At Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic site in Turkey, families packed their mud-brick houses close together and traipsed over roofs to climb into their rooms from above.By Ian Hodder
Except for the maps, all photos and illustrations © the Çatalhöyük Research Project (www.catalhoyuk.com) very summer since 1993 I have returned to central Turkey to work on the archaeological excavation of a mound nearly seventy feet high. As I tread over its soil, I feel a tingling in my feet, knowing that buried beneath me are the abundant remains of a town inhabited from 9,400 until 8,000 years ago. Rising just 500 feet to my west is a second, smaller mound, which was occupied from about 8,000 until 7,700 years ago. The archaeological site made up of the two mounds is still no more than 5 percent exposed. Until the digs began, an old footpath made a fork at the mounds, and so the larger one became known locally as Çatalhöyük (pronounced approximately cha-tal-HU-yuk), which means “fork mound.” The archaeological site has adopted that name.
Çatalhöyük was first identified and excavated in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the English archaeologist James Mellaart. His excavations revealed fourteen levels of occupation in the larger mound, created as people tore down old houses, filled them in, and built new ones on top. Altogether, Mellaart excavated about 160 buildings, spread over the various levels. Each building probably housed a family of between five and ten people. One main room was the locus of family living, cooking, eating, craft activities, and sleeping, and there were side rooms for storage and food preparation.
Wall painting, some 8,500 years old, was discovered by the English archaeologist James Mellaart in the 1960s, during his excavations of the Turkish site of Çatalhöyük. In Mellaart’s interpretation of the painting, the foreground shows a town, possibly Çatalhöyük itself, with the eruption, in the background, of a twin-peaked volcano, perhaps Hasan Dağ (see map below). Mellaart’s reconstruction of the painting appears at the head of the article.
Mellaart’s excavations turned up evidence that the people of Çatalhöyük made use of domesticated plants and animals. The finding excited wide interest, because it meant that very early farming villages grew up not only in the Levant and adjacent areas of the Middle East, where wild plants and animals were first domesticated, but also here, in Anatolia. But even more astonishing were some other distinctive characteristics of Çatalhöyük that Mellaart was the first to describe. The houses of Çatalhöyük were so tightly packed together that there were few or no streets. Access to interior spaces was across roofs—which had been made of wood and reeds plastered with mud—and down stairs. People buried their dead beneath the floors. Above all, the interiors were rich with artwork—mural paintings, reliefs, and sculptures, including images of women that some interpreted as evidence for a cult of a mother goddess.
Çatalhöyük was quite large for a town of Neolithic age—the time from about 11,500 to 8,000 years ago, when people began living in relatively permanent villages and making use of domesticated crops and animals. The population fluctuated between 3,000 and 8,000; in physical area the large mound encompassed some 33.5 acres. Unsurprisingly then, despite excavating for four years, Mellaart uncovered only a small part of the town. The current dig, which I direct, has excavated or determined the outlines of eighty more buildings and has identified four additional levels of occupation in the larger mound. Yet as I walk over that mound, I am well aware that thousands of buildings are still hidden beneath the soil, full of art and symbolism, waiting to be explored.
Archaeologists do know a lot more now than they did at the time of Mellaart’s discovery about other Anatolian settlements dating from the Neolithic. But for any student of that era—myself included—Çatalhöyük and its mysteries hold a special appeal. What led to the concentration of art in so many houses at one site? Why was the settlement so large—what drew people to that particular place? And how much can be learned from what is perhaps the most intriguing feature of all about Çatalhöyük: that the site was built and rebuilt over the centuries in ways that provide an unusually rich record of the minutiae of daily life?
