Art of the Ancient Near East, Catal Huyuk, Turkey 6,500 BCE - 5,700 BCE


The city/site of Catal Huyuk, Turkey 6,500 BCE - 5,700 BCE (You will see the name of the site, which is Turkish for “forked path” spelled in a variety of ways.)

In 2015 Dr. Ian Hodder concluded his excavation of Catal Huyuk in Turkey. In the subsequent years he has given several talks, including one of Google, in which she explains how much his point of view of the culture and history of Catal Huyuk has changed since he first started studying it in the 1960s. 
Many of the groundbreaking ideas that earlier excavators had used to explain the site now seem to be overturned by more contemporary evidence gleaned from this site as well as other sites like Gobekli Tepe. One of the most fundamental of these ideas is the long-held belief in the theory that human kind changed from a Hunter gatherer existence to a sedentary agricultural existence when human beings started farming. The evidence from Gobekli Tepe and further fleshed out in his excavations at Catal Huyuk seem to have overturned the idea that humanity began to settle down when agriculture began.  Gobekli Tepe was settled in 10,000 BCE and humans started to harm in 8,000 BCE. 

It appears that humankind probably started to settle down and become semi-sedentary in 10,000 BCE mainly because of how we think and how we socialize. We began to settle into groups as a way of ensuring our survival and then it appears as if agriculture happened around 2000 years after that.

Catal Huyuk was settled almost concurrently with the development of human agriculture and may have been a factor in leading its population to grow to a population of approximately 7,000 people. The field or site on which Catal Huyuk exists in the Konya plane of Turkey was an environment that was suited for the production of Emmer Wheat, wild barley and wild Einkorn wheat.  
The environment was mostly rich in wild game, edible plants, and also was well irrigated possibly by a series of streams. The soil was probably very fertile because of the volcanic mountain range located to itself that may have left deposits of rich soil and minerals. It appears that the settlement or city of Catal Huyuk lasted about 2,000 years and then threw over farming and overhunting probably exhausted the environment and the civilization gave out. 

The people lived in post and beam homes constructed with timber uprights, mud brick walls, stone walls, and coated with mineral lime as a paint and preservative. The houses were grouped in Pueblo like apartments that were entered into through the roofs of the dwellings by a ladder. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that the construction of these hives of people was done so with the intent of defense against hostile invaders. It also appears from the excavations and the data gained from the physical remains that the culture was fairly peaceful and also did not have a ruling or elite class. It also appears that the families were the idea of family was not as rooted in the traditions that we understand today concerning the basic unit being a mother or father child or children. It appears that children were raised more communally and would often not even live in the homes in which they were born and were raised by the community in a larger sense. Ian Hodder refers to this as cultural entanglements and describes the culture as being almost socialist in a way.

Most of the excavations at Catal Huyuk center around the years 6500 BCE. Dr. Hodder and other excavators have only excavated approximately 5% of the site and are being extremely conservative in how the site is being used and are carefully recording as much data as possible and extrapolating from that.

The homes were arranged in a hive like pattern and several generations would often live in the same floor plan for several iterations of the building.  Homes were rebuilt by filling in earlier layers and then lower structure was used as a kind of foundation and plan.  The floorplan of the newer structure copied the building that had been filled in. This is been very useful in understanding their lifestyle and also in doing accurate excavations of the site and identifying the physical culture and remains of humans.   For example, even the wall decorations were reproduced in the newer building as in the case of these two wall reliefs that depict two leopards facing one another.

Another interesting idea that Dr. Hodder suggests is that there does not seem to be a correlation between size of the structure and the goods within. For example, larger homes with more rooms did not often contain more items such as wall decorations, murals, and luxury items such as obsidian blades. Dr. Hodder concludes that in the way that we assume a large home of our time will contain more luxury goods and material goods is not the same in Catal Huyuk. Status of one house to another was not determined by the amount of goods found in it or the size of the space the structure contained.

It appears that each structure or home contained a sort of “club” or social grouping that was not linked to matrilineal or patrilineal descent. The homes were probably a little bit more like a kibbutz in Israel than a European or American home.

Obsidian knives and mirrors were found in Catal Huyuk, however, the earlier theory proposed by Dr. Mellaart in the 1960s that Catal Huyuk was a central trading post and distributed obsidian goods throughout the ancient world appears now to be inaccurate because Dr. Hodder’s recent excavations have yielded such a small amount of obsidian knives and mirrors that the people of Catal Huyuk would not have enough to establish a strong trade route for those goods.

