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Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Source: Omar hoftun/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Unmatched 9,500-Year-Old Honeycomb City of Çatalhöyük

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Overlooking the Konya Plain in Turkey lies the remarkable and unique ancient city of Çatalhöyük, the largest and best-preserved Neolithic site found to date. At a time when most of the world's people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, Çatalhöyük was a bustling town of as many as 10,000 people. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is known as one of the best sites for understanding human prehistory.

Layers of History at Çatalhöyük

"The neolithic civilization revealed at Çatalhöyük shines like a supernova among the rather dim galaxy of contemporary peasant cultures," said James Mellaart, excavator of Çatalhöyük and once premier authority on the ancient Near East.

Ruins of Çatalhöyük. (Murat Özsoy 1958/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ruins of Çatalhöyük. (Murat Özsoy 1958/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Forming a large hill atop the Southern Anatolian Plateau, the site is like a massive labyrinth of mud-brick houses, often described as a ‘honeycomb city’, made up of 18 successive layers of building representing distinct stages of the city and reflecting different eras of its history. The bottom layer is as early as 7,500 BC while the top layer dates to 5,600 BC, a point in time in which the city was mysteriously abandoned and moved several miles away across the Carsamba Cay River to Çatalhöyük West, which appears to have been occupied for another 700 years until it too, was abandoned.

Çatalhöyük, which means 'forked mound' and refers to the site's east and west mounds, features a unique and peculiar streetless settlement of houses clustered together in a honeycomb-like maze with most accessed by holes in the ceiling, which also served as the only source of ventilation into the house.

View of the top of the honeycomb-like maze with holes on the ceilings. (Verity Cridland/CC BY 2.0)

View of the top of the honeycomb-like maze with holes on the ceilings. (Verity Cridland/CC BY 2.0)

The rooftops were effectively streets and may have formed plazas where many daily activities may have taken place. The homes had plaster interiors and each main room served for cooking and daily activities. Ancillary rooms were used as storage and were accessed through low openings from main rooms. Over time, houses were renewed by partial demolition and rebuilding on a foundation of rubble, which was how the mound was gradually built up. According to UNESCO: “The stratigraphy of up to 18 settlement layers provides an exceptional testimony to the gradual development, re-shaping and expansion of the settlement.”

Bucrania or bull's horn decorations were installed in some of the houses of the city of Ҫatalhöyük, in central Turkey, inhabited between 7400 and 5600 BC. (Verity Cridland/CC BY 2.0)

An Absence of Public Buildings

There are many intriguing conundrums associated with Çatalhöyük, notably: how was the sizable city organized? To date, there is not a shred of evidence for public buildings or a central authority, with the entire excavation site made up of domestic dwellings. While some of the larger dwellings have rather ornate murals, these rooms' purpose remains unclear. It is possible that they served as shrines or public meeting areas. Was the city surrounded by tent bazaars or temporary market stalls?

On-site restoration of the interior of a typical room. (Elelicht/CC BY-SA 3.0)

On-site restoration of the interior of a typical room. (Elelicht/CC BY-SA 3.0)

House or Tomb?

Perhaps one of the most bizarre features of the houses is the fact that many of them contained bodies buried in pits under the floor and beneath hearths and platforms. Skeletons were buried in a fetal position, many under raised platforms, which the archaeologists believe were covered with reed mats and used as beds.

Disarticulated bones in some graves suggest that bodies may have been exposed in the open air for a time before the bones were gathered and buried. In some cases, graves were disturbed, and the individual’s head removed from the skeleton. These heads may have been used in rituals, as some were found in other areas of the community. Some skulls were plastered and painted with ochre to recreate faces, a custom more characteristic of Neolithic sites in Syria and at Neolithic Jericho than at sites closer by.

Skulls painted with red ochre and other dyes or paints unearthed at Çatalhöyük burials. (Jason Quinlan / Catalhoyuk Research Project)

Artistic Treasures of Çatalhöyük: Murals and Sculptures

Colorful murals and sculptures adorn both the inside and outside walls of the settlement. Noteworthy are the clay figurines, particularly the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, discovered in the upper layers of the site. The seated goddess flanked by two felines, leopards or lionesses was found inside a container used to store grain, which suggested to archaeologists that it was a deity who would ensure the harvest or protect the stored provisions.  While no specific temples have been uncovered, the presence of graves, murals, and figurines hints at a symbolically rich religious belief system among the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük.

Another strange feature of this unique city is the presence of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of baseball sized clay balls. They are made of fired clay and appear to have been formed by hand because some of them have got big fingerprints and nail prints in them.  They were found within houses and scattered throughout the mound. The purpose of the balls is still unclear with some archaeologists suggesting they had something to do with cooking, because they were found with ash deposits, and others proposing that they were used as weapons.  However, some of the balls have strange markings in them which has led some experts to believe that they were used for counting or as some part of some kind of bartering system.

Seated goddess flanked by two felines, leopards or lionesses found at the site.  (Nevit Dilmen/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Seated goddess flanked by two felines, leopards or lionesses found at the site.  (Nevit Dilmen/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Most Significant Human Settlement Documenting Neolithic Life

UNESCO has stated that the site is exceptional for its substantial size and great longevity of the settlement: “its distinctive layout of back-to-back houses with roof access, the presence of a large assemblage of features including wall paintings and reliefs representing the symbolic world of the inhabitants.

Based on the extensively documented research at the site, the above features make it the most significant human settlement documenting early settled agricultural life of a Neolithic community.”

The wall paintings, reliefs, sculptures and other symbolic and artistic features, along with the remarkable layout of the city, testify to the evolution of social organization and cultural practices as humans adapted to a more settled life.

Top image: Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Source: Omar hoftun/CC BY-SA 3.0

By Joanna Gillan

References

UNESCO World Heritage Convention. ‘Neolithic Site of Çatalhöyük’. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1405

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Çatalhöyük (Central Anatolia, Turkey) is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Near East, with an occupation that dates to 9000 years ago.

The houses of Çatalhöyük, which are clustered in a honeycomb-like maze, were so tightly packed together that there were few or no streets. Access to interior spaces was across roofs—which were made of wood and reeds plastered with mud.

Scientists studying the ancient ruins of Çatalhöyük, in modern Turkey, found that its inhabitants – 3,500 to 8,000 people at its peak – experienced overcrowding, infectious diseases, violence and environmental problems.

Joanna Gillan's picture

Joanna

Joanna Gillan is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. 

Joanna completed a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) degree in Australia and published research in the field of Educational Psychology. She has a rich and varied career, ranging from teaching... Read More

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