The first metropolis?

The first metropolis? – 9,000-year-old archeological site near Konya, Turkey

Penny Young

For the next few years, the eyes of archaeologists and art historians all over the world will be turned towards what is being heralded as `the dig of the millennium’ currently underway in Turkey.

Catalhoyuk, near Konya in southern Turkey, is the oldest urban centre ever to have been discovered, being 9,000 years old. When it was first unearthed in the 1960s, it was recognised as a site of unique international significance because of the advanced level of its civilisation and the artistic achievements of the 10,000 people who lived there.

Now, using modern scientific techniques, an international team of archaeologists hopes to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the identity and provenance of the creators of a city which could have been the origin of Anatolian civilisation.

The name Catalhoyuk, means `forced mound’, an that is literally what you see as you make our way towards what is the largest neolithic site in the Near East. It rises up in twin mounds from the middle of the Konya plain, some 3,000 feet above sea level in fertile wheat lands watered by the Carsamba Cay river flowing down from the Taurus Mountains.

Catalhoyuk was discovered in 1958 by the British archaeologist, James Mellaart. Initial excavations uncovered whole complexes of buildings constructed without separating streets: it emerged that the people gained access to their houses from the roof via staircases. The walls of the city were decorated with colourful paintings depicting hunting scenes and beautiful geometric designs. Other early finds included statues of women with pendulous breasts and huge, voluptuous hips.

Visitors to the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilisation can see some of the objects found at Catalhoyuk, including examples of the wall paintings in all their splendour. Huge bulls painted in brilliant red stride across the pictures, hunted by little black silhouettes of men. The great breasted and bellied figurines stare out of the museum cabinets next to coloured stone necklaces, gleaming arrow heads, earthenware bowls and wooden spoons.

Digging stopped in 1965 after some of the artefacts illegally found their way onto the lucrative international antiques market. Over the years, the excavations collapsed and the site was eroded.

The Turkish government approached the British at the beginning of this decade with a suggestion that work on the site should re-start. A team, including members from Turkey, the US, Britain, Greece, Germany and Egypt was formed, backed by funding from sources including the European Union and various archaeology institutions.

The team is led by Dr Ian Hodder from Cambridge, who was taught by James Mellaart. Dr Hodder has always wanted to continue excavations at Catalhoyuk: `The site is so exciting because it is the first settled site of its size so far discovered and the most elaborate in terms of the art, sculpture and paintings. For their time they are exceptionally complex’, he says.

Preliminary soundings taken over the last two years have revealed that whilst Mellaart dug through twelve levels there are at least another five metres of crumbled mud walls underneath. When the archaeologists reach the bottom, they will have gone back more than 9,000 years in time to the point at which the city began.

It is estimated there are hundreds of wall paintings still be to uncovered. They were done on delicate layers of mud plaster which are likely to flake and discolour on being opened to the air. `One of the main problems will be to stabilise the plaster and then develop techniques to separate the layers and reveal the paintings’, says Dr Hodder.

One of the major questions the experts hope to answer is whether the buildings with their fine decorations were homes or shrines or both. It is thought that the inhabitants buried their relatives underneath the buildings in which they lived. At some point the buildings were burned, possibly for ritualistic reasons, and fresh ones built on top.

Other questions to be explored include the meaning of the extensive use of cattle horns as household ornaments and furniture decorations. Also, were the female statues, with their voluptuous bodies, the prototype of a Mother Goddess who gave birth to the Phrygian goddess Cybele and the Greek Artemis? And did the bold geometric patterns of Turkish kilims originally spring from the creative imaginations of the people of Catalhoyuk?

Another mystery which could be solved is why Catalhoyuk ceased to function as a city 2,000 years after its foundation. One theory is that it was wiped out by conquering invaders. Another possibility is that the plains gradually silted up with mud and the community could no longer grow enough food to sustain the population.

Dr Hodder believes there is enough work to keep the archaeologists busy for at least twenty-five years. It is going to be an expensive project and it is hoped a major sponsor can be found.

Findings from the site will be housed in a museum that is being built alongside, where virtual reality and interactive video will give visitors the chance to step back in time.

The excavations at Catalhoyuk will not only reveal more of its spectacular art treasures, they will also open up a window into life thousands of years ago and widen understanding of the origins of man’s settled existence and the beginning of urban civilisation.

COPYRIGHT 1996 History Today Ltd.

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