Conjectural image of daily life in Catal Huyuk
Does a Long-Lost Turkish Metropolis Qualify for the Oldest-City Award?
BY PETER KING
Thanks to modern techniques of accurate dating, the list of candidates for ‘First City’ on earth, at least as far as conventional archaeology is concerned, has thinned considerably in recent years. At various times in history, though, several cities have pressed claims for the distinction.
For some decades Ur of the Chaldees, the powerful capital of Sumer, which included a large part of ancient Mesopotamia, was at the top of the list. Under the direction of archaeologist Leonard Woolley, excavation during the period between the two World Wars culminated in the finding of 16 royal tombs. In these were gold artifacts, copper daggers, lapis lazuli jewelry, chariots and oxen and the bodies of dozens of courtiers who had committed suicide so as to accompany their royal masters into the next world, many of them holding musical instruments.
Jerusalem had a big advantage with its claim to the title—frequent mentions in the Bible, the Torah and the Egyptian Execration Texts (written in 1900 B.C.). The earliest traces of human settlement in Jerusalem are from the Early Bronze Age, about 3,000 B.C. Excavations south of the Temple Mount have revealed a human settlement, and near the Goon Spring, the foundations of a great stone wall have been uncovered. The Old Testament refers to Melchizedek as ‘King of Jerusalem’ and tells of his meetings with Abraham, the Hebrew prophet. According to the Bible, control of the city passed through various tribes and coalitions until a relative stability was reached when David, who had united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, established Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish kingdom. He was succeeded by King Solomon who enlarged the city and built his temple.
A period of intense archaeological activity at the early part of the twentieth century brought a further contender for the coveted title of ‘the oldest city in the world.’ This was Damascus in Syria where excavations on the outskirts indicated that it had been inhabited as early as 8,000 B.C. although it was probably not ‘a city’ in those days but rather a number of unconnected groups of dwellings.
An expedition excavating south of Damascus in 1950 proved that an urban center existed in the 4th century B.C., just southeast of the city we know today. Archaeological attempts continue to determine more closely when, during the period from 8,000 B.C. to 400 B.C., the first ‘city’ arose.
Pottery has been turned up pre-dating the latter date, and also found were the remains of a highly advanced irrigation system which had been improved and extended by successive rulers throughout the ensuing centuries. Damascus first came under Western control when the armies of Alexander the Great captured it in 323 B.C.. The history of the city from that time on became a list of foreign conquerors. From the Persians, it passed to the Mamelukes, the Mongols, to the Greeks and then the Romans. The city was taken by Muslim soldiers in A.D. 635 and has remained in Muslim custody ever since.
In 1961, another British archaeologist, James Mellaart, began digging at a site containing large mounds on a plateau in Central Anatolia in what today is Turkey. It was not an impressive sight, a pitted, gullied area amid a rolling plain of wheatfields. But Mellaart was confident that the mounds concealed settlements abandoned even before the beginning of the Bronze Age, and his confidence was soon justified. A settlement dated at 5400 B.C. was discovered—and the work continued at an increased pace, the archaeologists electrified by the uncovering of a time that pre-dated any discovery yet made. To their amazement, still another settlement beneath it was unearthed, dating from an even earlier period.
Further excavation revealed yet another city beneath that and the extraordinary series of discoveries continued until no less than thirteen levels, each representing an earlier city, were exposed! The earliest of these dated back to 6800 B.C.
James Mellaart continued his work for four years, until 1965. Legal problems intervened then, concerning his publication of drawings of Bronze Age artifacts which later disappeared—the now infamous ‘Dorak Affair.’ The site lay idle until September in 1993 when digging re-commenced under the leadership of Ian Hodder and a team from the University of Cambridge.
Hodder’s team undertook a completely different and more thorough approach. Whereas Mellaart had excavated two hundred buildings in four seasons, Hodder spent an entire season unearthing only one building. Today, barely one acre out of a 32-acre site has been excavated.
Nevertheless, even though new research from India may cast doubt on the proposition, most conventional archaeologists are currently convinced that the spot is in fact the mother city of civilized life on earth, the ancestress of all cities and the center of the first great prehistoric civilization. The amount of knowledge gathered from the two periods of excavation has been enormous and it seems to give us a glimpse of just what life was like at the dawn of modern mankind’s sojourn on earth, long before recorded history— as far back as nine thousand years ago.
The inhabitants of earth’s first city were apparently aware of their precarious location. A landscape painting on the wall of a shrine in Catal Huyuk shows that they knew of the twin volcanoes less than a hundred miles away from their city. The painting depicts smoke rising. At least they were able to take advantage of previous eruptions as indicated by the many ax heads, knife blades, scrapers and other tools and weapons made from obsidian, the volcanic glass spewed out by volcanic action, which were found at the site.
This complex settlement seems to have had a population of close to 10,000 at its peak. This figure must have varied but was in all likelihood never less than 5,000 throughout most of the duration of Catal Huyuk’s period of activity which had a number of intriguing variations.
