"Catalhoyuk, in central Turkey, became internationally famous in the 1960s when an ancient town - one of the oldest in the world - was discovered together with wonderful wall-paintings and sculptures, many featuring images of leopards. The archaeological finds included female figurines that suggested the possible existence of a "Mother Goddess" cult." "Ian Hodder peels back the layers of history to reveal how people lived and died, how they engaged with one another and with the spirit world. Full of insights into past lives and momentous events, The Leopard's Tale is illustrated with images of the art, the artifacts, and the excavations at this world-famous site."--BOOK JACKET.
This contrast is one of many; the domestic animal remains found at the site were mainly sheep and goats, but no parts of these animals were ever plastered to the walls, nor do they find their way into the wall painting. Activities within the house were evidently carefully regulated and differentiated: People were buried under the floors of the houses; these burials were almost invariably close to the north and east walls of the house. Domestic activities – food preparation and cooking – were always carried out in the south part of the house, where the walls were undecorated. The floor areas within the house clearly demarcated these different areas – often with slightly different levels or raised edges, and with the use of different types and colors of flooring material.
The author uses these and other recurrent patterns in the material remains at Catalhoyuk to develop a picture of the worldview of these ancient inhabitants – their social and economic life, the roles of men and women, and their spiritual concepts. This process – extrapolating from the material culture of prehistoric sites to the sociology, psychology and religion of the inhabitants - is known as Cognitive Archaeology. It is of course far more speculative than when dealing with more recent cultures, where written sources are available to supplement and provide context for the archaeological finds. However, as more and more prehistoric sites – from different parts of the world – are examined in this way, certain broad common themes are starting to emerge, enabling the field of cognitive archaeology to develop principles and disciplines of interpretation.
A theme that the author returns to throughout the book is that of the relationship between the activities motivated by symbolic/ritualistic needs - like using a particular type of lime to plaster a floor of the house after a burial – and the social or domestic activities needed to support them – for example, cooperative arrangements with other households to locate the limestone and burn it. He calls this process “entanglement”, and describes how one type of entanglement would catalyse another in a progressively more complex set of interactions between material, social and symbolic needs. Thus for example, the need to obtain the cooperation of others required some kind of reciprocal framework for regulating social relationships; this framework might be based on hunting symbolically important animals (like wild bulls) and sharing them in a feast. The bull skulls plastered to the walls of the house might well be the way of creating a historical record of the hunts and feasts, and determining the rank or prestige of the person or the family ancestor involved. (That both bull’s skulls and human skulls were often dug up from a lower, i.e. earlier, level of occupation and relocated in the current house is evidence of their importance in family histories).
In the final chapter, the author broadens the scope beyond the specifics of Catalhoyuk, and speculates how many of the progressive stages of early human civilization might have been driven by processes of entanglement - on a much broader scale and longer time horizon. Conventionally, it is presumed that the domestication of wild crops and animals in the early Neolithic caused people to settle down and live in one place in order to enjoy the benefits of domestication. Hodder believes that the domestication of crops was more likely to have been the inadvertent consequence of nomadic groups getting together for joint ritual and symbolic activities. (They harvested wild grasses as materials for making baskets, mats, shelters etc; this selected for varieties of grain which tended to keep their seed heads during harvesting, grains which do not automatically propagate in the wild). Hodder points to sites from much earlier than the Neolithic – like Ohalo II south of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, which was occupied in the Paleolithic 20,000 years ago – which show clear signs of repeated if not continuous occupation, as evidence of the fact that early humans gathered together in fixed locations for reasons other than settling down to an agricultural lifestyle.
Even if you don’t go all the way with Hodder, the journey itself is very worthwhile. The descriptions and illustrations of the excavations at Catalhoyuk are superb, and the range of different disciplines and techniques involved – archaeobotanical analysis, radio carbon dating, micromorphological analysis of soils, isotopic analysis of bone, to name but a few – leave one in no doubt that every deduction about the lifestyles and culture of the inhabitants is based only on the most thorough and minute analysis of the material remains.