It’s rare that I go to a place which provokes thoughts that stay in my head over a week later.  But a couple of weeks ago I went such a place…..A place where families are not nuclear.  Where society is not hierarchical.  Where the mother goddess vies for superiority with phallic male hunters.   Where the living sleep on top of the dead.

This place is Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement which is over 9000 years old.    But it’s not exactly settlement as we know it today, at least it’s miles away from the western, hierarchical society centred around the nuclear family which I was brought up with in London.

In 1997 I was a freelance Assistant Producer, hunting for ideas for programmes that would get me work and recognition in the competitive television world in London.   And that, as a side benefit, would take me back to Turkey, a place I’d fallen in love with 3 years before.   One of the subjects I came across that grabbed me instantly was an archaeological site call Çatalhöyük.   Now it’s become a textbook name for schoolchildren and has been the subject of glossy docs by the likes of Discovery and National Geographic but back in 1997 it was virtually unheard of outside archaeological circles.  As part of my research I met Ian Hodder, the archaeologist in charge of the site, who supported the project and who was hugely helpful in feeding me information.  Sadly I couldn’t raise the interest, and therefore the money, to make a film.

15 years and no contact later I happened to bump into Ian again on a plane from London to Istanbul.  He was en route to Çatalhöyük for the 2012 season and I had finally been given an opportunity to live in Istanbul and was moving there to start working full-time with Al Jazeera.  From that chance encounter our friendship was rekindled and Ian invited me to visit.  So, around a month later, I flew to Konya in Anatolia, the nearest city to the site.

The season was coming to an end when I arrived and people were starting to leave but there was still a huge buzz about the place.  I’d never been to an archaeological site before and I hadn’t appreciated the degree to which a new modern society is created in order to bring alive a society from the past.   And how the past breathes a new, albeit temporary, order of life into the present.

Over 100 people from around the world were beavering away on the site or in their respective labs. And locals were working too.  In one of the side rooms a group of women were scrutinizing soil for bits of bone and pottery.


I found the atmosphere hugely exciting.  Along the walkways between the labs and the canteen I picked up snippets of conversation about 3D models, DNA, Clarence the skeleton…..

I met Clarence later that day. He’s one of up to 3000 skeletons that have been found at the site.

Two feet in the grave. But where's the skull?

The inhabitants of Çatalhöyük had a pretty intriguing attitude  towards the dead.   Corpses were buried under platforms in the corner or centre of each house.   More were added as more people died.  Sometimes lots more – in one house the team found 70 skeletons.   All were bundled up with ropes in foetal position partly I guess because the houses weren’t big and this way the dead took up as little living space as possible.   Living and sleeping on top of one’s ancestors in their shallow graves suggests to me that there was a deep love and respect for them and an intimacy between living and dead.  But when more room was needed the platform was opened up and the already interred corpses simply pushed aside to make way for more, often dislodging discomposing limbs in the process.   Corpses were constantly disturbed so that in some houses archaeologists had to untangle a mish mash of disconnected bones.


And they seem to have had a bit of a skull fascination – sometimes the cranium was taken off.  How could they treat their ancestors’ remains so possessively but yet so callously at the same time?   That’s not a way I’d show respect.  But then we assume the inhabitants thought like us and that they’d automatically show respect as we define it today to the dead.  Maybe that wasn’t actually the case?

And whose ancestors were they anyway?  Different bits of different corpses were found in different houses.   And, what’s more, the human remains team are finding that skeletons in the same house don’t share the same DNA.  Why?  Was this place home to a commune?  A religious sect?  Was familial love between parents and their own offspring an instinct that evolved in the post-Neolithic era?    Or are we the weird ones assuming that the nuclear family is the norm?  Whatever the answer, it seems that in the Çatalhöyük worldview there was fluidity and intimacy not only between the living and the dead but also between the households and families of the living.

The structure of the city itself was fluid, a kind of architectural reflection of the pile up of the living on top of the dead. Every 100 or so years the old houses were sealed up and abandoned for new houses that were built on top of them.  Again, there are no clear answers as to why this should be.  In a similar way to that in which the inhabitants took their ancestral remains with them, so they reused parts of the old houses in the new ones, dismantling wooden beams for example.  So, every century, the level of the settlement rose and rose.   It must have been a great place for rooftop parties since the “front” doors were in fact “top” doors and the inhabitants climbed down on ladders from a hole in the roof.  Mind you, getting back from a particularly good party may have been tricky after a few too many sundowners.

In Shed 2 you can see the layers of houses piled up over the centuries.  The ground has been dug deep into so that as you look down from the top you are time travelling back down through nearly 2000 years of history.  If you look closely you can see the changes in the building materials and techniques as bricks were developed over the years.

Time travel

In this huddle of houses there was no obvious hierarchy apparent and no area of shared public space except for the middens, the communal rubbish dumps where human and animal faecal remains were found amongst the garbage. I imagine that in the heat of the Anatolian sun the smell of excrement, rubbish and decomposing bodies would have been pretty potent.   Ian thought that since the corpses were covered in lime that wouldn’t have been the case. And anyway, the smell of the dead may have been a kind of status symbol.

I left Çatalhöyük feeling hugely inspired and with my brain full of questions.   I will of course never have definitive answers to them.   There is no Neolithic cribsheet waiting to be discovered under the ground.    Every guess at what this bone means or that painting signifies can only ever be just that, a guess made from one’s own personal point of view.  And this is particularly the case in a site directed by Ian who pioneered the post-processual approach to archaeology which holds that archeological interpretations are inherently subjective.

People will see what they want to, hence the mother goddess lovies who flock to the site every year.  There has been a lot of focus on the figurines of very voluptuous ladies that have been discovered at the site.  The mother goddess lot think that this is a clear sign that this is a matriarchal society – these are goddesses flanked by lions.  But they may just be large women with a dog on either side.  Especially since quite a few have been found in the middens.

Mother goddess or curvy lady?

As Ian pointed out to me when we were looking at some reconstructions of paintings found at the site there are in fact more phallic symbols here than female ones.

Over excited stag

Hunting scene or ritual dance?

So here’s my post-processual approach to what I experienced at Çatalhöyük.  I was struck at how, across 9000 years, this Neolithic site made me question not only the past but also the present.  And I was moved at how a chance encounter on an airplane could bring my own recent history of 15 years right back into the present again and rekindle a relationship with a place and a person at a time when I have finally fulfilled my dream of making a film in Turkey.  Many films in fact in my role as Executive Producer for Al Jazeera.   What goes around comes around…whether it’s bones, housemates, building materials, documentary subjects or friendships.

Me and Ian