The main reason for the abundance of the archaeological record was that the Çatalhöyükans used a particular kind of construction material. Instead of making hard, lime floors that held up for decades (as was the case at many sites in Anatolia and the Middle East), the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük made their floors mostly out of a lime-rich mud plaster, which remained soft and in need of continual resurfacing. Once a year—in some cases once a month—floors and wall plasters had to be resurfaced. Those thin layers of plaster, somewhat like the growth rings in a tree, trap traces of activity in a well-defined temporal sequence. The floors even preserve such subtle tokens of daily life as the impressions of floor mats. Middens are just as finely layered, making it possible to identify details as subtle as individual dumps of trash from a hearth.
When a house reached the end of its practical life, people demolished the upper walls and carefully filled in the lower half of the house, which then became the foundation for new walls of a new house. The mound itself came into being largely through such gradual accumulation. Taking it apart enables us to revisit the past.
Çatalhöyük lies in the Konya Basin, which in Neolithic times was mostly a semiarid plain with steppe vegetation: grasses, sedges, and small bushes [see maps below]. The soil, the residue from a vanished lake, was made up of marls—deposits of clay with high levels of calcium carbonate. Its consistency and low nutrient value made the soil unsuitable for early forms of agriculture. The basin, however, included some marshy areas, several rivers, and, perhaps, some small, shallow, seasonal lakes. In any event, there were deposits of alluvial soil that were more hospitable than the marls to early farmers and herders.
Site of Çatalhöyük, located in the semiarid Konya Basin of Anatolia (now central Turkey), comprises two mounds that accumulated as the settlement’s inhabitants repeatedly built, tore down, and rebuilt their mud-brick houses. The eastern mound, dating from 9,400 until 8,000 years ago, has two "peaks," suggesting that the population may have been divided into two intermarrying kin groups. The western mound was occupied from about 8,000 until 7,700 years ago. Maps by Joe LeMonnier (www.mapartist.com)
One of the rivers in the Konya Basin was the Çarşamba, which spewed out into the plain and did not link to any other river system. Çatalhöyük was founded on its east bank, most likely on a small existing rise. (The river no longer runs by the site, having been diverted into irrigation channels.) The site would have been surrounded by marshy swamps in the spring, the results of the river’s seasonal flooding.
Those observations partly explain the original siting of the town: Çatalhöyük was built where it was because, in a semiarid environment, people sought access to water and to soils as rich as possible in nutrients. But in that context, one of our recent findings carries surprising implications.
To learn where the crop plants found at Çatalhöyük were grown, we examined the evidence for phytoliths—silica skeletons that form inside and sometimes around the cells of grasses and other plants. Grasses that grow in moist, clay-rich soils have more soluble silica available for forming phytoliths than do grasses that grow in well-drained, dry-land soils. As a result, large, composite phytoliths form in grasses from moist, clay-rich soils, built up from as many as a hundred or more adjacent cells. Given the ground conditions around Çatalhöyük, we expected to see evidence of such large phytoliths. But a sample of wheat-husk phytoliths studied by Arlene Rosen, an archaeologist at University College London, showed relatively few multicell clusters, suggesting that the wheat was cultivated in dry-land soils—and so not near the mound. Thus at least some of the agricultural fields appear to have been placed well away from the site.
That finding suggested the question “why here?” might require a more complex answer. The wet marshes surrounding Çatalhöyük would certainly have offered a wide range of wild food resources, from fish and the eggs of waterfowl (both of which have been found on the site) to wild cattle and other mammals attracted by the water and by the fresh graze that grew on the alluvium. Another attraction of the site might have been ready access to construction materials, which included the reeds people weaved into matting and incorporated into roofing and the mud made into bricks and plaster. In one area we excavated to the north of the large mound, we discovered many pits where the inhabitants had cut through a thin layer of alluvium in order to extract the underlying lime-rich marls. Fragments scattered in the middens show that in the earliest levels of the site, floors were constructed out of hard, fired-lime plaster, but in later levels, the softer lime-rich mud plaster makes its appearance on the walls and floors. Firing lime requires a lot of fuel, and my guess is that the process became impractical because local sources of wood were used up.
