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Catal Huyuk: Origins of Civilizations

Catal Huyuk is one of the oldest archaeological urban cities to be found to date from ancient history and prehistory. Located in what is now modern Turkey just south east of modern Konya, the site contains remains of ancient pottery, signs of prehistoric domestication and herding, and permanent farming, including the organized cultivation of wheat and other cereals, and granary structures for storing and preserving food grains. Coupled with the fact that it dates to at least 7500 BC to 5700 BC, this makes it the biggest and best preserved ancient Neolithic site to date and just one in a growing number of new ancient sites which continue to push back the boundaries of pre-classical civilization even further into prehistory. The rare site provides tantalizing clues into the rise and the origins of ancient civilizations.

One chilly November day in 1958, James Mellart led a British archaeology team to survey the site, and later, began excavations for four seasons from 1961 to 1965. Under turf and ruin-weed mounds, one could see the tell-tale signs of human occupation: scattered mudbricks, discarded hand-tools, broken potsherds, and patches of grey ash. If one visited during 1961 to 1964, the remains of life-sized bulls' heads with horns protruding from the decorated plaster walls, high-relief leopards stamped on ringed trefoil designs or spread-eagled in the birthing position would be seen. Walls of abstract geometric polychromic patterns, such as double-axe designs, hand-imprints, lozenges, zig-zags and large eyes, painted ochre red or black. All of the decorative designs are now faded or been removed by Turkish authorities to the museum at Ankara.

The findings by Mellart continue to baffle visitors and scientists alike, and back then revealed for the first time that the surrounding part of Anatolia, the central most portion of Turkey, had been a major center of advanced culture and urban settlement in the Neolithic period. Due to complications of scandal and thievery of the sites artifacts, further study of Catal Huyuk was delayed for decades.

Serious analysis of the site resumed on September 12, 1993, by Ian Hodder, then at the University of Cambridge, pioneer of the Post-Processual Archaeological method. Over 18 distinct layers of occupation that divide the chronology of human settlement at Catal Huyuk have been identified by scientists; recycled rubble of previous collapsed residential buildings being used for foundational mounds are evident in many layers of the site. To date, only one acre of the 32 total acres of the site has been excavated. And yet, the wealth of material recovered from just that one acre alone has, in the words of one archaeologist, "astonished the world."

Religious Beliefs in Ancient Turkey

A plethora of stone statuettes without known counterparts at any other contemporary sites, appears to place Catal Huyuk at the forefront of Neolithic religious trends. According to the art historian Frederick Waage, in the book "Prehistoric Art" (1967)...

"They are not all what one might have expected to find - stone sculpture for one thing, the earliest known in Anatolia; in two instances a facial type that anticipates Cycladic marble 'idols' of the third millennium [B.C.]; a twin figure; leopard ladies; the relief pairs of figures - all strongly suggestive of divinities known from the monuments of later times."

Shrine VII is a very awe-inspiring part of the site. Here, two complete walls contain gigantic murals depicting seven enormous vultures, each sporting a five-foot wing-span. The birds lie frozen in mid-flight swooping down to devour six headless, match stick men, four crouched with legs bent to the chest. The bald heads of the vultures, short legs and distinctive crest, identity the birds as being none other than Gyps fulvus, the griffon vulture. Another adjacent shrine depicts a human figure trying to beat off a vulture from a corpse.

Shrine Mural drawn copies

Even more amazing, Shrine VI depicts a detailed fresco showing vultures perched atop tall wooden-framed towers, open-topped roofs linked to stairways traveling down to the ground. On one tower, two vultures lie poised with curled wings over a sole human head. Next to that tower, another similar tower, a headless match stick man hanging upside down over it, a vulture on either side, ready to attack. Two figures depart the stair ways at the bottom, wearing knee-length kilts and triangular-shaped high shoulder-pad vests. The apparel suggests perhaps a priestly garb, suggesting the figures are engaged in a funerary ritual.

A number of scholars speculate that the murals in fact detail a long held tradition extending even into the modern era among Zoroastrians, mainly local Kurdish peoples in parts of the Middle-east and minorities in India, a funerary ritual called excarnation. Excarnation involves laying out the body, usually in a circular stone tower called a Dakhma, to be denuded of flesh by carrion birds. The high wooden towers on the Catal Huyuk shrine murals no doubt mirror a much earlier version of the Dakhmas, called Towers of Silence, that first began to see widespread use with Zoroastrian Persians over 2000 years ago.

The solitary head probably represents the soul's departure from the body to begin its journey to the otherworld under the protection, the wing, of the noble vulture. Specifically, the vultures are thought to be feminine, as a wall on one of the shrines shows modeled human breasts plastered into the walls, inside which reside actual vulture skulls, bills protruding to form the nipples of the breasts.

