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What Happened Here?

A Stone Age city thrived for more than a millennium, then vanished. Ian Hodder is leading a 25-year investigation.

Jason Quinlan ©Çatalhöyük Research Project

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By Robert L. Strauss

Under a full moon, the translucent structure that covers the east mound at Çatalhöyük glows like the damp shell of an immense horseshoe crab. During the day, the soft conversation of a hundred or more scientists and workers—speaking a dozen languages—syncopates with the metallic ring of trowels scraping against dry earth. Now, except for the quiet singing of a night wind passing through dry grass, there is no sound. The local workers have gone home. The scientists are down in the Dig House, hunched over laptops as they piece together ancient shards and peer through microscopes at traces of a prehistoric past.

It's been an extraordinary week at one of the world's oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites. First, five infants found buried together. Then the juvenile intestinal matter that might be among the oldest ever uncovered—both of which came before the discovery of a small remnant of cloth, possibly also among the oldest ever unearthed. And that was before anyone had seen the wall painting. "You hit it for six," says project director Ian Hodder, referring to the cricket equivalent of a home run.

Nevertheless, Çatalhöyük [chaTAHLhooYOOK], a seven-story hill that gently rises above the Konya Plain of south central Anatolia, gives up its mysteries slowly, sometimes by the shovelful, sometimes by the teaspoon. Beginning not long after the most recent Ice Age, perhaps 100,000 people lived here over the course of more than 1,400 years in one of the world's first cities. Those ancient residents left no clues to the questions that Hodder, the Dunlevie Family Professor in the anthropology department, has been thinking about for the past 40 years: What caused them to be among the first to domesticate animals and plants? Why did humans evolve from the hunter-gatherers we had been for hundreds of thousands of years to the urban dwellers we are today? Unfortunately for Hodder and his team, they left no hieroglyphics, no Rosetta stone, no Lonely Planet: Çatalhöyük. Their knowledge was buried with them beneath the floors of the 10,000 houses, built one atop another, that created the mound modern Turks know as Çatalhöyük, "the mound at the fork in the road."


"What we're doing," says Adam Nazaroff, a Stanford PhD candidate who has been coming to Çatal for five summers, "is essentially a 1,400-year case study," the last chapter of which was written 7,500 years ago. That's starting 5,000 years before the pharaohs ordered the construction of the pyramids of Giza. And 8,200 years before the Mayans laid their cornerstone at Chichén Itzá.

British archaeologist James Mellaart first came across Çatalhöyük in 1958. Rummaging around the top and bottom of the mound, he and his colleagues discovered that unlike other sites—where Copper, Bronze, Iron Age and Greek, Roman and Medieval populations had built upon more ancient foundations—Çatal was New Stone Age, Neolithic, through and through. He had made one of the great archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Mellaart dug at Çatal for four seasons in the early 1960s. His discovery of houses adorned with the plastered heads of bulls and vivid ochre paintings of geometric patterns and hunting scenes lit up the archaeological world. Equally exciting—and puzzling—was that Çatal evidently had no cemeteries, no streets and no public gathering places. From generation to generation, people built windowless homes with only a single entryway in the ceiling.

The rush of headline-making discoveries came to an end in 1965, when Mellaart became embroiled in "the Dorak Affair." Tainted by insinuations of trading in antiquities—a charge never proved—he was banned from digging in Turkey. Çatalhöyük, which had lain archaeologically dormant for nearly 10 millennia, would fall fallow once again.

According to the conventions of archaeology, anyone who wished to take over would need Mellaart's blessing. As an undergraduate, Hodder had attended a presentation by Mellaart in 1969 and hadn't stopped thinking about Çatal since. In 1993, with Mellaart's and the Turkish government's approval, Hodder arrived at Çatalhöyük with a permit good for the next quarter century—and a reputation as the leader of a controversial school of archaeological theory that he could now pursue at one of the world's most famous Neolithic sites.

Archaeology's roots as an academic field were planted by 19th-century "lords and ladies, abbots and priests, generals and the wealthy elite who could afford to spend weekends dabbling in some archaeological site somewhere," says Hodder. It was "very much an amateur pursuit" focused upon discovery, categorization and collection. Even as new scientific methods such as carbon dating came into use, little effort was made to understand the societies responsible for the artifacts discovered.