In fact, there is good evidence that the Çatalhöyükans engaged in long-distance trade. Date-palm phytoliths at the site indicate that storage baskets were brought to Çatalhöyük from Mesopotamia or the Levant; shells suggest trade from the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; obsidian undoubtedly came from Cappadocia, a region about ninety miles to the northeast; oak and other timber must have come from at least as far as the nearest upland, six miles away. But the Çatalhöyük economy was still primarily a subsistence one. The Çatalhöyükans grew their own cereals, such as emmer wheat, and legumes, such as peas and lentils; they raised their own sheep and goats; and, to a lesser extent, they hunted wild cattle.
Excavations of the East Mound of Çatalhöyük, done by Mellaart in the 1960s, show that the buildings on the 33.5-acre mound were packed close together, without intervening streets or alleyways. Access to house interiors was originally across the roofs and down a stairway.
Archaeologists today automatically assume that people cluster at a site not only for proximity to resources, but also for social reasons. For example, people may want to organize their labors, take part in community-wide rituals, or provide for defense against a common enemy. And some sites in Anatolia, earlier than Çatalhöyük, clearly emphasize that collective spirit. Art is concentrated in special ritual buildings, houses are laid out in zones, and human skulls are sometimes buried communally.
In contrast, a good case can be made that many aspects of life at Çatalhöyük were organized at the domestic, or household, scale. Brian F. Byrd, an archaeologist with the Far Western Anthropological Research Group in Davis, California, has noted that during the Neolithic there was a general shift in the southern Levant toward greater autonomy and complexity at the household level. A similar historical shift can be readily traced in central Anatolia. For example, at Aşıklı Höyük, a site dating from about 10,700 until 9,300 years ago, there are ceremonial buildings, but the houses are much less elaborate than the ones at Çatalhöyük, where a wide range of functions, from burial, ritual, and art to storage, manufacture, and production were more clearly drawn into the house.
Other evidence we have assembled is consistent with the view that the autonomous household at Çatalhöyük was the primary social unit. In size, for instance, Çatalhöyük might have been a town, but despite taking careful samples from the surface of the mound, we have found no evidence for public spaces, administrative buildings, or elite homes or quarters. There were no streets, and in fact the buildings were embedded in extensive midden areas piled with trash, fecal material, and rotting organic material—not at all in accord with modern sensibilities. Perhaps it is little wonder that access to the houses was along the roofs and down some stairs!
The autonomy of the Çatalhöyük household is also reflected in how rarely two buildings shared a wall: even though houses might be just a few inches apart, people built and maintained their own walls. Each house was built with bricks of distinct composition or shape. The bins in the houses suggest they all had a similar storage capacity for agricultural produce. And each house seems to have had its own hearth, oven, obsidian cache, storage rooms, work rooms, and so on, for the inhabitants’ own activities. Yet despite the central role of the individual household, my colleagues and I see hints that Çatalhöyükans were divided into two large groups throughout most of the time it was occupied. The contour of the larger mound reveals two built-up areas, a northern one and a southern one, with a gully between them. A possible explanation is that Çatalhöyük was an endogamous culture, or in other words, people married within the settlement. It may have been organized, as are many other traditional societies, into two intermarrying kinship groups. Surveys in the plain around Çatalhöyük have turned up earlier and later sites, but none of them seem to have flourished at the same time—further evidence that marriage was probably a local affair.
The standard house had one main room, which accommodated an oven, a burial platform, and other platforms [see illustration below]. One or more side rooms served as storerooms, kitchen, and places for other domestic tasks. The stairs from the roof entrance—perhaps made of a log with steps notched in it—led into the main room. Walls were built of mud bricks and were windowless. On average, they were 1.3 feet thick and stood eight to ten feet high. The interior walls, floors, and posts for the roof were all plastered.
Lower parts of walls, floor, and the main furnishings of a typical house at Çatalhöyük are depicted in this artist’s reconstruction. The house was inhabited about 8,500 years ago, and excavated by the author’s team in 1998 and 1999. The floors have not yet been excavated, but on the basis of similarities with other buildings at the site, the archaeologists expect to find burials beneath the mat-covered northwest platform.
