Friday, September 29, 2006


Book Review: Catalhoyuk – The Goddess and the Bull
By Thomas Riggins [from the PA archives]

Book Review: Catalhoyuk – The Goddess and the Bull: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization, by Michael Balter, New York, Free Press, 2005.

A new book on archaeology makes the claim that "our understanding of our own origins was changed forever" by a very significant dig in Turkey. Michael Balter, author of "The Goddess and the Bull: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization," is a correspondent for the journal "Science." His book is a semi-official "biography" of an archaeological dig in Turkey. But is more than just that. It is three books in one – a history of the dig and the personalities of the archaeologists and other scientists who have conducted it, a history of archaeological theory over the last forty or so years, and finally, not least, a discussion of what the dig tells us about our past.

As for our past, there were extravagant claims made for some of the finds first reported from the site such as evidence for "goddess" worship, a society dominated by women (at least in the cult), the early domestication of certain food species, etc., upon which later investigations have cast doubts.

Nevertheless Balter thinks this dig changed our ideas about our origins. Why? There are several reasons. First, the site is basically an undisturbed Neolithic village that produced, for the first time in this era, representational paintings suggestive of a rich symbolic life associated with an early prehistoric agricultural community. Second, unlike most Neolithic sites, where only material artifacts are found, this site provides a glimpse of the symbolic world of our ancestors as they were, so to say, teetering on the brink of civilization. Third, it is thought that this representational art has religious significance and may have been the motivation for these people all living together at one place. So, this site has changed our views because it is the first to stress not simply the economic side of Neolithic life, but the symbolic, religious and psychological sides as well.

As for the theory part, I am primarily interested in it because, after reading it, I came to the conclusion that there is a lot of confusion about what can and cannot be accomplished by archaeology and about what a sound archaeological method should be and what role Marxist theory can play with respect to it. But, first things first.

Catalhoyuk ("Chah-tahl-hew-yook") is the name of a site on the Konya Plain in south-central Turkey dating from the Neolithic Period in the Near East. Its estimated date is around 7500 BC (+ or -). It may be considered an early "city" ("village" may be a better word) – it is at least a large settlement. It had both agriculture and trade, houses of mud brick, plastered "shrines" or "temples" and fortifications made out of mud brick. House and "shrine" walls were decorated with paintings, mounted bull heads (covered in plaster), and there were many female ("mother goddess") figurines found. The dead were buried under the floors of the houses. I put quotation marks around the words "shrines," "temples" and "mother goddess" because these may be modern conceptions foisted on to the artifacts found at the site.

The names of two archaeologists are associated with the finds at Catalhoyuk (although dozens and dozens of scientists and others worked there under their direction and the discoveries are really a collective effort.)

The first name is that of British archaeologist James Mellaart who was the first to dig at the site. He completed four seasons of digging beginning in 1961. He was forced to quit after the fourth season due to some improprieties regarding alleged purloined artifacts ("The Dorack Affair") which he may or may not have been involved with. His colleagues tend to give him the benefit of the doubt and his professional career made it seem highly unlikely that he was. At any rate, he was tossed out of Turkey and the site was shut down and lay fallow for thirty years.

During the 30-year interval between Mellaart’s dig and that of the next archaeologist (Ian Holder, also British) there was a "revolution" in archaeological theory, at least in the English speaking world, and a large part of Balter’s book is dedicated to discussing it. At least two major figures stand out in this "revolution". The first is an American Lewis Binford and second, David Clarke in the U.K. (who died young).

The movement they started was called the "New Archaeology" and it claimed to be an advancement over the previous generation of archaeologists such as Mortimer Wheeler and the Marxist Vere Gordon Childe among others. The advance was supposed to be more "scientific" and, at least with Binder, to incorporate archaeology within the larger field of anthropology. However, when one goes back and reads Wheeler and Childe the scientific and interpretive "advances" of the New Archaeology do not seem very substantial. Childe long ago recognized that, "In anthropology archaeology must play the same role as paleontology does in zoology."