This began to change after World War II, when the vast expansion of urban areas and public infrastructure uncovered more and more sites of historic interest. "New Archaeology," an American school of thought that emerged in the late 1950s, contended that with the application of scientific rigor, archaeology could speak authoritatively about the evolution of cultures and societies. Leading the movement was the late Lewis Binford, who preached with such evangelical fervor that he was known to smash artifacts on the ground just to show that archaeology wasn't only about objects. To traditionalists, his zealotry was spellbinding, mortifying and heretical.

"I was initially brought up in that very strong, positivist, scientific [school]," says Hodder. "I thought the past was all about adaptation to the environment and it was all very biological. I used a lot of statistics and quantification."

Hodder's epiphany came in the early 1980s while he was doing ethnographic research on the Mesakin Nuba in the hills of southern Sudan. There he noted that men deposited the bones of cows in one area and women deposited the bones of pigs in another, the reason being that pig bones were considered impure and could be handled only by women. At that moment, it became self-evident to Hodder that archaeology could not be coldly restricted to what is scientifically "provable," and that all science—all discovery—involves imagination and interpretation. Hodder's "post-processual" school was born, igniting the 20th century's second great revolution in archaeological theory.

Hodder's mild-mannered personality did not stop a war of words from erupting as Hodder, based in Cambridge, and Binford, at the University of New Mexico—and their followers—lobbed salvo after salvo in academic journals.

"The rational-man model is very similar to the thing I ended up fighting against," Hodder says. "It's easier to model because you only have a few variables—nutrition, distance to the source, economic value—it's all very simple. But if you start introducing people's beliefs about male and female and good and bad, it becomes much, much more complicated. If you lose sight of the complexity of things, then I think it is really quite dangerous. As a way of understanding history, it's very limited."

"It was a very lively controversy," says the eminent British archaeologist Lord Colin Renfrew, who serves with Sir David Attenborough as co-patron of the Çatalhöyük Research Trust. Renfrew says that the New Archaeology "had its limitations. Ian was the first person to highlight those limitations and to develop some new initiatives."

To a non-archaeologist, it can all seem like academic hair-splitting. Renowned Turkish prehistorian Mehmet Özdogan says, "All of these approaches, in the earlier stages, can be very absurd, but in the long run they all contribute to a better way of looking at the past."

Hodder's thinking is guided by the "hermeneutic spiral," the idea that neither the whole nor the parts of anything can be understood without consideration of both. For him this means, "As things begin to fit more—the bits of evidence you have that you can fit together—the more you can say 'I really believe in this and I no longer believe in that.'"

Virtually all of Çatal was built from mud, wood and straw. Excavating to the bottom of the mound means removing nearly everything above it. As the dig goes deeper, thousands of sand bags are needed to prevent higher-level walls from collapsing on the excavators below. Layers of floors are scraped away millimeters at a time. If conservation measures aren't taken immediately, exposure to the sun and air can fade the colors of a wall painting in 30 minutes.

Even with extremely detailed record keeping, re-creating the context of a location after the fact can be extraordinarily complex. Excavated animal bones wind up in one lab; floral remains in another; human remains in still another. It's a Humpty Dumpty problem; everything is there, but none of it can be put back together again. Çatal lacks the visual drama of "monumental" sites such as Roman coliseums, Greek temples or Egyptian tombs. Take away the backfill and the dried mud and nothing is left except artifacts, documentation and the skeletal remains of a city that, once excavated, looks more like the outline of a gigantic ant colony than that of a community of thousands that once rose high above the surrounding plain.

"Ian is taking great care to understand what ensued in the lifespan of the building," says Özdogan. Scientists this season represent 36 "specialisms"—including GIS (geographic information systems), micromorphology, archaeobotany, dental microwear, coprolites (preserved feces), phytoliths, bioarchaeology and malacology (mollusks).

"He is trying to extrapolate knowledge from the details," says Özdogan, "whereas we [conventional archeologists] are trying to extrapolate knowledge from the general picture. We learn from Ian, because of so much detail."

