The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilizationby Michael Balter
Thousands of years before the pyramids were built in Egypt and the Trojan War was fought, a great civilization arose on the Anatolian plains. The Goddess and the Bull details the dramatic quest by archaeologists to unearth the buried secrets of human cultural evolution at this huge, spectacularly well-preserved 9,500-year-old village in Turkey.
Here lie the origins of modern society -- the dawn of art, architecture, religion, family -- even the first tangible evidence of human self-awareness, the world's oldest mirrors. Some archaeologists have claimed that the Mother Goddess was first worshipped at Çatalhöyük, which is now a site of pilgrimage for Goddess worshippers from all over the world. The excavations here have yielded the seeds of the Neolithic Revolution, when prehistoric humans first abandoned the hunter-gatherer life they had known for millions of years, invented farming, and began living in houses and communities.
Michael Balter, the excavation's official biographer, brings readers behind the scenes, providing the first inside look at the remarkable site and its history of scandal and thrilling scientific discovery. He tells the very human story of two colorful men: British archaeologist James Mellaart, who discovered Çatalhöyük in 1958 only to be banned from working at the site forever after a fabulous ancient treasure disappeared without a trace; and Ian Hodder, a pathbreaking archaeological rebel who reinvented the way archaeology is practiced and reopened the excavation after it had lain dormant for three decades. Today Hodder leads an international team of more than one hundred archaeologists who continue to probe the site's secrets.
Balter reveals the true story behind modern archaeology -- the thrill of history-making scientific discovery as well as the crushing disappointments, the community and friendship, the love affairs, and the often bitter rivalries between warring camps of archaeologists.
Along the way, Balter describes the cutting-edge advances in archaeological science that have allowed the team at Çatalhöyük to illuminate the central questions of human existence.
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Read an Excerpt
The archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people.
-- Mortimer Wheeler, Archaeology from the Earth
One hot day in August 1999, archaeologists excavating at Çatalhöyük (pronounced "Chah-tahl-hew-yook"), a 9,500-year-old prehistoric village in south central Turkey, found two detached human skulls lying on the floor of what had once been a mud-brick house. The skulls had taken on a faint reddish color from the dense soil that had kept them hidden down through the ages. They were slightly crushed but still remarkably intact. The physical anthropologists working at Çatalhöyük took a close look at the skulls and concluded that one was that of a boy perhaps twelve years old, while the other was that of a young woman in her twenties. The skulls were lying together face to face, their foreheads lightly touching. With just a little imagination, one could picture a moment of tenderness between a mother and child or a brother and sister. Indeed, the anthropologists found that both crania shared an unusual pattern of bone sutures, a hint that they may well have been related.
When I visited the Çatalhöyük excavations about a week later, the team was still buzzing about the "finds." This is the dispassionate term archaeologists often use to refer to even the most exciting discoveries. Everyone was aware that this kind of find was rare. How often, after all, does an archaeologist dig up tangible evidence of an emotional tie between two specific human beings who lived so long ago? Almost never. One scientific specialist on the team suggested to me privately that the skulls could have rolled together by chance and just happened to touch foreheads. When I tried this explanation out on some of the excavators, they just laughed. The supervisor of that particular prehistoric house, they pointed out, was Mirjana Stevanovic, an archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley with nearly thirty years of digging experience. Mirjana herself did not really want to speculate about the skulls, but she had no doubts about what she had found. "All I know," she told me, "is that they were put that way deliberately."
I made my first trip to Çatalhöyük in 1998, as a reporter for the American journal Science, to write an article called "The Mystery of Communities." We were tackling the question of why, around 10,000 years ago, human beings began giving up their former hunting and gathering existence, invented agriculture, and crammed themselves into close-knit villages made of stone or mud brick. Archaeologists often refer to this crucial step in human development -- which took place first in the ancient Near East, then independently in several other parts of the world -- as the "Neolithic Revolution." The phrase was coined by the Australian prehistorian V. Gordon Childe in the early part of the twentieth century, although the term Neolithic (meaning "New Stone Age") was first used by the British antiquarian Sir John Lubbock in his 1865 book Prehistoric Times, one of the first works to bring archaeology to the general public. Lubbock distinguished the Neolithic period from what he called the Paleolithic, or "Old Stone Age," which preceded it.