It seems that all the fuss was about transcending a "cultural-historical" model of interpretation with one modeled on positivism and scientific procedure-- "just as new hypotheses in biology or physics had to be tested by laboratory experiments" so should archaeological theories about the past. Except that archaeology is neither biology nor physics--something, as we shall see, Childe very well knew.

Ian Hodder was brought up in the "New Archaeology" but was early on disturbed by the problem of "equifinality." Equifinality occurs when two or more hypotheses have exactly the same amount of evidence in their favor. Hodder discovered that his research on the problem of a particular spatial distribution of archaeological findings could be explained by mutually exclusive interpretations of the data. He asked himself how could "archaeologists be certain that their interpretations of the archaeological record were correct" if even the scientific method led to equifinality.

In stead of realizing that archaeologists can’t ever be certain of their interpretations because of the nature of their data, Hodder ended up creating an alternative paradigm to replace the "New Archaeology." Influenced by "ethnoarchaeology" – which attempts to read back into past cultures, such as those of the Neolithic, the culture traits of contemporary "primitive" peoples, and by contemporary anthropologists and some "postmodern" thinkers, he developed what has become known as "post-processual" archaeology (as opposed to "processual" another name for the "New" archaeology).

Hodder correctly noted that material culture "is meaningfully constituted" and, as Balter puts it, the artifacts that archeologists find "were once active elements in the living symbolic world of ancient peoples" (a fact well known to Childe). These symbols were not passive reflections of culture put played, as Hodder wrote ("Symbols in Action" 1982) "an active part in forming and giving meaning to social behavior." The problem is not that Hodder is wrong, but that post-processualism doesn’t seem to recognize that we can never know exactly what those symbols meant to past Neolithic peoples nor how they functioned in their social behavior.

The best we can do, as Marxism suggests, is try to deduce from the remains of the material culture what Neolithic life may have been like. The following quote, from "Man Makes Himself "(1936) by V. Gordon Childe is still resonate today and applies to the discoveries at Catalhoyuk as much as to any other Near Eastern Neolithic site. Childe wrote:
"Undoubtedly the co-operative activities involved in "neo-lithic" life found outward expression in social and political institutions [and symbols-tr]. Undoubtedly such institutions were consolidated by magico-religious sanctions, by a more or less coherent system of beliefs and superstitions, by what Marxists would call an ideology. The new forces controlled by man as a result of the neolithic revolution [large scale agriculture, new tools, pottery, village life, etc.,-tr] and the knowledge gained and applied in the exercise of the new crafts must have reacted upon man’s outlook. They must have modified his institutions and his religion. But precisely what form neolithic institutions and beliefs assumed is unknowable."

However, under the influence of post modernism and neo-"Marxist" ideas Hodder and his students thought they "could open the door to understanding the meanings of the art and artifacts that excavations uncovered, rather than simply their functions." Hodder insisted that his method was not anti-science but it did discount "the positive approach to hypothesis testing." But hypothesis testing is the core of scientific method.

In 1993, after years of theory, Hodder got a major dig on which he could test his ideas. Turkey was open to having Catalhoyuk once again investigated, James Mellaart gave his blessings to Ian Hodder as his successor at the site, and so Hodder collected a team and left for Anatolia. The work at Catalhoyuk is now in its twelfth season (2005).

One of the great merits of Balter’s book is how it tells the story of this second expedition to open up Catalhoyuk. The story is more interesting than any novel, and his writing about the cast of characters, the archaeologists and others, who took part in the excavations brings archeology and the problems it deals with alive.

Especially interesting is Balter’s discussion of "the central unresolved mystery" of the Neolithic Revolution-- "why had it taken place at all?" Maybe at Catalhoyuk the answer to this question (why did people settle down and begin farming?) would be found.

