Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I had gone down the art history and archaeology path; digging up ancient figurines in Middle Eastern dust, sketching and writing about my findings while wearing a wide-brimmed hat. I have always had a keen interest in history— from our Paleolithic ancestors to the New England whaling industry of the 1800s. Turkey is built upon so many layers of history, that I feel lucky to be living in a place where I can explore Neolithic settlements, Greek temples, Roman temples, Byzantine basilicas, Seljuk tombs, and so on. The depth of time can overwhelm, and I find myself getting lost in circles of thought, wondering about peoples who lived and loved and fought and died.
Knowing that the Çatalhöyük archaeological site was so close to Konya, we made a special detour on our way to Akseki to see what there was to see. I had heard that the site was not much to look at, but I couldn't resist and had to find out for myself. The sun was mean, and as we pulled into the graveled parking lot, I felt the back of my skirt stick to my legs with sweat when I shifted in my seat.
We were met by a friendly face who introduced himself as Tunç. Tunç was volunteering at the site as a guide, offering his knowledge of the excavations and the region's history to curious visitors. He led us up the dry hill to the first dig site, which was buzzing with activity. Archaeologists and their students from Turkey, the US, Spain, Italy, and Poland were busy scraping, brushing, and measuring in the yellowed dirt. Ancient walls formed the remnants of homes made of mud brick, which were then plastered smooth— in some places it was possible to see the intricate designs that had been painted on the plaster in red ochre.
Çatalhöyük is the oldest human settlement of this size found so far— at its height, there were an estimated 8000 people living here. There appears to have been no system of government, and no organised religion, according to Tunç. People buried their loved ones beneath the ground of their homes, in small graves like the ones pictured above— you can see a skeleton in a fetal position being excavated in the upper grave. When there was no more room beneath the floor, or when a house needed to be renewed, it was demolished, and a replica was built directly on top of the site of the old house. This created a layered effect, and made the mound that is visible today.
Though the heat had begun to soak through my shirt as well, there was some shade available from the shelter built above the excavations, and we couldn't resist taking the opportunity to sit on a ledge and sketch the scene below. The archaeologists were very welcoming, and I met two fellow Californians amongst the teams whose enthusiasm reminded me of my old home, which felt like it had existed in a dream. Soon, they trickled out of their work spaces for a lunch break, and though we encouraged Tunç to join them, he decided to sit patiently with us. After a delightful conversation about the cinematic disaster that is known as the "Turkish Star Wars", we were joined by another curious visitor:
On a tangent, some of the voluptuous female figurines I showed you in the Ankara museum came from Çatalhöyük, and though I had referred to them earlier as goddesses, Tunç was adamant that the teams believe the ladies were talismans for protection and fertility, and not necessarily goddesses. He then told us about a group of contemporary Mother Goddess worshippers who visited the site some years ago to carry out a series of rituals. Though they were granted permission to do so, no one expected the nudity and dirt-eating that followed— and the reaction from the nearby villagers was nothing short of outrage!
When you scan the land near Çatalhöyük, several more mounds are visible which almost certainly contain a significant piece of our collective history. In fact, Pedro and I have begun to notice that throughout the Anatolian portion of Upper Mesopotamia, there are so many suspicious mounds that happen to be located near a water source and village, that we've made a game of spotting them. Can you imagine what else might be hiding under the earth?