CATALHOYUK, WORLD’S OLDEST TOWN

CATALHOYUK, WORLD’S OLDEST TOWN

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Çatalhöyük (30 miles southeast of Konya in Turkey) is widely accepted as being the world's oldest village or town. Established around 7500 B.C. , it covered 32 acres and was home to between 3000 to 8000 people. Because of the way of the houses are packed so closely together it is hard to dispute it as being anything other than a village or town. [Sources: Ian Hodder, Natural History magazine, June 2006; Michael Batler, Smithsonian magazine, May 2005; Orrin Shane and Mine Kucuk, Archaeology magazine, March/April 1998]

Catalhoyuk was occupied for about 1,700 years, between 9,400 and 7,700 years ago, which is fairly long when you consider that New York City was founded not much more than 300 years ago. The 3000 to 8000 people that lived in Catalhoyuk at a given time were farmers and herders of cattle. They venerated bulls and worshiped a mother goddess; they produced paintings of hunting scenes and shaped object from obsidian quarried hundred of miles to the north, indicating long distance trade.

Çatalhöyük (pronounced Chah-tel-hew-yook) means “fork mound” in Turkish, a reference to a fork in the footpath before the main mound at the site. Clustered in a honeycomb-like maze, it consists of two mounds on either side of an ancient channel of the Carsamba River on the fertile Konya Plain. The largest mound, 33.5-acre Çatalhöyük East, was occupied between 7400 and 5000 B.C. but there are older undated levels below it. The smaller mound, Çatalhöyük West, was occupied between 5000 and 4,700 B.C. In addition to being very old Catalhoyuk is remarkably well-preserved. Around it today are melon fields and wheat fields. In 7500 B.C. there were marshes nearby that may have been flooded for two or three months a year. At that time agricultural fields were some distance from the town.

Catal Huyuk, produced many kinds of local goods (suggesting division of labor) and goods from elsewhere (suggesting trade). There is also evidence of an irrigation system previously thought to have originated in Mesopotamia over a thousand years later.

Websites and Resources on Prehistory: Human Prehistory users.hol.gr/~dilos/prehis.htm ; Wikipedia article on Prehistory Wikipedia ; Early Humans elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Prehistoric Art witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTHprehistoric ; National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/atlas ; Early Modern Man: Evolution of Modern Humans anthro.palomar.edu ; Virtual Ice Age creswell-crags.org.uk/Explore/virtually-the-ice-age ; Stone Age Tools aerobiologicalengineering.com

Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Origins of Agriculture comp-archaeology.org/AgricultureOrigins ; Britannica britannica.com/ ; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture said that ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis ; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication geochembio.com ; Food Timeline, History of Food foodtimeline.org ; Food and History teacheroz.com/food ;Iceman Photscan iceman.eurac.edu/ ; Otzi Official Site iceman.it

Catalhoyuk Archaeology

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Catalhoyuk was first brought to the attention of the world by James Mellart, an English archaeologist who discovered the site and excavated the area between 1961 and 1965, revealed 14 levels of occupation, created as people tore down old houses and built new ones, and uncovering 160 buildings. In the end he was forced to leave Turkey and barred from carrying out archeological work by the Turkish government following a scandal involving the reported theft of artifacts. Even though he was exonerated by a distinguished panel of archaeologists he was never allowed to work at the site again.

Catalhoyuk lay unstudied until a team led by Ian Hodder of the University of Cambridge (now at Stanford) began working there in 1993. Their objective was to investigate the site, preserve what had been unearthed so far and establish an interpretive center for visitors. As of 2006, in addition to the 14 levels of occupation revealed by Mellart Hodder’s team unearthed four more plus 80 more buildings.

Only about 5 percent of Catalhoyuk has been excavated. One of the primary goals of the archaeological work is to gain some insight into why people chose to settle in communities like Catalhoyuk. In the millennium before Catalhoyuk the Near East was largely occupied by nomads who hunted gazelle, goats, sheep and cattle and gathered eatable grasses, cereals and fruits.