Here, however, there seems to be a conflict between processual (scientific?) archaeology and post-processual (postmodern?) archaeology. After getting all the data you can from your dig, how do you interpret it? Do you do it as you go along, following Hodder’s view of interpretation "at the trowel’s edge," or do you wait until you have collected a significant amount of information and only then begin to speculate about its meaning?

For example, Balter quotes Ruth Tringham who thinks we should go beyond "the dry data and create ‘narratives’ about the past." Balter also reports that another member of the dig was inspired by this to confess that he had "always felt that excavation directors should be scientific novelists." I’m not sure we should have the license of novelists when we try to recreate the past. However, this individual later decides that he is a processual archaeologist at heart.

Even the central question, "the unresolved mystery" may not have a solution. Gordon Childe maintained that the "Neolithic" was an abstraction. What we call the "neolithic" is the result of, "Various human groups of different racial composition [a dated concept], living under diverse conditions of clime and soil, hav[ing] adopted the same ground ideas and adapted them differently to their several environments."

One should keep this in mind when reading Balter’s discussion in his chapter "The Neolithic Revolution." Here several different theories of the origin of the Neolithic life style are discussed as if they are mutually exclusive rather than complementary. Following Childe’s lead I see the theories discussed as part of a dialectical unity rather than as stark contradictions.

For example, Childe’s "oasis theory" (originally put forth in 1908 by the American R. Pumpelly) is discussed and seemingly dismissed. This is the theory that the first villages with Neolithic techniques developed around oases as the ancient environment dried out. This theory supposedly fell out of favor because geologists and botanists determined the Near East was "wetter rather than drier" in the period of the Holocene (the geological age we are presently in, the Recent Period beginning about 11,000 years ago).

But Childe was aware of the wetness of the Holocene. He mentions the higher rainfall in North Africa and "hither Asia" than is common today. And he qualifies his theory considerably. In "Man Makes Himself" he expressly states that his theory "may never have been fully realized in precisely this concrete form." What is more, he saw the development of the Neolithic as protracted. That is, the theory is put forth as a possible explanation for the origin of the Neolithic in some areas, but parallelism and simultaneity "cannot be proved." It should also be noted that "drier" appears to be back in vogue. John Noble Wilford "Camps on Cyprus May Have Belonged to Earliest Open-Water Seafarers" (New York Times, 11-22-05) writing about the Neolithic in the Near East (9000 to 10,000 BC) calls it a period "of drastic climate change" leading to "colder, drier conditions."

This means that the "hilly flanks theory" (that the Neolithic began in the foothills of hither Asia) developed by Robert and Linda Braidwood is not the "first major challenge" to Childe. It is a complementary theory for a different region of the Near East. I do not want to belabor the point. Several other theories (of varying degrees of intellectual rigor – including a pseudo-Marxist one based on the ‘Fuhrerprinzip’) are discussed in this chapter and the next, none of which is entitled to exclusivity but should be seen as complementary explanations for different facets of a continuous developmental process that has left behind many different archaeological clues at a variety of locations and times.

I would also note that every valid observation made about the Neolithic and about Catalhoyuk in the book ultimately rests on a solid scientific (Childean or New archaeological ) methodology.

As for the goddess and the bull – no one knows what symbolic or ideological role the female figurines found at the site played in the life of the people who lived there. They may have been "goddess" figurines or good luck fertility charms, or children's toys, or something we will never understand. As for the bull decorations, heads, horns, etc., again we cannot be sure what their ideological role was. As Childe suggests, we can project back theories about these symbols based on the knowledge we have from historical times but we will always risk mixing up science with fiction (as recognized also, Balter indicates, by Lynn Meskell one of Hodder’s ex-graduate students now at Columbia University.)

All in all, this book is an exciting read. Balter knows his stuff and anyone interested in the origins of civilization and the ultimate foundations of the modern world we live in will enjoy and learn from it. Besides that, there is basically an undergraduate education in archaeological theory included.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs and can be reached at