Çatalhöyük Perspectives: Reports From The 1995–99 Seasons, By
Members Of The Çatalhöyük Teams. Ed. By Ian Hodder.
In many a conventional account of the great changes from hunter-gatherer to farmer society in the Near East, narratives are constructed in which late hunter-gatherers undergo pressures from one or more sources — climate, population growth, resource scarcity, that sort of thing — and adapt by exerting more and more control on crops and plants and by pooling labour and other shared energies and social benefits through settling down. Emergent settled communities of early farmers, in these sorts of accounts, then gradually develop and intensify, as well as expanding territorially (the story continuing into Europe), and in due course both towns and structured, hierarchical societies appear.
To a non-specialist in the archaeology of the Near East, it seems that many of the results from the most exciting current research in the area do not neatly conform with such conventional explanatory and evolutionary models. There are differences and diversity everywhere, and things do not necessarily happen in linear fashion. There are many lessons here from the best of Near Eastern research for trajectories of change in Europe. First, there is Göbekli Tepe (Schmidt 2006; and prominently in Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe 2007; see also www.monumente2007.de) in the upper Euphrates in far south-eastern Turkey. Formally in the PPNA, dated perhaps around 9000 cal BC (but this could do with far more precise date estimates), people who appear to have been using wild animals set up a series of stunning stone monuments: great T-headed pillars, perhaps to be read as in stylised human form. Relief representations of animals are prominent on many of these: boar, cattle, fox/wolf, birds, snakes, spiders. Were these people worried about climate, and already beginning to control stands of wild cereals roundabout, as Schmidt (2006) suggests? Göbekli appears on the evidence excavated so far not be a settlement, so do we have here a sacred place, serving the region for literally miles around, where ‘hunter-gatherers’ came to think the world into new forms? Is there something here of the ‘revolution of symbols’ (as suggested for example by the late Jacques Cauvin), changes in people’s heads, which somehow set in motion many of the changes which follow through the Holocene? Or are we already falling into the teleological trap of anticipating the eventual outcome of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’?
Fast forward then to the massive, 13.5-ha tell of Çatalhöyük in the Konya Basin in central Anatolia, thought to have been occupied for several centuries or more either side of 7000 cal BC. This is late in terms of regional development (and of the further sequences of PPNA and PPNB, and later than a series of other important early Neolithic sites like Nevali Çori, Çayönü and Aşikli Höyük), and Çatalhöyük may have begun not that long before the first Neolithic manifestations in Greece. Renowned for its closely packed buildings, some of whose interiors contain the painted and moulded images of creatures, animals and people made famous by the first excavations of James Mellaart in the 1960s, Çatalhöyük has been under investigation since 1993 by a series of international teams led by Ian Hodder. Already five other specialist volumes have been published [previously reviewed: Changing Materialities at Çatalhöyük: Reports from the 1995-99 Seasons, ed. Ian Hodder and Inhabiting Çatalhöyük: Reports from the 1995-99 Seasons, by members of the Çatalhöyük teams, ed. Ian Hodder ], and parallel with this sixth, reflective and partly synthetic volume, Ian Hodder has published his own interim account of what it may all mean (2006).
These multiplying accounts, like the often repeated plasterings of floors and walls in the houses of the settlement, can and will be read in many differing ways by different audiences. One facet to note is the much publicised ‘multivocality’ of varying and at times contradictory interpretations even within the specialists involved in the project. Another aspect to celebrate is the detailed and dedicated application of many state-of-the-art methodologies to the close examination of many aspects of daily life, most strikingly perhaps the microscopic examination of floor, wall, hearth and midden deposits (Wendy Matthews, chapter 10); there has been much fruitful interaction between and among the specialists. Many another project elsewhere could benefit by comparing itself to the scope of these Çatalhöyük investigations, as seen expertly set out in the contributions in this and the previous five specialist volumes, even if few other projects have the reputation of a world-famous site behind them to secure funding on the grand scale. It is not all straightforward, however. As Marion Cutting explains here (and others including Ian Hodder elsewhere), it remains difficult to reconcile many aspects of the basic stratigraphy of the site, since the percentage uncovered is so small (less than 10 percent to date?) and the earlier levels were reached by Mellaart by soundings that slanted laterally. A more precise site chronology is badly needed. The estimate of numbers of occupants (set by Craig Cessford in an earlier volume as between 3500–8000 people, with a minimum number of permanent residents as 1500–2700 people or so) might therefore need revisiting. And this is a site whose repeated and successive occupations and rebuildings have cut off the houses about 1–1.5 m high. Much of life in the site may have been lived on second floors, on the roof, in the open. The preservation at the site can be astonishing but it is partial.
