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Çatalhoyuk and the New Archaeology

SAUDI ARAMCO WORLD September/October 2002

"Archeologists dig, certainly. But increasingly they write, draw, or record as they dig. The process of digging is surrounded by paper, drawings, clipboards, pens and pencils, graph paper, tapes, masking tape, cameras, total stations, etc.... The processes of writing and encoding determine the way we see what we excavate."

—Ian Hodder


Three bull skulls are mounted one above the other on a mud-brick wall. Framing them, to left and right, are deep niches, in one of which is a ram's head. Directly above is a relief of a splayed human figure, its back to the wall. Two more bull skulls stare from the right, the upper one resting its chin on the other's forehead. There's not a sound. Soft window light bathes the brown-plastered room.

I half expect to hear the drumbeat of some long-lost secret ritual, but in fact it's the voice of a German tour guide that breaks the reverie. I'm at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Turkey's capital, Ankara. The scene is a popular exhibit, a reconstruction based on finds at Çatalhöyük—pronounced cha-tal hoy-ook—380 kilometers (240 mi) to the south. Ever since the first archeological excavation there in the early 1960's, this cult-like and slightly sinister presentation of the culture of Çatalhöyük has fired many an imagination, including mine.

But is this impression factual? Is it true ? It is, of course, an interpretation based on archeological evidence, one that some well-informed people believe to be possibly true. But who gathered that archeological evidence, and who read it? Might other methods of excavation, reconstruction or display argue for other interpretations? Today, what is firing imaginations is not so much Çatalhöyük's remarkable artifacts themselves but the question how archeology itself might use new methods to approach some of the oldest questions about human history: When did settled life begin, and why? Where did art begin? What about religion?

TRAVELING SOUTH from Ankara, we watch the arid brown and yellow of the Konya Plain gradually give way to fields of wheat and occasional acres of beets and watermelons, their thirst slaked by spanking new concrete aqueducts slicing up the flatness. Konya is the closest city to Çatalhöyük, and a 35-minute bus ride away lies the village of Çumra; from there we take a taxi to the site.

Çatalhöyük—the name means "fork mound" in Turkish, and may have to do with the fact that it's really two mounds separated by a watercourse—rises 21 meters (65') above the surrounding farmland. Its 20 hectares (50 ac) rise from a vast silty fan, the remains of a glacial lake formed by the waters of retreating ice sheets at the end of the last ice age. Some 8500 years ago, between 5000 and 10,000 people lived here in a city of flat-roofed mud-brick houses that were so tightly packed together that there were neither streets nor front doors. To get in and out of the houses, people climbed an indoor ladder to the roof of their house, walked across their neighbors' roofs and then climbed down another ladder through roof-holes that did double duty as smoke vents. Intriguingly, all of these roof "entrances" appear to have been located alongside the south walls of the houses.

Inside the houses, there were storerooms with raised sleeping platforms covered in reed matting. Beneath these platforms lay the bodies of the dead, who were placed there, trussed up with cords or cloth and sometimes beheaded, along with meals of lentils, grain or eggs. Every three or four generations, it seems, the wooden wall posts supporting the roof beams were pulled out, the upper walls were knocked down into the rooms, and the house was rebuilt on top of its own rubble. But it appears that before the demolition, floors, food-storage areas and firepits were swept spotless.

Thus, soot, smoke, dim lighting and in-house graves were all features of these houses—but they were also adorned with art. In each one, at least one wall was covered in white plaster and painted with vivid, realistic scenes, in one case hunters pulling the tongues and tails of deer and wild boar. Consistently, scenes involving death were placed on east and north walls, where the dead were interred, whereas scenes involving birth appeared on west walls and bulls on north walls. This consistency implies that ritual of some kind played a part in life at Çatalhöyük.

Masterly and beautiful, much of the art was painted with fine brush strokes, and some pieces used special effects, such as finely powdered mica that added glitter. Nearly all of it was intentionally impermanent, as microscopic analysis of the paint layers has shown that the walls and reliefs were plastered over annually, perhaps even seasonally, and redecorated. One wall had been repainted some 120 times.

"It's the art that makes Çatalhöyük really distinctive," says Ian Hodder as we relax on the north side of the mound, in the sunny forecourt of the complex of buildings referred to as "the dig house." Here are the laboratories, living quarters, dining room, visitors' center, archeological storage areas and a replica of a Çatalhöyük mud-brick house, all a shard's throw from the excavations.

"There are Neolithic sites a thousand years older [than Çatalhöyük], but none have the density of art, the paintings, the elaborate scenes with narrative content that tell you a story," he says.

