The Konya Plain stretches for hundreds of miles across central Turkey. Almost 60 years ago, in a remote spot some 30 miles from the regional capital of Konya, a team of archaeologists began exploring two small hills. A fork in a local footpath and the two mounds themselves gave the site its modern name. Fork (çatal in Turkish) and mound (höyük) combine to form Çatalhöyük. Today the site is regarded by UNESCO as the most significant human settlement documenting early settled agricultural life. (See also: Face of a 9,500-year-old man revealed for the first time.)
Founded over 9,000 years ago on the bank of a river that has since dried up, Çatalhöyük is believed to have been home to an egalitarian Stone Age society who built distinctive homes, arranged back-to-back without doors or windows. They went in and out through openings in the roof. On the inside, they left wall paintings and enigmatic figurines.
These dwellings also played an important role in their funerary practices: Residents buried the dead under their homes. At its peak, the town housed as many as 8,000 people, who supported themselves through agriculture and raising livestock.
Aside from revealing fascinating details as to what life in a Stone Age town was like, the site chronicles a critical moment in human history: when people were starting to abandon nomadic ways. Prior to the settlement at Çatalhöyük, humanity had been wanderers for hundreds of thousands of years. Çatalhöyük marks a time when people embarked on one of the earliest experiments in “urban” living.
From stone to copper
Çatalhöyük’s earliest occupation has been dated to 7400 B.C., as part of the westward spread of settled farming associated with the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. Other Neolithic settlements located in Turkey include the nearby site of Hacilar, which dates to around 7500 B.C. (See also: 9,000-year-old-mask stuns archaeologists.)
Hacilar was identified and dated in the 1950s by the British archaeologist James Mellaart. An Egyptologist, Mellaart developed a fascination for very ancient cities after working at the Tall as Sultan site near Jericho, considered to be the oldest town in the world. In 1961 Mellaart started to dig near the forked path at Çatalhöyük. The twin hills had caught his interest a few years earlier, and he became convinced they hid a secret.
His hunch paid off: After excavating the site, he knew he had stumbled on the find of his career. The time allotted to him, however, would be short but productive. Caught up in a dispute over antiquities trafficking, Mellaart’s permit was withdrawn, but in his four years of work he documented 14 separate occupations in the eastern mound and many houses. (See also: Ancient ruins discovered under lake in Turkey.)
For 25 years, between 1993 and 2018, British archaeologist Ian Hodder developed an international research project at Çatalhöyük. Renewed attention to the ancient town led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. Çatalhöyük is prized not only for revealing how people lived in its warren of neat, tidy, plastered houses, but also for its longevity, as the eastern mound was inhabited for as many as 1,500 years. Its later period coincided with the Copper Age, which began around 5500 B.C. In this later phase, the eastern mound was abandoned, and the western mound developed. Pottery decorated with colored paint, a feature associated with the Copper Age, has been found on this later, western mound. (See also: 13 pictures that capture the wonder and thrill of archaeology.)
Spirit of the hearth
Much of the economic, social, and ritual life of Çatalhöyük was organized around the home. The houses, all very similar in size, sheltered families of five to 10 people. A typical home had no windows, one main room, and two ancillary rooms for storage or domestic work. The walls were made of adobe and covered with plaster. They measured some 20 inches thick and stood more than eight feet tall.
The use of clay and plaster as building materials made archaeologists’ work easier. Floors, walls, and art had to be renewed continually. In some buildings more than 450 layers of fine plastering have been documented on just four inches of wall. Each of these layers provides information about the period when the building was constructed and on occasion gives subtle details about the occupants’ daily lives, such as the marks left by baskets or rugs on floors.
Built back-to-back, people entered their homes through an opening in the roof. They climbed down a ladder to the main room. The oven and hearth were positioned below the entrance, which also served as a vent for smoke. Inhabitants cooked food in this part of the main room. The floors were blackened with ash and soot. Obsidian, highly prized for its smooth finish, was fashioned in this room and used to create numerous objects, including mirrors. Archaeologists also found that infants and newborns were buried in this part of the home. (See also: Prehistoric dining: the real paleo diet.)
Benches or platforms separated the “clean” part of the house from the dirty. The floors were free from the blackening caused by fire. It appears they were also plastered more frequently. These clean spaces were where youths and adults were buried. Later excavations at the site revealed the emphasis the residents placed on hygiene: Garbage was burned, buried, and covered with ash, a general cleanliness that may explain why forensic tests have revealed that the population was remarkably healthy.
The walls in these clean spaces were also a focal point for art. The artworks were typically painted in red or black pigments and feature geometric motifs, human hands, and wild animals. The relationship with these animals must have been a powerful element of local beliefs. Leopards, boars, and bears are all depicted. Perhaps the most important of all was the wild bull, whose horns were placed on platforms or in other parts of the home. The bones of wild animals, usually male, were deposited as offerings when a house was built or abandoned. Researchers speculate that the occupants did so in the hope of overcoming their fear of nature or to be close to its powerful spirit.
Home and away
The occupants of Çatalhöyük grew grains and legumes, kept sheep and goats, and hunted wild animals such as bison, deer, elk, boar, and birds. The surrounding countryside offered wild food sources, such as apples, almonds, pistachios, fish, and waterfowl eggs. Building materials such as plaster and mud were also readily available near the settlement itself.
Archaeologists were surprised to find that homes were not located close to their fields, which was unexpected for an agricultural community of several thousand people. According to Hodder and his team, one possible explanation lies in the high demand for plaster and clay in the village. If people lived closer to their farmland, they would have been forced to travel to get clay to build their homes. The cane baskets they used to transport it were unsuited to hauling vast quantities over large stretches of territory. It was easier to transport their harvests and store them.
Traveling was evidently not a problem, as the citizens of Çatalhöyük engaged in long-distance trade. Archaeologists found baskets of date palm leaves that originated from Mesopotamia or the Levant. Shells suggest they traded with peoples near the Red Sea or the Mediterranean. The prized obsidian came from the Hasan Daği volcano, some 80 miles away or the Cappadocia region farther to the east.
To date, no monumental constructions (temples, grand communal buildings, or burial grounds) have been found at Çatalhöyük. Archaeologists believe this lack suggests a remarkably egalitarian society—at least in its earlier stages. Some buildings with more burials and more elaborate architecture have been identified, notable for the presence of bull’s horns on pedestals or other elements. However, the people who lived in these homes did not control food production, nor were their burials more elaborate than others. It is thought they served to keep the historical and cultural memory of the community alive. Hodder’s team dubbed these buildings “history houses.” (See also: World's oldest temple to be restored.)
There are also many mysteries surrounding why the site was eventually abandoned. Evidence suggests that the social system gradually broke down due to cultural shifts and climate change. In the later period, archaeologists detected an increase in the differences dividing social classes. Homes were no longer the center of ritual and social relations and became centers of production and consumption. Archaeologists are still searching for explanations. Only 4 percent of the entire surface area of Çatalhöyük has been studied, which means that there are thousands of unexcavated buildings that perhaps hold the answers to these and many other questions about the “urban” dwellers of Çatalhöyük.