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Çatalhöyük

Neolithic proto-city, Anatolia
Society, art: urban problems

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Catalhoyuk, a large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement in Mesopotamia
An artist's impression of the neolithic proto-city of Catalhöyük, a large settlement overlooking the Konya Plain in southern Anatolia (present-day Turkey). Strangely, it consisted only of mud-brick domestic buildings, with no sign of any municipal structures. Image by Wolfgang Sauber. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why is Çatalhöyük Famous?

Çatalhöyük is a unique site of Stone Age culture, in present day Turkey. It's famous for three reasons:

Location and Excavation

Çatalhöyük (also called Çatal Höyük or Catal Huyuk), is situated on the Southern Anatolian Plateau, southeast of the ancient city of Iconium (present-day Konya) in south-central Turkey.

The site measures 32 acres (13 hectares) and sits on about 20 metres (66 feet) of accumulated deposits, spanning 1,500 years of continuous occupation.

In total, there are 18 layers of deposits. The lowest layer has been dated to 7,100 BC, while the topmost layer dates to 5,600 BC.

The site was first excavated in 1958 by James Mellaart (1925-2012), who later returned for four more seasons between 1961 and 1965.

Shortly afterwards, he was banned from Turkey due to his alleged involvement with black market antiquities.

Thirty years later, a new set of excavations began, led by Ian Hodder, an advocate of the more political school of post-processual archaeology.

Recent investigations (2004-2017) by an international team of bioarchaeologists, have shed additional light on events at Çatalhöyük, based on an in-depth study of human remains unearthed at the site. See: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

Çatalhöyük is one of a series of important Neolithic settlements in southern Anatolia, such as Göbekli Tepe (from 9,500 BC), Hallan Çemi (from 9,500 BC), Cafer Höyük (from 8,900 BC), Nevalı Çori (from 8,600 BC), and Çayönü Tepesi (from 8,600 BC), as well as Chalcolithic sites like Hacilar, Beycesultan, Canhasan, Mersin Yumuktepe, Elazig Tepecik, Malatya Degirmentepe, Norşuntepe, and Istanbul Fikirtepe.

Note: For a guide to archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Population and Society

Çatalhöyük started out as a small Neolithic settlement around 7,100 BC, but by 6,700 BC its population is believed to have risen to eight thousand people.

Thereafter, environmental degradation and climate change contributed to a weakening of the town's agricultural base, which led to a rapid decline after 5,900 BC.

Layout

The town itself had a very distinctive layout.

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Diet, Farming, Climate

Farming was a major contributor to the success of the Çatalhöyük community and became more intensive as the population rose.

Analysis shows that residents ate a diet rich in wheat, barley and rye, along with other non-domesticated plants.

Protein analysis shows the population consumed meat mostly from sheep, goats and non-domesticated game animals, while beef was consumed only much later.

Analysis of leg bones revealed that workers walked significantly more during Çatalhöyük's declining years, suggesting they had to move further away from the settlement to farm and to find supplies like firewood.

Other research indicates that the climate in the region became drier during the course of Çatalhöyük’s history, which would have made farming more difficult, a predicament that likely contributed to the ultimate demise of the town.

Religion

There were no temples or public buildings devoted to religion in the town. But the graves, murals, and figurines in the town suggest that the people of Çatalhöyük practiced a religion rich in symbols.

Furthermore, residents did hold ceremonial events - likely to have included religious/spiritual ceremonies - in their homes.

What's more, we know from sites like Göbekli Tepe, Çayönü Tepesi, Nevali Çori, and Hallan Çemi, that what shaped their social structure was a strict and complex belief system.

What's more, Mesopotamian Art is full of examples of the general piety of the region.

As a result, it seems reasonable to conclude that religion (of whatever sort) was also an important influence at Çatalhöyük.

Although no identifiable temples have been found, the graves, murals, and figurines suggest that the people of Çatalhöyük had a religion rich in symbols.

Prehistoric Art at Çatalhöyük

There is prehistoric art all over Çatalhöyük.

Popular images range from hunting scenes to men with erect phalluses, to vultures swooping down on headless figures, as well as carvings of lionesses or leopards facing one another across a room.

The quantity and variety of art at Çatalhöyük shows how important it was to residents of the town. Indeed, almost every house excavated contains some form of artwork on its walls and platforms.

Most notable are the animal remains - in particular, the bull bucrania (bull's head and horns) - which were displayed on the interior and exterior walls of houses.

An enormous amount of mobiliary art - namely female figurines carved out of alabaster, marble, limestone, schist, calcite, and clay, has been found throughout the town, mostly in food bins, waste pits, or the walls of houses.

