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By Dr. Senta German
Çatalhöyük after the first excavations by James Mellaart and his team (photo: Omar hoftun, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The city of Çatalhöyük points to one of man's most important transformations, from nomad to settled farmer.
Map of Turkey noting the location of Çatalhöyük (underlying map © Google)
Çatalhöyük or Çatal Höyük (pronounced "cha-tal hay OOK") is not the oldest site of the Neolithic era or the largest, but it is extremely important to the beginning of art. Located near the modern city of Konya in south central Turkey, it was inhabited 9000 years ago by up to 8000 people who lived together in a large town. Çatalhöyük, across its history, witnesses the transition from exclusively hunting and gathering subsistence to increasing skill in plant and animal domestication. We might see Çatalhöyük as a site whose history is about one of man’s most important transformations: from nomad to settler. It is also a site at which we see art, both painting and sculpture, appear to play a newly important role in the lives of settled people.
South Excavation Area, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Çatalhöyük had no streets or foot paths; the houses were built right up against each other and the people who lived in them traveled over the town’s rooftops and entered their homes through holes in the roofs, climbing down a ladder. Communal ovens were built above the homes of Çatalhöyük and we can assume group activities were performed in this elevated space as well.
From left: A hearth, oven, and ladder cut in Building 56, South Area, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Like at Jericho, the deceased were placed under the floors or platforms in houses and sometimes the skulls were removed and plastered to resemble live faces. The burials at Çatalhöyük show no significant variations, either based on wealth or gender; the only bodies which were treated differently, decorated with beads and covered with ochre, were those of children. The excavator of Çatalhöyük believes that this special concern for youths at the site may be a reflection of the society becoming more sedentary and required larger numbers of children because of increased labor, exchange, and inheritance needs.
Neolithic Wall Painting in Building 80, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Art is everywhere among the remains of Çatalhöyük—geometric designs as well as representations of animals and people. Repeated lozenges and zigzags dance across smooth plaster walls, people are sculpted in clay, pairs of leopards are formed in relief facing one another at the sides of rooms, hunting parties are painted baiting a wild bull. The volume and variety of art at Çatalhöyük is immense and must be understood as a vital, functional part of the everyday lives of its ancient inhabitants.
Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük (head is a restoration) (The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, Turkey; photo: Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Many figurines have been found at the site, the most famous of which illustrates a large woman seated on or between two large felines. The figurines, which illustrate both humans and animals, are made from a variety of materials but the largest proportion are quite small and made of barely fired clay. These casual figurines are found most frequently in garbage pits, but also in oven walls, house walls, floors and left in abandoned structures. The figurines often show evidence of having been poked, scratched or broken, and it is generally believed that they functioned as wish tokens or to ward off bad spirits.
Nearly every house excavated at Çatalhöyük was found to contain decorations on its walls and platforms, most often in the main room of the house. Moreover, this work was constantly being renewed; the plaster of the main room of a house seems to have been redone as frequently as every month or season. Both geometric and figural images were popular in two-dimensional wall painting and the excavator of the site believes that geometric wall painting was particularly associated with adjacent buried youths.
Hunters attack an aurochs, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Figural paintings show the animal world alone, such as, for instance, two cranes facing each other standing behind a fox, or in interaction with people, such as a vulture pecking at a human corpse or hunting scenes. Wall reliefs are found at Çatalhöyük with some frequency, most often representing animals, such as pairs of animals facing each other and human-like creatures. These latter reliefs, alternatively thought to be bears, goddesses or regular humans, are always represented splayed, with their heads, hands and feet removed, presumably at the time the house was abandoned.
Bull bucrania, corner installation in Building 77, Çatalhöyük (photo: Çatalhöyük, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The most remarkable art found at Çatalhöyük, however, are the installations of animal remains and among these the most striking are the bull bucrania. In many houses the main room was decorated with several plastered skulls of bulls set into the walls (most common on East or West walls) or platforms, the pointed horns thrust out into the communal space. Often the bucrania would be painted ochre red. In addition to these, the remains of other animals’ skulls, teeth, beaks, tusks, or horns were set into the walls and platforms, plastered and painted. It would appear that the ancient residents of Çatalhöyük were only interested in taking the pointy parts of the animals back to their homes!