Today archaeologists usually date the beginning of the Paleolithic to about 2.5 million years ago, when humans first began using stone tools. This date also roughly corresponds to the first appearance of the genus Homo in the fossil record. Just why our ancestors did not get around to inventing agriculture any earlier is one of the big questions archaeologists specializing in the Neolithic period, including the archaeologists working at Çatalhöyük, are trying to answer. After all, 10,000 years is not much more than a statistical blip in our long evolutionary history. The question can also be put another way: why did humans bother to invent agriculture and settle down in such close quarters, instead of continuing to romp across the landscape, hunting and gathering?
The Neolithic Revolution was a crucial turning point in human cultural and technological development. For better or worse, the first roots of civilization were planted along with the first crops of wheat and barley, and the mightiest of today's skyscrapers can trace its heritage to the Neolithic architects who built the first houses from stone, mud, and timber. Nearly everything that came afterwards, such as art and architecture, organized religion, writing, cities, social inequality, warfare, population explosions, global warming, traffic jams, mobile phones, the Internet -- in short, all the blessings and curses of modern civilization -- can be traced to that seminal moment in human prehistory when people decided that they wanted to live together in communities.
Biologist Jared Diamond, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has even argued that today's division of the world into haves and have-nots can be traced back to the Neolithic Revolution. Those living in the right place at the right time -- such as in the Near East, where the wild ancestors of wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle made their home, or in Europe, where the agricultural revolution later spread like wildfire -- reaped the major benefits of these momentous changes, as did their descendants, while those whom the revolution passed by, including the peoples of Africa, are still suffering the consequences today, in terms of poverty and lagging technological development. While not everyone agrees with Diamond's thesis, there is little argument that the Neolithic period marked a point of departure for the entire human race.
Çatalhöyük is one of the largest and most populated Neolithic settlements ever unearthed. This enormous village on Turkey's Konya Plain, discovered in 1958 by the flamboyant British archaeologist James Mellaart, was home to as many as 8,000 people at the height of its thousand-year lifetime. Mellaart dug here for four seasons during the early 1960s before Turkish authorities ejected him from the country under somewhat murky circumstances. Mellaart's findings, which included remarkably well preserved mud-brick houses and spectacular artworks depicting leopards, vultures, bulls, and what he interpreted as "Mother Goddesses," made the site internationally famous. Today Çatalhöyük merits a mention in many textbooks of archaeology and histories of architecture as the prototypical Neolithic village.
The current excavations are directed by Ian Hodder, who spent much of his career at Cambridge University and is now based at Stanford University in California. In the early 1980s Hodder launched a controversial rebellion against traditional approaches to archaeology, which culminated in his reopening of Çatalhöyük in 1993. An international team, made up of more than one hundred archaeologists and other experts, has flocked to join him. It includes archaeologists, physical anthropologists, cultural anthropologists, paleoenvironmentalists, climatologists, botanists, architects, geologists, geophysicists, chemists, computer experts, and even a psychoanalyst. This collective expertise probably represents the greatest concentration of scientific firepower ever focused on an archaeological dig. The team wants to know what brought thousands of people together on the Konya Plain, how they went about their daily lives, what they ate, why they buried their dead under the floors of their houses, what they believed, and what they were trying to express through the dramatic paintings and sculptures that adorned the walls of their homes.
In 1999, the year after my first visit, I returned to Çatalhöyük. Ian Hodder spotted me walking across the gravel courtyard of the "dig house" and came over to greet me. "Is this a business trip or a social call?" he asked with a smile. That was a good question: why had I come? Science's news editor had expressed little enthusiasm for a follow-up article so soon after "The Mystery of Communities." No doubt I had been drawn back in part by Çatalhöyük's near-mythical celebrity and the fascination of witnessing one of the world's most important digs. Yet there was something else. The team of archaeologists at Çatalhöyük was one of the most interesting and diverse collections of individuals I had ever encountered. They were working at a site that dated from the dawn of civilization, probing some of the most fundamental questions about human existence. In the process they had formed their own community, with its own unique blend of friendships, rivalries, traditions, and rituals.
Science did end up publishing my article about the 1999 season, and several others since. And the day after Ian posed his perceptive question about why I had come, I decided to write this book. I have now been back to the site every season since that first visit. The team members have become used to my poking around and asking them personal questions about their childhoods and why they became archaeologists in the first place. One day, while consulting the dig's Web site (www.catalhoyuk.com), I was surprised to see that without my knowledge I had been designated as the excavation's official "biographer." At first I was a little concerned. I even thought about asking them to take my name off. Wouldn't being a member of the team jeopardize my reputation as an objective journalist? Indeed, I had often secretly wondered whether I kept going back to Çatalhöyük so that I could write this book, or whether I wrote this book so that I could keep going back to Çatalhöyük. But in the end, it really doesn't matter; either way, the story comes out the same.
