Thursday, 9 January 2014

Çatalhöyük mural might depict volcanic eruption, 6600 BC

A Neolithic-era mural may depict a prehistoric eruption of Mt Hasan in Anatolia, Turkey

Çatalhöyük is a large Neolithic settlement located on the Konya Plain in Central Anatolia. Occupied from 7400 to 6000 BC, the site was 13.5 ha (33 acres) in extent, with a population thought to have ranged from 3,000 to 8,000 – about the size of a typical English market town.

The site first came to the attention of British archaeologist James Mellaart in 1952, but he was unable to investigate further until 1958. Even then his work at another site did not permit him to commence excavations until 1961. Mellaart worked at the site until 1965, and discovered spectacular painted walls, burials and figurines. He believed that Çatalhöyük had been a cult centre of a great mother goddess, a forerunner of the Anatolian earth mother goddess Cybele, who was prominent in Classical times. Despite the global attention attracted by Mellaart’s findings, no further excavations were carried out until 1993. In that year, a team lead by his former student Ian Hodder commenced a program of excavation, site conservation, and research that will continue for many years to come.

Çatalhöyük completely lacked public buildings and despite its size, there were no streets or approaches at ground level. Instead, the rectangular houses directly abutted one another honeycomb style, and were accessed via a trapdoor in the roof. The only way of getting about was to walk over the flat roofs of neighbouring houses. Ladders were used to get in and out of the houses, and the settlement itself.

Çatalhöyük society was probably fairly egalitarian: there was no chieftain or headman, and decisions were made by a group of elders. The size of the settlement would have necessitated community decisions about drainage, water supply, waste disposal and so on. A degree of collective organisation must also have been involved in such matters as hunting and allocation of land for farming and herding.

The interior walls of the houses were richly decorated with paintings and moulded reliefs, mainly of wild animals including leopards, bulls, deer, goats and vultures. Reliefs of leopards frequently feature a pair of animals standing head to head. Some paintings depict human figures, including one apparently wearing a leopard skin; others depict hunting scenes. In many houses, the skulls and horns of bulls and other animals were plastered and set into the walls or placed on pillars. In 1962, Mellaart discovered a mural which he subsequently described as the world’s oldest map. Approximately 3 metres (9 ft. 10 in) wide, the mural was painted on the northern and eastern walls of a room described as Shrine 14. It was later removed from the excavation site and is currently on display at the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara. It dates to between 6790 and 6430 BC.

The lower register of the mural contains around 80 square patterns tightly arranged like cells in a honeycomb, which has been interpreted as a bird’s eye view of the settlement. The upper register depicts an object that its discoverers identified as a portrayal of a twin-peaked mountain. It closely resembles the now-dormant volcano Mt Hasan, located 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Çatalhöyük. The ‘map’ interpretation of the mural proposes that eruptions of Mt Hasan might have been of significance to the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük because they collected obsidian from its vicinity (although not from the volcano itself). Another possibility is that they witnessed a violent eruption and that the volcano subsequently became associated with a religious cult.

A problem for this view has been a lack of any independent evidence that Mt Hasan was active during the period that Çatalhöyük was occupied. An alternative interpretation of the mural is that it is a representation of a leopard skin. The leopard appears to have been important to the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük, and as noted above, is a prominent motif in their artwork.

In 2013, a team of geologists led by Axel Schmitt from UCLA collected and dated samples from the summit and flanks of Mt Hasan using (U-Th)/He zircon geochronology, a radiometric dating technique widely used for dating volcanic material. They established that the volcano erupted at some time between 7600 and 6320 BC – corresponding fairly closely to the time that Çatalhöyük was occupied, and strengthening the case that this is what the mural depicts.

The team also concluded that Mt Hasan is not extinct, and that future eruptions are possible.


1. Hodder, I., Çatalhöyük the Leopard's Tale (Thames & Hudson, London, 2006).

2. Schmitt, A. et al., Identifying the Volcanic Eruption Depicted in a Neolithic Painting at Çatalhöyük, Central Anatolia, Turkey. PLoS One 9 (1), e84711 (2014).

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