Interpreting The Female Statues of the Ancient City of Çatalhöyük

By Isabella Howe

March 8, 2021

During the 1960s, British European archeologist James Mellaart received permission to excavate the ancient city of Çatalhöyük. Çatalhöyük is located in what is now modern-day Anatolia, Turkey. When Mellaart first arrived at the site he and his team had already discovered a  selection of examples of “Neolithic craftsmanship” found upon the fields of farms surrounding the location. When the team began their excavation they chose the site that was determined to be the dwellings of Dido, The Queen of Carthage. It was here where the team uncovered the statue that would be responsible for convincing Mellaart of his inaccurate deduction of how the worship system of the civilization was structured.

  The statue uncovered was a depiction of a female figure sitting upon a chair accompanied by two leopards sitting at her feet to whose heads she had gently placed her hands upon. The statue also was described to have a small bulge on the ground of the pottery design which was concluded to be an infant of some sort. The figurine was found in a well-decorated room that was assumed to be a temple by the team. This selection of discoveries was enough evidence to drive Mellaart to arrive at the conclusion that Çatalhöyük was a matriarchy culture that revered a “goddess of fertility”. It is believed that there was a likely probability that Mellaart was strongly influenced by James George Frazer, a Victorian anthropologist who wrote about a theory entailing the concept of the possibility of multiple pre-Christian civilizations having a worship system centered upon a “mother goddess”. This was then built upon in the 1940s by Robert Graves a classical scholar and poet who wrote in his book The White Goddess that mythologies of the Middle East and Europe derived from a religious order that admired a goddess of “birth, love, and death”. These works heavily shaped the ideas of Mellaart’s generation of archeologists who went in search of ancient civilizations that could have been defined by such qualities. 

  Though Mellaart began to reach verdicts that had little to no correlation or relation to the ideas of either Frazer or Graves. Mellaart claimed the Çatalhöyük was a society in which women ruled over men. His evidence for such a claim was his belief in the connotation of the way women were being presented physically in the sculptures. He described the women as “thick and strong” and often “flanked by fierce animals”. Due to these factors, he concluded that this was not a patriarchal society because it was, in his opinion, unlikely for males to depict the female body in such a way. He made the comparison to the opposing representation of women in magazines designed for the male audience such as that of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. He claimed that in this format women were illustrated in a way that communicated innocence, fragility, and gentleness. Mellaart’s conclusions for a time were not questioned significantly and were easily adopted by the public. Çatalhöyük became known as an ancient matriarchal society for a period of time. Curricula even began to incorporate the concept of Turkish matriarchal civilizations due to Mellaart and his ideas.

   Since the 1980s more and more evidence has been uncovered that shows a contradiction to Mellaart’s notions, causing a large opposition of beliefs coming from the archaeologist community. Lynn Meskell, an archeologist from Stanford University, also visited the Çatalhöyük excavation site. After the collection of data gathered in the 25 years since Mellaart, Meskell has taken the stance arguing that these female figurines served a different purpose than just simple worship. It was determined that in just Dido’s house there were a total of 141 figurines of which the majority were animals and the minority were human anatomy. This quantity relation was shown to be the case in the many other households of the area, suggesting that animals were much more popular than the female figurines. It was also shown that such statues were not made with time and care or for the purpose of preservation. From observation and examination, it was shown that such artifacts were made with speed and a lack of desire for quality. The state in which they were found also suggests that they were often handled and carried around rather than looked at on display. They were also discovered upon odd locations such as jammed between two walls or in trash piles. Meskell argued that these factors indicate that these objects were not those of worship as they treated them trivially. Furthermore, she claimed that this suggests that the objects were more for short-term everyday use and the act of creating them was more significant than the final product itself. The figurines were also shown to be representing the bodies of aged women which refutes the concept of a fertility god. 

 Rosemary Joyce, an archaeologist from UC Berkeley, expressed the viewpoint of the importance of avoiding projecting modern gender role understandings onto ancient cultures as Mellaart did. It must be considered that such organization of communities was based on other categorical systems such as age and or occupation. The domination of one gender over another is not the sole and only form of hierarchical organization that can and could have occurred.

 It must be considered that generally human beings are equipped with a selection of preconceived notions and interpretations that govern one’s thoughts and actions. Ultimately it provides historical blindness that disables the most accurate interpretation of unknown societies as the one observing such evidence is projecting their personal version and understanding of history. Due to historical contingency, scientists must be fully aware of the possibility of easily falling into a trend of forcing new discoveries of lifestyles to fit into the templet of the lifestyles already known. Evidently, assumptions are the danger and threat to the accuracy of discerning what is unknown. 

Research based off of Annalee Newitz’s article “What Archaeologists Got Wrong about Female Statues, Goddesses, and Fertility” from Popular Science.

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