We hired a car in the spring and climbed up from the coast through mountains and then turned across the flat plain towards Konya in southern Anatolia where the poet and Sufi mystic Rumi once lived and died. About 60 km to the south of Konya, passing through wheat and melon fields, small agricultural villages and along rutted country roads, we eventually reached our destination: Çatalhöyük. The site was badly signposted, despite being a World Heritage Site. Yet the settlement has transformed our understanding of prehistory.
On the site we talked to Ashley Lingle from Cardiff University,Wales, who was the chief conservator. The project was directed by Ian Hodder of Stanford University in the United States. Our guide claimed that it had developed from 6800 to 5500 BCE. She took us around the small northern site where she was working and which was intended to show houses,then took us the larger southern site showing the ruins of the town.
Overlooking the Konya Plain, it consisted of a mound which would have risen 20 metres above the plain, with a larger mound to the south.The name Çatalhöyük means ‘Forked Mound’ in Turkish. A channel of the Çarsamba River once flowed between the two mounds. The settlement was built on alluvial clay which may have been favourable for early agriculture. The inhabitants fished in the nearby marshes (which also supplied clay for their houses), herded goats and sheep, and hunted wild horse, cattle (aurochs) and deer. They also grew emmer wheat, peas, lentils, almonds and other legumes and cereals and gathered in wild plant foods such as tubers and fruits. Amongst their fields several kilometres away, they even developed an irrigation system which was thought to have originated in Mesopotamia a thousand years later.
Its main buildings were being excavated on bumpy hills under two roofs which were erected by archaeologists to keep the bad weather out. But some rain was still finding its way in and turning the bricks which had been protected by artificial mounds to mud.
The site turned out to be a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia, which existed from approximately 7500 to 5700 BCE, and flourished around 7000 BCE. The town of possibly 10,000 resembled on the two mounds huge honeycombed buildings, comprising of smaller cells which abutted on each other. They all lived in similar houses, with no obvious public buildings. Their houses were built from mud bricks reinforced by wood beams around a central courtyard, while there were side rooms for storage and food preparation. The ‘streets’ were on top of the flat roofs where people often worked doing day. When a house reached the end of its natural life the upper walls were taken down to fill the lower half of the house which then became the foundation of a new house. As many as eighteen layers have been unearthed on the site, reflecting the long occupation.
A replica of one of the houses has been built at the entrance of the site, showing reed mats, hearths for cooking, decorated with bull’s horns, with a ladder leading on to the flat roof. The family entered their house by a ladder; the trapdoor would let in light during the day as there were no windows. The houses appear very comfortable, and suggest a high standard of living. I would have been very happy to live in one.
Among the many artifacts found were mats, hooks, spoons, forks, pots, hand stamps, beads and jewellery, indicating a division of labour. Many objects were shaped from obsidian, suggesting long-distance trade; they included the world’s first mirrors (to be seen in the excellent Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara). There were also shells from as far away as the Red Sea.
The dead were placed at the top of the hill for their bodies to be eaten by vultures and then their bones were often painted red or yellow and then placed in a foetal position in the burial pits underneath the houses. In this way, the spirits of the dead ancestors could continue to help the living. Life expectancy was comparatively short, about 35 for men and 25 women, no doubt due to the high infant mortality rate. At the same time, bones of corpses up to 60 years of age had been found and there is no evidence of human sacrifice.
Baked figurines of fat women, including one with huge buttocks and breasts sitting on a throne with lions or leopards on its arms which was found in a wheat bin led earlier archaeologists like James Mellaart who first discovered the site to argue that it was a matriarchal society which worshipped a Great Goddess. I had seen the statue in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations with the obsidian mirrors. Most recent excavations by Ian Hodder and his team however show little evidence of distinctions based on gender and men and women ate the same food Rather it seems that it was a roughly egalitarian society without hierarchy, neither matriarchal nor patriarchal. It was moreover society without government, in other words, a form of anarchy. The economy seems to have been organized on the basis of voluntary sharing.
The site of Çatalhöyük was very impressive, particularly the size of the settlement and the rich and comfortable way of life of its many inhabitants. These Stone Age people seem to have lived in a time of peace and comparative plenty and shared freely what they had. They are very different from many human beings we find today who are selfish, aggressive and territorial. Above all, the beautiful site sets back the date of the first settlements by thousands of years and is therefore of extreme importance.