Hodder is among those who believe that the Neolithic revolution came about as human cognition and psychology changed. He has theorized that before Neolithic people could be comfortable with the idea of being settled farmers they had to tame their wild nature and they did this through their art and religion---which were so important to the people of Catalhoyuk that they located their town where it was for aesthetic reasons, namely to collect clay from the local marshes to make goddess figures. This Hodder argues may explain why the agricultural fields were so far outside the town.

One of leading Turkish archaeologists working at Catalhoyuk is Basak Boz, of Hacettepe University in Ankara. A team headed by Douglas Baird of Liverpool University is looking for other sites in the Konya plain to figure what people might have preceded Catalhoyuk.

Catalhoyuk Dwellings

The inhabitants of Catalhoyuk lived in mud-brick and timber houses built around courtyards. The village had no streets or alleyways. Houses were packed so close together people entered their houses through their roofs and often went from place to place via the roofs, which were made of wood and reeds plastered with mud and often reached by ladders and stairways.

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restoration of a room

A typical Catalhoyuk house was 29-by-20-feet and contained a 20-by-20-foot room and a smaller chamber divided into two subrooms. The floors were plastered and platforms were built in the large room. Many dwellings contained a burial platform under which people (presumably family members) were buried. One of the small rooms had an oven which was used make meals with lentils and grain.

It is believed each building was occupied by a family with five to ten members. Hodder believes the main room was “the locus of family living, cooking, eating, craft activities, and sleeping.” The side rooms were used mainly “for storage and food preparation.” Few houses share walls---even ones right next to each other. Each house was built of bricks of distinct composition or shape.

Each house seemed to have its own hearth (set away from the walls) , domed oven (set into the walls), obsidian caches, storage rooms, and work rooms. Depressions for holding pots and other small stores were built below the floor. The bins in the houses suggest they all had similar storage capacity for agricultural produce.

The interior walls were made of mud brick covered by plaster, often multiple layers of it, on which sometimes murals were painted. Benches and platforms were constructed with plaster. Many of these were constructed of multiple layers of plaster, with base coat and thinner overlying finished coats. The walls were windowless and tended to be about 40 centimeters thick and 2.8 to 3.2 meters high. But even without windows the rooms could be quite bright in the middle of the day when light shined down from overhead through the roof-top door and reflected off the plaster walls.

Furnishings in the main room included reed matting, three platforms, a plastered tomb post, an oven and stairs to the roof. Storage bins were situated in one small square-shaped room. In a longer adjacent room were an oven and a food basin. Arched doorways connected the rooms. They only way out of the house was via the stairway to the roof. It is believed the stairs were made of logs with steps notched into them.

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a couple rooms

Archaeology of the Catalhoyuk Dwellings

Hodder wrote in Natural History magazine, “The main reason for the abundance of the archaeological record was that the Catalhoyukans used a particular kind of construction material. Instead of making hard, lime floors that held up for decades (as was the case in many sites in Anatolia and the Middle East), the inhabitants of Catalhoyuk made their floors mostly of out of a lime-rich mud plaster, which remained soft and in need of continual resurfacing.

“Once a year---in some cases once a month---floors and wall plates had to be resurfaced. Those thin layers of plaster, somewhat like the growth rings in a tree, trap traces of activity in a well-defined temporal sequence...The floors even preserve such subtle tokens of daily life as the impressions of floor mats. Maddens are just as finely layered, making it possible to identify details as subtle as individual dumps of trash from a hearth.”

“When a house reached the end of its practical life, people demolished the upped walls and carefully filled in the lower half of the house, which then became the foundation of a new house. The mound itself came into being largely through such gradual accumulation. Taking it apart enable users to revisit the past.”

Why was the softer plaster used, especially since the hard plaster was found in some of the oldest dwelling? It seems likely that this was because there was an abundant supply of the soft plaster nearby and firing lime to make it hard requires a lot of fuel, which would have rapidly used up the wood supplies in the area.