Hodder, a quiet, boyish-looking professor of anthropology at Stanford, is the director of the Çatalhöyük Research Project. He is also arguably the world's leading theoretical archeologist. In 1993, he reopened the excavations of this site that had been abandoned in 1965. The abundance of interpretation-oriented questions that Çatalhöyük raises made it, in his opinion, an ideal place to experiment with new archeological methods rooted in the postmodern movement in the social sciences.

Since then Hodder has headed an international team comprising not just archeologists, but also anthropologists, architects, archeozoologists, archeo-botanists, geologists and dozens of other specialists from around the world—up to 110 people per season—to plumb the depths of this mound that is yielding questions and artifacts in roughly comparable abundance. Hodder estimates that there is enough work here to keep the team busy until at least 2018.

PARADOXICALLY, especially to those who are new to Hodder's methods, most of the artifacts uncovered so far, including the most stunning art, was found during the site's first excavation, in the early 1960's. At that time, Hodder was a student at University College London, listening to lectures by prominent British archeologist James Mellaart, who had discovered Çatalhöyük in 1958.

"It was a filthy November day," Mellaart recalls, "just before nightfall. We had seen the mound from a distance, on our surveys [in previous years], but it was too far to walk." But that year he had a Land Rover, so he drove over to it. "There were Neolithic pottery shards all over the place," he says. "But most were on top. So here were 20 solid meters of Neolithic material."

Mellaart, then assistant director of the British Institute in Ankara, was enthralled. It had long been thought that the birthplace of animal and plant domestication was the Fertile Crescent, a horseshoe-shaped region stretching from southeastern Iran through the Zagros Mountain foothills over to the Levant. Çatalhöyük immediately broadened that hypothesis: Here was a large, complex site, with evidence for domestication, that dated almost as far back as the earliest in the Fertile Crescent, but lay clearly outside that region. The sheer depth of the material rivaled that of Jericho.

From 1961 to 1965, Mellaart excavated more than 200 buildings. The Turkish government then ceased giving him excavation permits, in a move that caused considerable controversy and whose motives have become less and less clear through the years. Mellaart says that the volume of excavated material outstripped the Turkish museums' abilities to protect and store it.

But the site was not forgotten. "Largely because of its art, it maintained its central significance despite the discovery, over the following 30 years, of large complex sites of earlier dates in Turkey and the Near East," explains Hodder, who is fascinated by the relationship between creating art on the one hand and sedentarism—the practices of living in one place, growing crops and domesticating animals—on the other. "There is increasing evidence of elaborate symbolism associated with early sedentarism and the development of agriculture," he says.

To Mellaart, the art was the biggest surprise. On just the third day of his first excavation, he noticed red paint under a layer of wall plaster after a worker accidentally knocked a shovel against it. Intrigued, he spent several days removing the plaster layer. A picture emerged. "There was a tall man with a bow, standing behind a deer," he says. Mellaart knew of much earlier art on cave walls and rock faces, but this was the earliest known art painted by humans on houses they had built. As excavation progressed, more scenes came to light. He later wrote: "We have already seen Catal Hoyuk [sic] man as a builder, we shall now also recognize him as an artist of no mean stature, for the arts which he practised were manifold."

One of the more spectacular pieces is in the Ankara museum today. Mellaart calls it the earliest known landscape painting; others say it is perhaps the oldest known map. Almost three meters (9') long and radio-carbon dated to 6200 BC, plus or minus 97 years, it shows about 80 houses at Çatalhöyük from a vertical perspective, with a volcano, Hasan Dag, erupting in the distance. In addition, Mellaart recovered bull's heads modeled in plaster over actual skulls, reliefs of head-butting leopards and large numbers of human figurines. Made of terracotta, soft calcite, chalk, pumice, alabaster, limestone and white marble, the figurines are mostly of generously proportioned women in various postures, some apparently giving birth. One in particular, which Mellaart found in a grain bin, depicts a woman seated regally on a backless chair, her arms resting on two leopards at her side. Mellaart's interpretation, which has enjoyed wide currency, was that these were goddesses and, as such, indicators that Çatalhöyük likely had a matriarchal society.