That story begins on a cold day in 1958, when the history of archaeology, and of our understanding of our own origins, was changed forever.
Chapter One: It's Neolithic!
Late in the afternoon of November 10, 1958, a green Land Rover lurched down a narrow dirt road in south central Turkey, about thirty miles southeast of the city of Konya. Three British archaeologists were packed inside. A frigid wind gusted from the south, blowing swirls of cold dust over the surrounding wheatfields. The Land Rover pulled up to the edge of a massive hill that stood out prominently from the flat plain. The archaeologists already suspected that this was no ordinary hill. The crunch of the tires went silent, and the three men climbed out to have a closer look.
The leader of the group was James Mellaart, thirty-three years old, pudgy, round-faced, his eyes darting to and fro excitedly behind dark-rimmed glasses. Mellaart lit a cigarette and stared out at the mound. The motor of a tractor droned in the distance. A flock of gray-throated great bustards circled overhead, their large wings swishing in the air. At Mellaart's side, buttoning his coat against the cold, stood David French. Mellaart and French were visiting scholars at the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, the BIAA. Both men specialized in the prehistory of Anatolia, the vast plateau that makes up most of modern Turkey. (Prehistory is, in short, everything that had happened to humanity before the invention of writing some 5,000 years ago, during the Near Eastern Bronze Age.)
The third archaeologist was Alan Hall, a student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Hall was studying the Classical period in Anatolia, from about the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., when Greek and Roman cultures spread from Europe into Asia. Mellaart had never learned how to drive, and Hall, whose Land Rover it was, had been kind enough to lend it for the mission. For more than a week the threesome had crisscrossed the Konya Plain, looking for signs of early human settlements. In theory this archaeological survey was meant to record any and all signs of ancient occupation, from all epochs, with an eye to possible future excavations. But Mellaart had come to Turkey with a mission: he was out to prove that Anatolia had played a pivotal role in prehistory. He had little interest in anything later than the Bronze Age. Despite the considerable remains of Classical civilization he and his colleagues came upon, Mellaart would dismiss even the most interesting of these ruins as "F.R.M.," short for "filthy Roman muck."
French shared Mellaart's passion for ancient Anatolia. Earlier that same year, he had dug with Mellaart at Hacilar, a 7,500-year-old village in western Turkey. Those excavations were already pushing back the earliest evidence for civilization in the region by several thousand years. Turkey was still relatively untouched by archaeological trowels. The unexplored horizons of its austere landscape beckoned to young archaeologists like French and Mellaart eager to make important discoveries and names for themselves. Yet as late as 1958, Anatolia was a passion in which few other archaeologists partook. Most experts believed that the Anatolian plateau was little more than a backwater during prehistoric times. The real action, they were convinced, had been farther east, at Neolithic sites like Jericho in Palestine and Jarmo in Iraq. There, some of the earliest known farming villages, 10,000 years old and more, had been unearthed in the early 1950s.
That dismissive attitude, however, had left a dilemma. Archaeologists were confident that the earliest farming settlements had sprouted in the Near East. A few thousand years later, Neolithic villages began cropping up in Greece, then the rest of Europe. It was logical to assume that farming had spread overland, from Asia to Europe, by the most direct route: via Anatolia. But there was little evidence to support this idea. Anatolia, the supposed land bridge for the westward spread of farming and settled life, had nothing to show for itself. As late as 1956, Mellaart's boss, Seton Lloyd -- the BIAA's director in Ankara and a veteran of three decades of archaeological campaigns in the Near East -- had written that "the greater part of modern Turkey, and especially the region more correctly described as Anatolia, shows no sign whatever of habitation during the Neolithic period." Some experts proposed instead that farmers had traveled from Asia to Greece by sea. This notion grew in popularity after excavations on Cyprus during the 1930s and 1940s revealed a sophisticated Neolithic community on that Mediterranean island, which later radiocarbon dating showed to be nearly 8,000 years old.