So far we have identified two kinds of cooking fires in Çatalhöyük: domed ovens were set into house walls, and hearths stood away from the walls. Collections of clay balls were often associated with the ovens. According to research by Sonya L. Atalay, an archaeologist at Stanford University, the balls were used in cooking—just as, in many traditional societies, heated stones were put in a basket or skin container to boil water, or laid out to cook meat. Because stones are in short supply at Çatalhöyük, the clay balls served the same purpose. At later levels, pottery containers, which could be placed directly over a fire, took over the heating function.
In the houses excavated so far, hearths and ovens were generally placed on the south side of the main rooms. In those areas the floor is blackened by the ash and charcoal raked out from the fires. Manufacturing activities were probably carried out there: we find evidence on the floors that obsidian was knapped, or chipped, into tools, that beads were made, that grease was extracted from animal bones. Obsidian caches, as well as depressions for holding pots and other small stores, were often built below the floors. Little or no art appears in this “dirty” zone of the main room, and the only burials here seem to have been the bodies of newborns or infants.
Skull of a male (top right), whose features had been repeatedly modeled in plaster and painted, is shown in an artist’s reconstruction. The skull was recently discovered in the burial of a female (photograph above); it may have belonged to a revered ancestor or relative of the deceased. The placement of the skull with respect to the female skeleton is shown in red outline in the diagram above.
In contrast, the plaster floors and platforms in the rest of the main room are lighter in color, and sometimes even white. Ridges or platform edges often separate this area from the “dirty” zone. The “clean” areas often have higher platforms and more painting, and they are where burials were commonly made.
What points most to a household level of social organization is the rich symbolic content of the houses. Paintings depict vultures flying over headless human bodies, suggesting the practice, adopted in some parts of the world, of setting out the deceased so that they can be naturally defleshed. Figurines depict generously proportioned females. One sculpture shows a female seated on a “throne” whose armrests are felines. Recently we unearthed a male skull, perhaps belonging to a revered ancestor, over which plaster features had been periodically modeled and painted. Eventually another person died—a female—and the skull was buried along with her [see photograph and illustrations below].
What particularly fascinates me are the many leopard motifs, including reliefs of paired leopards. The images suggest that a relationship with wild animals was a potent element in local religious ritual and belief. In line with that interpretation, the household shrines often incorporate the horns of a wild bull. In contrast, the ancient artists neglected to represent most of the more mundane activities, such as the growing of crops. The emphasis on certain themes in the art appears significant, but from our distant vantage point, we can only glimpse how the people of Çatalhöyük interpreted the world around them.
Mellaart thought that some of the buildings in the settlement, because of their decorative and symbolic contents, might have been specialized shrines. We now understand them all as houses, but with varying degrees of ritual elaboration. In the plastered floor of what we call Building 1, for example, we discovered a complete fishhook pendant made from a split boar’s tusk, apparently placed there intentionally. A small plaster sculpture in the shape of an animal horn was inserted in one wall of the main room. We also found that two holes had been dug into the walls and then plastered over; we think they were made to contain objects that were later removed.
Baked clay figurine, about eight inches tall, was discovered by Mellaart in a grain bin. It was probably deposited there as an offering or memento when, in preparation for rebuilding the house, the inhabitants tore down the upper walls and filled in the foundation. Mellaart restored the missing heads of the seated woman and one of her feline armrests.
A small fragment of a figurine made of animal horn was embedded in the material used to construct an oven in a side room. Perhaps those deposits were symbolically protective, or perhaps they represented memories, links with the past. We can’t really say, but in general terms they show that construction integrated ritual and daily practice.