The largest and most spectacular example of this genre of prehistoric sculpture, is the famous Enthroned Goddess of Çatalhöyük (c.6,000 BC), a terracotta statuette of a seated (mother) goddess giving birth with each hand on the head of a leopard, or lioness.

Mellaart believed that the presence of these figurines showed that Çatalhöyük was associated with a female deity or Mother Goddess figure, and that these totemic objects were used to ward off bad spirits.

However, Professor Lynn Meskell has successfully dismissed this theory, by pointing out that while Mellaart's excavations had found only 200 figures, new digs had unearthed 2,000 figures, of which less than 5 percent depicted women.

Vivid murals are also found throughout the settlement, depicting a wide variety of scenes, including initiation ceremonies and other rituals, hunting scenes and others.

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Urban Problems at Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük society is often described as a proto-city - meaning, a densely populated settlement which lacks the space, public amenities, social stratification and civic resources of a proper city.

Proto-cities (like Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Nebelivka in the Ukraine, as well as Çatalhöyük), did not as a rule develop into 'proper cities' - like Uruk, Ur, Nineveh, and others - but functioned more as early experiments in urban-style living.

A famous authority on cities and their formation, is the Australian prehistorian V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957), who is noted for "The Urban Revolution" (1950).

Çatalhöyük itself experienced a number of problems.

As the population reached its peak, dwelling houses were put up like apartments, with no intervening space. Residents were obliged to enter and exit by ladder through openings in the roof.

This, and the resulting lack of pathways through the maze of dwellings, led to congestion on the roofs, which may have contributed to high levels of violence, according to researchers.

In a sample of 93 skulls from Çatalhöyük, more than 1 in 4 showed evidence of fractures, with half sustaining up to five separate injuries over a period of time.

The increase in cranial injuries occurred between 6,700 and 6,500 BC, when the population was at its most dense.

At the same time, the crowded conditions may have exacerbated health problems regarding the keeping of animals and waste disposal.

Although residents kept their areas mostly free of debris and waste, bio-chemical analysis of house walls and floors revealed traces of animal and human excrement, and highlighted the lack of sanitation and the possible spread of infectious diseases.

Examples of Neolithic Art

Urfa Man
Balıklıgöl, Turkey: 9,000 BC
Oldest life-sized human statue

Fish God of Lepenski Vir
Serbia: 7,000-5,000 BC
Sandstone carvings

Jiahu Flutes & Carvings
Yellow River basin: 6,000 BC

Enthroned Goddess of Çatalhöyük
Anatolia: 6,000 BC
Terracotta sculpture

Vidovdanka Figurine
Serbia: 5,500 BC
Terracotta figurine

Thinker of Cernavoda
Romania: 5,000 BC
Terracotta sculpture

Newgrange Passage Tomb
Brú na Bóinne: 3,300 BC
Megalithic art, engraved spirals

Knowth Passage Tomb
Brú na Bóinne: 3,200 BC
Megalithic art, spirals, lozenges, crescents, serpentiforms

Sleeping Lady of Malta
Valetta: 3,100 BC
Terracotta figurine

Kneeling Bull with Vessel
Mesopotamia: 3,000 BC
Silver statuette

Stonehenge Stone Circle
England: 3,000-2,000 BC
Megalithic art & architecture

Guennol Lioness
Mesopotamia: 3,000 BC
Elamite limestone sculpture

Ram in a Thicket
Mesopotamia: 2,500 BC
Pair of figures made from gold, copper, shell, limestone & lapis lazuli

NEXT: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. Mellaart, James (1967). McGraw-Hill.
(2) "Interpreting the Bucrania of Çatalhöyük: James Mellaart, Dorothy Cameron, and Beyond." Joan Relke (2007) Anthrozoös, 20:4, 317-328.
(3) Ur, Jason (2017), Tsuneki, Akira; Yamada, Shigeo; Hisada, Ken-ichiro (eds.), "The Birth of Cities in Ancient West Asia", Ancient West Asian Civilization, Singapore: Springer Singapore, pp. 133–147.
(4) "The Urban Revolution." V. Childe Gordon (1950). The Town Planning Review. 21 (1): 3–17.
(5) "Bioarchaeology of Neolithic Çatalhöyük reveals fundamental transitions in health, mobility, and lifestyle in early farmers." Clark Spencer Larsen, Christopher J. Knüsel, Scott D. Haddow, Bonnie Glencross. (2019) PNAS. 116 (26) 12615-12623.
(6) "The microstratigraphy of middens: capturing daily routine in rubbish at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey" (PDF). Shillito, Lisa-Marie; Matthews, Wendy; Almond, Matthew; Bull, Ian D. (2011). Antiquity. 85 (329): 1024–1038.

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