Hodder said that when houses were rebuilt a meticulous procedure was followed: “Workers first cleaned and scoured the walls and plaster features of the original house. They removed the roof, took out the main support posts, and dismantled the walls, usually down to a height of three or four feet. Fixtures such as ovens and decorative and ritual elements were often removed or truncated. The old house was then filled with a mixture of building materials, often very carefully...New excavation show how the inhabitants of Catalhoyuk were always tinkering with internal details of the homes....There were continual adjustments in the course of daily life, the spaces ere remade, reworked, moved and used for different purposes.”

Catalhoyuk Lifestyle

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restoration of a room
The inhabitants of Catalhoyuk herded goats and sheep, hunted horse and wild cattle (aurochs) and deer, grew emmer wheat, peas, bitter vetch lentils and other legumes and cereals, and collected wild plant foods such as tubers from the nearby marshes. Evidence for these food includes food samples found by the ovens and accumulations of goat and sheep dung consistent with that of found modern animals pens. This showed that early farming emerged here very early as it dd in the Levant and adjacent areas of the Middle East. There is also evidence of an irrigation system at Catalhoyuk, which was previously thought to have originated in Mesopotamia.

Artifacts unearthed at Catalhoyuk include the world’s earliest known pottery, polished obsidian mirrors, bone hook-an-eye closures, preserved basketry, textiles, carved wooden utensils,, sophisticated obsidian tools, and superbly crafted flint daggers with bone handles carved in the form on animals. Unusual objects include a fishhook pendant made from a split boar’s tusk and animal-horn figures imbedded into the walls of homes.

Some kind of trade was going on. Valuable obsidian was obtained from volcanic peaks to the north in Cappadochia; dates came from Mesopotamia or the Levant; and shells came from the Red Sea.

Collections of clay balls have been found in the hearths and oven. It is believed to these were set in a basket or a skin to boil water in a manner that is similar to the way some traditional societies today use heated rocks. At Catalhoyuk clay balls were used instead of rocks because rocks were in short supply. Judging from scraps and materials found around the hearth, the hearth areas were used to chip obsidian into tools and make beads as well as cook. Preparing food and making tools was generally done in one of the side rooms. They were not done in the rooms with plastered art.

Catalhoyuk Location and Organization

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In Neolithic times, the Konya Basin, where Catalhoyuk is located, was a semiarid plain with steppe vegetation, grasses, sedges and small bushes. The soil was mostly residue from a vanished lake that was high in calcium carbonate and low in nutrients.

One unusual thing about Catalhoyuk that archaeologists have discovered is that the agricultural fields that grew the town’s’s crops were several kilometers outside of town. Archaeologists determined this by examining phyiliths---the silica skeletons that form in or around plant cells---which showed that grains the Catalhoyukans ate was a dry-land variety not a variety that grew well in the marshes nearby.

The town instead was located near marshes. One explanation for this is that marshes provided a water source and food such as fish and waterfowl. The more likely explanation is that the marshes were sources of clay that was essential to make the plaster used to renovate their dwelling and was a source material for religious figures. Archaeologists have deduced that it was much easier to transport relatively light crops to their villages from some distance rather than heavy clay A river that flowed by Catalhoyuk could have been used to float juniper and oak logs, also used in construction, to the town and may have been used to transport food too.

From what archaeologists have determined so far Catalhoyuk was simply a collection of single-family dwelling. No evidence of any public spaces or administration building or other structures used by a group other than a family have been found. The eastern mound has two peaks, which suggests that perhaps the town was divided into two intermarrying kin groups, further supported by the fact no other settled communities have been found that could have supplied people to marry.

On of the more unpleasant aspects of Catalhoyuk’s organization Hodder wrote “the fact the buildings were embedded in extensive midden areas piled with trash, fecal material and rotting organic material---not in accordance with modern sensibilities, Perhaps it is little wonder the access to the houses was along the roofs and down the stairs!”