In the 1960s, Mellaart excavated a house a day. "These days [that] would be very unethical, because you would lose so much information," says Hodder. Under his direction, it sometimes takes six or seven years to excavate and document a single building. Despite his ban from digging in Turkey, Mellaart was allowed to visit. "He knew we were coming up with new ideas, changing his interpretations," Hodder says. "He couldn't understand why we were digging so slowly. He thought we were completely insane."

According to Özdogan, the value in Hodder's approach is that "we know now that farming and sedentary life [started] not because of starvation but because they already had a high and sophisticated culture. Çatal completely changed the picture of the Neolithic Period."

For those whose only schooling in archaeology is National Geographic—where complex, little-understood civilizations are rendered in four-color, full certainty—the fact that what we really know about the past is still rather slim can come as a shock.

Perhaps surprisingly, the people of Çatal were compulsive housekeepers. Although they buried thousands of bodies beneath their living room floors, they left hardly a speck of dirt behind. "Prior to Çatal, in the early Neolithic, people did not clean their houses out," says Hodder. The cultures before the pre-pottery Neolithic A period (9,000 BCE) "lived in dirt." Within a few thousand years, at Çatal, they were as meticulous as Felix Unger. "Why is that?" Hodder asks. "The interpretation is difficult." He thinks it may have to do with the evolving role of the household.

"We know so little," says Lynn Meskell, professor of anthropology and director of the Stanford Archaeology Center. "It's very humbling, and I think that's a good position to come from. The smugness of thinking we got it all sorted is actually very dangerous."

For example, conventional wisdom held for years that violence was absent from life at Çatal, because no evidence of trauma caused by aggression had ever been found. "This is another one of those stories we thought we had the answer to, and maybe we have," Hodder says. "But it's changing, and it's partly because we have a new team in and you get new ideas because of that."

Twice over the last 20 years Hodder has radically shaken up his team. At the end of the 2010 digging season, in an event Science magazine called "the night of long knives," he asked the majority of lab heads at Çatal to step down—while assuring them it had nothing to do with the quality of their work.

For Hodder, soft-spoken and gentlemanly, effectively dismissing colleagues he'd known and worked with for years was not something he enjoyed. He'd rather follow the motto of Rumi, the 13th-century poet and Sufi mystic whose tomb is in Konya, just 40 kilometers away: "Whoever you are, you are welcome." But with space restrictions and evolving research priorities, that isn't possible. Explaining his decision, he says, "It's important to keep asking new questions. We're digging this for 25 years. It's very easy to get in a rut."

So now Chris Knüsel, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Bordeaux, is taking a closer look at Çatal's collection of human remains to see if evidence of violence has been missed. Hodder says that this week's discovery of "the large number of skulls in one place suggests that we need to reconsider whether infanticide occurred."

To see what's going on and to encourage everyone to get engaged in everyone else's business, Hodder tries to walk the entire east mound at least once a day. (There is a west mound that dates from the Chalcolithic or Copper Age.) As he makes his way around the site—although invariably courteous, interested and full of suggestions—Hodder is not entirely happy. There's not enough collaboration and exchange. People are too involved with their own specialty.

"He's got a very different style of dictatorship or directorship from what I'm used to," says Jacqui Mulville, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Cardiff and co-head of the faunal remains lab. A "newbie" in her second year at Çatal, she doesn't know Hodder well, even though he, like she, "is of U.K. extraction."

"Mr. Hodder?" she says. "He's enigmatic. He wanders around. He kind of leads from behind, with a gentle hand on the tiller. It's interesting."

Mulville says that Çatal is "as famous for the approach"—Hodder's openness to differing points of views and his use of multiple, quasi-independent teams—"as for the archaeology." The challenge, according to Mulville, is working out "what's the hymn sheet we're all singing from, because Ian's idea is that we should all be singing slightly different tunes and try to get somebody to come along and sing with us—if it's a good tune." With more than 200 different people working on the site during the course of one summer, she says, "It's a very delicate balancing act."

Even while here at Çatal, Hodder spends three to four hours every day "worrying about money, or trying to apply for more money, or trying to manage money," he says. "It's a pity, because I got into archaeology because I love to dig," something he no longer has time for.

Jason Quinlan ©Çatalhöyük Research Project
DAILY ROUNDS: Managing an international team of 200-plus leaves Hodder with no time to dig.

