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.
More recently, cultural anthropologists--who compare and analyze societies--have withdrawn from making such sweeping generalizations, because human groups living today or in the recent past offer a diverse picture of the roles of the two sexes. Furthermore, cultural anthropology provides no substantiated claims for true matriarchies. The record does show, however, that in most recent and contemporary societies women have some form of authority or that women at certain stages in their lives, or in certain contexts, have power. Rather than talking simplistically about matriarchies and patriarchies, we should expect, according to the ethnographic evidence, a more complicated picture, which is just what we find at Çatalhöyük.
You Are What You Eat
SO FAR EXCAVATIONS at Çatalhöyük have extended over only 4 percent of the site. We have discovered 18 levels of habitation (each built on top of the previous level), covering a total of about 1,200 years. Most of our understanding comes from the middle and earlier levels, which have been examined most closely.
Some of our strongest scientific evidence about the relative status of men and women in the early and middle levels of Çatalhöyük concerns diet. If women and men lived notably different lives, and if one or the other was dominant, then we might expect to uncover disparities in diet, with the dominant group having more access to certain foods, such as meat or better joints of meat. So we have searched hard for such evidence, but we have not uncovered clear differences.
Two of my colleagues, Michael P. Richards of the University of Bradford in England and Jessica A. Pearson, now at the University of Liverpool, have analyzed the stable isotopes in ancient bones at Çatalhöyük to discover what people ate. The inhabitants of the settlement buried their dead underneath the floors of the houses, and in one building we found 62 bodies. The analysis of these skeletons detected no statistical variation between the isotopes in male and female bones. The same is true of the teeth, which were studied by Basak Boz, a graduate student at Hacettepe University in Ankara, in collaboration with Peter Andrews and Theya Molleson of the Natural History Museum in London. Women tend to have more cavities than men, but in terms of wear on the teeth the researchers found no difference.
By analyzing the patterns of wear and tear on the bones, Molleson has also been able to demonstrate that the people seem to have carried out very similar tasks during their lives [see "The Eloquent Bones of Abu Hureyra," by Theya Molleson; Scientific American, August 1994]. An intriguing piece of evidence supports this finding. Andrews and Molleson had noticed a black deposit often lining the inside of the ribs, which when analyzed proved to include carbon. The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük lived in small houses with little draft and with much smoke from the fire. Indeed, the wall plasters were covered with soot. The same soot got into peoples lungs.
The hole in the roof through which inhabitants entered their houses was also where the smoke from the fire came out. Winters in the area are extremely cold, so families may have spent a great deal of time indoors, breathing smoky air. As a result, soot built up in their lungs. After burial and during the decay of the body, the soot was deposited on the inside of the ribs. But--and this is the crucial point for our purposes--both men and women had soot on their ribs. This finding implies that we cannot argue, for example, that men had more of an outdoor and women more of an indoor life. In fact, they appear to have lived quite similar lives in terms of the amount of time spent in the house.
The study of the human remains showed that men were taller than women, but the variation in size was slight. The bones reveal that women were sometimes fatter in relation to their height than men. So perhaps there is some truth to the images of "fat ladies" seen in the figurines discovered by Mellaart. But overall, various lines of evidence suggest similar diets and lifestyles for women and men. We see little indication that the sexes had specialized tasks or that daily life was highly gendered.
This is not to argue that differences based on sex did not exist. An obvious one relates to childbirth. Study of the human bones has shown a high rate of infant and child mortality and several cases of burials of women with babies, perhaps indicating death during childbirth. But dietary and bone analyses give no clear sign that any divergence in lifestyle between women and men was translated into differences of status or power.
