Çatalhöyük – About goddamn time
N.B. the official spelling is Çatalhöyük but as I am no longer in Turkey and don’t have the necessary keyboard this is not happening.
I’d just like to kick off by pointing out that this is pretty much the sole reason I decided to bother with mainland Turkey, having wanted to see this place since I was about ten and it appeared in the Reader’s Digest of Vanished Civilisations (1983), and that I can now die content. I’d have much preferred to help out with the excavations run by so many different universities, but I needed to decide that six months in advance to get the appropriate visa. Oh well.
I showed up on a Saturday at about two in the afternoon, having fought my way to and through Konya, to be presented with an utterly deserted site.
Doesn’t look like much, does it? Well, these two hills (huyuk is the Turkish word for ‘mound’), some 60km outside of Konya just so happens to be the site of one of the oldest cities to ever grace the Earth, some 10,000 years old and comfortably in the Neolithic (the Late Stone Age). For context the cities of the Mesopotamian plain that appear in the early Bible as already ancient (Babylon, Ur, Akkad, Sumer etc.) don’t emerge until the third millennium BC.
What exactly do you think when you hear ‘Stone Age’? The television would suggest a bunch of cavemen running around with clubs: unless you’ve heard of the site before, I strongly suspect you didn’t anticipate something like this:
South hut, Catal Huyuk. Worth pointing out that this is barely half of the enclosure.
These are goddamn houses. Lots of stone houses. The word you are looking for is indeed ‘city’. Extensive and populated by somewhere between 5-10000 people at its height, Catal Huyuk is a long series of houses backing onto each other with no streets (access was through the roof), interestingly with no obvious ‘cultic’ or political buildings. The houses are the same size, and the burials (the main element of any religious activity) are underneath the floors of the houses themselves, which implies some form of ancestor veneration: you’re literally walking over their graves every day, most likely those of your personal ancestors.
The city moved over several of these mounds over time – I believe that in addition to the North and East open to the public the teams are now working on a Western. They’ve worked the main parts over nicely: you can see the sandbags propping up the walls and the shelter protecting them from the rain, and the bilingual infoboards are some of the most efficient I’ve ever seen.
My camera however can’t read Turkish.
Not that there’s no evidence of serious religious activity. Let’s return to the Seated Woman, the signature find from the early 60s:
In Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilisation. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Ponderous, powerful and (look closely) actually in the process of giving birth, the Seated Woman has traditionally been interpreted as a ‘mother goddess’ along the same lines as the Venus Figurines or the proto-Aphrodite best exemplified by the finds at Lempa on Cyprus. The cross-cultural theme of a female fertility goddess who appears, judging by find frequency, to be a dominant deity, raises some odd questions.
I mean, we can safely assume that this isn’t some kind of unified ‘mother’ cult given the range in time and space (and style), but if those are the sort of deities we’ve got kicking around then where, exactly, do all the other gods come from? It’s a hell of a question. Ian Hodder, head of current work at Catal Huyuk, does endeavour to point out to those interested in the ‘goddess’ paganism and historical parallels that Catal Huyuk is a lot more complicated than this, mostly sexless although female representation outweighs male. This is especially important given the more niche end of the ‘goddess’ claims of a single continuous religion, in which the site is creatively interpreted.
Despite everything I’ve been saying about ‘this ain’t yo granny’s Stone Age’, however, here is some stuff that fits the popular model better:
Image from page 29 of Çatalhöyük Research Project 2011 Archive Report. Photo James Quinlan
That right there is a nice abstract ochre wall painting that came up last year of a style that’s pretty common at Catal Huyuk. Ochre is pretty much the first dye to appear in the archaeological record and the vast majority of prehistoric art world-wide is done in red and red alone. I cite Lascaux, France (approx. 15000 BC):
Image from Wikipedia
And Keevalai, Deccan, India (1000 BC):
Image courtesy of Deccan Chronicle
And Arheim Land, Australia (date debatable, conceivably 40,000 BC):
Image courtesy of ABC News: date debated due to extinction date of species depicted but pretty old.
It’s a little weird to think that people everywhere for almost the entirety of human time were stuck with red, but damn if it hasn’t stopped them doing awesome stuff. Whilst you’re thinking about it look up the Red Lady of Paviland. Okay, that’s enough, I’ll stop.
Basically I’ve got a little sidetracked here but long story short Catal Huyuk is awesome, so is ochre, and aren’t they both lovely? Catal Huyuk will probably be superceded by an even older city as time goes on and excavations continue, but I’ll always be grateful to it for teaching me that the Stone Age had an urban tinge before I could get the caveman stereotype stuck in my head.