Çatalhöyük: Life in Turkey 9,000 Years Ago

Urban Life in Neolithic Anatolia

Rectified fisheye overhead shot of Building 56 in South Area of excavation.
Rectified fisheye overhead shot of Building 56 in South Area of excavation. Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük is a double tell, two large man-made mounds located on the southern end of the Anatolian Plateau about 60 kilometers (37 miles) southeast of Konya, Turkey and within the village limits of the town of Küçükköy. Its name means "fork mound" in Turkish, and it is spelled in a variety of ways, including Catalhoyuk, Catal Huyuk, Catal Hoyuk: all of them are pronounced roughly Chattle-HowYUK.

Excavations at the mounds represent one of the most extensive and detailed work at any Neolithic village in the world, largely because of the two main excavators, James Mellaart (1925–2012) and Ian Hodder (born 1948). Both men were detail-conscious and exacting archaeologists, far ahead of their respective times in the history of the science.

Mellaart conducted four seasons between 1961–1965 and only excavated about 4 percent of the site, concentrated on the southwest side of the East Mound: his exacting excavation strategy and copious notes are remarkable for the period. Hodder began work at the site in 1993 and still continues to this day: his Çatalhöyük Research Project is a multinational and multidisciplinary project with many innovative components.

Chronology of the Site

Çatalhöyük's two tells—the East and West Mounds—include an area of about 37 hectares (91 acres), located on either side of a relict channel of the Çarsamba River, about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above mean sea level. The region is semi-arid today, as it was in the past, and largely treeless except near the rivers.

The East Mound is the largest and oldest of the two, its rough oval outline covering an area of about 13 ha (32 ac). The top of the mound towers some 21 m (70 ft) above the Neolithic ground surface on which it was founded, made up of centuries of building and rebuilding structures in the same location. It has received the most archaeological attention, and radiocarbon dates associated with its occupation date between 7400–6200 BCE. It was home to between an estimated 3,000–8,000 inhabitants.

The West Mound is much smaller, its more or less circular occupation measures approximately 1.3 ha (3.2 ac) and rises above the surrounding landscape some 7.5 m (25 ft). It is across the abandoned river channel from the East Mound and was occupied between 6200 and 5200 BCE—the Early Chalcolithic period. Scholars surmise that the people living on the East Mound abandoned it to build the new city which became the West Mound.

Houses and Site Organization

The two mounds are made up of densely clustered groups of mudbrick buildings arranged around open unroofed open courtyard areas, perhaps shared or midden areas. Most of the structures were clustered into room blocks, with walls built so closely together they melted into one another. At the end of their use life, the rooms were generally demolished, and a new room built in its place, almost always with the same internal layout as its predecessor.

Individual buildings at Çatalhöyük were rectangular or occasionally wedge-shaped; they were so tightly packed, there were no windows or ground level floors. Entry into the rooms was made through the roof. The buildings had between one and three separate rooms, one main room and up to two smaller rooms. The smaller rooms were probably for grain or food storage and their owners accessed them through oval or rectangular holes cut into the walls measuring no more than about .75 m (2.5 ft) in height.

Living Space

The main living spaces at Çatalhöyük were rarely larger than 25 sq m (275 sq ft) and they were occasionally broken into smaller regions of 1–1.5 sq m (10-16 sq ft). They included ovens, hearths, and pits, raised floors, platforms and benches. The benches and platforms were generally on the eastern and northern walls of the rooms, and they generally contained complex burials.

The burial benches included primary burials, individuals of both sexes and all ages, in a tightly flexed and bound inhumation. Few grave goods were included, and what there were were personal adornments, individual beads, and beaded necklaces, bracelets, and pendants. Prestige goods are even rarer but include axes, adzes, and daggers; wooden or stone bowls; projectile points; and needles. Some microscopic plant residue evidence suggests that flowers and fruit may have been included in some of the burials, and some were buried with textile shrouds or baskets.

History Houses

Mellaart classed the buildings into two groups: residential structures and shrines, using internal decoration as an indicator of a given room's religious importance. Hodder had another idea: he defines the special buildings as History Houses. History Houses are those were reused again and again rather than rebuilt, some for centuries, and also included decorations.

Decorations are found in both History Houses and shorter-lived buildings that don't fit Hodder's category. The decorations are generally confined to the bench/burial part of main rooms. They include murals, paintwork and plaster images on walls and plastered posts. The murals are solid red panels or bands of color or abstract motifs such as handprints or geometric patterns. Some have figural art, images of humans, aurochs, stags, and vultures. The animals are shown much larger in scale than the humans, and most of the humans are depicted without heads.

One famous wall painting is that of a birdseye map of the East Mound, with a volcanic eruption illustrated above it. Recent investigations on Hasan Dagi, a twin-peaks volcano located ~130 km (80 mi) northeast of Çatalhöyük, show that it erupted about 6960±640 cal BCE.

Art Work

Both portable and non-portable art was found at Çatalhöyük. The non-portable sculpture is associated with the benches/burials. Those consist of protruding molded plaster features, some of which are plain and circular (Mellaart called them breasts) and others are stylized animal heads with inset auroch, or goat/sheep horns. These are molded or set onto the wall or mounted onto the benches or at the edges of platforms; they typically were re-plastered several times, perhaps when deaths occurred.

Portable art from the site includes about 1,000 figurines so far, half of which are in the shape of people, and half are four-legged animals of some sort. These were recovered from a range of different contexts, both internal and external to buildings, in middens or even part of the walls. Although Mellaart generally described these as classic "mother goddess figurines," the figurines also include such as stamp seals—objects intended to impress patterns into clay or other material, as well as anthropomorphic pots and animal figurines.

Excavator James Mellaart believed he had identified evidence for copper smelting at Çatalhöyük, 1,500 years earlier than the next known evidence. Metal minerals and pigments were found throughout Çatalhöyük, including powdered azurite, malachite, red ochre, and cinnabar, often associated with the internal burials. Radivojevic and colleagues have shown that what Mellaart interpreted as copper slag was more likely accidental. Copper metal minerals in a burial context were baked when a post-depositional fire occurred in the dwelling.

Plants, Animals, and Environment

The earliest phase of occupation in the East Mound happened when the local environment was in the process of changing from humid to dryland conditions. There is evidence that the climate changed considerably during the length of the occupation, including drought periods. The move to the West Mound occurred when there appeared a localized wetter area southeast of the new site.

Scholars now believe that agriculture at the site was relatively local, with small-scale herding and farming that varied throughout the Neolithic. Plants used by the occupants included four different categories.

  • Fruit and nuts: acorn, hackberry, pistachio, almond/plum, almond
  • Pulses: grass pea, chickpea, bitter vetch, pea, lentil
  • Cereals: barleys (naked 6 row, two row, hulled two row); einkorn (wild and domestic both), emmer, free-threshing wheat, and a "new" wheat, Triticum timopheevi
  • Other: flax, mustard seed

The farming strategy was remarkably innovative. Rather than maintaining a fixed set of crops to rely on, the diverse agro-ecology enabled generations of cultivators to maintain flexible cropping strategies. They shifted emphasis on the category of food as well as on elements within the categories as circumstances warranted.

Reports on the discoveries at Çatalhöyük can be accessed directly at the Çatalhöyük Research Project homepage.

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