As Mellaart fidgeted and French shivered, they could hardly dare to believe that they were about to prove the experts wrong. Nor did they imagine that they would do far more than simply score points in what, to nonexperts, might have seemed like a fairly esoteric debate. In just a few years, discoveries at the impressive mound they now stood before would make headlines around the world, electrify the archaeological community, and revolutionize our picture of Neolithic technology, art, culture, and religion. And they would make Mellaart's reputation as one of the most brilliant, as well as most controversial, figures in archaeological history.
At the moment, however, all that lay in the future. During the previous week or so, the three archaeologists had already accomplished enough to make their meandering journey worthwhile. Their survey had charted more than a dozen new settlements dated to the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age, the epoch sandwiched between the earlier Neolithic and the later Bronze Age. Most archaeologists were willing to accept that Anatolia had been occupied during the Chalcolithic. Yet before Mellaart had begun trekking the plateau some years before, few of these sites had been recorded. Not that they were so difficult to find. To the great convenience of archaeologists searching for ancient villages, early Near Eastern settlers had two enduring habits. First, they often constructed their houses in mud brick, a building material with a lifetime of less than one hundred years. Second, when they rebuilt their homes, they usually did so on the same spot, using the ruins of the earlier structures as new foundations. Over hundreds of years, as these successive building levels lifted the villages higher and higher above the surrounding landscape, they eventually formed considerable mounds -- or, in archaeological parlance, tells, after the Arabic word for "tall."
Long before Mellaart began working in Turkey, archaeologists had been mapping mounds across the Near East. One pioneer was the British archaeologist Max Mallowan. Accompanied by his wife, mystery writer Agatha Christie, Mallowan recorded hundreds of tells in Iraq during the 1930s while working for the British School of Archaeology in Baghdad. Seton Lloyd, who later took over this project, expanded the list to more than 5,000 mounds by the time he left Iraq for Turkey in 1948. But while Near Eastern mounds are relatively easy to find, some of them are layered with so many thousands of years of occupation that earlier levels tend to be compressed and distorted by later ones. As a result, archaeologists trying to understand their stratigraphy -- that is, which occupation level belongs to which time period -- often face a daunting challenge. A good example was Jericho, a complex site tackled by the British archaeologists John Garstang in the 1930s and Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s. Garstang and Kenyon had to make sense of more than 10,000 years of archaeological deposits, which were first laid down when Jericho was a seasonal camp for hunter-gatherers and then continued to build up during the Neolithic period, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.
The tell that now loomed before Mellaart and his colleagues looked equally daunting. The oval-shaped mound was huge, a third of a mile long and some sixty feet high at its highest point. It was blanketed with wild grass and ruin weed, a bushy plant often found growing on Near Eastern tells. French and Hall trudged up the hill to have a look at the top, while Mellaart stayed below. As he prowled around the perimeter, eyes glued to the ground, Mellaart began spotting shards of a burnished, chocolate-brown pottery. He also spied hundreds of small pieces of glassy black volcanic obsidian, some fashioned into blades shaped like long prisms. Mellaart's heart began to race. He knew this pottery. He knew this obsidian. During the late 1930s, after Garstang had finished his work at Jericho, the pioneering archaeologist went on to excavate a large Neolithic settlement near the Turkish city of Mersin, on the Mediterranean coast. Mellaart had long thought that Garstang's discoveries should have opened archaeologists' eyes to the importance of Anatolia. But Mersin was so close to northern Syria that the experts didn't associate it with Anatolia at all. They preferred to lump it in with better-known Neolithic cultures in Syria and Mesopotamia.
The pottery and obsidian under Mellaart's feet were nearly identical to the Neolithic artifacts that Garstang had found at Mersin. The shards were practically oozing out of the mound. But what was at the top? At Mersin, Garstang's Neolithic village had been overbuilt with Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Hittie, Greek, Byzantine, and finally Arab settlements. Mellaart looked up to see French and Hall racing down the tell towards him. "It's Neolithic! It's Neolithic at the top!" they shrieked. Mellaart shouted back, hardly believing his ears, "It's bloody Neolithic at the bottom!"
On this bitterly cold November day, Mellaart, French, and Hall had proved once and for all that Anatolia had been occupied during the Neolithic period. But they had done much more. They had discovered the biggest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement found to date. It sheltered a thousand years of pure Neolithic occupation, from bottom to top, with nothing -- certainly no filthy Roman muck -- to disturb its delicate mud-brick stratigraphy.
