Today, the surprising cement that held an ancient
city together. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
The city of
Çatalhöyük once thrived in
southern Turkey, not far from the later city of
Antioch. Five, maybe ten, thousand people lived
there, nine thousand years ago. It's the oldest
known city of such size. Here we discover a rich
texture of daily Neolithic life just after the
invention of agriculture.
The site was discovered in 1958. Excavations began
three years later, only to be halted when the
Turkish government found artifacts turning up
outside of Turkey. They let excavations begin again
in 1993, and a great deal has been done since then.
Çatalhöyük thrived four thousand
years before the wheel, before metals, before
writing. This was the very beginning of that part
of the Stone Age that we call the Neolithic
It was both a great city and a puzzling one as
well. This is hot, arid country today, but it was
different back then. In those days,
Çatalhöyük sat upon two mounds
that looked out over a watery marshland. Now we
learn that the farmland where the people grew their
grains, and the forests where they cut their oak
and juniper wood, were twelve or so miles from the
How was it practical to move goods that far without
the wheel? They probably used a system of boats to
do it. Çatalhöyük clearly
represented complex organization and commerce.
Since no remains have turned up in the farming
regions, her citizens must've merely camped out
during planting and harvesting seasons.
The best-known yield of the dig is its art. We find
many examples of the so-called
Goddess Image. Such images were rendered
in stone, bone, and clay throughout the
pre-agricultural era and in many places. She was
shown as obese, with exaggerated female
characteristics. It's probably a stretch to say
that she represents monotheistic goddess worship
and a matriarchal society. Here in
Çatalhöyük we also find images of
men hunting -- all the suggestions of an
energetic and balanced society at work.
The people of Çatalhöyük made
finely polished obsidian mirrors. They had an early
cottage textile industry. They created elaborate
burial sites. They used portable ladders to enter
mud-brick houses through openings in the roofs.
They managed their trash. They had a complex urban
organization long before we would've expected it.
An article in Science Magazine makes a
startling suggestion as to where this social
cohesion came from. The soil just under the marshes
surrounding Çatalhöyük was rich
with a chalky marl. It may be mixed into a
clay-like mud, which we could call plaster. Plaster
made its houses. Wall frescos were painted upon
plaster. The people of Çatalhöyük
appear to've been drawn to the artistic and
technical possibilities of a new building material.
What an unnerving idea, that the binding social
fabric of this remarkable early city should be
nothing more grand than -- plaster.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Balter, M. Did Plaster Hold Neolithic Society
Together? Science, Vol. 294 14 Dec., 2001,
Meskell, L. Twin Peaks: The Archaeologies of
Çatalhöyük. Ancient Goddesses:
The Myths and the Evidence, Madison WI:
University of Wisconsin Press. Chapter 2.
Several excellent websites describe
Çatalhöyük. See, e.g.:
Anatolia until Alexander the Great and
Neolithic Age ( 8000 BC - 5000 BC )
Most famous of the many Çatalhöyük
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.