Catal Huyuk, the Birthplace of Civilisation

On our way back to Anada we took a little detour while crossing the central plateau of Anatolya; a fairly thinly populated and geographically featureless region known as the “breadbasket of Turkey”. And it probably hasn’t changed so very much since before the dawn of recorded history because this is now widely regarded as the birthplace of agriculture, of settlement and of society: the apex of the Fertile Crescent and the place where it all began.

In 1958 a British archaeologist named James Mellaart discovered a set of Neolithic dwellings by excavating a small and hitherto unremarked mound about 30km East of Konya. He began digging it with a small team from Cambridge and the tentative approval of the Turkish government. Work progressed for a few seasons as a complex series of dwellings and burials began to see the light of day but, by a curious set of circumstances, all work was then suspended for a period of more than thirty years.

Was Mellaart smuggling antiquities out of the country as the authorities claimed? It seems pretty unlikely given that he had recently discovered one of the world’s earliest towns. It is three thousand years earlier than the earliest mud brick structures of Mesopotamia, it is so old that it witnessed not just the birth of agriculture, but the first organised animal husbandry and probably one of the first settled communities on the planet. For these collections of structures were inhabited for thousands of years and early human development can be read through the successive layers of plaster and wall decoration almost like looking through the leaves of a book.

After 1993, as excavation resumed with the benefit of international co-production and more advanced methods, much more of the extent and sophistication of the dwellings was revealed. A substantial town had grown up over the millennia, with a multiple network of dwellings all apparently entered via the roof. There is no evidence of any sort of a plan; after all, there are no streets. However, there are also no palaces, temples or treasuries or indeed much evidence of any hierarchy at all leading some commentators to speculate rather colourfully that this means that women must have been in charge. A current book search will still throw up some distinctly New Age titles. Most of the matriarchy theories have now been tempered by further research and, while evidence suggests that men and women benefited from an equally nutritious diet, I’m not sure how the ritual burial of one’s ancestors under the living room floor would have appealed to our grandmothers.

The site of Catal Huyuk itself is rather remote and its structures fragile; almost all finds are now housed in the Museum of Anatolyan Civilisation in Ankara. This includes a selection of the incomparable wall paintings and the infamous “mother goddess”, the small statuette which, in the dearth of spectacular treasure, ignited all the feminist excitement about our earliest ancestors. I shall look forward to being able to see them at some future date and to finding out more about James Mellaart, who died in 2012 and whose greatest transgression was probably no more than an over-fertile imagination.

In the meantime we enjoyed a peaceful opportunity to view the structures in their own environment, a small but informative local museum and a visit to Mr Dural’s delightfully shaded little café. Obviously a great favourite with visiting experts and dignitaries, Sadrettin Dural was for many years a guard on the site and witnessed some of the most important discoveries. He showed me a copy of his book but, unfortunately, a recent flurry of dignitaries had cleaned him out of copies and so I wasn’t able to obtain a signature. Never mind, one is on order now and will take pride of place in my father’s archaeological bookshelf.

Categories: Middle East

Leave a Reply