Catalhoyuk Language and Religion

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mother goddess
Some archaeologists believe that Catalhoyuk may have been a homeland for the original speakers of Indo-European languages and the source of the settled farming life. The town produced many kinds of local goods (suggesting division of labor) and goods from elsewhere (suggesting trade).

Many of the buildings contained rooms with platforms and scaffolds, some with two or three tiers, with life-size plaster heads of bulls, sheep and goats, with real horns, on them. In one room there was a plaster bench, long enough for a person to lie on, with six pairs of auroch horns mounted on them. Some of theme had murals and reliefs placed near them. It is widely believed that these platforms are religious shrines.

James Mellart, the archaeologist who discovered Catalhoyuk, believes that religion was central to lives of the people of Catalhoyuk. He concluded they worshiped a mother goddess, based on the large number of female figures, made of fired clay or stone, found at the site. One baked clay figure discovered by Mellart in a grain bin is about 20 centimeters tall and depicts a seated woman. She is quite fat with sagging breast, legs and arms, and a drooping belly that covers her crotch. Her arms sit on feline arm rests. Archaeologists believe the figurine was placed in the grain bin as an offering in preparation of rebuilding the house.

Catalhoyuk Burials

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Excavations of burial pits have revealed newborns and 60-years-old adults. The bodies of the dead were tightly flexed and buried in plastered-over pits underneath rooms inside the houses. Excavations have shown that the rooms were used not long after the bodies were buried or after the pits were reopened and new bodies were placed inside.

Bury the dead under houses was common in early agricultural villages in the Near East. One dwelling at Catalhoyuk was found to have 64 skeletons buried underneath it. Some of the dead were buried on their sided with their legs drawn to their chest in the fetal position and their arms crossed in front of their chest, holding large objects. Paintings depict vultures flying over headless human bodies, suggesting the practice used by Tibetans and Parsis and others of setting the deceased outside for the bodies can be naturally defleshed before being buried.

Bones found by Mellart were often jumbled, suggesting the bones had initially been buried somewhere else of defleshed and reburied under the house platform. Those found by Hodder were buried intact under the platforms.

One buried woman was found holding a plastered skull, The skull belonged to an old man. The skulls’s face was covered with layers of soft, white plaster, much of it painted with ocher, a red pigment. The eye sockets were filled with plaster and a plaster nose had been applied. Archaeologists have speculated that its may have belonged to a revered ancestor or relative of the deceased. The skull was the first plastered skull found at Catalhoyuk. One other has been found at a Neolithic site in Turkey. Plastered skulls are associated with the Biblical city of Jericho and have been found in Jordan and Syria.

Catalhoyuk Art

Some dwellings contained murals and plaster reliefs of erupting volcanos, men hunting aurochs and deer, men pulling the tails and tongues of aurochs and stags, men vaulting on the backs of animals, vultures eating headless people and leopards with female figures thought to represent goddesses. There are also painted plaster reliefs of stags, bulls, human females and leopards colliding like rams. One mural with leopards is regarded as the world's oldest mural. It dates to 6200 B.C.

Hodder wrote: “What particularly fascinates me are the many leopard motifs, including reliefs of paired leopards, the images suggesting relationships with wild animals was a potent element in local religious ritual and belief, In line with that interpretation, the household shrines often incorporated the horns of a wild bull.”

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One wall painting discovered in the 1960s by Mellart appears to depict an ancient town, perhaps Catalhoyuk itself, with a twin-peaked volcano erupting in the background which archaeologists believe is Hasan Dag.

Bull skulls have been found molded into the walls and floors. Describing a mural in one room with ten painted men, Orrin Shane and Mine Kucuk write in Archaeology magazine, “The fragmentary images appeared to be geometric figures and floral designs. Pieces of horn and antler set in the...wall plaster indicated that this wall had a plaster relief.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic and New York Times articles. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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