Women and Men at Çatalhöyük [Preview]

The largest known Neolithic settlement yields clues about the roles played by the two sexes in early agricultural societies

Nine thousand years ago on the plains of central Turkey, a group of Neolithic people settled at the edge of a river. The town they built there--now known as Çatalhöyük ("chah-tahl-HU-yook")--grew to about 8,000 people and 2,000 houses. Crammed within 26 acres, roughly the size of 24 football fields, the later town contained no streets; people had to move about on the roofs. When they entered the houses down a stairway from the roof, they descended into a domestic space that was full of painting and sculpture--primarily depicting bulls, deer, leopards, vultures and human figures.

These late Stone Age settlers had finely polished stone tools, and they had domesticated cereals and sheep. In addition, they hunted wild cattle, pigs and horses and made use of many wild plants. The site is not the earliest agricultural settlement, but its large size at an early date and its elaborate art mean that it has always played a part in discussions about early farmers and their way of life.

One of the questions in which Çatalhöyük was immediately embroiled was the role of women in early agricultural societies. A long tradition in European thought holds that most of these societies were matriarchies (women were the leaders, descent was through the female line, and inheritance passed from mother to daughters) and that they worshipped a powerful mother goddess. The idea of an agricultural phase in which the goddess was a potent symbol became a central tenet of the New Age goddess movements in the last decades of the 20th century, and many goddess tours have visited atalhyk to pray, to hold circle dances and to feel the sway of the goddess.

Was Çatalhöyük the bastion of female power it has been thought to be? The resumption of excavations at the site in the 1990s, after a gap of a quarter of a century, has turned up fresh evidence of the relative power of the sexes at this place in central Turkey 9,000 years ago, and we can begin to answer this question--and to paint a picture of what it was like to be a woman or a man at atalhyk.

The Mother Goddess
RESEARCH ON EARLIER and later agricultural sites provided some context for thinking about this question--and warned against expecting clear-cut answers. Before the 18th century, scholars in Europe had believed, based on Aristotle and interpretations of the Bible, that the political development of society began with patriarchy. During the 18th century, however, reports from North America told of societies that traced heritage through the female line, and in the early 19th century a Swiss jurist named Johann Bachofen argued that a phase of womens social power had preceded the patriarchal family. These ideas influenced many scholars in the second half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, including Sigmund Freud and archaeologists such as V. Gordon Childe and Jacques Cauvin.

The first excavator at Çatalhöyük was James Mellaart of the University of London, who, with his wife, Arlette, worked at the site from 1961 to 1965. He was steeped in the scholarship of the European tradition, so it is not surprising that when he discovered opulent female imagery, such as the figurine at the left, he presumed that it represented the mother goddess. The powerful naked woman sitting on a seat of felines (probably leopards), with her hands resting on their heads, seems to conjure up precisely the tamer of nature.

Mellaarts publications about the site, complete with images of potent women, reached a wide audience, but it was another archaeologist who most effectively took up the mother goddess view of Çatalhöyük. Marija Gimbutas of the University of California at Los Angeles in a number of publications, including her 1974 book Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, argued forcefully for an early phase of matriarchal society, evident at Çatalhöyük but also found across Europe with the advance of agriculture. Patriarchal societies came later, she contended, in conjunction with metallurgy, horse riding and warring.

This article was originally published with the title "Women and Men at atalhyk."

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