Anglo-Turkish Society

Lecture by Ian Hodder: ‘The Curious Case of Çatalhöyük’ - flyer, 20 February 2019.

Ian Hodder in the centre with friends at the end of the lecture.

1- What started your interest in archaeology?

I became interested as a child and was digging at site around Oxford, where I went to school, from the age of 15.

2- Is Çatalhöyük ‘unique’ because of the way it was discovered and ‘promoted’ by James Mellaart or does it have features, such as its size for that period, that sets it apart from other Neolithic settlements?

Certainly Mellaart was a consummate promoter of the site, and his drawings and reconstructions, and his lively lecturing style, all helped to make the site famous. But the size of the site and the rich art, at what was then an early date, gave real grounds for its importance.

3- Presumably obsidian was the ‘gold’ of the time in that without it there would be no weapons to hunt and kill animals, and presumably it was always found far away from fertile plains such as Çatalhöyük was situated in. Do we know exactly where the obsidian was obtained from and do you think there would have been a form of barter with another community for this precious commodity? So can we talk in terms of this being the start of ‘trade networks’?

Yes obsidian was an important resource for tools but also for making items of social prestige and mirrors. Nearly all the obsidian came from Cappadocia – from the sites of Nenezi Dağ and Göllü Dağ. There was some exchange but also we think people went directly to the sources to get the obsidian.

4- Do we know why the houses in ‘classical Çatalhöyük’ had their entrances via the roof rather than a door? Could it be a structural design as creating a lintel in a place where ‘solid’ wood and ‘dressed’ stone was scarce was the reason or could there be a spiritual drive for clearly an inefficient mode of access?

There were probably many reasons. In recent times, and still today, there are villages in Anatolia with flat roofs on which tasks are carried out and from which there are entrances into houses. So it is not such a strange practice. It partly results from crowding, but also from the support and warmth provided by neighbouring houses; and having the walls contiguous means that the walls do not face the weather so much.

5- The people of Çatalhöyük were clearly ‘house-proud’, clearing out their homes regularly and a few times a year white-washing all the walls. Clearly there would have no concept of bacterial disease, but perhaps rats had already begun their association with man (any evidence of ‘vermin’). Do you think this discipline meant disease was rare?

The nature of these plasters certainly helped to contain many sources of disease, but there were large numbers of mice in the settlement and we have evidence of intestinal disease caused by worms as well as other forms of disease. The areas of midden between the houses were full of faecal material but again here disease was managed by careful burning, covering and tending of refuse. People lived relatively healthy lives.

6- The Neolithic period was well before the ‘age of empires’ and there seems to be no wars and forced mass displacement of populations. However do we see any differences in the type of skeletal features indicating any ‘immigrant’ stock?

We do have some evidence of women marrying in to the community, and there is of course some migration of people from eastern Anatolia as farming spread westward, but the recent DNA work suggests that much of the community came from central Anatolia.

7- Your teams’ teeth analysis seems to reveal complex family relations where babies are farmed to unrelated households regularly, thus creating a non-nuclear family system, quite alien to ours. Have you had any chance to study contemporary tribal societies which have similar customs and hypothesize on the dynamics of this ‘multi-kinship’?

There are several societies around the world, small-scale farming societies, in which children are adopted or fostered at an early age so that kin are defined by co-residence rather than by biological descent.

8- The burial practices clearly point to a form of ancestral worship in this community. Do you think the tight binding of pre-sun desiccated bodies was a practical means of fitting them in a constrained space in those burial pits and does preservation reveal any additives to control decay and so disease risks?

I don’t think it was just a practical matter – after all many societies expose the dead in the landscape; burial beneath house floors is relatively rare. So we now think that the tight binding was to preserve the body after death, in the period before burial, which was delayed for some time. I think this is because the ancestors were seen as active agents well beyond physical death and people wanted to keep them around and consult/respect them. We do not have any evidence of additives, but the high-calcium plaster would have restrained disease from bodies beneath floors.

9- In later levels of Çatalhöyük sheep becomes a mainstay of their meat diet, presumably they are easy to raise and control. With such a large population to feed, do we have any idea of the ‘pasturing range’, required, and do you think the Konya plain was so underpopulated there would have been no potential conflict with neighbouring communities over this resource?

There is no evidence of contemporary large settlements on the Konya Plain at the time of Çatalhöyük. Most of the sheep were grazed on the Plain itself – clearly enough pasturage was available on the plain, but there was also some foddering.

10- Out of the vastness of Anatolia / Mesopotamia and its other fertile and watered corners do we know why Çatalhöyük became one of the first ‘villages’?

Çatalhöyük is certainly not one of the first villages – there are many known, especially in Cappadocia and farther east in the millennia before Çatalhöyük. But it is one of the earliest ‘mega-sites’ – these are sites bigger than 10 ha and with quite large populations. Why it is where it is may be difficult to answer. We know of earlier sites like Boncuklu (being excavated by Douglas Baird) in the area, but certainly the rich quasi-wetland resources, and the grazing potential of the plain, plus the availability of local clays for building, all played their part.

11- Do the fragments of cereal grains through the stratigraphy of Çatalhöyük point to any ‘artificial selection’ in terms of size and type?

The archaeo-botanical team working at the site has identified many changes through time in the crops grown though I do not think that any of them were domesticated on site. One interesting aspect is that one type of wheat cultivated (known as the New Type) was common at the time but no longer exists – it has gone exctinct.

12- Can we ascertain just how ‘domesticated’ animals such as cattle were at the time? Since there appears to be no social differentiation in terms of size of houses etc. can we then assume the animals were collectively owned, if they were indeed domesticated?

The cattle through most of the sequence were not domesticated – they remained wild but through time they show increasing evidence of human management. It seems unlikely in this context that cattle were owned.

13- Your predecessor, James Mellaart in the 1960s excavated nearly two hundred buildings in four seasons (on average a room a day), whereas you spent up to 9 seasons excavating one building alone. Clearly these are different times, but do you think lasting damage and lost information has resulted or is the site big enough for these not to be significant?

There are still huge swathes of Çatalhöyük unexcavated. While we have excavated very slowly because of the rise of modern scientific techniques, we have excavated all or part of about 200 houses. I hope that future projects will expand the sample size, but the site is huge and much remains available for excavation.

14- Thousands of clay / stone figurines have been found on site. Do you think any could have been ‘toys’ for clearly the loads of children on site at the time?

We have no evidence they were used as toys. Indeed, everything seems to suggest that the figurines played an important role in daily rituals before being discarded in middens.

15- Wikipedia on this site states, ‘there is also evidence that the settlement was the first place in the world to mine and smelt metal in the form of lead.’ Is this true?

There is early use of various metals, but this is for beads and bangles and does not imply mining or large-scale production. Metal of this small-scale type is found on many earlier sites in Anatolia and the Middle East.

16- Do you think an even earlier ‘Çatalhöyük’ type settlement could be found in the future, re-writing the history books like Gobekli Tepe has recently done?

It is certainly possible – that’s why archaeology is always so exciting!

Questions by Craig Encer, March 2019