Hodder's Çatalhöyük Research Project is looking afresh at all such interpretations, and Mellaart himself is a frequent visitor and advisor. "The aspects of Mellaart's work at Çatalhöyük which have most caught the public imagination are those concerning gender," says Naomi Hamilton, field archeologist and the site's specialist in gender-related interpretation. We're enjoying a lunch of beans, pungent local goat cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers in the dig house dining room, served by local women wearing headscarves. "We need a whole new interpretation of women's roles here," Hamilton says. In her review of Mellaart's findings, for example, she has noted that figurines from the earlier levels are unsexed. Only in later times did they become clearly female. "So there may have been some significant change in social status over a thousand years, perhaps to do with the onset of sedentarism bringing about separate roles for men and women."

Like gender-role history, the story of humanity's transition from nomadic to settled life is the fuel of many a heated debate among archeologists, and Hodder is hoping to find valuable clues at Çatalhöyük. Until recently, the common explanation for the onset of sedentarism was that it resulted from the gradual development of agriculture and the domestication of animals—the "Neolithic Revolution," as the Australian archeologist V. Gordon Childe called it. This revolution, it was thought, allowed people the previously unknown luxury of free time in which they were able to indulge creative pursuits, leading to the development of art.

Hodder, however, believes that settled life and art came long before we started planting fields.

Çatalhöyük appears the ideal site to examine this question. A technique called flotation, combined with archeobotanical analysis, has helped reveal that Çatalhöyük's early inhabitants relied extensively on wild, not cultivated, plants. And of animal-bone remains from the site, it turns out that 60 to 70 percent are from sheep and goats. These species were domesticated before 6500 BC, says Louise Martin, an archeozoologist from the University of London. "So, unless it happened independently here, they weren't domesticated at this site," she says, adding that possession of domesticated sheep and goats does not imply sedentarism, since they are herded animals. In her dig house laboratory, Martin is surrounded by thousands of bone pieces, from bull skulls to as yet unidentified one-millimeter slivers. There are cattle bones, too, but Martin says it's still too early to tell whether the cattle were wild or tame.

Standing in the afternoon breeze where his team had reopened Mellaart's excavation trenches, I ask Hodder which he thinks came first: sedentarism, domestication of animals or agriculture.

"Since Çatalhöyük, there's been a change in my mind. If agriculture didn't cause the settled life, then what did? One possibility is that sites like this were built around ritual," he says with a dimpled grin from under his straw hat. And it is in response to questions like these that postmodern methods may prove useful.

Postmodernism is all about how people go about doing archeology and then interpreting what comes out of the ground, Hodder says. It assumes that different people will see different connections among artifacts, and this affects everything from the digging process itself to the "stories" that are told in archeological reports, the popular press, books and museum displays like the one in Ankara.

In Mellaart's era at Çatalhöyük, and still today at many archeological sites, the practice seems simple, if painstaking: Excavate as much as possible in the time period allowed by the project's funding, record the artifacts and their contexts, send them to laboratories and specialists, get the "facts" about them and then write up "the story of the site." This straightforward method developed into a school of thought known as processualism, which meant the study of the process by which humans adapted to their environment. It assumed an objective nature inherent in the scientific process. As Mellaart says, "At Çatalhöyük, you had all the resources you needed to stay sedentary—a river famous for its trout, an abundance of natural plants and animals, obsidian and timber all within reach. This was why they settled here." But processualism leaves little room to explain the emergence of non-material things, like art or the early expressions of religious sentiment.

Led by Hodder, the postmodernists assume that their scientific, archeological process is ultimately a subjective one in which "facts" are inflected by how, and by whom, the archeology is carried out. For example, an archeologist might identify a layer of pebbles—which may or may not have been put down intentionally—as a "hearth," and thus influence his own or another archeologist's identification of a shard of pottery found on that layer as a "kitchen vessel." The postmodernists hold that such identifications are not fact, but interpretation.

Hodder is convinced that such "trowel's edge" interpretation, in order to be more accurate than any one archeologist can achieve, should involve input from as many sources as possible. This is, he explains, a kind of globalization of archeology. "Few archeologists today work in an environment in which there are not multiple voices and conflicting interests," he wrote in the British journal Antiquity. "The need to cooperate with indigenous groups, land rights issues, feminist archeology—all these are examples of the opening up of archeology to a wider set of interests."

So here at Çatalhöyük, he's taking unusual steps. For example, he's elicited comments from local villagers to help interpret finds. Team member Ayfer Bartu, a social anthropologist from Koç, University in Istanbul, explains how a local woman asked her, "Don't you know what that plant is used for?" and thus provided a possible explanation of what it was used for 6000 years ago. Hodder calls this use of many voices "multivocality."