That evening the three checked into a hotel in the nearby town of Çumra, where they toasted their discovery long into the night with glasses of raki, the potent, aniseed-flavored Turkish liqueur. The next morning they returned briefly to collect samples of pottery and obsidian, and, as Mellaart later said, "to make sure it was still there." Mellaart's maps told him that this hill was called Çatal Hüyük, which meant "mound at the forked road" in Turkish. (Many years later Turkish authorities modernized the spelling to the present-day Çatalhöyük.) Local villagers confirmed that he had the right mound.
In Mellaart's later report on the discovery, published in Anatolian Studies, the BIAA's journal, his excitement had not abated. After briefly mentioning the fourteen new Chalcolithic sites the survey had found, Mellaart wrote, "Even more important is the discovery of one huge Neolithic town-site...this mound is nearly three times the size of Jericho¿were excavations undertaken here, some extremely important conclusions might be reached about the earliest settlement on the Anatolian plateau." As the senior member of the survey team, Mellaart, according to archaeological tradition, had first dibs on the right to excavate the site. Certainly no one would question whether he was the right man for the job.
To his friends, he has always been Jimmy. His enemies call him Jimmy too. Both friend and foe agree that Mellaart was an archaeological genius, with an unequaled nose for sniffing out ancient settlements. If the legend was born on the Anatolian plateau, the man himself came into the world in London, on November 14, 1925. According to Mellaart's account of his family's history, his father's ancestors were Highland Scots who eventually settled in Holland. Mellaart's father was a Dutch national who had emigrated to England shortly before Mellaart was born; his mother came from Northern Ireland. His father was an art expert who had studied with the Dutch Rembrandt scholar Abraham Bredius, who is perhaps best known for being taken in by the notorious Vermeer forgery Supper at Emmaus.
Mellaart spent his early childhood in a fine house in the West London borough of Chelsea, surrounded by art and talk of art. His father made a good living advising connoisseurs on their purchases, especially of Old Master drawings. But when Mellaart was seven years old, everything changed. The 1929 Wall Street crash, and the worldwide depression that followed, had dried up the art market. By 1932 his father gave up and moved the family, which now also included Mellaart's younger sister, to Amsterdam. Soon after, his mother died. Mellaart was never told how or why. His father refused to talk about it. But his mother's death marked him indelibly, especially after his father remarried.
Mellaart's father moved the family several times, from Amsterdam to Rotterdam to The Hague, where the boy started high school. Then, in May 1940, the Germans invaded and occupied the Netherlands. When Hitler began building his Atlantic Wall right through the coastal suburb where they lived, Mellaart's father picked the family up again and settled in an eighteenth-century castle near Maastricht. But right after Mellaart took his final exams at the local high school, he received a letter from German authorities ordering him to report to the Maastricht railroad station. He was to be sent to Germany to join the Nazis' slave labor force. Instead he went underground. Mellaart's father had many friends in Dutch museums; one of them found a job for him at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, where he was put to work mending broken pottery and making plaster casts of archaeological finds.
In high school Mellaart had developed a keen interest in ancient Egypt. In Leiden he was befriended by a professor of Egyptology at Leiden University, Adriaan de Buck, who was best known for his extensive translations of texts found on ancient Egyptian coffins. Since the Nazis had closed the university, the elderly de Buck had no one to teach. He encouraged Mellaart to study Egyptian languages. Each week the young man would come around for tea and tutoring sessions. But Mellaart, surrounded by the fabulous riches in the museum, had already decided he wanted to be an archaeologist rather than a linguist. In those days the best places in Europe to study archaeology were London and Oxford.
In 1947 Mellaart landed a place in the undergraduate archaeology program at University College London. He continued to pursue his fascination with ancient Egypt and, in particular, with the origins of the so-called Sea Peoples, raiders and plunderers who plagued the eastern Mediterranean beginning around the thirteenth century B.C. They made a number of attempts to conquer Egypt, an ambition that was ultimately defeated by Pharoah Ramses III around 1170 B.C. The Sea Peoples were more successful in the Levant, the region along the eastern Mediterranean coast. One group of Sea Peoples, the Philistines, became the biblical enemies of the Israelites. Just where the Sea Peoples came from is still a matter of debate. Much of their pottery, which has been unearthed at sites they apparently destroyed -- the pottery lies in stratigraphic layers just above the destroyed settlements -- is similar to that made by the Mycenaeans from Bronze Age Greece.
