A Tale of Two Archeologists

A tale of two obsessed archeologists, one ancient city and nagging doubts about whether science can ever hope to reveal the past.

By Robert Kunzig|Saturday, May 01, 1999
The land around Konya in south-central Turkey is flat now, a checkerboard of wheat and barley, but 9,000 years ago it was flatter still. Nine thousand years ago there were no mounds. Today, on a map of the area, the word hoeyuek, Turkish for "mound," is all over the place. Twenty miles southeast of Konya, one of the biggest mounds of all, Catalhoyuk, rises 65 feet above the plain. If you stand on its grass-covered summit with archeologist Ian Hodder and look past the white tent that shields some of his diggers from the sun, your view is unbroken for tens of miles. Nine thousand years ago Catalhoyuk was alone in this vastness, and it had only just begun to grow. This was in the Neolithic Period, the end of the Stone Age: people had only just come down from the mountains to build one of the first large settlements on the planet. 

For six summers straight, Hodder, a professor at the University of Cambridge, has brought a large team here to study the mound of ruins that is Çatalhöyük (CHAH-tahl-HU-yook). He hopes to continue for the next 19 years, until he retires. There are other sites that document the Neolithic revolution—when humans gave up a hundred thousand years of wandering to farm and begin building a civilization. But none are as rich as Çatalhöyük.

Between 7000 and 6000 B.C., as many as 10,000 people lived here in boxes of mud brick, with roofs made of wood beams and reeds. Surrounded by open space, they built a town so dense it lacked streets and doorways; the residents climbed over their neighbors’ roofs to their own and then dropped in through a hole that also served as a chimney. Just generations away from a nomadic lifestyle, they chose to live in extremely crowded conditions. No one really knows why.

In those rank and smoky houses, on white plaster walls, the people of Çatalhöyük created art, lots of art. They painted strange pictures of small men confronting outsize beasts; they molded plaster reliefs of leopards, bulls, and female breasts. Under the plaster floors they buried their dead, wrapped in shrouds and accompanied by clay rings and beads and mirrors of glassy obsidian from nearby volcanoes. For generations they lived on top of their ancestors, and then at some point—again, no one knows why—they abandoned the house. They swept it clean, they cleaned out the grain bins and even the fireplace, and they knocked down the walls. Then they built another house just like it on the ruins, and the mound grew another layer.

Hodder is not the first to dig into this mound. He heard about Çatalhöyük in the late 1960s, as a student attending lectures at the University of London. The lecturer, James Mellaart, was famous for discovering the site: he had shattered the old idea that civilization had begun only in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of land from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Mellaart’s lectures were memorable. “He was hugely enthusiastic about the past, he taught without notes, and he remembered every single carbon 14 date that came out of the Near East,” a former student, Louise Martin, recalls. Mellaart’s story of Çatalhöyük was the kind that made students want to become archeologists. But he could not take them there to dig: in 1965 he had fallen into a dispute with the Turkish government.

So for 30 years the site languished. “It was clear it ought to be excavated again,” Hodder says. “There was terrible erosion, and so many questions left unanswered. It’s always been felt that it was a duty of the British to come back and resolve the mess. But that was never possible while Mellaart still wanted to come back himself.” Now Mellaart has retired and given a blessing to Hodder’s excavation—if not to his methods and results. “He’s an extraordinary mind and a great archeologist,” Hodder says. “We disagree about some of the interpretations.” Of Hodder’s project, Mellaart says: “I wouldn’t call it an excavation. Scientific research, perhaps.”

In the 30 years that separated Mellaart’s Çatalhöyük from Hodder’s, archeology changed radically. By his last season even Mellaart was out of date: scientific archeology had arrived, and with it a preference for the quantifiable over the symbolic, for testable hypotheses over stories. Then in the 1980s, some archeologists began to question their whole enterprise, to dismiss as naive the view that you could ever know what really happened in the past, and as Eurocentric the interpretations that people like Mellaart had applied to ancient cultures. Having barely become modern and scientific, archeology suddenly became postmodern.

