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James Mellaart: Under the Volcano

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

  • From Level IV estimated end-date c. 6370 BC
  • A pair of leopards in relief, carbon-dated to c6500BC (Çatalhüyük, Level VI), discovered by James Mellaart in the early 1960s. Each is about a metre long. The mouth, claws and tip of the tail are red, the spots black, the background white lime plaster. Over time the leopards were covered with more than 30 successive levels of painting


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

To read the full article, purchase Issue 19

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Issue 19, 1999 Forgotten Riches
£12.00 / $15.50 / €14.24
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 19
  • The Fatal Flaw

    Norman Stone introduces a special report by rescuers and writers on the August earthquake and its aftermath

  • The Whittalls in Winter

    Yolande Whittall looks back at 1930s life in Moda, across the strait from the domes and minarets of Istanbul. In Grandmother Whittall’s garden, where the snow fell deep and crisp, tobogganing parties were laid on for the children. In the kitchen Christmas puddings were stirred, and shooting parties provided the wherewithall for woodcock pie…

  • Eastern Overtures

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  • Rhapsody in Blue

    Soon after blue and white ceramic was born in China, it made its first glorious appearance in a mosque in the early Ottoman capital of Edirne. John Carswell unlocks a well-kept secret

  • Safranbolu: A Bourgeois Paradise

    A 20-page celebration of Safranbolu, the perfect small town. The lovingly maintained Mümtazlar Konağı is just one of the many handsome old houses that distinguish the Anatolian market town of Safranbolu. With iron deposits, lush forests and fields growing the valuable saffron croci that gave the town its name, Safranbolu prospered quietly for 1,500 years.

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Buy the issue
Issue 19, 1999 Forgotten Riches
£12.00 / $15.50 / 511.97 TL
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