'There were rules, and they were not just aesthetic rules'

Haifa archaeologists look to crack mysterious 6,500-year-old ‘Triangle Code’

A study of basalt vessels shows the ancient bowls found across the Levant were centrally produced, but the discovery of a series of strange markings may point to a deeper meaning

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

An unusual Chalcolithic period bowl example in which the entire surface is covered with triangles. (University of Haifa excavation team)
An unusual Chalcolithic period bowl example in which the entire surface is covered with triangles. (University of Haifa excavation team)

Mysterious triangular marks on hundreds of 6,500-year-old basalt vessels make for a fascinating Stone Age Da Vinci Code. A couple of years ago while hunched over her microscope at the University of Haifa, graduate student Rikva Chasan began to notice on the inside rims of countless stone bowls a plethora of previously undocumented, methodically incised small triangles.

Chasan is working as part of a multi-year international interdisciplinary project conducted by the university’s laboratory for ground stone tools research that is tracking the provenance of these basalt vessels across the ancient Levant in order to show socioeconomic changes in the Chalcolithic period, circa 4,500 BCE – 3,900 BCE.

According to Prof. Danny Rosenberg, head of the laboratory for ground stone tools research in the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology, the exploration into the provenance of the basalt vessels will allow the international team to reconstruct ancient trade routes in the ancient Levant and find quarries and production sites.

But in analyzing the “Triangle Code” — as the university press office is cheekily calling the discovery — it appears the researchers have uncovered something more existential.

Examples of the unified Chalcolithic ‘triangle code.’ (University of Haifa excavation team)

“The basalt vessels are one lens, one view point in which we can understand the greater picture” of the Chalcolithic period, Chasan told The Times of Israel. It is an era on the seam, sitting between purely stone technology and early copper metallurgy, and the studied vessels were found at Israel Antiquities Authority excavations across a relatively broad swath of the region — from the Negev to the Golan.

Chasan postulates that the clearly coordinated decorations depict the start of a crafts specialization that crossed regional zones. This is a show of interesting broad-strokes cultural cooperation during what is considered a smaller, more “chieftain-level of society,” she said, in which the people were early farmers and herders.

“The basalt vessels tie it together… and unite the different communities,” she said. The consistently similar decorations provide evidence of “a shared value of the communities,” she said, which would have been very isolated from each other.

Chasan, who grew up in New Jersey and moved to Israel 3.5 years ago for graduate school, studied the 6,500-year-old basalt stone vessels for her masters thesis. As she compared examples from different sites, she realized that regardless of where they were found in prehistoric Israel, the uniformly decorated bowls were incised with small downward-pointing triangles.

Beginning in the 1930s, previous researchers had noted decorations on the basalt vessels, found at hundreds of sites in the ancient Levant — Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. But not the shape of them.

University of Haifa PhD student Rivka Chasan excavates at Tel Tsaf in 2017. (courtesy)

According to Rosenberg, the triangles point to a “super-social symbolic structure” which, similar to Jewish law, set behaviors of the Chalcolithic people.

“Like in Judaism, they had rules and conventions they had to follow in terms of the symbols,” he said. Obviously the artisans could have depicted other symbols and shapes — but they didn’t. “They’re all the same size, facing down, nearly always in the inside. There were rules, and they were not just aesthetic rules. What they were for, we don’t yet know.”

What we do know

There are several takeaways from these uniformly decorated vessels: Through residue analysis, there was a clear use for the vessels and they were not just for display, said Chasan.

Unlike their flint counterparts, the basalt vessels were not made at homesteads, but in central places of manufacture. The vessels were then transported to settlements, said Rosenberg, based on a paucity of production debris at dwellings’ excavations.

In Israel, the black-colored stone is found mostly in the Jezreel Valley, the Golan and the Galilee. From evidence at dozens of excavations, the vessels were transported up to hundreds of kilometers — even though the heavy, several-kilogram vessels would have been carried by humans on foot.