When the homes were excavated by Dr. Hodder he discovered many instances of human skeletons and plastered skulls placed reverently beneath the floors of the dwellings. The analysis of the genetic markers exhibited by the teeth of the skeletons and skulls indicates that the bodies come from several groups of people throughout community. The natural assumption that people at Catal Huyuk buried their parents or ancestors who they were directly linked to is not accurate. It appears that the people who are buried beneath the homes were probably leaders of the community and not necessarily members of the genetic family who lived in the dwelling above. In addition to this, there is evidence that many of the human remains found in upper levels, were excavated by the people of Catal Huyuk and placed beneath the floors of new were generations of structures sometimes with later skeletons. Skulls were moved around independently of skeletal remains. In at least one building a plastered skull was found beneath the main support of one of the buildings. A possible interpretation of this is that the ancestor/leader who skull was buried underneath the main support was placed there to ensure some sort of supernatural support of the household. 

Many of the walls of the structures were decorated with murals or frescoes. The high white of the limestone coding of the walls was a perfect background for mural painting. The walls were often repainted with this high white line plaster/paint and a new mural was placed on top sometimes as often as once or twice a year. (A discussion of the subject matter and iconography of the murals will be later on in this essay.)

The dwelling consisted usually of the central room that was entered through the top of the home by a ladder. To travel through Catal Huyuk one traveled across the rooftops of the structures. The opening in the top of the roof served both as a chimney and an entry and exit point and directly beneath most of these ladders is a small hearth in which cooking was done. The floors were covered with straw mats and often the walls were not just decorated with frescoes or wall things but also had animal bones and skulls embedded in the walls, sometimes jutting out. The animal remains are always wild animals and there are no domestic animals used as wall decorations as we might assume incorrectly by the bull horns.

The central room with its hearth also had a series of shelves and demarcated areas in it that subdivided the space as well as extra rooms that were entered into through small doorways. Again, it’s important to note that when Dr. James Mellaart originally excavated some of the dwellings, he incorrectly assumed that some of them were houses of worship or gathering rooms. Subsequent excavations and investigations indicate that there were no dedicated religious or political spaces at Catal Huyuk.  In his excavations during the 1960s and 70’s Dr. Mellaart excavated a dwelling that was decorated with bull horns.  One dwelling was particularly dense with decorations.  The presence of several sets of horns as well as a relief sculpture of a bear? Or another animal possibly giving birth caused Mellaart to assume that this particular house was a shrine or a dwelling, however, Dr. Hodder’s excavations later unearthed enough evidence to make this seem unlikely, however, the presence of so much decoration concentrated in one location , many of which were related to wild bulls, begs the question of how were these objects interpreted in used? 

One of the most subjects at Catal Huyuk are bulls and there are also many structures in which bull horns ornament the interiors so it makes sense to try and understand why this might be important.  54% of all the animal bones found at Catal Huyuk embedded as decoration were from cattle.  It appears that, although Catal Huyuk had domesticated animals they also hunted wild animals such as wild boars, cattle, deer, and goats.

This wall painting represents a red bull being attacked by humans. So far only 1% of the murals uncovered at Catal Huyuk bulls, 12% of the murals are dedicated to red deer and 10% of the murals represent goats. All of the animals that are represented in the murals appear to be on domesticated species. In many of the representations of deer and wild boars the central figure of the animal is surrounded by a crowd of anthropomorphic figures many of them wearing what appears to be loincloths made of leopard skin and many of them also have tales coming out of the back. These tales have been interpreted as possibly representations of leopards or a leopard human hybrid.  One of the things that we do see, and seems to be important in the paintings of Catal Huyuk is that the clothing of the human figures seem designed to be clear representations of the loincloths with spots.

Dr. Hodder explains that the murals representing wild animals and people are probably best interpreted as groups of people subduing were controlling wild animals. Dr. Hodder describes this as harassing, baiting or taunting the wild animal.  This seems like a popular theme in many cultures and times. The control of wild elements or animals by humans is often seen as a metaphor for making order out of chaos or controlling wild elements.

Hodder explains that the scenes are likely not hunting scenes but a rite of passage or ceremony in which a large animal was symbolically hunted. This in some ways relates to our concept of the rodeo or bullfight today.  These celebrations of subduing wild animals also relate to findings at places such as Knossos in which there are bull leaping ceremonies and other goods found on the mainland such as this cup that represents a kind of rodeo in which a young man is looping a rope around the back leg of the bull.

Representations of the lines such as leopards in many cultures is often an expression of some sort of power or prowess. As a Hunter or possibly as a powerful entity such as a King or ruler. Keeping in mind that it appears that the culture at Catal Huyuk was fairly egalitarian and did not have the upper class of rulers the prevalence of leopard imagery probably relates to hunting or physical power.

There are also various relief sculptures showing leopards in profile. Sometimes repeated in several generations of the same building. 35% of all of the relief imagery at Catal Huyuk is devoted to leopards as well and there is a figure of a large female seated on some sort of thrown flanked by leopards.

In fact, 65% of all of the murals uncovered so far at Catal Huyuk contain some sort of leopard imagery. This can be in the form of anthropomorphic figures with some sort of leopard loincloth and a tail projecting off the back of the figure. However, in all of the excavation so far, they have not excavated a single feline or leopard bone. Which is a bit of the mystery.