In Life and in Death
We sought more information on status by looking into a custom at Çatalhöyük that seems bizarre from a 21st-century perspective. Archaeologists have excavated burials of headless bodies at the site. Most people were buried with their heads intact, and they were left like that. But in some cases, perhaps a year or so after burial, the grave was reopened and the head was cut off with a knife, leaving cut marks on the bones. These heads were then used for ceremonial purposes. They were sometimes later left as part of abandonment rituals in houses. These practices are part of a wider tradition among the early farmers of Turkey and the Near East. At such places as Jericho, the skulls were plastered to re-create human features of the face.
It appears likely that the "heads" were removed from notable individuals--perhaps literally family or lineage heads. So it was of great interest to find that the skulls of both men and women were circulated and curated, thus suggesting that lineage or family could be traced through both female and male lines.
We reach a similar conclusion when we consider another aspect of burial. The 62 burials in one building that I mentioned earlier largely occurred below platforms and spaces around the edges of the main room. A particular platform would serve for a time for burial and then go out of use. It is possible that the death of a particular person, specifically the last one buried in a spot, influenced when the shift in use took place--and these last-buried individuals are both male and female.
Archaeologists are accustomed to studying the layout of graves and of the artifacts in them to assess social distinctions. We have looked carefully to see whether men are always buried in one part of the room and women in another, whether men are buried on their left side and women on their right, whether men face one direction and women another, whether certain artifacts are found in the graves of men and others in the graves of women. Naomi Hamilton, while a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, searched for such patterning. Look as she might, she could not tease out any clear distinctions. In one way, this is very frustrating, but in other ways, it is fascinating. It suggests a society in which sex is relatively unimportant in assigning social roles.
The burials imply equality, but what about the use of space within the houses during life? Archaeologists have often argued, on the basis of much contemporary study of small-scale, non-Western societies, that men would have made the stone tools, whereas women would have made the pots and done much of the cooking. The trouble with such assumptions is that one can always find ethnographic examples in which the roles are reversed. But let us for the moment allow that some sexual division of labor may have existed at Çatalhöyük when it came to activities inside the house. Each domicile contains a hearth or oven. Around the oven we find large accumulations of ashy rake-out material from the fire as well as the remains of cooking and processing cereals. So, we might conclude, the area around the oven was for food processing, and it was mainly the domain of women. One piece of evidence could be taken to support such a view: neonate burials frequently occur near the ovens.
But the ashy rake-outs also contain high densities of obsidian that had been flaked and knapped to make stone tools. The obsidian was traded from Cappadocia in central Turkey and then placed beneath the floor near the oven until pieces were taken out and made into tools. Such trading and tool production are often the province of men. If this was so at Çatalhöyük, then forming the obsidian into tools does not seem to have taken place in an area separate from that linked to domestic activity. Whether men or women made the stone tools, we find no indication of a clear separation of roles and tasks in any of the levels that have been excavated to date.
Life Is Short, Art Is Long
THE PICTURE LOOKS quite coherent thus far. When we examine how people lived their daily lives--what they ate, what they did, where they were buried, who was paramount in terms of lineage and family--we see little in the way of radical division between men and women, no evidence for either patriarchy or matriarchy.
But in the world of symbolic representation and art, we see something quite different. Here the realms of influence seem distinct. Consider first the males of the community. The abundant paintings appear to concentrate on men. By and large, the paintings do not portray women, whereas they include many figures of men, often clad in leopard skins, hunting or teasing wild animals. In some panels, these images are unmistakably men because they are bearded.
Indeed, much of the art is very masculine, and much is concerned with wild animals, a number of them male--bulls and stags with erect penises, for example. The numerous animal heads fixed to walls of the houses are mostly those of wild bulls and rams. This male focus of the art has a long tradition in Anatolia. Excavations at the earlier site of Göbekli in southeastern Turkey have found fantastic images of wild animals, often with erect penises, as well as stone phalluses around the site.
Nerissa Russell of Cornell University and Louise Martin of University College London have identified concentrations of the bones of large wild animals--mainly bulls--at Çatalhöyük. These deposits, which contain higher proportions of bull bones than do those from daily meals, seem to be the residues from special feasts. The many paintings depicting groups of men and bulls could well commemorate such feasts or other rituals, as could the heads of bulls and other wild animals that were installed in the houses and plastered and painted.
