/ 11 October 2007

‘World’s oldest’ wall painting found in Syria

French archaeologists say they have excavated an 11 000-year-old wall painting in red, black and white in northern Syria that they describe as the oldest in the world, although it resembles a modern work.

The two-square-metre painting was found below ground at the Neolithic settlement of Djade al-Mughara on the Euphrates, north-east of the city of Aleppo, mission head Eric Coqueugniot said.

“It looks like a modernist painting. Some of those who saw it have likened it to work by Klee. Through carbon dating we established it is from around 9000 BC,” Coqueugniot said.

“We found another painting next to it, but that won’t be excavated until next year. It is slow work,” added Coqueugniot, who works at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.

He was referring to Swiss-German artist Paul Klee, who had links with the Bauhaus school, a main player in the German modernist movement.

Rectangles dominate the ancient painting, which formed part of an adobe circular wall of a large house with a wooden roof at the 15 000-square-metre site. Excavations have been going on at the site since the early 1990s.

The painting has been recovered for now and will be moved to the Aleppo museum next year, Coqueugniot said. Its red colours came from burnt hematite rock, crushed limestone formed the white and charcoal provided black.

The world’s previously known oldest painting on a constructed wall was found in Turkey but came 1 500 years after the one at Djade al-Mughara, according to Science magazine.

The inhabitants of Djade al-Mughara lived off hunting and wild plants. They resembled modern-day humans in looks but did not know agriculture or domestication, Coqueugniot said.

“There was a purpose in having the painting in what looked like a communal house, but we don’t know it. The village was later abandoned and the house stuffed with mud,” he said.

A large number of flints and weapons have been found at the site as well as human skeletons buried under houses.

“This site is one of several Neolithic villages in modern day Syria and southern Turkey. They seem to have communicated with each other and had peaceful exchange,” Coqueugniot said.

Syria’s other Neolithic sites have yielded finds on display at the National Museum in Damascus, such as a 74cm limestone obelisk of a bird, a colourful stone bracelet and a tiny statue of a mother goddess.

France is a main contributor to excavation efforts in Syria, where 120 missions are at work. Syria, which was at the crossroads of the ancient world, has thousands of mostly unexcavated archaeological sites.