In a number of graves buried underneath the floor of the houses, skulls inlaid with sliced cowrie shells as eyes reflect the belief of the Catal Huyuk people in the seat of the soul within the eyes, even after death. The odd lone head atop one of the wooden funerary towers depicted on the Vulture Shrine murals, which is about to be stolen away by one of the vultures and carried to heaven visually reemphasizes that idea. The skulls probably saw use as ancestor oracles. Identical plastered skulls with cowrie shell eyes found at Jericho, dated to around the same time frame as Catal Huyuk, are believed to be of the same function by scholars.

Interestingly, one of the murals at Catal Huyuk depict the vultures as possessing jointed legs, suggesting that some of the vultures in fact are people, or shamans, dressed in vulture feathered coats performing funerary rites. An archaeology writer named Edward Bacon, commissioned an artist, Alan Sorrell, to draw an impression of one of the vulture shrines as it might have appeared at the height of its devotional usage during the mid-seventh millennium B.C.

Using all the information and knowledge excavated at the site, Alan Sorrell produced a detailed work, showing three vulture shamans, clad in beaked headdresses and coats of feathers, kneeling before a huge bull's head on the wall. One holds a human skull in a wicker basket as sunlight pours into the Shrine through openings illuminating the bulls' heads on the opposite wall. A fourth shaman sits hooded in a robe, meditating on the floor, surrounded by skulls and a square hearth burning a small fire.

Purposes and Aesthetics of Catal Shrines

Catal Shrine VI.8, restoration of north and east walls. Below bulls' heads appears the bee honeycomb motif.

According to the Neolithic and Paleolithic expert, Mary Sattegast, one of the symbolic friezes at Shrine VI below the bull’s heads may point to the overall purpose of these burial places. One painting, according to Mellaart, depicted the life cycle of the bee in a honeycomb maze with closed cells on the left, from which bees eventually emerged to fly freely among fields of flowers on the right of the panel. The later superimposed painting continued the honeycomb theme, complete now with wingless chrysalises swaying from tree branches, butterflies now replacing the bees.

Mellaart remarked that the friezes reflect a certain fascination among Neolithic man with the mysteries of metamorphosis in nature, and that the symbolic transformation of the butterfly probably held some significant religious meaning for the denizens of Catal Huyuk. In popular myths, the ancient Greek’s believed the bee and butterfly to be visual manifestations of man’s soul in the afterlife; if indeed the following is also true at Catal Huyuk, then the goal of these shrines is in all likelihood mostly likely related in purpose to the aiding of the soul through the afterlife.

The Goddess of the Underworld 

One mural at Catal Huyuk features a steatopygous female, an archer, and a stylized goddess-form. The last is perhaps the most intriguing, as that figure reoccurs frequently in Levels VII and VI before disappearing with the fire of VI.A. Excavators believe the figure is a female due to the occasional appearance of a swelling stomach in some reliefs and the birth-giving position, the legs situated eagle-spread.

In Shrine VII.23, the goddess appears alone in the chamber, concentric circles straddling the belly possibly indicating pregnancy. She wears a netlike garment, holding up a black, red, and yellow veil of the same pattern. Mellaart associates the garment and veil with the common weave of the Catal shrouds buried with the dead at the site.

Another similar goddess-form occurs again in silhouette beside a kilim mural at Level VI. Mellaart likened the woven fabric with the veiled figure of Athena, the Greek goddess of weaving. An inscription below the statue of Neith at Sais (the Egyptian counterpart of Athena in the Nile Delta region), states that no mortal hath ever seen through the veil of Neith. The Neoplatonist Proclus, claims in the “Commentary on the Timaeus” that the veil of Athena contained the essence of the divinity, “the last image of the whole contrariety of things.” Some see the veil of the Catal goddess-figure as an “unmistakable initiatory motif”, the many colors of the shroud representing the ever-changing world of nature, and in Platonic terms, the perceptible world of becoming, behind which "the real lies hidden.”

West wall of Shrine VI.14. Mellaart's reconstruction.


 There also appears to be a connection with the underworld goddess of Greek myth, Persephone, the queen of the underworld credited with weaving the shrouds of the dead. In antiquity, Persephone also saw depiction with horns, and the goddess’s offspring, Zagreus, possessed the name, the “horned child.” Mellaart drew a tentative reconstruction of the west wall of Shrine VI.14, which depicted an enormous bull’s head with a smaller one atop the brow. Zeus occasionally took the form of a bull in Aegean mythology, and Zagreus, the son of Persephone and Zeus, often appeared as a small horned child.

Coupling of Persephone and Zeus, north and west walls of Shrine VI.10. Mellaart reconstruction.