Despite having raised at least $10 million so far, funding a project like Çatal is not as easy as for excavations of Greek or Roman ruins, which funders see as the fundaments of Western civilization. "It's much more difficult to raise money for some very ancient prehistoric site in the middle of Turkey that has some unpronounceable name and isn't associated with any well-known group of people such as the Hittites," he says.

Mediating between people with competing research themes or publication proposals—or dealing with mundane complaints about snoring (most international team members sleep outside in tents or eight to a room in the Dig House)—also consumes a good part of Hodder's days and nights. With people working from dawn to well beyond dusk, even crying babies can become an issue. "Those things are relatively trivial, but people get worked up over them," Hodder says, adding that his day job "is not very Indiana Jones-like."

Children at sites like Çatal are rare, but this season, seven children—4 months to 4 years old—have accompanied their scientist parents to the dig. Hodder has worked with some of them for years. "To suddenly say to this former student—who now has children—'You can't come,' I just thought that was not the right thing to do." Plus, says Hodder—the father of four sons, who all accompanied him on digs—"I quite like having kids around."

That's evident as Hodder speaks, in Turkish, with a group of visiting schoolchildren. "Whenever I'm in need of a fillip," he says, "I go over to them." Mellaart left a large mound of excavated but unsieved soil behind. Now, at the end of the daily summer camp tour, the kids get to dig through it, learning about archaeology and heritage as they do. "They find a huge amount of stuff," Hodder says. "When you go over there and they find stuff and show it to you, it's very touching."

Whereas archaeologists were once equipped with little other than notebooks, a tape measure, level, theodite and Brownie camera, today Çatal teems with technology. For the past two summers a team led by Maurizio Forte, professor of classical studies at Duke, has been pursuing "reversible excavation." Using laser scanning, GIS and digital photography, the team generates 3D images that show precisely how a location looked during each stage of excavation, including where things were—down to the location of tiny seeds and beads. This virtual archaeology allows researchers at remote locations to study Çatal as if they were there.

Adam Nazaroff uses a desktop XRF (x-ray fluorescence) spectrometer to instantly assess the chemical composition of artifacts. Less than a decade ago, flint deposits were thought to be entirely absent from Anatolia. Nazaroff prospected over four summers with local colleagues and found 13 sources in central Turkey, five of which match the XRF "fingerprint" of the flint used at Çatal. His discovery is one of several that show the economics of life at Çatal were more advanced than previously thought.

The summer season of 2014 may bring technology to Çatal that could lift research into an entirely new orbit—literally. If approval is granted and funding found, scientists from Stanford and NASA's Ames Research Center plan to use remote sensing equipment to help "see" what modifications humans may have made in the plains around Çatal. They will also look for traces of ancient water sources and flows. "What they have on Mars is a similar problem," says Hodder, speaking of the NASA scientists. "They want to be able to see through the surface to ancient river systems. We want to do the same out here, to reconstruct the ancient Neolithic systems."

And what can rocket scientists learn from dirt diggers, whose most cherished tool remains the trowel? "Archaeologists have this really deep methodology of very carefully exploring the ground and the things they find in it," says Matt Daniels, MS '10, a PhD candidate in management science and engineering who also works part-time at Ames. What NASA may learn at Çatal will "be a way for us to compare [the accuracy of NASA] measurements against an entire field that specializes in getting the details right at the ground level."

Despite the massive advances in archaeology over the last 50 years, technology cannot unravel all the mysteries. Although we know that people who survived childhood at Çatal lived about as long as we do—and why not, since they had a very physical lifestyle and followed the "paleo diet"—huge amounts remain unknown.

Of the baby viscera that was just found, Hodder says some people thought, "'Oh great'—they could see what the baby was eating." Unfortunately, it was so young it would have still been nursing. Brain matter was discovered in another body at Çatal several years ago. "You'd have thought you can do a lot that's interesting with brain, but you can't really," Hodder says. "Reconstructing those neural networks and reconstructing the thoughts of those people is completely out of the question. But, on the other hand, no one ever thought we could get ancient DNA. It's mind-boggling what people can do."

