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A Visitor's Guide to Çatalhöyük: Excavations and History

Excavation site - Chatalhoyuk
Excavation site - Chatalhoyuk
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World Heritage-listed Çatalhöyük is one of the world's most important Neolithic sites. This fascinating tourist attraction provides a window into the agrarian lifestyle of early Neolithic communities. It is especially notable for its massive size, the unique layout of its dwellings, and the settlement's long duration.

The Çatalhöyük excavation created major headlines in the 1960s. The excavation team here, under the control of archaeologist James Mellaart, found a huge 9,000-year-old Neolithic settlement, which stunned the world.

Some 18 meters high and 12 hectares in area, the Çatalhöyük settlement mound is part of a much larger complex covering a total of 21 hectares, of which only about five percent has so far been excavated. The date of the very earliest settlement here is claimed to be 6250 BC, while traces of fire suggest that the last of the ten settlements uncovered was abandoned around 5400 BC.

The Çatalhöyük mound is just one of many places on the vast plains near Konya known to have been occupied between the 7th and 3rd millennia BC. More recent sedimentation has since rendered many settlement mounds unrecognizable, and virtually the entire plains area has been brought under the plough. The earliest levels at Çatalhöyük now lie buried more than two meters below the surface of the surrounding plain.

Excavation site under protective dome at Çatalhöyük
Excavation site under protective dome at Çatalhöyük
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Understanding Çatalhöyük

Understanding Çatalhöyük
Understanding Çatalhöyük jessogden1 / photo modified
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The dwellings excavated at Çatalhöyük were found to be remarkably similar in construction to traditional buildings still seen today. Only the layout of the settlement proved strikingly different. The houses, each roughly 25 square meters in area, were flat-roofed, with a single living space and a storeroom. In addition to a bench, hearth, and oven, the rooms were furnished with platforms, presumably used for working and sleeping on but also for burials. The dead were left in the open outside the settlement until scavenging animals had stripped the skeleton clean. Dressed in their clothes, they were then interred beside or under the sleeping platforms, continuing their participation, so to speak, in family life. The settlement had no streets as such; the rectangular houses were close grouped in large blocks, with a courtyard serving here and there as a latrine and rubbish dump.

The houses were entered by a wooden ladder, American pueblo-style, via the smoke-hole. The floor was compacted mud; the walls mud-brick with mud, plaster, and lime rendering. Reeds were used to strengthen the roof, and sometimes there was a timber frame. Amazingly, in view of the vulnerability of mud to weathering, some brickwork is still clearly recognizable. Fire must have fortuitously "baked" the bricks, hardening them and making them more weather resistant.

The Settlement

The Settlement
The Settlement jessogden1 / photo modified
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The dwellings excavated at Çatalhöyük were found to be remarkably similar in construction to traditional buildings still seen today. Only the layout of the settlement proved strikingly different. The houses, each roughly 25 square meters in area, were flat-roofed, with a single living space and a storeroom. In addition to a bench, hearth, and oven, the rooms were furnished with platforms, presumably used for working and sleeping on but also for burials. The dead were left in the open outside the settlement until scavenging animals had stripped the skeleton clean. Dressed in their clothes, they were then interred beside or under the sleeping platforms, continuing their participation, so to speak, in family life. The settlement had no streets as such; the rectangular houses were close grouped in large blocks, with a courtyard serving here and there as a latrine and rubbish dump.

The houses were entered by a wooden ladder, American pueblo-style, via the smoke-hole. The floor was compacted mud; the walls mud-brick with mud, plaster, and lime rendering. Reeds were used to strengthen the roof, and sometimes there was a timber frame. Amazingly, in view of the vulnerability of mud to weathering, some brickwork is still clearly recognizable. Fire must have fortuitously "baked" the bricks, hardening them and making them more weather resistant.

Myths and art

Myths and art
Myths and art Verity Cridland / photo modified
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Çatalhöyük was evidently also the center of a religious cult, and many of the paintings, relics, and statuary unearthed during the excavation are now in Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Bulls' heads and horns decorated nearly every house, suggesting a vigorous cult of the bull (hence also the name Çatalhöyük, meaning "antler mound"). Clay figurines of obese goddesses would also indicate an active fertility cult, further evidence of which is found in some of the polychrome wall paintings. Other paintings include hunting scenes with men depicted as bulls, rams, or bears. A particularly striking picture is purported to show Çatalhöyük itself below the outline of an erupting volcano, thought to be Mount Hasan in Cappadocia, which was still active at the time and permanently under the gaze of this Neolithic people.

Catalhoyuk Museum of Anatolian Civilizations
Catalhoyuk Museum of Anatolian Civilizations
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Location: Çatalhöyük is near the village of Çumra, 33 km northwest of Konya

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