In the last decade the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic has undertaken a number of projects to develop the economy of the country. The most important of these has been the construction of a dam on the Euphrates at Tabqa (fig. 1), 40 km upstream from Raqqa. This project will bring great economic benefits to Syria but, as the valley behind the dam fills with water, many ancient sites will be drowned. Because very little was known about the archaeology of this stretch of the Euphrates the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria organised an international programme of surveys and excavations to recover as much information as possible about past human settlement in the valley before the dam was completed. This programme has yielded excellent results; important sites in almost every period from the prehistoric to the Islamic have been discovered and excavated. The work has been carried out by the Syrian authorities themselves and fifteen other teams. We were asked to excavate a prehistoric site as our contribution to the programme and so in 1971 we made a brief survey of the valley to look for a site.
Pioneer surveys and excavations by de Contenson and others had established an outline of the later prehistory of Syria. Neolithic settlements (fig. 2) had been excavated at Ras Shamra (Schaeffer 1962, 153 ff.) and Tabbat el-Hammam (Braidwood 1940, 196 ff.) on the coast, Tell Ramad (de Contenson 1971, 279 ff.) and other smaller sites near Damascus, and Buqras (de Contenson and van Liere 1966, 182 ff.) in the Euphrates valley. From these excavations the later Neolithic of the sixth millennium bc and after was relatively well-known. This was the period when ‘dark-faced burnished ware’, the earliest pottery found in Syria, was first made. The archaeological sequence could be taken further back as seventh millennium aceramic Neolithic levels had been found at Ras Shamra, Ramad and Buqras. Then there was a gap in the sequence, representing the earlier seventh and the later eighth millennia bc. Only one earlier site was known; this was Mureybat which had been discovered when the first surveys of the Tabqa dam area were made (Rihaoui 1965, 106; van Loon 1967, 15). The first campaign of excavations here, directed by van Loon, had revealed tantalising remains of a settlement dating from 8000 bc (van Loon 1968, Table 1), the very beginning of the Neolithic in Syria.