Clay stamps from Catal VI-II. Mellaart reconstruction.

Another reconstruction by Mellaart appears to depict the mythic coupling of Zeus and Persephone that produced Zagreus. The early phase Shrine VI.10 north and west walls, shows a doorlike frame supporting a goddess, three sets of superimposed bulls’ heads beneath, a much smaller, perhaps horned ram’s head, emerging from between the goddess’s legs. On either side, cavernous niches lie on the walls. Mellaart suspected that the niches, along with limestone cave stalagmite and stalactite concretions in the shrines, placed the shrine’s orientation toward the underworld, “a chthonic cult of the Great Goddess as mistress of the underworld.” Bernard C. Dietrich in his book “The Origins of Greek Religion,” even suggests that many of the cult activities at Catal Huyuk probably originated within cave environments.

The Greek link to Catal Huyuk also can not be underestimated. Stamp seals introduced at Catal VI possess remarkably similar counterparts at the contemporary Greek site of Nea Nikomedeeia in Macedon, called the “European link with Catal Huyuk,” by that Greek site’s excavator.

Advanced Technology in the Ancient World

A peculiar trait of the Catal Huyuk site is its level of unprecedented level of sophisticated technology. In James Mellart's essential book, "Catal Huyuk: A Neolithic town in Anatolia", published in 1967, Mellart asks,

"How, for example, did they polish a mirror of obsidian, a hard volcanic glass, without scratching it and how did they drill holes through stone beads (including obsidian), holes so small that no fine modern steel needle can penetrate. When and where did they learn to smelt copper and lead, metals attested at Catal Huyuk since Level IX, c. 6400bc?"

Pressure-flaked obsidian spearheads are frequently found buried amongst the dead or offered in shrines, labeled by archaeologists, "the most elegant [flint heads] in the Near East." A lump of slag at Level VI also proves that competent miners extracted copper from ore. Tabular flint from Syria, seashells from the Red Sea and Mediterranean, fir from the Taurus mountains, raw copper probably from Ergani across the Euphrates, lead from the Cilician Gates, mineral pigments, obsidian, greenstone, white marble, limestone, and basalt from sources nearer the site are present at Catal Huyuk. The sheer abundance and multitude of objects has given anthropologists and archaeologists reason to believe that Catal Huyuk was more than just a lone town, but a major center of highly organized trade stretching much of the Near East. Some archaeologists have even called Catal Huyuk the Neolithic Rome.

Upper Paleolithic Ancestors

The mystery of Catal Huyuk's Shaman culture has further prompted the belief that the city is actually part of a much greater and older legacy in the Middle East, a shamanistic civilization that originated within the last Ice Age. James Mellart even concluded that the traditions and customs of Catal Huyuk, given the complete maturity and complexity that the culture seemed to exhibit right from the beginning, most likely descended from "an Upper Paleolithic culture, probably Anatolian, of which hardly anything is known." Mellart of course said that during the 1960's, before the discovery of more recent finds now coming to light, including a magnificent set of circular stone temples at Gobekli Tepe, dated to 10,000BC. Coincidentally, Gobekli Tepe's final occupational horizon ends around 7000BC, the same time that Catal Huyuk first arose near Konya not very far away.

Mellart is one of several prehistorians linking the religious symbolism present at Catal Huyuk to that of later Minoan Crete and the earliest forms of Greek religion and myth; although over three thousand years separate the two, Mellart believes that there are enough symbolic parallels to justify a common ancestor. Marija Gimbutas similarly argued in favor of Mellart’s ideas, positing that the Minoan Cretes inherited the traditions of the civilization of Old Europe, the Neolithic Greco-Balkan complex, with which Catal Huyuk played an important part.

Carbon-14 dates show that Knossos, the earliest settlement known on Crete, arose around 6100 BC, a date contemporary with early levels at Catal Huyuk. At base level, evidence of sheep, goat, cattle, and pig, as well as the most "advanced grains of the day", prompts archaeologists studying Knossos to conclude that the founders of Crete arrived by sea with animals and crops already well domesticated. Also, given that the same domesticates occur slightly earlier in western Anatolia, scholars conclude that a departure from west Anatolia to Crete is the most likely course of migration into the Aegean.

If the same unknown “Upper Paleolithic ancestor” even earlier sired the traditions of Catal Huyuk, and later Neolithic Old Europe and Minoan Crete, as Mellart contends, Plato’s vanished Athenians and other prehistoric Greeks mentioned in the philosopher’s Timaeus dialogues might appear to be possible candidates.  See Plato's Atlantic War in the Paleolithic and the page The Children of Athena: Plato's Prehistoric Warriors for more information.