How can we possibly understand this practice of interior decoration with the remains of animals? A clue might be in the types of creatures found and represented. Most of the animals represented in the art of Çatalhöyük were not domesticated; wild animals dominate the art at the site. Interestingly, examination of bone refuse shows that the majority of the meat which was consumed was of wild animals, especially bulls. The excavator believes this selection in art and cuisine had to do with the contemporary era of increased domestication of animals and what is being celebrated are the animals which are part of the memory of the recent cultural past, when hunting was much more important for survival.
Essay by Dr. Senta German

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  • leaf green style avatar for user Christian Lumley
    Was the culture represented at Çatal Höyük limited only to this one city or did it span a larger area at one time? In other words, is Çatal Höyük unique, or are there other ancient towns that shared the same culture and traditions?
    (7 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user bravodona
    Is it possible that the use of animal parts was a way of honoring the animal or call it to the hunter?
    (4 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user Liz Melville
    Any chance that some of the animal iconography had to do with deities? I know that Göbekli Tepe is not right next door to this site, but some of the animals stand out to me--vultures in particular. I watched a series on Neolithic Europe years ago that talked of excarnation sites. Is it possible that the vulture was part of their belief system, as helping in sanctifying the dead? I have always wondered as well, whether Çatalhöyük, in particular entrance from the tops of the buildings, meant that the buildings were not steadily occupied, and were for particular purpose "going to the underworld," as a place to deposit loved ones, and ask for favor with agricultural deities, make sacrifices on the roofs, etc. The buildings with their art just strike me as being more for cult/religious purpose and honoring the dead, as opposed to every day habitation. Any thoughts?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Gloria Blanchard
    Anyone theorize or know what the bucrania pictured above was used for? a bed dresser, storage space, sofa platform?
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user M Rodríguez
    The article says that Çatal Höyük is neither the oldest nor the largest Neolithic site, and that it is very important since art began there; but does that mean that there are no other cities or sites that shared these paintings and activities at the time? or that others just later "copied" what happened at Çatal Höyük? like this started in this isolated city and then spread?
    (0 votes)
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    • leaf red style avatar for user Katrina
      Not every settlement is preserved enough for us to study them in such detail. As far as I understand, there aren't a lot of cities that we've found that share Çatal Höyük's choices in decoration in that time period - but that doesn't mean they didn't exist.
      (4 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user imogen kone
    in the picture of the seated woman, are the two cats armrests to a throne or chair? could this statue be that of a deity or a member of royalty?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user dlylespretty14
    How long did it take them to build all of that [it must have] take[n] time to create something that big?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user anakinvader
    The article mentions several species of wild animals represented artistically at the site, including leopards, bulls cranes foxes, vultures, and bears. The modern site is surrounded by farmland and few trees, but this would not have been the case back then as the inhabitants were only just starting to domesticate plants and animals, as the article says. Does anyone know what the environment surrounding Çatalhöyük was at the time it was originally settled; that is, was it located in a forest or jungle, or near grasslands? I'm curious about the mix of animals the site was exposed to at that time.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user kathleenmbeech
    I find the comment " How can we possibly understand this practice of interior decoration with the remains of animals?" interesting. I have seem many homes decorated with the remains of animals and mostly the ones with pointy parts too. I have seen Deer and Boar heads as well as smaller mammals and bear. All with the pointy parts prominently displayed. I have never really understood the practice though I am sure someone does. It could be evidence of prowess or facing one fears or remembering bravery?
    (1 vote)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Alec Carpenter
    I would like to learn more about these animal remains used as interior decoration, may you please post more about this?
    (1 vote)
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