One of the most widely respected leaders of that second revolution is Hodder. At Çatalhöyük he is getting a chance to rewrite Mellaart’s story—and to put his postmodern theories into practice.

James Mellaart is 73 now, on the short side, a bit pear-shaped, a bit jowly, a bit short of breath. He wears his roomy trousers hiked high and a tartan tie when the occasion demands it. (Mellaart is of Dutch extraction, but three centuries ago his family were MacLartys from Scotland.) Large glasses frame eyes that squeeze down to small slits of mirth as he talks. Were he standing on a windswept mound, the thin gray hair would quickly come unkempt, but he is not: he is sitting in a comfortable chair in his flat in north London. The flat, located in an unremarkable block, is richly Turkish, all dark wood and kilims and glass cabinets filled with out-of-the-ordinary curios. As Mellaart tells the story of the dig of his life, his Turkish-born wife and colleague, Arlette, intervenes with small cups of muddy coffee and occasional explanations.

Mellaart first saw Çatalhöyük up close in 1958. Within minutes, in the last light of a November evening, he discovered it was littered with obsidian tools. The site was Neolithic from top to bottom. Few Neolithic sites had been found before in Anatolia, and none that size—hundreds of yards long—had been found anywhere.

The importance of the site was obvious. When Mellaart finally started digging there in 1961, though, he didn’t expect it to be beautiful too; the potsherds he had found at the surface were undecorated fragments of cooking vessels. His doubts lasted about three days into the dig. “We had a narrow little trench,” Mellaart says, “and one of my workmen called me and said, ‘Sir, look.’ On the wall, a piece of plaster had fallen off. And there were paintings. That changed the whole thing.”

Much older paintings had been found before in European caves, such as Lascaux in France. Those paintings dated from the Paleolithic, the Old Stone Age, when humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers. What Mellaart had found at Çatalhöyük were the oldest paintings from the Neolithic, the oldest paintings made by humans on the walls of houses they had built themselves. The first was of a hunter and a stag. More hunting scenes followed, but also pictures of men sporting with all sorts of animals, pulling their tails and tongues and riding on their backs. There were pictures of men dancing in leopard skins and of headless men being pecked by giant vultures. There was even what looked to Mellaart like an erupting volcano: probably Hasan Da˘g   he decided, which is visible from the mound on a clear day, 80 miles to the northeast. Under the volcano, the artist had painted a strange pattern of rectangles that could be taken for the terraced town of Çatalhöyük itself. Mellaart said it was the first landscape painting in history.

Catalhoyuk information from Ian Hodder
Friends of Catalhoyuk
Archaeology links from Discovering Archeaology

Working with a team of 50 over four seasons of furious digging, Mellaart also uncovered plaster wall reliefs of leopards butting heads and of splayed human figures he interpreted as women giving birth. In some cases they were giving birth to plaster bulls’ heads sporting real bulls’ horns, called bucrania. Some walls were festooned with those, and some plaster benches were ringed with upright bulls’ horns. But perhaps the strangest pieces of art were the plaster breasts that protruded from numerous walls; some were burst open to reveal the skulls of vultures or weasels. “Death in the midst of life?” Mellaart wondered.

Of the scads of statuettes Mellaart found, few were male. Most of the recognizable ones showed big-breasted, corpulent women. They were representations of the Mother Goddess, Mellaart said, artifacts of the earliest human religion. (These days Goddess worshippers visit Çatalhöyük by the busload.) The most famous statuette, which has become a symbol of the site, shows the Goddess astride two leopards, apparently giving birth.

