Late in the afternoon of November 10, 1958, a green Land Rover lurched down a narrow dirt road in south-central Turkey, about 30 miles southeast of the city of Konya. Three British archaeologists were packed inside. A frigid wind gusted from the south, blowing swirls of cold dust over the surrounding wheat fields. The Land Rover pulled up to the edge of a massive hill that stood out prominently on the flat plain. The archaeologists already suspected that this was no ordinary hill. The crunch of the tires went silent, and the three men climbed out to have a closer look.
The leader of the group was James Mellaart, 33 years old, pudgy, round-faced, his eyes darting to and fro excitedly behind dark-rimmed glasses. Mellaart lit a cigarette and stared out at the mound. The motor of a tractor droned 018in the distance. A flock of gray-throated Great Bustards circled overhead, their wings swishing in the air. At Mellaart’s side, buttoning his coat against the cold, stood David French. Mellaart and French were visiting scholars at the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara (BIAA). Both men specialized in Anatolian prehistory—that is, everything that happened to humanity before the invention of writing some 5,000 years ago.
The third archaeologist was Alan Hall, a student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Hall was studying the classical period in Anatolia, about the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., when Greek and Roman cultures spread from Europe into Asia. Mellaart had never learned how to drive, and Hall, whose Land Rover it was, had been kind enough to lend it for the mission. For more than a week, the threesome had crisscrossed the Konya Plain, looking for signs of early human settlements. In theory, this archaeological survey was meant to record the signs of ancient occupation, from all epochs, with an eye to possible future excavations. But Mellaart had come to Turkey with a mission: He was out to prove that Anatolia had played a pivotal role in prehistory. Despite the considerable remains of classical civilization he and his colleagues came upon, Mellaart would dismiss even the most interesting of these ruins as “F.R.M.,” short for “Filthy Roman Muck.”
French shared Mellaart’s passion for ancient Anatolia. Earlier that same year he had dug with Mellaart at Hacilar, a 7,500-year-old village in western Turkey. Those excavations were already pushing back the earliest evidence for civilization in the region by several thousand years. Turkey was still relatively untouched by archaeological trowels. The unexplored horizons of its austere landscape beckoned to young archaeologists like French and Hall, eager to make important discoveries and names for themselves. Yet as late as 1958, Anatolia was a passion in which few other archaeologists partook. Most experts believed that the Anatolian plateau was little more than a backwater during 019prehistoric times. The real action, they were convinced, had been farther east, at Neolithic sites like Jericho in Palestine and Jarmo in Iraq. There, some of the earliest known farming villages, 10,000 years old and more, had been unearthed in the early 1950s.
That dismissive attitude, however, had left a dilemma in its wake. Archaeologists were confident that the earliest farming settlements had sprouted in the Near East. A few thousand years later, Neolithic villages began cropping up in Greece, then the rest of Europe. It was logical to assume that farming had spread overland, from Asia to Europe, by the most direct route: via Anatolia. But there was little evidence to support this idea. Anatolia, the supposed land bridge for the westward spread of farming and settled life, had nothing to show for itself. As late as 1956, Mellaart’s boss, Seton Lloyd (the BIAA’s director in Ankara and a veteran of three decades of archaeological campaigns in the Near East), had written that “the greater part of modern Turkey, and especially the region more correctly described as Anatolia, shows no sign whatever of habitation during the Neolithic period.” Some experts proposed instead that farmers had traveled from Asia to Greece by sea. This notion grew in popularity after excavations on Cyprus during the 1930s and 1940s revealed a sophisticated Neolithic community, which later radiocarbon dating showed to be nearly 9,000 years old.
As Mellaart fidgeted and French shivered, they 022hardly dared to believe that they were about to prove the experts wrong. The oval-shaped tell that now loomed before them looked daunting, a third of a mile long and some 60 feet high at its highest point. It was blanketed with wild grass and ruin-weed, a bushy plant often found growing on Near Eastern tells. French and Hall trudged up to the hill to have a look at the top, while Mellaart stayed below. As he prowled around the perimeter, eyes glued to the ground, Mellaart began spotting shards of a burnished, chocolate-brown pottery. He also spied hundreds of small pieces of glassy black volcanic obsidian, some fashioned into blades shaped like long prisms. Mellaart’s heart began to race. He knew this pottery. He knew this obsidian. During the late 1930s, after the pioneering British archaeologist John Garstang had finished his work at Jericho, he went on to excavate a large Neolithic settlement near the Turkish city of Mersin, on the Mediterranean coast. Mellaart had long thought that Garstang’s discoveries should have opened archaeologists’ eyes to the importance of Anatolia. But Mersin was so close to northern Syria that the experts didn’t associate it with Anatolia at all. They preferred to lump it with better-known Neolithic cultures in Syria and Mesopotamia.
