Time to fetch the severed head

August 18, 2006

Steven Mithen spots some holes in a theory of Neolithic cultural change.

Çatalhöyük is a Neolithic settlement that flourished between 9,400 and 8,000 years ago, located on what is now the Konya plain of southern Turkey. It was discovered and originally excavated by James Mellaart and is renowned for its dense cluster of mud-brick buildings, many of which have elaborate paintings and sculptures depicting and/or using parts of wild and dangerous animals. It is the most puzzling and most famous Neolithic site in the world. Mellaart finished excavating in 1965; Ian Hodder began in 1993, declaring an intention to dig at Çatalhöyük for at least 25 years. His project has generated a vast amount of literature in the form of articles, books and web-based materials, notably five volumes of technical reports published by the McDonald Institute in Cambridge. The Leopard's Tale provides a digest of that work for both an academic and non-academic readership and Hodder's own particular interpretation of the site.

Hodder is arguably the most influential archaeologist of his generation, one who peered into the abyss of postmodernism and then took a step back as many of his acolytes fell over the edge. He settled for so-called post-processualism and began his Çatalhöyük excavations to put his pronouncements about the proper nature of archaeology into practice. He had not only Mellaart's work to draw on but also the advances of archaeological science and a team of highly dedicated colleagues. And so the discipline has expected great things - as have the many funding bodies and sponsors. This book suggests that Hodder will deliver to all parties.

In 11 chapters, Hodder considers the settlement as a whole, the houses, the art, patterns of exchange, gender roles and demography, addressing issues of materiality, agency and selfhood and making appropriate acknowledgments to colleagues on whose work he draws. The text is an artful blend of theory and data; as we would expect from Thames and Hudson, the book is superbly designed and illustrated.

Hodder explains that his book will tackle some of the puzzles about Çatalhöyük: why would as many as 8,000 people have chosen to live within a single, crowded settlement in an otherwise deserted landscape? Why locate this settlement in an area of flood-prone, insect-infested, low-lying marshy ground distant from productive agricultural land? How could such a settlement have functioned without any evidence of social organisation and planning above that of the household? Why did people cover the walls of their houses with artworks featuring dangerous animals? Why were so many people buried within the houses, making Çatalhöyük a cemetery as much as it is a settlement?

Some of these puzzles may reflect our limited understanding of the site. In spite of a long history of study, only a tiny fraction has been excavated, and there is no mention of a suitably intensive geophysical survey of the mound. Consequently, large communal structures that might be indicative of a hierarchical social structure and town planning may nevertheless exist, as might houses lacking in burials and in artworks. There is little in the book about environmental reconstruction, and one must wonder about the accuracy of the proposed wetland setting of the site, requiring cultivation of fields and the herding of animals some distance away. This seems incompatible with the survey of the surrounding landscape, which has found no evidence for contemporary activity - so either the survey failed to find existing sites, or the reconstruction of Çatalhöyük's immediate environment must be wrong.

Hodder provides a bleak view of the Çatalhöyük people as having lives that required a slavish adherence to repetitive practices in their houses; it was through these that they were socialised and their behaviour sufficiently regulated to allow such large numbers of people to live together in the absence of centralised authority. The only acts of independent mind Hodder allows them are scuffing dirt into a clean floor, daring to move the location of an oven and other seemingly trivial acts.

His new word is "entanglement", which gives us what I call the "Dear 'Liza" theory of culture change. "Dear 'Liza" comes from the children's song, There's a Hole in My Bucket , about needing straw, and then a knife, stone and water just to mend a hole in the bucket - nothing is as easy as one thinks. Buckets may have needed mending at Çatalhöyük; walls definitely needed building, baskets needed weaving, obsidian procuring and so forth.

Each of these led to a web of so-called entanglements not just with different materials but also with the social relations that were necessary to obtain such materials. Hodder elevates the notion of entanglement far beyond an explanation for life and culture at Çatalhöyük: this becomes the predicament for humanity as a whole in the Holocene and supposedly explains the origin of sedentism and farming. For Hodder, these are inevitable outcomes from the tiny and seemingly insignificant acts that led to ever more tangly entanglements, something he calls the "slow march of the mass".

Hodder envisages Çatalhöyük as riddled with tensions. These existed between the self and society, between the spheres of domestic production and the symbolic, and between hiding and revealing, the last being argued to underlie the main discourse of power at the site. Caches of obsidian artefacts were buried below house floors so that when removed they had an aura from having been associated with the world of ancestors and animal spirits. After a feast, the head of an animal may have been kept within a house, to be later revealed when the social relationships established by the feast needed reasserting.

Leopards are prominent in the art but their bones are almost entirely absent from the site - a single perforated claw used as a pendant is all that has been found. Hodder uses the absence of leopard bones as the mystery to introduce his book and then returns to the leopard as a metaphor for life at Çatalhöyük at the start of most chapters: how no two leopards are exactly alike when introducing a chapter on selfhood and individuality, referring to the ambiguity of the leopard as both a dangerous animal and one with strong mother-offspring bonds when starting a chapter on gender roles. Ultimately, however, this book is not the leopard's tale but Hodder's. His writing is often dry, some of his arguments are unclear and there is little to evoke the sights, sounds and smells of daily life at Çatalhöyük. But Hodder wields his tale masterfully to show that he is still the biggest cat in town.

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory, Reading University.

Çatalhöyük: The Leopard's Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Turkey's Ancient 'Town'

Author - Ian Hodder
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 288
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 0 500 05141 0

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