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.”