Mellaart dug up some 200 houses in a 13-layer cake slice cut from one of the mound’s 32 acres. All the buildings were roughly the same size—300 square feet or so, with a single large room sometimes flanked by smaller storerooms. But 40 of them were so heavily decorated that Mellaart thought them shrines rather than houses. By chance, he decided, he had excavated the “priestly quarter” of the town, in which priestesses dressed as vultures worshipped the Goddess. With what purpose in mind? “Fertility, of course,” he says now. “Fertility! For themselves, for their animals.” Although the people of Çatalhöyük still hunted, in Mellaart’s view, they got most of their meat from domesticated cattle, and they planted a variety of crops. Thanks to the fertile earth, they had conquered hunger. That is what allowed them to create so much art.

Mellaart loved to interpret that art. There was a story that went with the volcano painting: Çatalhöyük was the center of a far-flung trade in volcanic obsidian, Mellaart said. The artist was depicting the source of the town’s wealth, of its tools, and of the polished black mirrors into which women must have gazed with dawning self-consciousness. There was a story, too, for an even more obscure painting, one with symbols that looked like atomic radiation warnings (flowers, to Mellaart’s eyes), little triangles floating nearby (butterflies), and four forklike figures arranged in a cross (humans with outstretched arms). “Does this wall painting symbolize an act of homage to the great goddess on a spring morning in the Konya Plain amid fields of flowers and humming insect life nearly eight thousand years ago,” Mellaart wrote, “or is this too fanciful an interpretation?”

“Jimmy Mellaart is like a man who went to the moon,” says Louise Martin, an archeozoologist at the University of London who took Mellaart’s courses there and now works with Hodder at Çatalhöyük. “He came to this place and he hasn’t been able to get over it. The wonderful stories just roll off his tongue.” 

Ian Hodder—tall, blond, slender, a very youthful man of 50—likes stories too, and in that sense he is Mellaart’s soul mate. The scientific archeology that was just coming along as Mellaart left Çatalhöyük tended to neglect stories, and to neglect art and symbolic artifacts, which aren’t amenable to scientific analysis. This approach was called processual archeology in some circles because it focused on the processes by which people adapted to their environment—what crops they planted, say, and how many calories they extracted from them. Hodder’s postmodern archeology, on the other hand, is “post-processual.” It emphasizes art and artifacts as clues to what people in the past were thinking. “People have to adapt to their environment,” Hodder says, “but their ideas and beliefs about the world have an impact on the way they adapt to it.” Hodder’s goal, like Mellaart’s, is to understand how prehistoric individuals acted at individual moments—like those spring mornings on the Konya Plain.

But two deep canyons separate the men. For one, Hodder can’t ignore the scientific advances that have made it possible to wring a lot more data from archeological ground. Mellaart dug with shovels, picked artifacts and bones out of the dirt with his hands, and threw the rest into an enormous spoil heap. In Hodder’s dig, much of the dirt itself is analyzed. It is sieved for tiny remains, and then it is dropped into barrels of water to separate out yet tinier ones; slivers of obsidian, for example, will sink to the bottom, while seeds will float. And as the diggers dig, sometimes for a month on a single corner of a single house, they leave strips of each mud layer intact so that a micromorphologist can come by and take samples and examine them under a microscope—to find things that would escape even the sieve and the flotation tank.


James Mellaart says the reason the Turkish government withdrew his permit to dig at Çatalhöyük after the 1965 season was that he was discovering too many paintings. True, the Turks did not have the resources to preserve all his priceless findings: some of the slabs of plaster he sent to the Anatolian Civilizations Museum in Ankara have never even been unwrapped, “I suppose people panicked,” Mellaart says. “There are disadvantages to finding too much.” But the reason for his rift with the Turks seems to have more to do with a woman named Anna, whom he met by chance on a train to Izmir in the 1950s.