The experiments with multivocality "allow for a certain amount of diversity right from the start of the process," says Cornelius Holtorf, an archeologist at Cambridge University. "There is no reason why a site like Çatalhöyük ought to be given to the academics alone. I think it's welcome because it raises the right sort of issues about what we do on excavation, and how we get to the claims and statements we make."

Each day, the various technical specialists take tours of the excavation units to observe what's happening and to offer their opinions of what an artifact may represent. These discussions guide the ongoing digging. The entire project database, including all the researchers' diaries, has been placed on the project website and cross-referenced internally, inviting comments from a variety of people, from academics to New Agers and corporate sponsors, the world over. It makes archeology considerably more labor-intensive, but Hodder and other advocates maintain that it's necessary to do the job right, as each commenter's point of view carries the prospect of new, potentially valuable insight.

Anthropologists have been enlisted to watch everyone at the dig, including the villagers, and observe qualities and patterns of interactions. Specialists' and locals' views are videotaped and placed on CD-ROM. Sets of observations and data inputs are brought together in regular roundtable sessions to distill the best possibilities. In this way, the process of archeology is being redesigned to bring disparate views together and open everything to multiple interpretations and cross-examination. Hodder calls this "reflexive archeology"—an archeology that watches itself at work and is aware of the relationships among processes and conclusions.

BUT IT’S NOT all a rosy path to a brave new archeological world. "More effort goes into managing the documentation than the site," says Holtorf. "People may spend more time watching videos of each other and navigating through huge archives than looking at particular features of the site." It also makes for an agonizingly slow process: Mellaart excavated 200 buildings in five seasons; Hodder's team has excavated just three since 1995.

But, as field director Shahina Farid points out, it's high-quality research. "It used to be, 'Just get the artifact out and deal with the interpretations later,'" she says. "But here we have an entirely different thought process. I've never excavated so intensively. For two inches of depth we have 20 or 30 recordings to do."

There are other benefits to slowing down: For example, proper conservation of finds takes time, too. With the Turkish government hoping to make Çatalhöyük a major destination on the tourist route between Cappadocia and the Mediterranean resorts to the south, preservation is a top priority. The heat of the Konya Plain sucks the moisture out of artifacts, paintings and walls, drawing out salts, which crack and delaminate surfaces. "Upon exposure, the flesh-coloured bodies turned brown and the pinks either turned gray or faded completely," wrote Mellaart of the paintings as his crew raced against time to bring them out. And now it's more than just an exposure problem: A new regional water-management system on the plain is lowering the water table. After millennia of preservation in a naturally sealed, anaerobic environment, artifacts may be deteriorating even before they are excavated.

I stand with Hodder at the edge of a gaping hole six meters (20') deep that's propped with a stout steel structure to keep the sides from falling in. "This is our deep sounding," he explains. "The bottom here is 9500 years old," he says. When Mellaart attempted his deep sounding (a technique for going as deep as possible to quickly determine the earliest level of a site), it flooded with groundwater only three meters down.

"Let's go over to the west mound," says Hodder. We cross a thin, dusty, dry creek bed. "This side is not as old," he says. "But that doesn't mean it's any less interesting. We're looking for some continuity with the east mound." The west mound is dated to the Chalcolithic Period (so called because the earliest use of copper occurred then), roughly a thousand years later than the east mound. It's the second season on this mound spent excavating a single house. It appears to be smaller than those on the east mound, but it contains more rooms, and it seems to have had the same roof entry. "We haven't found any paintings yet, but we have elaborate pottery with the same bulls and leopard designs as the house walls of the east mound," Hodder says. "We haven't encountered any burials under the floors here either. Perhaps there was a community cemetery. The house may have become less important symbolically. They may have been evolving from a house-based society to a village-based one, with exchange and task specialization." Every archeologist speculates, he says, and this is exactly the kind of preliminary interpretation that, instead of being codified in official papers and museum display boards, is instead raw material for the challenges of multidisciplinary analysis, reflexivity and multivocality.

I TAKE A LAST STROLL through the fields around the mound with David Shankland, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Wales who has been studying the villagers of nearby Küçüköy. He tells me that, as much as the team has been interested in the villagers' observations about the finds, many of them have shown little interest in the excavation.

"What's the value of having them interpret findings, then?" I ask.

"Excellent question," he replies. "That makes you another voice cross-examining our interpretations. Now you're part of our multivocality!"

Photographed by Mehmet Biber
Additional illustrations by John-Gordon Swogger
Additional photographs by Çatalhöyük Research Project

Archeologist and writer Graham Chandler ( ) lives in Calgary. He first visited Çatalhöyük in 1994.

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