The pottery and obsidian under Mellaart’s feet were nearly identical to the Neolithic artifacts that Garstang had found at Mersin. The shards were practically oozing out of the mound. But what was at the top? At Mersin, Garstang’s Neolithic village had been overbuilt with Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Hittite, Greek, Byzantine and finally Arab settlements. Mellaart looked up to see French and Hall racing down the tell towards him. “It’s Neolithic! It’s Neolithic at the top!” they shrieked, Mellaart shouted back, hardly believing his ears: “It’s bloody Neolithic at the bottom!”
On this bitterly cold November day, Mellaart, French and Hall had proved once and for all that Anatolia had been occupied during the Neolithic period. But they had also done much more. They had discovered one of the biggest and best-preserved prehistoric settlements ever found. It sheltered 1,000 years of pure Neolithic occupation, from bottom to top, with nothing—certainly no Filthy Roman Muck—to disturb its delicate mudbrick stratigraphy.
That evening, the three checked into a hotel in the nearby town of Cumra, where they toasted their discovery long into the night with glasses of raki, the potent anise-flavored Turkish liqueur. The next morning, they returned briefly to collect samples of pottery and obsidian, and, as Mellaart later said, “to make sure it was still there.” Mellaart’s maps told him that this hill was called Catal Hoyuk (cha-TAHL hoo-yook), meaning the “mound at the forked road” in Turkish (Turkish authorities later modernized the spelling to “Catalhoyuk”).
Mellaart did not return to Catalhoyuk until May 1961, but this time he was armed with an excavation permit from the Turkish antiquities department. His wife, Arlette, was with him, camera at the ready, as was their son Alan, now nearly 6 years old. The crew also included an American expert in stone tools, an architect from London to draw the plans of the buildings, an artist to sketch the finds, an archaeology student from Istanbul University, and 35 workmen from Beycesultan.
Mellaart decided to begin excavating in the southwest section of the tell, where in 1958 he had seen traces of burnt mudbrick walls exposed by the erosion of the southern wind. Before long the Turkish workmen were exposing the surfaces of the walls, which were covered with multiple layers of cream-colored plaster. On the second day of the dig, a swatch of plaster on the wall of one building fell off, revealing what at first seemed like a blotch of thick red paint on the plaster layer underneath. Mellaart stared at the blotch, waiting for his eyes to focus. Suddenly a red stag with bristling antlers was leaping out at him from the wall.
With the entire crew crowded around, Mellaart used a small knife to pare away the plaster. After several hours he had exposed the 4-foot-wide scene, showing five or six red men, some dressed in animal skins, apparently chasing a herd of seven red deer. The men brandished bows and arrows. One of them was holding what appeared to be a lasso. The deer were fleeing towards the right-hand side of the picture. Some had their heads turned sharply backwards toward the hunters, as if in terror. One stag, fallen to its knees, was flanked by two men who seemed about to kill it.
Mellaart gazed at the tableau in amazement. None of the Neolithic digs over the previous decades had uncovered wall paintings, though other forms of art—especially figurines—had been found at Jericho and other sites. At that time, the earliest known wall 023murals in the Near East were from Teleilat Ghassul, a Chalcolithic site in Palestine several thousand years younger than Catalhoyuk. But wall painting was rare even during the Chalcolithic period. Archaeologists had long been puzzled by the wide time gap between the Paleolithic paintings at caves like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain—about 13,000 to 15,000 years old—and the 3,500-year-old Minoan frescoes from Crete and Thera (modern Santorini). Whether this was due to poor archaeological preservation of prehistoric paintings that had indeed existed, or whether Neolithic and Chalcolithic peoples preferred to express themselves in other ways, was not clear. Now this gap seemed to be filled. At the very least, Mellaart had found the earliest-known paintings on human-made surfaces.
In the four seasons that he dug at Catalhoyuk, Mellaart found dozens of wall paintings, as well as painted plaster wall sculptures, depicting hunting scenes, giant bulls, leopards, vultures, female breasts and “goddesses.” One painting, he thought, seemed to represent a town plan of the Neolithic village, with an erupting volcano looming overhead. Mellaart became obsessed with the search for artworks; they seemed to provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand the minds of Neolithic settlers.