Some archaeologists have put the finger farther west, on the Sardinians, Sicilians, or the Etruscans. Mellaart, while a student in London, became an enthusiast of yet another minority viewpoint: the Sea Peoples who harassed Egypt and the Levant, he decided, must have come from the north -- that is, from Anatolia. Before long, the pursuit of this iconoclastic hypothesis would take Mellaart to Turkey. But first he had to learn to dig.
At the time Mellaart was coming of age as an archaeologist, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, British field archaeology had long been dominated by two giants: Kathleen Kenyon and her mentor, Mortimer Wheeler. In North America the so-called Wheeler-Kenyon school of excavation had its parallels in what is more simply called the Stratigraphic Revolution, exemplified by Alfred Kidder's meticulous work on the Pueblo cultures of the American Southwest. This generation of archaeologists had borrowed the concept of stratigraphy, meaning "stratification," from geologists who used the term to describe the strata that made up the earth's crust. Just as volcanoes, rivers, and lakes had deposited successive layers of rocks and sediments on the earth's surface, so did successive waves of ancient peoples leave behind the stratified deposits of their civilizations. The archaeologist's job, Wheeler and his like-minded colleagues insisted, was to carefully record the position of each find -- whether it be a pottery shard, a grinding stone, or a human burial -- so that it could be correctly assigned to the culture that had produced it.
Today it may seem obvious that the most recent occupation layers at an archaeological site will usually be found at the top and the oldest at the bottom, but a full appreciation of this basic premise was slow in coming. For one thing, it meant treating the biblical account of creation, which put the age of humankind at no more than 6,000 years, with considerable skepticism. It was also necessary to acknowledge that our own species is the fruit of millions of years of biological and cultural evolution. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, when scholars finally began to accept these once-radical notions, it was difficult for archaeology to take off as a scientific discipline in its own right. An early and notable exception was the work of Thomas Jefferson, whom Wheeler himself credited with conducting "the first scientific excavation in the history of archaeology" -- a carefully recorded 1784 trench through a burial mound on Jefferson's property in Virginia. Unfortunately, as Wheeler lamented, Jefferson was too far ahead of his time: "This seed of a new scientific skill fell upon infertile soil."
Two major events finally gave archaeology the lift it needed. One was the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which put the theory of evolution on a firm scientific basis. The other, also in 1859, was the visit of a delegation of eminent British scientists to France's Somme River. Since 1837 amateur archaeologist Jacques Boucher de Crèvecoeur de Perthes had been claiming to have found human-made stone axes buried in the river's banks, in intimate association with the bones of extinct animals. Until the British confirmed his conclusions, Boucher de Perthes, the director of a local customs house, was hard put to convince anyone that the Ice Age humans who made the tools had lived long before the great flood described in the Bible.
Many more years would pass before archaeologists would adopt the rigorous scientific methods Wheeler and others had begun advocating by the 1920s. "There is no right way of digging, but there are many wrong ways," Wheeler, ever the scold, declared. He was particularly disdainful about the celebrated excavations at Troy and Mycenae carried out in the 1870s by the German banker and adventurer Heinrich Schliemann -- the Indiana Jones of his day -- which had done so much to stoke the public's appetite for the romance of archaeology. "We may be grateful to Schliemann" for uncovering these fabulous sites, Wheeler wrote, "because he showed us what a splendid book had in fact been buried there; but he tore it to pieces in snatching it from the earth, and it took us upwards of three-quarters of a century to stick it more or less together again and to read it aright." A more worthy hero, Wheeler believed, was General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, who brought military discipline and precision to his excavations in southern England in the 1880s and 1890s.
Wheeler, a former military man himself, would conduct a number of archaeological campaigns across England and India during his long career. The young Kathleen Kenyon -- daughter of the biblical scholar Frederick Kenyon, a leading advocate of the literal truth of the Bible -- caught up with Wheeler in 1930 at Verulamium, near Saint Albans in Hertfordshire. Verulamium is still heralded as one of the best excavations of a Roman British town. Wheeler put his twenty-four-year-old protégée in charge of excavating a Roman theater. By the end of the decade Kenyon had become his leading disciple.
When James Mellaart caught up with Kenyon in 1948, she was making a name for herself at Sutton Walls, an Iron Age hill fort in southwest England. Mellaart spent three Easter vacations digging with Kenyon at Sutton Walls, learning how to decipher stratigraphic layers by the differences in the color and texture of their soils, a technique Wheeler and Kenyon had championed. He also learned how to excavate human burials. A battle had apparently taken place at or near the hill fort, as evidenced by a large grave filled with the skeletons of men and boys who had met a violent death.