The Tomb of Apollo Smintheus

At level VIII of the site, one shrine contains what appears to be the important burial of a male warrior. Known as the Red Shrine, paintings and bull’s heads adorn the red plastered walls, a raised platform decorated with chevrons and abstract figures marking the grave. A molded porthole in a shaft connected to a larger public room allowed viewing of the Shrine inside by ancestor worshipers, indicating that the person buried in the shrine obviously held some significant reverence among the Catal peoples. Excavators found beneath the painted platform a male seated upright, a polished macehead of white-veined blue limestone and several fine beaded necklaces accompanying the remains.

More perplexing, a whole retinue of many skulls and long bones of the common house mouse also lay among the remains. If the importance of the house mouse already possessed a not all that dissimilar meaning held in ancient times associated with the healing arts, the Red Shrine mice may offer a valuable insight into the talents of the mysterious hero figure in the burial. In ancient times, the Cretans related the mouse to Apollo Smintheus, a pre-Greek epithet derived from the Cretan word for mice. The cult of Apollo Smintheus also enjoyed a special popularity in Anatolia as well. In fact, scholars generally see the homeland of Apollo as being Anatolia, the god’s common name being the Averter of Evil, “Apotropaios” specifically the evil aversion of physical disease. Mary Sattegast believes that the man in the Red Shrine is most likely a valued physician and that one of the heroic or mythic actions of that figure lies remembered on the walls of the shrine at Level VIII.

On the wall, two large black vultures face one another across two central human figures. One of the figures, drawn with a triangular head, swings a black sling and brandishes what may be a club or mace against the attacking birds. The other figure lies in a flexed position, a common burial position of Catal burial bodies, and the lack of a head identifies the person as dead or in an otherworldly mode as per Catal artistic conventions. Mary Sattegast sees the larger heroic figure as defending the body, or soul, of the deceased from the vulture spirits through the regions of the dead, perhaps attempting to return the person to the lands of the living.

Within ancient times, legendary healers attended to the health needs of the human soul just as much as to the ordinary “earthly” ones. Often times, the healer guided the person’s soul safely through the lands of the dead to ensure proper ascendancy into the afterlife. In antiquity, there are many legends that reflect that journey, and typically characterized Shamanic practices. Hercules and Theseus in Greek myth both descended into Hades, and Orpheus, a figure sometimes credited with being a medicine man in Greek myth, also braved the dangers of the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. Mircea Eliade, described the mythic figure of Orpheus as a physician, bard, and civilizing hero, functions which fall unanimously to shamans of prehistoric times.

A Neolithic Egalitarian Commune

The population of the eastern mound of Catal Huyuk is speculated to have been around 10,000 people at its peak, living in mud-brick houses crammed into a honeycomb like maze of structures with no adjoining roads or footpaths. All traffic between the houses and across the settlement was done by roof top, which attests for the fact that all the dwellings contain entrances via roof only with timber carved ladders leading in and out. The entrances simultaneously also served as the primary source of ventilation for the ovens and hearths in each establishment. All walls were plastered to a smooth white-washed finish. In its later periods, communal fireplaces were noted to be shared at rooftop by the settlement at large.

The uniform amenities and comforts of the separate buildings paints Catal Huyuk as a strikingly egalitarian ancient society. Adding to this is the absence of  any rich landowner class; studies of the artifacts reveal a balanced distribution of wealth and influence; it is no surprise equality was experienced by both genders with the absence of a competitive wealth seeking male hierarchy.

However, it is interesting to note, in many archaeological proto historic hunter/gatherer societies moving into land based agriculture communities, a shift in gender ideologies is more often seen, where the fruition of a more matriarchal society, protecting women in tightly defended towns and cities by a hierarchy of men worshiping more female deities, is more evident. Catal Huyuk is different though. Relatively equal amounts of burial artifacts are found amongst both genders' graves, all of which are found underneath the houses, and their individual hearths.

Growth of Urban Centers

This was not always the conclusion about the settlement though. The first team, lead by James Mellaart in the 1960's uncovered a large amount of evidence which seemed to stack the argument in another direction. Consistent in James' documents and notes was a considerably higher number of female figurines and goddess statues over the entire site, while more recent excavations into the present have almost completely focused on only a few buildings and structures.

According to James, the latter more common theory in anthropology of a agrarian female centric society is appropriate to the site. It can be proposed though given that James' earlier digs touched only the surface layers and subsequently mostly latter parts of the town's life, c. 5700 BC, a process of gradual evolution from egalitarian to matriarchal over the 18 layers of habitation could be mutually concluded. On the other hand, the recent digs conducted in the 90's concentrated on mostly one particular area in the settlement, and not the entirety as James Mellaart had done in earlier excavations.



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