Discovering the Çatalhöyük MuralIn the early 1960s, archaeologist James Mellaart uncovered a mural at Çatalhöyük, the world’s largest and best-preserved Neolithic site, which he interpreted to represent a volcanic eruption. Fifty years later, scientific tests done on pumice at the nearby volcano Hasan Dağ confirm that there was, in fact, an eruption between 9,500 and 8,400 years ago—a timespan including the era that the mural was likely painted.
After James Mellaart discovered the Çatalhöyük mound in central Turkey in 1958, his excavations revealed an extensive Neolithic village featuring dozens of wall paintings and statuettes showing hunting scenes, giant bulls, leopards, vultures, female breasts and so-called “goddesses.” In an Archaeology Odyssey article, Michael Balter, author of The Goddess and the Bull, wrote: “One painting, he [Mellart] thought, seemed to represent a town plan of the Neolithic village, with an erupting volcano looming overhead.”
Watch Video: 3-D Digging at Çatalhöyük for free in Bible History Daily.
New Volcanic Data Sets the Çatalhöyük Mural in ContextOver the past two decades, prominent excavations at Çatalhöyük, under the direction of Stanford archaeologist Ian Hodder, have greatly expanded our image of the Neolithic proto-city. A recent study conducted by volcanologist Axel Schmitt of the University of California in Los Angeles has returned attention to Mellaart’s volcanic mural. The ochre-painted mural has been given a range of classifications over the years; those that see the peaks of Hasan Dağ looming over a Neolithic village have described it as the world’s oldest extant landscape scene or map, whereas skeptics have dismissed the theory, suggesting that the abstract shapes could instead represent a range of subjects, including a leopard’s skin.
At a Geological Society of America conference held on October 30, 2013, Schmitt presented new evidence of a small scale eruption at Hasan Dağ. Using uranium-thorium-helium dating in zircon crystals, Schmitt revealed that the volcanic deposits match the mural’s chronology and depiction of a minor volcanic flare, resembling what is known as a Strombolian-type eruption.
Volcanic Obsidian at ÇatalhöyükObsidian, a sharp volcanic glass, formed a dominant part of the lithic industry at Çatalhöyük, and the proximity of volcanic sources for the valuable Neolithic commodity shaped the site’s material culture. Çatalhöyük residents made tools of obsidian by flaking the black volcanic glass into razor-sharp knives and blades, and used the material to form an even more surprising artifact type: mirrors. Obsidian fragments were cut into semi-hemispherical shapes and carefully polished until a reflection was visible. Mellaart discovered eight obsidian mirrors at the site—the earliest ever found.
Volcanic obsidian is one of the trademarks of the Neolithic material culture at Çatalhöyük, and the recent volcanic studies may indicate that the residents had a collective memory of the creation of one of the sources of their valuable commodity.
Keep exploring Neolithic Turkey in Göbekli Tepe and the Origins of Neolithic Religion.
Examining Life through Architecture at Neolithic Çatalhöyük
People lived in squarish mudbrick houses, which were separated by just a fraction of an inch from neighboring houses. These houses were simply jammed together, with no ground-level access. People entered the houses through holes in the roofs, which were of differing heights and probably traversed by steps and ladders. The rooftop was likely also the center of daily life, as the interiors of the buildings would have been dark and poorly ventilated (given the absence of windows).We have not found any streets or alleyways, though there are open courtyard-like areas—apparently randomly located—where rubbish was discarded and where such animals as sheep or goats may have been kept. These open areas were probably also used for human defecation.
A typical house was about 15 feet square, with built-in shallow steps or demarcations, storage bins and shallow basins used for various household activities. Some houses also had small walled rooms. Walls were covered with white lime-based plaster and sometimes decorated with paintings or relief sculptures. Against some walls were raised platforms, possibly for sleeping. A large domed oven was generally positioned against the south wall, below the access hole from the roof, and a small circular hearth for cooking was usually located nearby.
Numerous renovations were made during the life of a typical house. New ovens and hearths were built; storage bins and basins were added or removed. The internal walls of the house, support posts and “furniture” were replastered at least once a year with a white lime-based clay. Fixing up one’s house was just as important 9,000 years ago as it is today!
Different parts of the house were designated for different activities: preparing food, making stone and bone beads, and weaving baskets.
January 2014 Update: Read a new article on the Çatalhöyük mural and volcanic eruption:
Axel K. Schmitt, Martin Danišík, Erkan Aydar, Erdal Şen, İnan Ulusoy, and Oscar M. Lovera published the article “Identifying the Volcanic Eruption Depicted in a Neolithic Painting at Çatalhöyük, Central Anatolia, Turkey” in the open-access, peer reviewed journal PLoS ONE on January 8, 2014.
Interested in the latest archaeological technology? Researchers at UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory recently released the FREE BAS eBook “Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past,” featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.
More on Neolithic Çatalhöyük in the BAS Library
Shahina Farid, “Excavating Catalhoyuk,” Archaeology Odyssey, May/Jun 2005.
Michael Balter, “Discovering Catalhoyuk,” Archaeology Odyssey, May/Jun 2005.
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