Çatalhüyük Flourishes as Center of Anatolian Culture Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The level of development at Çatalhüyük, the largest and most advanced Neolithic city yet found, indicates that the birth of civilization was not limited to the Fertile Crescent.

Summary of Event

The importance of the Anatolian Neolithic world is still to be determined. Archaeologists have unearthed small Neolithic settlements dating from around 7000-6000 b.c.e. at Mersin and Tarses along the coast of eastern Cilicia and made other finds in southwestern Anatolia at Suberde and Halicar. Each of these settlements was small, ten houses or fewer, and each provides evidence of the transition of its inhabitants from food gatherers to food producers. Still, because of their size and limited evidence, these sites have introduced little to the world of Neolithic study.

Çatalhüyük, or Çatal Mound, on the south Konya Plain, however, is the largest Neolithic site discovered anywhere to date. The mound, which covers 32 acres (13 hectares), faces west on the Çarsamba River and east on Hasan Dağ. When fully excavated, it is expected to include several thousand homes, each of which is roughly 300 square feet (28 square meters) in area, if one or more adjunct storehouses are included. The walls and floors were made out of mud brick, and the walls, especially on the northern and eastern sides, were plastered. Some were embellished with painted murals of nature or animal life. Common representations included Hasan Dağ, the great mountain that the city mined for obsidian, and the horse, the deer, the ibex, the cow, and the goat. The leopard and the vulture, sacred animals, were frequently depicted, with the latter having an unusual wingspan. Archaeologists have compared the style and theme of painting to those of the cave paintings in Lascaux in southern France.

The city’s dead were placed in fetal positions beneath the floor of the home of the patriarch of the family, where they were allowed to decompose. Although most homes have only a few remains, the largest concentration of dead yet unearthed in a home is sixty-four. An examination of these remains, heavily infant and female, indicate that all were remarkably healthy.

The diet, as at the other Anatolian sites, was partly vegetable—wheat, barley, lentils, and peas—and partly meat. Wild animals, which may have included the cow, provided a substantial part of the food consumed, with sheep and goats, already domesticated, also prominent. Therefore, Çatalhüyük was a food-gathering society shifting to a food-producing one.

The city on the Çarsamba River, unlike almost all Neolithic finds, including Jericho, did not have a traditional wall. Instead, like Halicar, it had houses that butted against one another with one wall of each home reinforced to produce a common exterior wall for the city. Gates and doorways were unknown, and a person entered his or her home via a short ladder through a hole in the roof placed as far as possible from the exterior city wall. All life took place in the single great room below. A fireplace for cooking and warmth was at one end, and benches and platforms were used for sitting and sleeping.

The city was not just an entity unto itself but traded with peoples on the Anatolian plain, Syria, and the Red Sea. At first, these exchanges were limited to natural materials—flint, obsidian, white marble, greenstone, calcite, and cowrie shells—but as settlements matured, so did their products. By 5400 b.c.e., for example, Çatalhüyük produced quality woodware, fine pottery, and textiles.

Around 5700 b.c.e., settlers abandoned the city on the mound. There is no evidence of fire, destruction, or health problems. People crossed the river to a new site, possibly in search of better water. People lived at Çatalhüyük B, usually called the West Mound, for another nine hundred years until the settlement was, once again, mysteriously abandoned. Thereafter, and with the exception of a minor Byzantine settlement of a much later date, the region reverted to a land of wheat fields, sheep, and goats.

Çatalhüyük remained undisturbed until the 1950’s, when James Mellaart, an English archaeologist, visited the site. The excavation of a mosaic wall, the oldest of its kind in the world, on the third day convinced Mellaart that the site would revise all previous estimates of the value of Neolithic Anatolia. He initiated a dig in 1961 that lasted until 1965, when the Turks revoked his permit. Mellaart excavated more than two hundred houses, a very small part of a city that may have housed ten thousand people.

In the late 1960’s and the two decades that followed, Mellaart attempted to convince Turkey to allow him to return. He failed, but his lectures at the University of London inspired others to take up the work. In 1993, a second team, headed by Mellaart’s former students Ian Holder and Louise Martin, returned to the site and continued the work until 1999. A third expedition followed in 2001.

Today, the importance of the find is unquestioned. Çatalhüyük is clearly the largest Neolithic city ever discovered, with the oldest and best-preserved mosaic walls. It is even more unusual because of its homes, with their reinforced exterior walls and the dead buried under the floors.

However, interpretation of the site’s significance is not as clear cut. Mellaart and his student Holder cannot agree. Mellaart argues that Halicar and Çatalhüyük demonstrate a definitive shift from food gathering to food producing and that the city, under a priesthood or an elite group of some type, was a predecessor of Knossus on Crete. Part of Mellaart’s elite theory rests on the presence of the “mother earth” fertility cult in the city. This religion, which preceded the worship of Demeter, relied on the leopard, the vulture, the horse, and the bison in its worship. Holder has serious reservations. He sees the city without a ruling elite of any kind and still heavily reliant on food gathering. Although Holder notes the presence of the fertility goddess, he is unable to find enough evidence to support Mellaart’s theses of Demeter and Knossus.

Significance

The significance of Çatalhüyük relates to its size, its density of houses and people, and the quality and quantity of its artwork, which are superior to anything else produced at the same time. Even Jericho, thought to be the oldest city in the world before the discovery of Çatalhüyük, cannot compete with its Anatolian rival in these respects. The problem lies in how to tie the city with other Anatolian sites and to agree on an interpretation of all finds. Other questions must also be answered, including whether there are other similar cities, whether Çatalhüyük can be connected to any known peoples, who its trading partners were, and why it was abandoned.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conolly, James. “Technical Strategies and Technical Change at Neolithic Catalhoyuk, Turkey.” Antiquity 73 (1999): 791-800. A study of Obsidian work at Çatalhüyük.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kunzig, Robert. “A Tale of Two Obsessed Archeologists, One Ancient City, and Nagging Doubts About Whether Science Can Ever Hope to Reveal the Past.” Discovery (May, 1999): 84-92. The discovery of Çatalhüyük and the controversy that swirls around the interpretations of the site.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mellaart, James. Earliest Civilizations of the Near East. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965. The importance of Çatalhüyük to archaeology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mellaart, James. “The Earliest Settlements in Western Asia From the Ninth to the End of the Fifth Millennium b.c.” In Prolegomena and Prehistory, edited by I. E. S. Edwards, C. J. Gadd, and N. G. L. Hammond. Vol. 1 of The Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. An analysis of Neolithic Anatolia.

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