Nine thousand years ago, the plain of Konya was a hive of activity, for it was here, in the shadow of Hasandag, that the history of commerce began. Before the Mesopotamians, Minoans or Egyptians, the people of Catalhüyük (or Çatalhöyük) created one of the first cities known to man. Built from the profits of their trade in obsidian, the glassy volcanic rock used to make early implements, this was a flourishing settlement that has forced archaeologists to rethink the chronology of civilisation. James Mellaart, who unearthed the city and its stunning wall paintings, recalls the stages of a momentous discovery
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…
The 24-page feature in Cornucopia 19 includes images of the wall paintings, the kilim-like geometric patterns, a map and time charts.
Read Christian Tyler’s tribute to James Mellaart on his eightieth birthday in 2005 in Cornucopia 35
James Mellaart died 29 July 2012 aged 86
The Times obituary
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