History of Catal Hoyuk

Catal Hoyuk, which means “fork mound” in Turkish, is an ancient human settlement located in southern Anatolia. The settlement was founded in Neolithic times, around 7500 BCE, and inhabited into the Copper Age. First excavated in the 1950’s, it’s become famous for its sheer complexity and many extravagant artifacts.

Because of the fact that Catal Hoyuk was continuously inhabited over the course of millennia, archeologists have found eighteen identifiable “layers”. These layers exist because when a house became dilapidated, the inhabitants of Catal Hoyuk would simply build another upon its ruins; so, the older the layer, the further down in the ground it is. These layers give rise to the “mound” aspect of the site.

Houses in Catal Hoyuk were very unique given the time period when they were built. The homes were all squeezed together, with no spaces in between. The only doors to the outside were in the ceilings; these doors also served for ventilation purposes. People in Catal Hoyuk travelled from one house to another on the rooftops and it’s been suggested that the roofs also served as an open-air plaza.

Each house had walls that were plastered on the inside; the houses were varyingly decorated inside and out with wall paintings. Archeologists noted that the houses were extremely clean; all waste (both sewage and food) was left outside of the city.

Another unique aspect of the houses was the similarity between them. They were all built in the same uniform fashion. Furthermore, no royal palaces or temples have been identified, which suggests that the people of Catal Hoyuk had no rigid system of social hierarchy.

The lack of palaces or temples has given rise to wonder whether or not they had a social hierarchy at all. However, clues do exist in burials and religious figurines.

Burials were usually given in the houses, particularly underneath the hearths and the beds. The bodies were prepared for burial by wrapping them up in reed mats. Some bodies have been found headless upon excavation. The current excavator, Ian Hodder, related to the Turkish Daily News that the separation of the head from the body was reserved for those inhabitants of high social rank. It’s been further asserted by theorists that the heads were probably even used for rituals.

Even though no temples have been found in Catal Hoyuk, religion was obviously important to the people who lived there. Many figurines of deities have been found illustrating the importance of religion in daily life. One female goddess figurine was found in a bin containing grains and cereals, suggesting that it was believed she would protect them from disease or pests.

It’s been suggested that Catal Hoyuk was home to a matriarchal society. It was believed at one point that the people there worshiped a variant of the Great Goddess or the Mother Goddess, due to the fact that most figurines found in the settlement were of females and not males. However, Hodder denies the matriarchal theory and asserts that the people there did not value women above men, maintaining that both sexes were on equal footing.

Evidence suggests that the people of Catal Hoyuk may have had contact with other cultures. The decapitated heads of the noble dead were often painted to resemble human faces. This is something that was common in other, more far away Neolithic sites in Syria. Also, Mediterranean seashells have been found; this suggests that they may have traded their obsidian works with another culture to acquire them.

Excavations are still underway in Catal Hoyuk. Even after fifty years, it seems archeologists have only just scratched the surface of this wonderfully intriguing and unique culture.