Kenyon told Mellaart that she was planning to dig at Jericho beginning in 1952 and invited him to join her when the time came. But Mellaart was graduating from University College London in June 1951. He needed something to do in the meantime. In that case, Kenyon said, the new British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara was offering scholarships to young archaeologists. It would give him some experience in the Near East. Why not apply?
By the late 1940s, the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire. But archaeologically speaking, the end of World War II sparked a resurgence of foreign research in the Near East, as the British, Americans, French, and even Germans rushed back in to grab the best sites. The British, with schools and institutes of archaeology in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman, Athens, and Rome, among other spots, were well positioned to get their fair share, but they had no institutional presence in Turkey. In 1946 Garstang -- who had been forced to suspend his dig at Mersin during the war -- returned for a final season. While there, he hatched a plan to found a new institute. The French and German archaeological institutes were based in romantic Istanbul; Garstang insisted that the British should set up shop in Ankara, the capital. Turkish authorities quickly gave their blessing to the project. In January 1948 the BIAA was officially inaugurated. Garstang asked Seton Lloyd, who had worked with him at Mersin in the late 1930s, to serve as the BIAA's director. Lloyd, having spent most of the war in Baghdad and Jerusalem, was happy to have a change of scene.
Mellaart's application to the BIAA for a two-year scholarship, submitted in February 1951, was nothing if not ambitious. In his search for the origins of the Sea Peoples, he proposed to "explore those areas from Mersin to the Aegean" -- that is, almost the entire Mediterranean coast of Turkey -- "for sites of ancient habitation." Mellaart also suggested, although he conceded that "there may not be enough time," a similar investigation of Turkey's western seaboard. Just how realistic the BIAA considered these plans is not recorded, but in May his application was accepted. He was awarded the grand sum of £150 to last the entire two years. A few months later he was on his way to Turkey.
From the moment Mellaart set foot within its borders, Turkey's archaeological landscape was transformed. His first sweeping surveys across the southern part of the country, in 1951 and 1952, put some four hundred new pre-Classical sites on the map, where before there had been mostly blank spaces. Since Mellaart didn't drive -- and even if he had, there was no vehicle available -- he crossed most of this territory on foot, occasionally using trains and buses to get him to the next study region. He collected thousands of pottery shards. Most of the sites were tells dating from the Copper Age (beginning around 5500 B.C.) or later, although even then he thought that some of the pottery might date from the Neolithic, some 2,000 years earlier. Mellaart would later say that one day in 1952, while surveying in the Konya region, he had spotted the imposing mound of Çatalhöyük six miles in the distance. But a lingering bout of dysentery, and the heavy bags of potshards slung over his shoulder, made him postpone the visit for another time.
In 1952 and 1953, on breaks from his Anatolian surveys, Mellaart served as one of Kenyon's many field supervisors at Jericho. The first season, he discovered a Bronze Age tomb and excavated it with the help of a crew of Palestinian workmen. Mellaart's confidence in himself, which was already considerable, only grew. The following year, when Kenyon thought she might have reached bedrock in one part of the tell, Mellaart was convinced that there might still be archaeological remains farther down. "Go ahead, Jimmy, you always know best," Mellaart recalled Kenyon saying. Another five meters of digging revealed three stone walls, one on top of the other. Behind those walls, after Mellaart had left, Kenyon later found the remains of a massive stone tower some thirty feet in diameter -- one of the most amazing feats of Neolithic architecture ever discovered.
Meanwhile, back in Turkey, Mellaart's energy and enthusiasm were a godsend for BIAA director Seton Lloyd, who was trying to put his new institute on the map. His young protégé was finding ancient sites faster than anyone could excavate them. During his 1952 survey, a local history teacher had led Mellaart to the mound of Beycesultan, on the upper stretches of the Meander River in western Turkey, where Lloyd and Mellaart would later excavate a spectacular Bronze Age palace dated to about 1800 B.C. In 1956 another local teacher from a village near the southwest city of Burdur showed Mellaart a mound littered with shards of brilliantly painted pottery. This was Copper Age Hacilar, site of the first excavation Mellaart would direct by himself, from 1957 to 1960. During the last season at Hacilar -- the year before he began digging at Çatalhöyük -- the excavations would also lay bare an earlier Neolithic village that dated from around the time Çatalhöyük was abandoned.