According to Rosenberg, animals would not have yet been in the picture for transport. At one site in Beersheba, 10 intact basalt bowls were unearthed, which is the largest cache in the area, said Chasan. She suggested perhaps some of the transportation was done via waterways, but said there is still no evidence.

Haifa University Prof. Danny Rosenberg holds the 7,200-year-old model clay grain silo found at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley. (Haifa University)

They were a precious commodity: The process of making the basalt bowls was labor intensive. The material must first be sourced, then carefully shaped with stone tools, during which time it could easily crack, said Rosenberg.

“Not every flint napper can make them… One wrong hit and it’s over,” said Rosenberg. The artisans who created them invested time and effort. And that’s even before adding the decorative triangles.

The small triangles are consistently carved out at a depth of about 1 millimeter and later smoothed out.

“Typically you have in a good Chalcolithic triangle this V-shaped form, and within it are hatches that usually angle from the upper right to the lower left. The number of hatches inside is variable, with an average of ten,” said Chasan.

Chasan attempted to replicate the process of making a similar triangular shape on pre-smoothed basalt stone and found it took about six minutes. “!It’s not the most beautiful triangle anyone’s ever seen,” she laughed, “but if you factor in more skilled craftsmen, it would be a few hours of work for the triangle decorations alone. For the vessel itself, it would be several days’ work,” which could involve several people, she said.

Examples of the unified Chalcolithic ‘triangle code.’ (University of Haifa excavation team)

For Chasan, one area of exploration is why would these prehistoric peoples make such labor intensive stone vessels, when pottery was also used during this time and is much less difficult to work. “It is a much faster process, we have clay nearly everywhere, and it can be streamlined: one person can theoretically make the vessel from start to finish,” she said.

Because the stone vessels continued to be produced even after other types of technology could have made them obsolete, “there has to be an element of tradition,” she said. “Even when they don’t need them, they continue making them, perhaps because someone’s ancestors made them,” she postulated.

Across the ancient Levant, these bowls were discovered, often alongside other precious materials such as ivory from hippos or elephants (which were not indigenous in the region at this time), and copper artifacts.

What do the triangles mean?

The symbolic meaning of triangles has been theorized across many cultures, said Chasan. “When people see triangles, they are very quick to jump to fertility,” she laughed, because the vagina is often represented by the shape.

Other suggestions include a clan crest, a seal, or a manufacturer’s mark. But in each culture, she said, the shape holds its own meaning and there’s not one theory she particularly promotes.

University of Haifa PhD student Rivka Chasan in front of a microscope at the lab on January 30, 2019. (courtesy)

“When I started my masters, I was interested in looking at standardization and regional variation to discuss difference in group identity. But there isn’t so much variation [in the triangles] when we look at the entire spectrum. People from Tel Aviv and the Beersheba area have vessels that speak the exactly the same language,” she said. “They were using decorations that look exactly the same.”

For Chasan, the triangles’ mere existence has meaning alongside their symbolic import.

“The fact that people were making the effort to make this decoration when decoration is not utilitarian, functional, speaks to the fact that the decoration itself serves some function for them,” she said.

In a time of prehistory in which there was no writing, perhaps the diagonal hatches inside the triangles, whose number varied from piece to piece, carried some kind of meaning or were meant to record specific events, she said.

An unusual Chalcolithic period bowl example in which the entire surface is covered with triangles. (University of Haifa excavation team)

“For me they had to have represented something. It’s not like now where people are wasting time on nothing. There was no Facebook, they weren’t in front of the computer all day. These were busy people doing agriculture. It has to say something to the people there,” she said.

Since the standardized shapes were found from the Negev to the north, it’s clear, said Rosenberg, that the settlements wanted “to be part of a general symbolic world… part of the same general global group.”

However, putting it bluntly, Rosenberg added, “We don’t have a clue why they chose to produce triangles and the diagonal lines. No clue.”

The University of Haifa research of the triangles will be published in an upcoming edition of the academic journal the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

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