Such an understanding would complement what archaeologists had already discovered about early farmers. At Jericho, the earliest-known permanent settlement, the British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon had documented the transition between hunter-gatherer and sedentary modes of human existence and discovered important 024details about Neolithic architecture and burial practices. At Jarmo in Iraq, the American Robert Braidwood had found evidence for the earliest-known domestication of wheat and barley, thus pinpointing the dawn of the agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent. Now, at Catalhoyuk, Neolithic symbolic and religious life was being unveiled—if, that is, the meaning of the art could be deciphered.
Thrilling as the unexpected discovery of that first painting was for Mellaart and his team, it also presented a major emergency. For some 9,000 years, pigments, plaster and mudbrick had been protected from the ravages of the Anatolian sun by a high level of moisture within the tell, thanks to the relatively high water table on the semi-arid Konya Plain. As soon as the artworks were exposed to sunlight and the dry air, they began to dry out and crack. Some of the brilliant red pigment began turning gray, and green fungus began spreading across the surface of some paintings.
Mellaart was not sure what to do. Then he learned that Ernest Hawkins, an expert on fresco conservation with the Byzantine Institute of America, was working in Istanbul. Hawkins answered the call and 025arrived at Catalhoyuk a few days later. He immediately realized that the paintings could not be left in place if there was to be any hope of saving them. Hawkins’s advice, based on his experience with Byzantine frescoes, was to coat their surfaces with the resin polyvinyl acetate. Once dry, they were covered with muslin or tissue, and then the paintings—or segments of them in the case of the larger works—were cut out of the wall, mudbrick backing and all.
A number of paintings were removed that way and placed onto wooden boards for the jarring, 150-mile journey to the archaeological museum in Ankara. Conservators at the museum then laid the mudbrick backings onto wet plaster, which, when dry, provided some additional stability. Miraculously, many of the paintings survived this treatment, and some were eventually put on display at the museum. But despite the great care taken by the Beycesultan men, who prepared the works for the journey, others did not survive. In at least one case, the plaster adhered to the covering cloth and fell away with it. Other paintings, particularly those that were already in a bad state of preservation, simply fell apart and could not be saved. Fortunately, thanks to the dig’s artists and Arlette’s camera, these images were captured on paper and film for the archaeological record.
Mellaart excavated Catalhoyuk on an amazingly speedy schedule. During the first season, which lasted 39 working days, the Beycesultan men uncovered 40 mudbrick buildings. By the end of the expedition, in 1965, he had exposed nearly 200 buildings in at least 13 occupation levels, covering about an acre of the tell. Although this represented only about 3 percent of the 32-acre mound, it was enough to provide an unprecedented picture of the layout of a Neolithic settlement.
All the Catalhoyuk houses were built of mudbrick according to the same basic scheme. The bricks were strengthened with straw, and sometimes small pieces of reed, and then dried in the sun. The ancient masons laid the bricks using a thick black mortar composed largely of ash and ground animal bones. The walls and floors were covered with coats of plaster. Some walls had thin coats, like whitewash, while others had been plastered over many times. Mellaart estimated the lifespan of houses by counting the number of coats and assuming that each layer represented a year (a replastering during the ancient equivalent of a spring cleaning); the average was about 80 years, though some houses had as many as 120 plaster layers.
The Neolithic residents dismantled the roofs and knocked—down much of the walls when—rebuilding their houses, leaving little trace of the roofs and the upper halves of the buildings. But Mellaart surmised that the roofs were made of wood beams covered by bundles of reeds and mud, and held up by timbers placed against the walls. This conclusion was supported by the wide scars these timbers had left in the wall plaster, as well as deep post-holes in the floors where the beams had once stood. Mellaart’s crew also found a great number of charcoal lumps on house floors and in the fill, the apparent remains of timbers that had been burned in accidental or deliberate fires.
The houses were arranged in a honeycomb pattern, with their outer walls jammed one against the other. Every so often a cluster of houses was interrupted by a large space that Mellaart called a “courtyard.” This claustrophobic arrangement of the Neolithic neighborhood raised a question: How did the residents get in and out of their homes? While many houses had what appeared to be small storerooms demarcated by interior walls, and tight passageways that allowed the inhabitants to enter these cubicles, there were no exterior doorways. Nor did Mellaart find any evidence of streets or alleys in the part of the tell that he excavated. There seemed to be only one possible answer: The villagers had entered through holes in the roofs.
Indeed, the plaster on the south wall of nearly every house was scarred with a diagonal mark, which Mellaart concluded was the trace of a wooden ladder that had once rested there. At the bottom of these “ladder scars,” he often found ovens or hearths set partly into the walls. The ovens, many of which were remarkably well preserved, were made of large, rounded shells of hardened clay or plaster. The hole in the roof apparently served not only as an entryway to let people in, but as a chimney to let the smoke from the fire out.