So anyone thinking about how to get the best out of available methodologies for application to any site with buildings and related deposits could read the 14 chapters in this volume with much profit, as well as quarry the earlier specialist volumes on which many of these reflections and syntheses are based. (One comment for future reference: it is quite difficult at first for the outsider to ‘navigate’ around the levels, areas and buildings, and there could be many more general plans throughout a volume of this kind). Beyond this, for a non-specialist in the Near East, the overriding impression of the results of all this detailed work so far (and the cycle of investigation and prompt publication looks set to continue) is the strangeness of it all. Ian Hodder has explored one dimension of this in his own book (2006), highlighting the repeated representation of leopards and people wearing leopard skins in certain levels and buildings of Çatalhöyük in contrast to the single find, in the animal bones so far examined in detail, within the site. (These and others are carefully quantified by Nerissa Russell and Stephanie Meece in chapter 14 of Çatalhöyük perspectives). His answer lies in terms of the continuing power of the supernatural in human life, and that book could serve as the best start for a new reader before taking on the one under review here.
Repeatedly, in Çatalhöyük perspectives, we come up against puzzles, of a kind that jar with the sort of conventional perspectives sketched (perhaps caricatured) at the start of this review. Çatalhöyük does not exactly appear out of nowhere, according to the surveys of Douglas Baird and colleagues (chapter 5; and see Eleni Asouti in chapter 6), being preceded by other smaller occupations. But it seems to get big, much bigger, very quickly, and then to suck in population from the region round about. This is a very large aggregation of people (whatever the numbers of users and/or residents), with little sign of a supporting settlement system. Was it like this from the start? Can we tell, given how difficult it is to reach the lowest levels of a tell like this? The site is placed on one of the characteristic alluvial fans of the Konya Basin but the detailed evidence (presented by Arlene Rosen and Neil Roberts, chapter 4) suggests an immediate setting in seasonally floodable marshland: advantageous for building materials and access to varied wild resources, but hardly the sort of spot predicted by conventional thinking on early farmers. The people of Çatalhöyük certainly used domesticated animals — notably sheep and goats — and cultivated cereals, but as part of a probably very broad spectrum of resources, including wild cattle. There is obviously debate within the teams about this. Andrew Fairbairn and others (chapter 7, and earlier volumes) appear to favour a dominant role for the traditional domesticates, but there are counter-arguments, not least the apparent capacity of ground-level storage bins in many building for not more than two months’ worth of cereals for the likely size of household of 6-8 people (Sonya Atalay and Christine Hastorf, chapter 8). Cereal fields could have been located as far away as 20 km, according to phytolith and other evidence (chapters 1, 6, 7 and 8). It is evident that many people must have spent significant periods of time away from the site, not just herding and cultivating, but hunting and acquiring other wild resources, and acquiring obsidian.
Then there are the buildings. Perhaps the site had two main halves (Ian Hodder chapter 1; Eleni Asouti, chapter 6). Perhaps buildings were arranged in groups or blocks, perhaps, by some later levels, arranged around larger, dominant houses and households. There are perhaps some small spaces between some groups of buildings, apart from surrounding middens, but this is hard to tell with certainty, not least because of the stratigraphy noted above; on this basis, there are no obvious lanes or roadways or major, open public spaces, far less, on present knowledge, public or central buildings. The ground floor of many buildings themselves must have been dark, entered from above. Floors and walls were repeatedly being replastered, including the figured panels, perhaps less so some of the moulded representations (Ian Hodder, chapter 12; Jonathan Last, chapter 13; and Nerissa Russell and Stephanie Meece, chapter 15). Images came and went, in the longue durée of daily life and other times. Imagery is predominantly of the wild: leopards, wild cattle, vultures (early on), and so on. Many dead are buried within the houses, under platforms, perhaps — but this badly needs greater precision — within the lifetimes of single buildings. When people made images, at times perhaps of burial, initiation, or feasting, but perhaps in other contexts too, they did so in relation above all to the wild and to the mythic. These are suggestive lines that might reach right back to the practices seen at Göbekli Tepe.
It is all very different to what many conventional models might suggest. As Ian Hodder in his introduction and others in Çatalhöyük perspectives stress, especially Eleni Asouti, there are important politics of dwelling here. How did it work at a social level? The house must emerge as central, but what was the house, given the possibility of people spending significant time away from the site? (There are possible indications too that men ate fewer cereals than women). Did the site act on the basis of two moieties? But how was a collective ideology maintained? Eleni Asouti suggests a number of subtle ways in which household or other competition might have operated, but the overall impression is of a substantial and dominant collectivity here. And yet the striking imagery is something contained within the apparently private spaces of individual buildings or building groups.
I have deliberately used the term ‘site’ here as much as ‘settlement’. There seems little doubt that there are long-term residents here; some of the older people have blackening in their chest cavities, from exposure to smoke and soot. But a final reflection is that perhaps we need a further vocabulary to catch the meanings of this place. In providing a locus for feasts and displays, intercession with supernatural powers, a burial ground for family or lineage or other dead, and a fluctuating and perhaps for some rather temporary seat of residence, where life in summer at least may have been lived out in a very public and gregarious sociality contrasting with darker things below, may Çatalhöyük have been more than just a settlement, less than a town, a special focus for very wide areas around? And, respecting the specifics of other times and places, is there a general pointer here for the roles of tells elsewhere, including in south-east Europe?
Review Submitted: January 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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