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One of the most important finds of the 20th century was this Neolithic site dating from the 8th century BC. Discovered and excavated by James Mellaart between 1958 and 1963, it was followed by a second, 25-year project under Professor Ian Hodder ending in 2018, marked by an exhibition, The Curious Case of Catalhöyük, held in Turkey and London. Catalhöyük lies on the Konya plain and is a cluster of domestic buildings that housed between 5,000 and 10,000 people. Figurines of seated women suggest a fertility goddess, and the extraordinary wallpaintings show daily life and how the inhabitants were aware of the geography of the Eastern Mediterranean. The colour drawings of these made by Mellaart are invaluable documents, which remained unpublished until their appearance in Cornucopia 19. There is a museum, with labelling in English and Turkish, and a house has been re-created.
THE DISCOVERY 1958
In 1952, at the end of a five-month archaeological survey, mostly on foot, I found near Seydişehir and Beyşehir several sites with unmistakable Neolithic pottery like that of Mersin and Tarsus beyond the Taurus Mountains on the coast. This was explained away as ‘untypical and probably the result of some refugees from the Mersin area’.
In 1957 I made a sounding in the small mound of Hacılar near Burdur. Again the lowest levels revealed the same Neolithic pottery. The following year at Çatalhüyük I made the most startling discovery of my life.
It was a dull day in November, and I was driving across the flat Konya plain in a Land Rover, accompanied by two friends: Alan Hall, a classicist, and David French, my assistant at the Hacılar excavations. We had spent the day exploring the mounds – höyüks or hüyüks – on the plain of Konya. Çatalhüyük means ‘the mound of the fork in the road’ and it lies a mile or so south of the village of Küçükköy. I had seen it from a distance during my survey five years earlier and had wanted to explore it further, but various diversions had prevented me from doing so until now.
Those diversions had proved useful. I had visited the Hittite settlement of Boğazköy and the Neolithic site at Fikirtepe, both being excavated by Prof Kurt Bittel. When I showed him sherds from my survey in southern Anatolia, he was surprised and delighted, and I was invited to lecture at Istanbul University. For me, a more important result of meeting Prof Bittel was falling for one of his students, Arlette Cenani, who spoke perfect English as well as French. I spent Christmas at her parents’ yalı on the Bosphorus at Kanlıca and we were soon married.
I subsequently visited Jericho in Jordan, where Dr Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations set the tone for rigorous stratigraphic digging. Jericho showed that the Neolithic was not a short period, with a few miserable huts of poverty-stricken farming communities, but an extended period with supported a much more sophisticated society. Among the small finds was obsidian – a black volcanic glass which had never turned up in an archaeological dig in the region before. Although its sources could be traced to the Anatolian plateau, this was an area so remote that no scholar seriously considered that there might be Neolithic settlements there. The coastal site of Mersin was regarded as the rustic western outpost of the Fertile Crescent. To the north was the mighty barrier of the Taurus Mountains.
The Victorian concept of Anatolia as a peripheral backwater was still unhappily taught in universities in the early 1950s when I started my survey in the Konya plain. The area had never been surveyed. It was a virtual blank on archaeological maps, regarded as marshy and unhealthy.
What we discovered at Çatalhüyük showed me just how wrong that thinking had been…
James Mellaart was the archaeologist who discovered the Neolithic site of Çatalhõyük in 1958 in central Turkey and who then dug it between 1961-65, revealing that it was one of the world’s first urban centres. He found a large number of richly furnished buildings with reliefs, bull-horn installations and elaborate narrative wall paintings that shocked the archaeological world because such impressive art had not been found previously in the Near East.
He went on to work as lecturer in Anatolian archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. His later career was dogged by controversy.
James Mellaart was born in 1925 in London. His father was Dutch and a specialist in fine art, and his mother was from Northern Ireland. As a result of economic difficulties caused by the Depression, the family, including one sister, moved from London to Amsterdam in 1932. His mother died there, and his father remarried. James went to various schools throughout the Netherlands. During the German occupation from 1940 the family moved to Maastricht. James, who would always be known to friends and colleagues as Jimmy, worked at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and also studied Egyptian languages.
Determined to be an archaeologist, he started his BA at University College London in 1947, with a particular interest in the Sea Peoples, a loose and littleknown confederacy of seafaring peoples in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean in the 2nd millennium BC. During his time as an undergraduate he also worked on excavations conducted by Kathleen Kenyon at the Iron Age site of Sutton Walls in southwest England.
On graduating in 1951 Mellaart began a two-year fellowship at the British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara (BIAA) that focused on surveying archaeological sites in southwestern Turkey. Since he could not drive, he used buses and trains to reach the areas he wished to examine before undertaking long surveys on foot.
On one later brief survey, conducted in 1957, the Scottish archaeologist David Stronach, now Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, recalled Mellaart’s extraordinary ability to spot almost invisible sites and the way his indefatigable, short swift strides ate up the kilometres in even the hottest conditions. From 1951 onwards Mellaart discovered many hundreds of pre-Classical sites, mostly Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and later. One of these was the important Chalcolithic and Bronze Age site of Beycesultan.
While on an excavation in Turkey In 1952 he met Arlette Cenani and they were married in 1954. After the birth of their son in 1955, Arlette worked withMellaart on his excavations as translator, photographer and camp manager. She remained a loyal and loving support to him throughout his life.
Throughout the 1950s until 1959 Mellaart was a scholar and fellow at the BIAA. During that time he worked on several significant sites and started his own excavations. He conducted a survey in the Jordan valley and in 1952-54 he joined Kenyon’s excavations at Jericho, where he demonstrated the importance of exploring the deepest layers of the site.
From 1954 to 1959 he worked with Seton Lloyd, the director of the BIAA, at Beycesultan. In 1956 he found yet another important early site — the Chalcolithic site of Hacilar that he then excavated from 1957 to 1960. He was made assistant director of the BIAA under Lloyd in 1959 and held that position until 1961.
In November 1958, with David French and Alan Hall, he discovered the Neolithic date of a large mound in central Anatolia called Çatalhõyük. Mellaart was looking for signs of Neolithic settlement in Anatolia in order to overturn the accepted view that the main Neolithic developments had occurred in the Levant and in the Fertile Crescent. He was thus keen to return to excavate at Çatalhõyük and he was able to do this in 1961 after the completion of the Hacilar excavations.
He continued to work at Çatalhõyük in 1962, 1963 and 1965, revealing that it was a large and well-preserved site which had been inhabited between about 7500BC and 5700BC. The story of the discovery and excavation also had an important public impact, partly as a result of the accounts provided by Mellaartin the Illustrated London News. His reconstructions of the buildings enabled a wider engagement with the site beyond the accounts in scholarly journals.
He identified at least 13 levels of occupation at Çatalhõyük and came close to reaching the base of the mound. Over the four seasons of work he exposed more than 150 buildings and excavated 480 skeletons.
His book Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (1967) was an important achievement that is still read by students of the Neolithic and is referred to by a wide range of disciplines including
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