As we have seen, however, the isotopic analysis of the human remains indicates no differences in the diets of the sexes, leading us to conclude that women as well as men participated in eating at these events. Only in the art connected with hunting and feasting do we see a distinction.
And what of the powerful female figure on the seat of leopards? Surely that indicates a strong image of women. Moreover, a recent find at Çatalhöyük reinforces this presumption: we discovered an intriguing female figurine that has a wild seed lodged in its back [see illustration below]. This connection between women and plants is also evident in the place that the famous "goddess" with leopards was found: a grain bin. And the few paintings that unmistakably depict women appear to show them gathering plants.
But aside from these few examples, the art and symbolism on the whole downplay or even deny the significance of agriculture. The houses are filled with symbolic representation: in many dwellings, one seems hardly able to move without facing some bulls head or painting. Yet in all this, the grain stores are never elaborated with any form of symbolism. The domestic pots are not painted or decorated; neither are the baskets used to store grains. The entire area of plants and agriculture is marginal in the art and symbolism. The artistic evidence, then, points to a divided world, one dominated by males and their activities involving hunting and wild animals and the other, less frequently portrayed world involving women and plants.
The situation is of course more complicated than this simple division implies. We must consider, too, the evolution of this society as it is revealed in the various levels of occupation. The figurines of fat ladies, and especially the woman on leopards found in a grain bin, as well as the woman with a grain lodged in her back, come from the upper levels of the site--specifically, the most recent three or four in the total of 18. Although agriculture and domesticated plants had existed for centuries, key aspects of social life, as revealed in the art and in the remains of feasts, continued to focus on wild animals. In the upper levels of Çatalhöyük, however, we may be observing agricultural products becoming more central to the life of the community, with rituals taking place that involved farming. We also see in the art, particularly in the figurines, women linked to the growing of plants.
This prominence of agriculture and the role women play in it is part of a wider set of changes that occur in the upper levels of the site. In particular, we find large-scale ovens outside the houses, in courtyards, which may indicate some specialization in food production. Certainly the specialization in the manufacture of stone tools and pottery increases in these upper levels. And stamp seals appear, suggesting a greater sense of ownership. It is in this overall context that we see gender divisions becoming more marked and a specific female domain--growing plants for food--becoming more manifest.
So the picture of women and men at Çatalhöyük is complex--in a way that echoes some of the conclusions I mentioned earlier that anthropologists have reached about the allocation of power between the sexes. We are not witnessing a patriarchy or a matriarchy. What we are seeing is perhaps more interesting--a society in which, in many areas, the question of whether you were a man or a woman did not determine the life you could lead.
Both men and women could carry out a series of roles and enjoy a range of positions, from making tools to grinding grain and baking to heading a household. The depictions of feasting rituals imply that men dominated in this realm. But we can discern no sign that they had an overarching influence on other areas of life. And in any case, such male dominance came to be contested when, several millennia after the domestication of cereals, plant agriculture began to play a fuller part in the life of the community.
At this point, women and plants are linked in the art, but even here, whether the dominance of women in agriculture had much effect on other aspects of life must await further scientific study. In particular, we have much less information from the upper levels, where we found the fat ladies and the large-scale ovens, than we do from the earlier levels, where we have analyzed bones and teeth. Only when excavation of the upper levels is renewed over the next five years will we be able to see how this story of the emergence of images of powerful women unfolds.
IAN HODDER received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge and was professor of archaeology there from 1977 to 1999, when he moved to Stanford University. He is chair of the department of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford and project director of archaeological research and excavation efforts at atalhyk in Turkey. His books include Symbols in Action (1982), The Present Past (1982), Reading the Past (1986), The Domestication of Europe (1990), Theory and Practice in Archaeology (1992) and The Archaeological Process (1999).