The top layers of the mound, that is, those containing the most recent buildings, are dated to 5,600 B.C.. The city was mysteriously and suddenly abandoned at about this time and a new city, designated Catal Huyuk West was founded several miles away across the Carsamba Cay River. The most likely reason for the desertion would seem to have been volcanic eruption from Hasan Dag, the nearby twin-coned volcano, but the argument has been raised that in this case, the new city would surely have been located further away.
Catal Huyuk West was apparently occupied for about 700 years, then it too, was abandoned, again for no obvious reason. About 4,900 B.C., the entire region was deserted, again without explanation. The oldest layer has been dated to before 6,500 B.C. and it is thought that the site was occupied for several hundred years at the least before that and possibly even several millennia. Consequently, the full duration of Catal Huyuk’s existence can be said to stretch approximately from 7,000 B.C. to 4,900 B.C.
The denizens of Catal Huyuk lived in houses built of mud-brick and although huddled together, there were no streets. The houses were accessed through holes in the ceilings and ladders to the floor. The holes served for ventilation and the expulsion of cooking fumes. A main room was used for cooking and daily activities, though in good weather the roofs were used for many activities including community relations. Raised platforms were built along the walls of the rooms for sleeping, sitting and working. All these surfaces were plastered smooth and timbered beams reinforced the roof. Many niches were built into the walls which were plastered and whitened with gesso and frequently decorated with paintings. A separate storage room adjoined.
Although the houses were crowded together to form the entire ‘city,’ they were built into groups separated by small spaces and strung around a central, larger area that served as a meeting place. No defensive walls have been excavated, so that there must have been no fear of attack by more aggressive tribes, although the exterior houses had a thicker wall on the outside, perhaps for insulation against temperature extremes.
The people of Catal Huyuk were skilled in agriculture, and the domestication of animals and their skills increased through the centuries. Their nutritional needs were supplied by barley and wheat as well as ‘triticum,’ a hardy variety of wheat common in the Near East, while the growing of peas, almonds, pistachios and fruit as well as the raising of sheep and cattle were all pursued. Hunting for food was another major activity.
Very little trash was found by the archaeologists, which was taken to mean that the rooms were kept surprisingly clean. Rubbish heaps were located some distance away from the houses. In addition to the dwellings, larger buildings that served as sanctuaries have been identified. This conclusion was reached by studying decorations on the walls, many in relief. A great number are modeled in plaster and show bulls’ heads. Many contain the horns of actual aurochs, the ancestor of the bull, and seem clearly related to the animal that formed the basis of the cult on the island of Crete in the Bronze Age.
In Catal Huyuk, the people buried their dead inside the city. Human remains have been found in pits under the floors of houses. The bodies were wrapped in mats made of reeds or laying in baskets. In some graves, the bones were not all connected and it is supposed that the bodies were exposed in the open air for some time after death before the bones were collected for burial. In a procedure depicted on wall paintings the bodies had been de-fleshed by vultures. Occasional decapitated bodies have been turned up and the corresponding heads have been found in other parts of the city where they may have been used in a religious ritual. In some instances, skulls covered over with plaster have had faces painted on them in ochre to resemble human faces—a practice common in other Neolithic sites found in Syria and Palestine.
It seems that there were no social classes in Catul Huyuk. Men and women apparently had equal status and contributed equally. No dwellings have been found to date that would suggest they had belonged to priests or lords or kings.
Excavations in 2004 and 2005 revealed a surprising number of female figurines and this has been interpreted by some as suggesting that Catal Huyuk was the source of the Great Mother Goddess religion—the universal faith of Europe, the Near East and the Far East. The concepts of fertility and fecundity are prominent in Neolithic cults where life was precious despite being cheap and short. Female figurines far outnumber those of males and are carefully shaped and well formed. Several of the locations where these have been excavated are believed by James Mellaart to have been used as shrines. One interesting exception was a small statue of a Mother Goddess flanked by two lions and, as this was found in a grain bin, the theory is that she was intended to be a protector of the vital food supply. Of course artifacts indicating the worship of a mother goddess and probably predating Catul Huyuk have been found throughout Europe.
The Catul Huyuk figurines were carved from a variety of materials including marble, alabaster, limestone, schist, clay, basalt and calcite. Obsidian tools were employed—the production of which was a specialty of the artisans of Catal Huyuk and which they traded widely.
Catal Huyuk appears to have been not only the first city but the hub of a network of smaller cities, all combined in a trading union that extended over hundreds of miles. At various times of the year, the walls of Catal Huyuk were painted in bright colors, tents and stock yards were erected, craft shops exhibited their wares, entertainers danced, juggled, offered magic acts and tricks of legerdemain. Traders came to obtain the prized obsidian and in turn offered seashells from the Mediterranean and flint from Syria. Marriage exchanges did a brisk business, and religious services and rituals were held.
Catal Huyuk was a bustling place on these occasions and was, some believe, the largest concentration of humans on planet Earth. No World Fair could have been as well supported.
So until further exploration reveals another candidate, perhaps in India, Catal Huyuk will be regarded by orthodox archaeology as the first city on earth; and while obvious differences exist, the people and practices of Catal Huyuk, nine thousand years ago, appear to be not that different from our own.