One clear result of the current excavations is the demonstration that most of the burials in the houses were of individual, fully fleshed bodies. Mellaart and his team had found jumbled, disarticulated human bones beneath the platforms in the main rooms. They assumed the bodies were initially buried elsewhere and then reburied beneath the platform floors. That idea was supported by the paintings of vultures apparently picking the flesh from headless human corpses. But our work shows that many bodies were buried under the platforms intact: the joints are still articulated and the smallest bones (often lost in reburial) are present. The jumbled nature of the bones beneath some platforms, we have concluded, was the result of inserting later graves within the same platform, a frequent practice.
Perhaps the most telling evidence for the symbolic importance of the house in life at Çatalhöyük is the meticulous procedure the inhabitants followed when—for structural or other reasons—they decided a house had to be torn down and rebuilt. To prepare for rebuilding, workers first cleaned and scoured the walls and plaster features of the original house. Then they removed the roof, dug out the main support posts, and dismantled the walls, usually down to a height of three or four feet. Fixtures such as ovens and decorative or ritual elements were often removed or truncated. The old house was then filled with a mixture of building materials, often very carefully. For example, to preserve the dome of the oven in one building, soil was fed in through the side opening. The fill material commonly included various artifacts—bone points, hunks of obsidian, stone axes. How many such objects were ritual placements as opposed to accidental losses is not always clear, but there are patterns to the work. The enthroned female figurine with felines, which Mellaart discovered in a bin, seems to have been placed there for some symbolic motive.
Before the current project began excavating houses in 1995, I had assumed we would just dig down and find houses frozen in time, static entities rather like the ones I had seen represented in Mellaart’s reconstructions. But what we really discovered were processes. The new excavations show how the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük were always tinkering with the internal details of their homes.
Excavators recently unearthed this two-inch-wide stamp or seal, probably used for imprinting cloth or skin. It appears to represent a bear. Excavators had previously found sculptured reliefs inside the houses, with similarly posed limbs, but the heads and hands had always been removed. Some had interpreted them as goddess figures. Now it is assumed that they, too, were animal images.The various areas of a house might have had prescribed differences in flooring, height, color, plaster, matting, and so forth. But there were also continual adjustments in the course of daily life, as the spaces were remade, reworked, moved, or used for different purposes.
Can we begin to understand what it was like to live in the houses of Çatalhöyük? It is often said that they were dark inside. But an experimental house built at the site by Mirjana Stevanoviæ, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown that during the day so much light pours in from the stair entry that the main room is quite bright. Since the white plastered walls were so frequently renewed and often burnished, they reflected the light well. Even the side rooms got some reflected light; as one’s eyes adjusted to the relative gloom, it would have been possible to carry out indoor activities.
A child growing up in such a household would soon learn how the space was organized—where to bury the dead and where to make beads, where to find the obsidian cache and where to place offerings. Eventually, he or she would learn how to rebuild the house itself. Thus the rules of society were transferred not through some centralized control, but through the daily practices of the household. All those practices were carried out in the presence of dead ancestors and within a symbolic world immediately at hand, conveyed through rich artistic representation.
But why such a large settlement should flourish precisely when and where it did still eludes us. Perhaps it enabled people to build up a network of relationships that would serve to control access to resources. Living close together meant that those relationships could be continually reinforced and monitored. By joining with others at the one site, each household could also better promote its own interests: finding marriage partners for its young people, developing exchange alliances, cementing links through ancestry, and so on.
But then again, we know that some evidence could suddenly emerge to suggest a quite different explanation. And so our excavations, and our informed speculations, will continue.
Since 1993, archaeologist Ian Hodder has been leading the excavation of Çatalhöyük, a 9,000-year-old Neolithic site in central Turkey. The project aims to place the abundant art from the site in its full economic, environmental, and social context; to conserve the paintings, plasters, and mud walls; and to present the site to the public. Further information and images about the site are available on the Web (www.catalhoyuk.com). Hodder is currently the Dunlevie Family Professor in the department of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University. His article in this issue has been adapted from his forthcoming book, The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük, which is being published this month by Thames & Hudson.
Copyright © Natural History Magazine, Inc., 2006