As Mellaart's digs took him ever deeper into the past -- Bronze Age Beycesultan, Copper Age Hacilar, and soon to come, Neolithic Çatalhöyük -- his star at the BIAA rose higher and higher. His findings were appearing in nearly every issue of Anatolian Studies. Mellaart was fast becoming a major figure in Near Eastern archaeology. In 1958 the institute's governing council appointed Mellaart as assistant director to Seton Lloyd. His discovery of Çatalhöyük that same year mooted Lloyd's declaration, just two years earlier, that Anatolia had not been occupied during the Neolithic. Lloyd seemed happy to be proved wrong: "J. Mellaart's West Anatolian survey made nonsense of all these theories," he wrote later.
Everyone soon forgot that Mellaart had originally come to Turkey to search for traces of the Sea Peoples. Mellaart never did find any evidence for these mysterious invaders, although he still counts himself among a minority of archaeologists who think that Anatolia is a good bet for their origins. But perhaps more important, he found a partner to accompany him on the ups, and then the downs, of his archaeological career. Her name was Arlette.
Arlette Cenani came from an upper-class Istanbul family. Her stepfather, Kadri Cenani, was descended from a long line of Ottoman Empire viziers and diplomats. In 1939, when Arlette was fifteen years old, the family moved to a sprawling yali, as a waterside wooden house is called in Turkish. Arlette's yali was on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, not far from Istanbul. There her mother kept three grand pianos and entertained such celebrated visitors as Agatha Christie and Somerset Maugham. Archaeology had long been a family passion. Kadri's great-grandfather had been the Ottoman governor of Syria. His collection of Syrian artifacts was later housed in Istanbul's Museum of the Ancient Orient. In the early 1950s Arlette began sitting in on the German archaeologist Kurt Bittel's classes at Istanbul University. Bittel was an expert on the Hittites, who had ruled Anatolia for some eight hundred years beginning about 2000 B.C. He was also the former director of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul, one of the BIAA's rival institutions.
In late 1952 Arlette was digging with Bittel at Fikirtepe, near Istanbul, one of the first excavations in Turkey to show evidence of Chalcolithic settlement. One day Bittel brought over an earnest young man who was visiting the dig for a week. It was James Mellaart. Bittel asked Arlette, who spoke English fluently, to take Mellaart in hand. Arlette, for whom all archaeologists were dashing figures, was happy to oblige. Mellaart, for his part, took a quick look at the handsome young woman who stood before him -- at her long, straight nose and serious brown eyes -- and made no objection either. Before long the two were down on their hands and knees digging together. They soon uncovered a rare find: a beautiful, completely intact, red burnished pot. Mellaart thought it might be Neolithic, but Bittel dismissed the suggestion with a wave of his hand.
In April 1954 James and Arlette were married at the yali, with the entire Cenani family in attendance. The following year their son Alan was born in Istanbul. From that time on, Arlette would accompany Mellaart on all his digs, as translator, photographer, and housekeeper. She also served as secretary in the BIAA's Ankara headquarters for several years. The couple spent the summers in Ankara or in the field. The rest of the year they lived in the yali, where Mellaart set up a study in a room overlooking the Bosphorus. Turkey was now his home.
Many years later, after radiocarbon dating had become a well-established technique, archaeologists concluded that the earliest stratigraphic levels at Fikirtepe were indeed Neolithic. Mellaart had been right about that pot. You can see it today in Istanbul's Archaeological Museum.
Copyright © 2005 by Michael Balter
Meet the Author
Michael Balter worked for many years as a political, environmental, and travel writer with hundreds of features in the Los Angeles Times, Travel & Leisure, Islands, and the International Herald Tribune. Currently he is a correspondent for Science and also serves as one of the magazine's chief archaeology and human evolution writers. He lives in Paris, France, and can be reached at michaelbalter.com.
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Science writer Michael Balter does justice to one of the most interesting (yet relatively unknown) archaelogical digs in the world. At its height around 7000 BC Catalhoyuk, on the Konya plain in Turkey, was home to as many 8,000 people, the largest gathering of human beings in one place up until then. What brought these people together? How did they live day to day? What was their culture like? All these questions and more are explored in the finely written The Goddess and The Bull. But Mr. Balter goes further and tells the fascinating story of how Catalhoyuk was rediscovered by James Mellaart in 1958 and its tortured history since then. He also gives the armchair archaeologist just enough information to have a handle on how archaeologists work without overloading the reader with arcane information. I highly recommend this book!