J and I went off wandering again this past week – the Prime Directive was to visit Çatalhöyük near Konya and then tuck in a few other goodies as time and circumstance allowed. We both thought that the on-going excavation of this astonishing Bronze Age settlement was brilliant. I, for one, was fired up and set about trying to transfer that fire into a blog post that just might convey something of what we had seen. I was minutes away from posting when everything vanished; text, photos – the lot. There was nothing on the server where you would have expected the last auto-save to be and the auto back-up on my computer was blank! I have never experienced anything like it. Disheartened was not the word!
Anyway, enough of all that – let’s see if I can’t recapture at least some of that enthusiasm . .
Picture, if you can, the vast flatlands of central Anatolia, dry and brown after the burning heat of summer. This land is the ‘breadbasket’ of Turkey, in some ways similar to the North American prairie or the steppes of Ukraine. Out of this flatness a mound some 21 metres high rises, topped by two alien structures – this is Çatalhöyük, the site of one the oldest human settlements yet discovered.
Now, let your imagination run loose because the area around Çatalhöyük was not always as you see it today. Let your mind drift back in time for 9000 years and you will be looking out over a landscape that is green and lush with forest; a river and waterways criss-cross that land and great meres or pools are dotted around. The rivers and pools and forest are alive with wildlife and the forest and meadows yield fruit and berries and roots and grain of every description. For the wandering hunter-gatherers of the time this was paradise – a cornucopia, and so they broke with tradition and hung around for a while.
Çatalhöyük circa 7000 BCE – artist’s impression (my photos of paintings)
Gradually their simple, temporary shelters were replaced by more permanent mud brick and timber structures. That what they were doing was a whole new experience in DIY might be gathered from the ‘interesting’ design of their homes – windows and doors were yet to make an appearance! Access was through a hole in the flat roof using a type of ladder. Access and egress to the settlement was via external ladders and I guess that with ladders hauled up a sense of security was gained from the unknown things that go bump in the night and just might be lurking out there!
Çatalhöyük’s houses were built against each other and there were no streets or alleyways; perhaps the rooftops provided thoroughfares and ‘plazas’ for gatherings and work. The life of a house appears to have been around eighty years after which they were part demolished and a new house built on the site using the old as a foundation. Over the course of around 1500-2000 years the mound as we see it today grew up.
Çatalhöyük – reconstructed house used to test ideas and theories about life 9000 years ago
The dead were buried under the floor of the houses and covered by a small, flat raised mound which may also have been used for sleeping on. Why? No one knows. That the dead were respected is evident from the nature of the burials, particularly those of children.
Çatalhöyük – child burial, note bracelets and beads
What are believed to be shrines of some sort have been excavated and effigies of bulls and bulls’ horns form an integral part of a religion of some sort.
digital reconstruction of a shrine
Art played a significant role in the lives of these people with houses decorated and elaborate figures sculpted, many in the form of a female. It was once believed that worship of the female or some Earth Goddess was prevalent but this has changed as excavations and research has opened up new avenues. Today it is believed that men and women ranked equally in status and the lack of ‘public buildings’ points towards a more ‘socialistic’ or communal way of life with full sharing of the fruits of the community’s labour the norm.
7000 year-old hand prints
‘Enough of this history!’ I hear you say, so let me add a bit about our visit to Çatalhöyük. Excavations go on for about two and a half months each summer and, much as we would have liked to see this underway, there is no way J and I are going to do the ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen (and women)’ bit! We prefer the cooler, tourist-free days, and so it was that we had the whole site to ourselves. There is no entrance fee and as nobody is allowed to wander the site unescorted we had our very own guardian/guide, Mustafa, to show us around – he was a mine of information and to make the most of him you would need reasonable Turkish.
J with our personal guardian/guide Mustafa
James Melaart discovered Çatalhöyük in 1958 and carried out excavations between 1961 and 1965 before controversy closed the dig down. In that time he uncovered a relatively huge area of some 160 buildings. Work began again in 1993 under the direction of Ian Hodder. In the 25 years between the methods and techniques of archaeology have developed hugely. Hodder and his multi-disciplinary team has taken 20 years to painstakingly excavate just a few houses. The results have opened up the Neolithic/Bronze Age world in astonishing detail. Finds from Çatalhöyük are so significant that the majority are housed in Ankara with just a few in Konya Archaeological Museum. What follows are a few photographic impressions – don’t let the apparent ‘sepia’ tint turn you off – you are looking at one of the oldest and best preserved ‘cities’ ever discovered. Let your imagination go walk-about.
painstaking attention to detail
earliest known fragments of cloth
Melaart’s earlier excavations
your first glimpse of the excavations – you are looking back 7000 years!
excavations have continued at Melaart’s original dig – down to bed-rock through 18 levels
decoration on the original plaster wall of a house
. . and finally, the figure that has come to symbolise everything that Çatalhöyük has come to represent . .
. . once thought to represent an Earth or Mother Goddess its meaning has been obscured by more recent studies. That said, nothing can take away the power of this figure from a lost world that is slowly emerging from the mists of time. A link to a recent Mail Online article about the world’s oldest painting.
Alan Fenn, Okçular Köyü