Sea shells on the riverside: Cowrie ornaments from the PPNB site of Tell Halula (Euphrates, northern Syria)

Hala Alarashi, Anabel Ortiz, Miquel Molist

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearch

9 Citations (Scopus)


© 2018 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) site of Tell Halula in the middle Euphrates valley has yielded large quantities of cowrie shells used in the composition of belts and diadems. These shells were discovered in burials as complete items composing ornaments and in outdoor contexts as broken halves. In this paper we shed light on a little known PPNB ornamental practice; the acquisition and display of exotic cowrie shells. Through the multi-approached study of these ornaments, the objective is to contribute to the understanding of the socioeconomic, technological, and symbolic behaviors of the earliest farming societies in northern Mesopotamia and the Levant. Three species of cowries were identified, two originated from the Red Sea and one from the Mediterranean. The technological study indicated two possible methods of perforation and two qualities of finishing, whereas the use-wear analyses detected gradual degrees of marked use (notches) and distinguished thereby two categories of ornaments, the equally and unequally worn ornaments. When combined to metric and to technological data, the unequally worn ornaments appear to be the result of dynamic replacements of broken shells with undamaged ones. Such strategies of maintenances likely ensured a long-term use of cowrie ornaments, highlighting thereby their value. At Tell Halula, people displayed the impressive and exotic cowrie ornaments during their lifetime certainly to claim a strong cultural identity within an open and interconnected Neolithic world, in which the village of Tell Halula had a strategic and important role to play. This community may have also attributed prophylactic qualities to cowrie ornaments, as they were sometimes associated with individuals presenting lesions of diseases. Finally, the types of the ornament (belt or diadem) could have been chosen to distinguish social categories determined by the age of the individuals.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)98-112
JournalQuaternary International
Publication statusPublished - 10 Oct 2018


  • Cowrie shells
  • Mediterranean
  • Pre-pottery Neolithic B
  • Red Sea
  • Technology
  • Use-wear


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