When Anna entered his compartment, she was wearing a striking gold bracelet. Mellaart recognized it as Bronze Age. He remarked on it, and Anna said she had a lot more of that at home if he cared to come have a look. Mellaart did. Getting off the train in Izmir, they drove through a foggy night to an old house whose location remained murky thereafter. Anna showed him a stash of gold artifacts that ostensibly came from a place nearby, called Dorak. She said that this priceless ancient treasure belonged to her family. Mellaart had no camera, so he spent several days and nights feverishly drawing the things.

That, at least, is how the story is told in The Dorak Affair, a 1967 account of the matter by Kenneth Pearson and Patricia Connor of the London Sunday Times. Neither they nor anyone else was ever able to locate Anna’s house in Izmir, and the lady herself had vanished. She never provided Mellaart with promised photographs of the treasure, but she did authorize him to publish his drawings. He finally did in 1959, in the Illustrated London News. A few years later, when Mellaart was digging at Çatalhöyük, newspapers in Istanbul got wind of the article. They created a scandal about the foreign archeologist who had looted Turkey of a treasure no one had ever seen. Mellaart’s relations with the government never recovered.

Pearson and Connor, after an energetic investigation, concluded that the film noir scenario must have happened more or less as Mellaart related it. They suggested he may have been duped by Turkish antiques smugglers who used him to hype their wares abroad. —R. K.

The other canyon between Hodder and Mellaart is Hodder’s theory. Mellaart’s dig was pre-theoretical, straightforward, optimistic. “We dug a large hole and got out things,” explains Arlette Mellaart. The Mellaarts thought those things might tell them what really happened at Çatalhöyük—which is not at all the postmodern spirit. “Postmodernism is difficult to define,” says Hodder. “But one definition people use is the ‘end of grand narrative’—the end of the idea that there is one answer to the world. Postmodernism is much less optimistic, less certain. It focuses much more on ‘multivocality’: there are many different voices in the world and different perspectives, not just the Western one.”

Another word thrown around Çatalhöyük these days is reflexivity. The archeologists watch themselves; they even have anthropologists watching them and studying how they are perceived by nearby villagers who are also, presumably, watching them. Scientific specialists like Martin—zoologists, botanists, micromorphologists, and stone-tool specialists—tour the trenches regularly to watch the diggers. Hodder says all this watching is necessary because objective archeological facts—bones, seeds, stone tools—can never be separated from the subjective meanings that archeologists assign to them based on the context in which they are found. Because the context is destroyed by digging, interpretation has to begin “at the trowel’s edge”—and so Hodder wants a lot of people looking over the shoulder of the person with the trowel. Hodder’s archeology involves a lot of talking.

The talk does not stop in the trenches. It continues in the pleasant dig house Hodder had built at the site, where discussions of methodology often take precedence over the study of artifacts. It continues too on the project’s Web site, where Hodder can be seen “dialoguing” with a representative of the “Goddess community.” Although Hodder, unlike Mellaart, thinks there is scant evidence that goddesses were ever worshipped at Çatalhöyük, he feels it is his duty to discuss the site with anyone and make his data available. When Goddess adepts tell Hodder they don’t want his data, because it is already contaminated by his own white-male subjectivity—well, Hodder loves that criticism. It gives him an anecdote he can use in lectures, papers, and interviews. It supports his main point: that there is no one objective reality at Çatalhöyük, no single story—as Mellaart hoped—but many stories, all with a tentative connection to reality at best.

The talk, the tentativeness, the microscopic analysis, the constant self-analysis—these things make for slow digging. That is the biggest difference between Mellaart and Hodder. Mellaart excavated 200 houses in four seasons; Hodder, with a much larger team, has uncovered 3 houses in six seasons. As long as time and money are unlimited, the advantages of his approach are obvious. When Wendy Matthews, the micromorphologist on his team, examines small pieces of wall, floor, or trash heap under her microscope, she sees things Mellaart dug right through, and she comes close to evoking scientifically the historical moments he could only imagine. She sees the tens of layers of plaster the Çatalhöyük people applied to their walls, annually or even seasonally, covering up soot but also their own murals. She sees the small pile of bone and obsidian splinters swept into a corner by some Neolithic toolmaker—perhaps it was on a spring morning.

