing social hierarchy that controlled certain forms of property. By late Halafian times, seals increased statistically in the archaeological record, and they probably mark an institutional transition to more complex forms of economic administration.

Halafian sites have yielded a variety of implements used in weaving: spindle whorls, bone needles, and awls. At Domuztepe, both sheep and goats were managed into advanced ages, implying that wool and hair may have been important agricultural commodities. Weaving would appear to be an element of Halafian technological development designed to meet the needs of an expanding population.

Halafian archaeological sites document the high degree of craftsmanship and technical development in stone, seals, pottery, and figurine production. Evolving social and cultural institutions are further evidenced in a complex mortuary cult. At Yarim Tepe II, burials were of numerous types: cranials, secondary, and cremations. Burial offerings of animal remains and artifacts were placed in prepared chambers. At Tell es-Sawwan, the sixth millennium b.c.e. cemetery containing four hundred graves provided evidence on a spectrum of fertility symbols and assorted offerings. D. G. Youkana, an excavator at Tell es-Sawwan, suggested that this site was the center of a mother goddess cult that stretched across northern Mesopotamia. Additionally, the economic importance of cattle may have ceremonial parallels. Artistic representations of cattle (bucranium motifs on pottery) suggests cult activity, similar to the cattle cult at Çatalhüyük, an agricultural settlement in south-central Turkey that lasted from about the eighth to the fifth millennium b.c.e. However, cattle cult shrines have not been excavated in Halafian sites.

The presence of defensive works at Tell es-Sawwan reflects increasing patterns of social complexity. A mud-brick wall, 151 yards (138 meters) in length, and a moat reveal the inhabitants’ concern for safety. Clay balls, perhaps sling missiles, were discovered in the moat.

Increasing patterns of leadership and community organization in the Halaf culture are reflected in the transport and manufacture of craft and construction materials. Cooperative labor projects are obvious in trade, agriculture, and edifices such as the Tell es-Sawwan defensive wall. However, Halafian culture lacks public architecture, occupational specialization, and elaborate social divisions based on wealth, power, and prestige.

Further Reading

  • Campbell, Stuart. “The Halaf Period in Iraq: Old Sites and New.” Biblical Archaeologist 55, no. 12 (1992): 182-187. A brief overview of Halafian culture, including modern trends in research.
  • Watson, Patty Jo, and Steven A. LeBlanc. Girikihaciyan: A Halafian Site in Southeastern Turkey. Monograph 33. Los Angeles: Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1990. A site report that discusses Halafian material culture and interprets a wide range of faunal and artifact finds. Bibliography.
  • Yaffee, Norman, and Jeffery J. Clark. Early Stages in the Evolution of Mesopotamian Civilization: Soviet Excavations in Northern Iraq. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993. A discussion of the Soviet excavation on a number of Neolithic sites in Iraq. Bibliography, index.
  • Youkana, Donny George. Tell es-Sawwan: The Architecture of the Sixth Millennium b.c.
    London: NABU Publications, 1997. An examination and comparison of Halafian architecture and material culture. Bibliography.