Hodder before and after
Jason Quinlan ©Çatalhöyük Research Project
THEN AND NOW: When Hodder started at Çatalhöyük (top and middle), the site had been abandoned for decades. Last summer (above) marked his project's 21st year.

For example, by studying the DNA found in the plaque on the teeth of people who died eight or nine thousand years ago, it's now possible to know what diseases they had. "It's not clear what the limits are anymore," Hodder says. Still, for the time being, a new Neolithic man will not be lumbering out of any Jurassic Park-style laboratories.

Of all the unanswered questions, one in particular stands out. Why was Çatalhöyük abandoned? Hodder thinks it may have been the result of investment in agriculture, which allowed people to live more independently. Others theorize that it had to do with the "8.2K event," a "cold snap" that lasted several centuries around 6,200 BCE. Of that theory, Hodder says, "I think we've got a long way to go to even demonstrate that it had any impact in this part of the world."

Whatever the cause of Çatal's demise, Hodder believes that understanding the ancient past can help us deal with present-day problems. "I would argue that some of the things that happened here led directly to global warming. Like the domestication of cattle. The invention soon after this of the wheel. That leads to population increase, urban living, cars and massive global warming. All those things started in this time period. To understand that is important if we're going to understand the scale of response that's needed to something like global warming."

Even after the incredible finds of this week, the biggest day at Çatal in the past 10,000 years may have been July 6, 2012. After four years of submissions, visits, revisions and reviews, Çatal was placed on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, one of only 11 in Turkey. The impact was immediate. The road to Çatal from Konya, which was unpaved when Hodder arrived in 1993, has been widened to four and six lanes in some places. The number of annual visitors doubled to 25,000. For Hodder, these are good things. The more a site contributes to the local economy, the more the local populace will value it. In the process, Hodder has become something of a celebrity among the neighboring residents, tourism operators and government officials, all of whom are interested in preserving Çatal while diversifying and growing the local economy.

Says C. Brian Rose, professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, "Ian really highlighted the importance of engaging closely with the communities living next to archaeological sites. By making the sites an important component of the local economy, the residents of the area become stakeholders in the protection of those sites."

For Lynn Meskell, it's not about UNESCO recognition, celebrity or news-making finds; it's about the findings. "I would react against some finds being more important than others," she says. "We're after information. We're not after goodies." The find may generate sensational headlines, but only detailed research that may take months or years can reveal "some amazing fact," for example, that some of the people at Çatal were buried beneath houses they didn't live in, which Meskell characterizes as rather weird.

"How do you make sense of this stuff?" Hodder muses. "You have to get parallels. Parallels from our society are very, very dangerous, so you need to find societies at similar levels of technology and social organization." This is why he studied the Polynesian people of Tikopia, who also slept atop their dead—something, Hodder says, "you don't find in modern California."

Although Hodder's permit runs for the next five years, he expects to dig only for the next three and a half summers. Part of the 2017 season and all of the 2018 season will be given over to documentation; he expects to finish everything by 2019. By the time the current project wraps up its quarter century, Hodder says, his and Mellaart's teams will have excavated 5 percent of Çatalhöyük. The answers to the secrets that remain buried will not come from Çatal, says Mehmet Özdogan, but "from other places in central Anatolia" where other threads will be found, threads that will allow some loose ends at Çatal to be tied off. "When you begin to put all these strands together, you begin to get quite a detailed image," says Hodder. It's all part of the never-ending hermeneutic spiral.

If the project continues after 2018, when Hodder will be 70, the directorship will change, and almost certainly pass to a Turkish archaeologist. Though there may be more to find, Hodder has nothing more to prove: He's been a member of the British Academy since 1996, and his place in the pantheon of prehistorians is reserved. So what remains? "It's like an endless crossword puzzle," Hodder says, "trying to make sense of it. I still feel a tingle in my feet as I go over Çatalhöyük. As long as I can keep that going, for me, that is success."

Robert L. Strauss, MA '84, MBA '84, last wrote for Stanford about psychiatrist David Burns. 

Comments (1)

  • Mr. William George Dryden

    Excellent article not just about Catal but about the state of archeology today.  For those of us who think we know archeology because we read National Geographic,  think again!

    Posted by Mr. William George Dryden on Mar 14, 2014 7:38 AM


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