Hodder’s great hope is that such painstaking analysis will produce a richer interpretation of Çatalhöyük. The great risk he runs is that the lack of quantity in his work will translate into a lack of quality: that he will never find enough evidence to say much of anything.  

In 1997, Hodder’s team made an amazing find in a house called Building 1, on the opposite side of the mound from Mellaart’s dig. Under the floors were the skeletons of at least 64 human beings. Mellaart had found bones under platforms too, but never so many. Analysis of the bones by Peter Andrews and Theya Molleson of the British Natural History Museum suggests the bodies were buried intact—and not, as Mellaart thought, only after they had been picked clean by vultures. The smoke from the open fire in the house may have helped mask the stench.

The bones and teeth suggest that the people of Çatalhöyük were rather healthy, insofar as they survived childhood: half the 64 skeletons were those of children, 17 of them under two years old. Andrews and Molleson believe all the skeletons may have belonged to a single extended family. They couldn’t have all lived in that same house, but for some reason they were all buried there. Perhaps it was the house of a patriarch.

 Even if those 64 people didn’t crowd into a single small house, Çatalhöyük was a crowded place. The site was on a river called the Çarsamba; around it lay marsh, fertile alluvial plain, and woods and steppe that were probably teeming with big game. Why humans would settle there is no great mystery. The mystery is why 5,000 to 10,000 of them chose to settle on the same spot, when there was plenty of space around them.

If anything, the Hodder excavation has only deepened the mystery by calling into question the assumption that the decision to settle was triggered by the emergence of agriculture. Hodder’s team has found evidence—it’s only suggestive, given how little they’ve excavated—that the Çatalhöyük people relied less on farming than Mellaart thought. Analyzing much smaller bits of animal bone than Mellaart ever found, Martin has determined that most of them did not come from cattle; most came from sheep and goats. She thinks the Çatalhöyük people had probably domesticated sheep, but it is not clear they had domesticated cattle. A lot of the bones come from wild animals.

The plant remains point to a similar conclusion. Like Mellaart, paleobotanists Christine Hastorf and Julie Near of the University of California at Berkeley have found wheat, barley, lentils, and peas at Çatalhöyük. “Mellaart assumed that those domesticated plants were their staples,” says Near. “But he didn’t do flotation, which is the only way you see a wider variety of plants.” By putting dirt from the house floors and rubbish heaps in her flotation tank, Near has found that the residents of Çatalhöyük were energetic collectors of wild plants as well. They were particularly fond of the tuberous roots of a marsh reed called Scirpus.

All this adds up in Hodder’s mind to the view that the people of Çatalhöyük were hunters and gatherers at least as much as they were farmers. “You’ve got this enormously varied environment,” he said one day late last summer, standing on top of the mound, gazing out over a seamless spread of modern farm fields. “And that allows you to sustain what is a staggering population of five or ten thousand. Imagine this whole mound a sea of pueblo-like buildings, and whole families getting up and going out to try to hunt and gather plants and dirt for plaster—it’s a massive use of the landscape. Although they’re hunter-gatherers, they’re also living on a very large site. That challenges the imagination—how do you organize an enormous group of people; how do you manage to feed them all?”

Mellaart saw Çatalhöyük as the ancestor of much more elaborate Bronze Age civilizations, such as Knossos on Crete, and he assumed it too must have been ruled by an elite—perhaps the priests whose shrines he thought he had uncovered. Only central leadership, in his view, could explain the orderliness of Çatalhöyük, with its buildings all constructed to the same specifications—hearths always on the south side, burials on the north—one right on top of the other over many generations.

