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James Mellaart: Archaeologist who discovered one of the world’s oldest urban centres in Anatolia but whose later career was dogged by controversy
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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