BMCR 2003.09.40

Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture

, Dancing at the dawn of agriculture. Austin: TX: University of Texas Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xviii, 326 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0292798687 $49.95.

The process by which some humans settled in one location and began to cultivate crops and rear animals is undoubtedly a major event in the history of the planet. It has remained a focus for archaeological research since Gordon Childe (1936) defined the debate in the first decades of the twentieth century. Much has been written on this issue, some of it standing the withering test of time and scholarly rebuke. The volume under review draws our attention to what may have been a previously neglected aspect of this process.

Garfinkel states his hypothesis from the outset. He argues on the basis of Neolithic painted ceramic sherds, terracottas, and incised stones that dance spread with the introduction of agriculture from the Near East to Europe and that it was an important social or pubic ritual and a key element in communication. To elucidate upon this, in Chapter 1, he defines nine principal aims for his volume: the analysis of relevant data, a methodological framework for the depiction of dance, structural analysis of dance, cultic nature of dancing, clarification of linguistic aspects of dance, functional analysis of dance, replacement of the dance motif, cognitive aspects of the dancing scenes and communicative aspects of dance. These aspects are examined though an analysis of a catalogue that forms the bulk of the book.

Chapters 2 to 4 respond to these stated aims. For example, a structural analysis examines the anatomical structure for the ‘dancing’ figures. He notes (pp. 29-30) nine major variations for arm position and five variations in leg position. These combine to twenty-four major positions which are then assessed quantitatively so that position 1 (two arms bent and up and both legs bent and down) accounts for the single most important configuration (27%). He also deals with what he considers to be the gender of the represented individuals (actually biological sex, but he does not differentiate the two). He concludes (p. 49-53) that female representation declines the further one moves away from the Neolithic. On this basis, he concludes that ‘women actually played major roles in dancing activities and rituals of the early phases of the agricultural revolution, but later their position was taken over my men’ (p. 53). On the basis of non-figurative decoration on ceramics, Garfinkel also addresses the location for dance in Neolithic communities. Net covered rectangles on sherds from Tell Halaf in northern Mesopotamia, Tepe Hissar in Iran and Teleilat Ghassul in Jordan suggest to him that the dance took place in a cultic structure (p. 55). It might also be possible to determine the time of dance: the use of black silhouettes on sherds might indicate that dance was conducted at night when, ‘in the light of a fire or the moon, humans would like shadows, with no internal details’ (p. 57).

Chapter 5 consists of the conclusions to the volume. These can be summarised as follows: dances were mainly done in circles; they were counter-clockwise; contact between dancers existed on several levels; dancers could be clothed or nude; masks and fancy dress may have been used; dance was highly formalised; men and women danced separately; dancing was conducted in the open and, finally, dance seems to have been conducted at night (p. 99). I will not detail how each of these conclusions was reached but by focussing on the issue of directionality, Garfinkel’s methodology can be illuminated. That dance was done in circles is indicated by the fact that the dancing figures are represented around vessels. The regularity in representation (e.g. equal distance between each figure) indicates the circularity of the dance. Clockwise or counter-clockwise is indicated by the direction in which the figures face: e.g. the figures are dancing clockwise if they are on the exterior of the vase facing left or the interior of the vase facing right. These arguments are presented as self-evident; without reference to alternative methodologies or mitigating variables. For example, that vessels are nearly always circular because they are produced on a wheel and that the function of the vessel (whether or not it is an open or closed shape) will dictate where the decoration occurs are not discussed. Finally, due attention is not paid to the effects of Garfinkel’s very small sample: there are 65 circular dance representations from Iran to the Balkans covering a period of about 4000 years.

The reminder of the volume (Chapter 6 to 13) is a catalogue that forms the substantive data on which the hypothesis rests. It is divided into geographical and chronological themes. Garfinkel has done an extraordinary service to the Academy by drawing together Neolithic material from as far east as Mehrgarh in Pakistan to Kolesovice in the Balkans. Very clear maps indicate the position of settlements, and relevant sherds are presented in black and white photos and line drawings. The catalogue is well-referenced and free of errors.

This volume is another attempt to behaviourally homogenize the process of incipient agriculture that began about 9000 years ago. One could highlight Gimbutas as an early exponent of this with her theories concerning the position of women and the Mother Goddess in pre-Neolithic societies (Gimbutas 1989). Garfinkel’s attempt to shift our perspective on the agricultural revolution from an economic to a socio-behavioural or cognitive perspective is laudable. There is little doubt that the introduction of agriculture did indeed result in profound changes in social behaviour and organisation. These have been well highlighted in analysis of architectural and funerary remains from this period (e.g. Byrd 1994; Kuijt 1996). Furthermore, one cannot simply dismiss Garfinkel’s interpretation of painted sherds as representing dancers. It is entirely possible that some of the decoration does represent this. However, to this reviewer’s mind the decoration found on painted sherds from Choga Sefid in Iran (9.2) is most likely a series of straight lines with intersecting waves. They are not dancers, nor should they be compared to figures from pre-dynastic Egyptian pottery which clearly show two individuals standing in a boat. An alternative view would emphasize that when clearly human figures do occur, they have little in common beyond marking an attempt by humans to draw someone’s most visible features: torso, body, heads and arms; in itself an interesting cognitive development. It is, however, the hypothesis that these figures do invariably represent dancers and that this should form the basis for a relatively expensive book that is its major downfall. In seeking to present an alternative to scholarship that has emphasized the purely economic aspect of the agricultural revolution, Garfinkel has over-stated what may have been an interesting idea, worthy of very cautious presentation in a scholarly journal.


Byrd BF. 1994: ‘Public and Private, Domestic and Corporate: The Emergence of the Southwest Asian Village.’ American Antiquity, 59 (4): 639-666.

Childe G. Man Makes Himself. London: Mentor.

Gimbutas M. The Language of the Goddess. London: Thames and Hudson.

Kuijt I. 1996: ‘Negotiating Equality through Ritual: A Consideration of Late Natufian and Pre-pottery Neolithic A Period Mortuary Practices.’ Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 15(4): 313-336.