If you look closely at this mural from what was originally thought of as a shrine, but is probably a group home, the style of rendering is very close to some of the images that we have from Paleolithic Europe such as Lascaux and Altamira.  Most of the animals represented in murals as well as the figures are represented as profile points of view. Profile points of view are probably a more understandable or schematic representation of forms for early artists. Things are more recognizable probably in terms of profile and are also easier to draw. This does not mean that they did not have a tradition of how to paint and draw. It probably indicates that they had a tradition or a style that was passed down from one artist to another.

In terms of the space that is created compositionally in these murals, the murals also share with Paleolithic art the fact that there is no foreground, middle ground, and background in the picture plane. All of the figures and animals appear to be on one plane. For example, there are no trees in the background and there is no overlapping in the mural to create the illusion of space. Unlike the murals at Lascaux, wall paintings at Catal Huyuk were probably done by one or two people in a very short period of time and if the mural was no longer needed, or new mural was to be painted, they covered the surface first with white plaster to create a fresh picture. In Paleolithic painting usually the animal figures are overlapping and out of proportion with the animal surrounding it because various artists over hundreds of years continue to return to the spot to create new paintings without much regard to the painting that was there before it. In this way the paintings from Catal Huyuk are more a complete single image of a scene or a moment in time.

Many of the paintings in the Paleolithic era were done almost as a series of outlines that were then painted in with various colors, however, the paintings at Catal Huyuk appeared to be more as a type of silhouette or cut out that has no shading or modulation tone or colors as in Paleolithic painting. It appears to me flatter and more diagrammatic in some ways than its earlier counterpart.

One of the most reproduced and well-known murals from Catal Huyuk, is reproduced as an installation at the Museum in Turkey. Despite the fact that this mural is so well known it is probably the most problematic of the works discovered at Catal Huyuk because it’s hard to understand what it might represent. It seems as if it’s a bit of an anomaly.

The two interpretations of this mural differ greatly. The first and most popular interpretation is that the mural represents a sort of city plan of Catal Huyuk surmounted by an image of the twin mountain range visible from the site on the Konya plane. The two mountain peaks are referred to as the Tarsus mountains. This interpretation fits in fairly well with what we understand about the formal qualities of mural painting at Catal Huyuk. For example, since the artists at Catal Huyuk don’t seem to have a tradition of portraying space, a foreground middle ground background, the painting itself makes sense because the mountains are on the same plane as the city. The square modules or blocks that represent the city seem to correspond somewhat with the layout of the rooms were floorplans of some of the architecture.

Another interpretation of this mural is simply that the orange or reddish orange mass above the squares is a representation of a leopard skin.  However, I’m not sure how one might interpret the design underneath. Perhaps, it is just a geometric design and not a representation of anything. There are several homes at Catal Huyuk that are decorated with simple geometric designs.

Visit this page to see examples of geometric designs, extra wall paintings, and pictures of human figurines.

When Dr. Mellaart began excavations in the 1960s one of the things that was excavated was a foot and a half tall clay sculpture of seated female figure, flanked by two animals. The figure was discovered in a room that was used to store grains. When it was discovered was missing its arms and head, the head of the animal to the figure’s left. The completed figured that you see is a restoration by modern scholars.

The small sculpture is sometimes called the “Grimaldi Goddess” is very similar in its design and look to several of the female figures found in the Paleolithic era. It is a recognizable female with large breasts and stomach. On the figures right hand side is a complete animal that probably represents some sort of feline perhaps a Jaguar or leopard. Many figures made of clay depicting females with similar anatomies have been found throughout Catal Huyuk. They also found clay figures representing animals.  About half of the figures found at Catal Huyuk are of animals and the other half are representations of humans some of which it is hard to determine whether they are male or female.  

Stylistically, the figures found at Catal Huyuk whether they are human or animal share in the same abbreviated characteristics of many of the Paleolithic carvings and Neolithic carvings at Gobekli Tepe of similar subjects. The figures usually abbreviate facial features or abstract the features into dots or recognizable shapes that look like facial features.

When this Grimaldi figure was discovered scholars made the assumption or interpretation that Catal Huyuk may have had a religion that was focused on some sort of goddess cult. However, several things contradict this theory despite the fact that so many female figures were found.

Although this figure was found in a grain storage area, most of these figures were found in the trash heaps that were placed between the buildings. The assumption can be made that they were discarded along with other refuse which would in some ways make them seem less respected or important to the people who discarded them. Another interesting element to the Grimaldi figure is that it is a figure that is seated on some sort of throne or chair and it is flanked by two animals most likely leopards. It is possible that given the leopards prevalence as a symbol, the location of the find in a grain storage, and the chair the figure is seated on that the original theory that this is a goddess looking over a grain been may be accurate.

Most recently another figure carved entirely of stone about a foot and a half long was found in a ceremonial placement that Dr. Hodder describes as an altar alongside of a valuable obsidian mirror. Which may mean that figures like this did hold some sort of reverence for the people who made them.

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