Hodder, on the other hand, thinks Knossos is the wrong analogy. It was a complex city-state that came along 4,000 years after Çatalhöyük, he points out. If the Çatalhöyük folk were hunter-gatherers, Hodder argues, the way to understand them is to compare them with simple societies today, like the African tribes he has studied, or like the Tikopia of Polynesia: they too live in small dark houses, and they still bury their dead under the floors.

Because the Çatalhöyük buildings are all about the same size—no obvious palaces or temples—Hodder believes there was no central leadership. Because just about every building has some type of decoration, Hodder believes there were no shrines; some houses were just more decorated than others. The difference between a building with a patch of red paint on one wall, and a building of the kind Mellaart found, with elaborate murals on all four sides, a plaster wall relief of a splayed human figure, and bulls’ horns everywhere—to Hodder that difference is merely one of degree. And if there were no distinct shrines, then there was no priestly elite or organized religion. The people may have been ruled by clan chiefs, like the Tikopia, or by no chiefs at all; their lives may have been governed by ritual and taboo. They probably venerated the ancestors buried under the floors, as the Tikopia do.

As for the “Mother Goddess,” whom Mellaart saw as the forerunner of classical goddesses like Demeter—there are only a few recognizable statuettes from Çatalhöyük, says Hodder, and even they weren’t always treated like deities. Mellaart found the fat-lady-with-leopards in a grain bin. “It’s obviously a goddess—no human being sits on two leopards!” says Mellaart. (“Especially when she’s having a baby!” adds Arlette.) Hodder is unimpressed: he allows only that women at Çatalhöyük had “a powerful symbolic role.” What they symbolized, he believes, was not divinity but domesticity. Whereas the art that Mellaart found shows men doing active things, the women are generally sitting down, and not always on leopards.

“People at that time needed to domesticate themselves, to become stable, to stop moving around, to sit,” Hodder says. “I think the woman as the mother is a metaphor of being sedentary—the hearth, the house, the home.” Although the origin of settlements and of agriculture is usually seen in economic and environmental terms—as the discovery of a new process whereby human beings could extract a living from their surroundings—Hodder sees it post-processually. Before people could domesticate plants and animals, they had first to “domesticate the wild within,” to tame “the wild dangers associated with death, reproduction, and female sexuality.” This most important transition in human prehistory, then, was first of all a cultural and psychological one.

That interpretation is one Hodder has been pushing for years. He is hoping that new art unearthed at Çatalhöyük will produce more evidence for it. It seems doubtful that a theory so subtle and inward could ever be convincingly documented by art so prone to divergent interpretation; what Mellaart saw as a volcano looming over Çatalhöyük, after all, Hodder thinks might be only a leopard skin. But anyway, Hodder’s team hasn’t yet found any new art worth mentioning.

 By the end of last year the excavation at Çatalhöyük had reached a crisis. Hodder had been planning not to dig at all in 1999, to give his team time to write a book describing their methodology. But then he learned that, thanks to an irrigation project, the water table around the mound has sunk five meters in just the past few years. At the bottom of the mound, which Mellaart’s dig never reached, are the artifacts of the first people to settle at Çatalhöyük. Having been wet for millennia, they are now dried out and are being destroyed. Early this year Hodder found himself asking his corporate sponsors for extra cash to fund a “rescue” operation, eight months of digging instead of the usual two. His hope is to get to the bottom of the mound before the year is out.

“Since Mellaart’s work here, we’ve had a lot of other sites which are big and earlier,” Hodder says. “But Çatalhöyük has remained absolutely significant and different; it stands out because of the art. There’s nowhere else that has this density and richness of painting and creative production, sculpture and statuettes and modeling—everything from little spoons to enormous bucrania. It’s an extraordinary outpouring of art. Many of us had thought that people would find more and more of these sites elsewhere, but it just hasn’t happened. So the question becomes even more, ‘Why here? What is it that creates that?’ We still have no understanding.

“That’s why we want to dig to the beginnings of the site. We’d like to get to the bottom of it.”

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