Most of the houses had raised platforms built up 050from the floor along a couple of walls. Mellaart surmised that these platforms were covered with mats, or some other kind of cushioning, and used as benches during the day and beds at night. If this is correct, then the living were literally sleeping with the dead—for Mellaart unearthed about 480 skeletons, almost all of them buried along the walls beneath the platforms. Most of the bodies had been flexed tightly, knees to chest, and placed on their left sides with their heads facing the center of the room and their feet to the wall. But there were numerous exceptions to this general rule. Some skeletons were fully extended on their backs, and a few were even buried sitting up.
The apparent reverence with which the living regarded the dead had its limitations. In many cases, the bones were quite jumbled up, and some of the skeleton’s skulls were missing. This somewhat disorganized arrangement of the skeletons, along with evidence that the plaster platforms had been cut into repeatedly, made it clear that skeletons that had been buried earlier were sometimes pushed aside to make room for later burials. Most of the interments also seemed to be secondary rather than primary burials, as Mellaart noted in Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (1967):
Upon death the corpse of the deceased was probably removed to a mortuary outside the settlement where vultures cleaned the corpses down to the bones and dry ligaments. Presumably the dead were exposed on platforms, accessible to the birds and insects, but not to dogs or other scavengers which carry off bones.
The idea that vultures might be lending a helping beak to the mortuary ritual was suggested by wall paintings showing vultures swooping down on headless people.
Mellaart also found that men and women were buried differently. The adult male skeletons seemed concentrated under the small northeast platforms of the houses, while females were usually found under the longer platform along the east wall. Male skeletons were often found with bone belt hooks and weapons, such as stone mace heads or flint daggers with bone handles. Females were found with jewelry, such as necklaces made from beads and shells, or finger rings made of copper or bone. One astonishing kind of item turned up only in female burials: shiny mirrors made from black obsidian, a glassy rock formed when molten lava cools. The obsidian had been ground into the shape of a hemisphere, with the flat side finely and skillfully polished.
The eight obsidian mirrors from Catal Hoyuk are the earliest mirrors ever found. How old are they? That was a question Mellaart needed to answer to understand Catalhoyuk’s place within the sweep of ancient Near Eastern civilizations.
As the Beycesultan men dug into the Catalhoyuk mound, Mellaart collected samples for radiocarbon dating from each stratigraphic level. Some samples were chunks of charcoal from timbers that had held up the mudbrick buildings or from fires in the ovens. Others came from grain found in storage bins, ovens or floors. One sample even came from bit of human brain that had been miraculously preserved inside a skull. In all, 27 samples were analyzed by technicians at radiocarbon laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania and at a French facility near Paris.
The earliest date obtained came out at 6385 B.C., plus or minus 100 years. Since Mellaart never reached the very bottom of the settlement, he considered it likely that the site had been founded even earlier, around 6500 B.C. The latest date came out at 5797 B.C., plus or minus 79 years. Mellaart also assumed that the top level, near the mound’s highly eroded surface, would not have provided suitable samples for radiocarbon dating, so he suggested that there was an additional century of occupation—until about 5700 B.C. Mellaart thus concluded that Catalhoyuk was founded 8,500 years ago and was continuously inhabited for at least 800 years (a more recent 051round of radiocarbon dating, using state-of-the-art methods, puts the earliest levels at 9,500 years ago). This meant that the settlement, and Anatolia as a whole, could not be considered a Johnny-come-lately to the Neolithic Revolution. Although the Neolithic settlement at Jericho, the earliest known, was founded at least a thousand years earlier, Catalhoyuk had thrived at the same time as Jarmo and other Neolithic sites to the east of Anatolia.
While Catalhoyuk was not the earliest farming community, it was a major participant in the cultural and economic changes that swept across the Near East. And its strategic location in Anatolia made it a bridgehead for the spread of Neolithic life to Europe and beyond.
This article is adapted from The Goddess and the Bull by Michael Balter. Copyright © 2005 by Michael Balter. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.
Late in the afternoon of November 10, 1958, a green Land Rover lurched down a narrow dirt road in south-central Turkey, about 30 miles southeast of the city of Konya. Three British archaeologists were packed inside. A frigid wind gusted from the south, blowing swirls of cold dust over the surrounding wheat fields. The Land Rover pulled up to the edge of a massive hill that stood out prominently on the flat plain. The archaeologists already suspected that this was no ordinary hill. The crunch of the tires went silent, and the three men climbed out to have […]