Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology

2017 Edition
| Editors: Allan S. Gilbert


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4409-0_74

Çatalhöyük is a key Neolithic site located in south central Turkey. It is one of the largest and best studied early agricultural settlements in Southwest Asia, and it has also revealed a significant record of symbolic expression, such as wall paintings. Çatalhöyük, in fact, comprises two mounds, an East mound where most excavations have been focused and a smaller West mound of early Chalcolithic date. Çatalhöyük was originally excavated in the early 1960s by James Mellaart, but archaeological fieldwork subsequently stopped and recommenced only in 1993 under the overall direction of Ian Hodder – see Hodder (2006) for a summary.

Çatalhöyük is located on a gently sloping alluvial fan delta of the Çarşamba river, which has prograded across the bed of a large former lake that covered the Konya basin during the late Pleistocene (Figure 1). The plain lies at an elevation of ∼1,000 m asl and lacks any surface outlet. Its climate is semiarid continental Mediterranean, in contrast to the surrounding well-watered mountain watershed. In contrast to initial speculations by Cohen (1970), studies by Roberts (1982) showed that (1) the main shrinkage of the Pleistocene Konya lake occurred prior to 16,000 BC, i.e., well before the first Neolithic occupation, and (2) significant post-occupation alluviation has occurred at Çatalhöyük. This continued deposition of alluvium means that modern soil type distributions (Driessen and de Meester, 1969) do not provide a reliable guide to those that existed around the site in prehistory. A comprehensive geoarchaeological field program took place between 1993 and 1999 linked to the current excavations at Çatalhöyük (Roberts et al., 1996; Roberts et al., 2007). This KOPAL (Konya basin Palaeoenvironment) project included vibrocoring, backhoe trenching, and study of off-site irrigation ditch sections, not only at Çatalhöyük but also at other archaeological sites located across the Çarşamba fan (Boyer et al., 2006).
Çatalhöyük, Figure 1

Maps showing the changing distribution of sediments around Çatalhöyük, near the start and end of the occupation of the East mound and at the present day (Modified from Boyer et al., 2006). At the microscale, this pattern would have been more spatially heterogeneous than shown here.

Above pale gray marl deposited on the bed of the glacial-age lake, two principal alluvial units can be distinguished. A red-brown upper alluvial silt-clay dates from Bronze Age to post-Byzantine times. Beneath this lies a very dark gray lower alluvium comprising heavy, smectite-rich clay that was laid down in a seasonally flooded backswamp environment. The top of the underlying marl is undulating due to Late Glacial eolian deflation, and as a result, the backswamp clay infill shows local-scale variations in thickness. Deposition of the backswamp clay at Çatalhöyük began ∼7500 BC and ended by ∼6000 BC with paleosol formation, and it coincides in time almost exactly with the Neolithic occupation (Figure 2). During the spring flood, much of the lower-lying land surrounding Neolithic Çatalhöyük would have been under water, which led Roberts and Rosen (2009) to propose that some cereal and pulse crops may have been grown on drier ground away from the alluvial fan.
Çatalhöyük, Figure 2

Chronological chart showing recorded archaeological site numbers on or near the Çarşamba fan, individual site occupations, and changing flood regimes (From Roberts and Rosen, 2009).

In summer, the alluvial and marl plain dried out, and the Çarşamba river returned to its main channel, which ran next to Çatalhöyük. The strong wet-dry seasonal contrast in river and wetland hydrology has been confirmed by stable carbon and oxygen isotope analyses on samples taken across the surface of large Unio mollusk shells found on-site; the results for sequential samples showed isotopic variations explainable by seasonal fluctuations in local water levels as the bivalve’s shell grew (Bar-Yosef Mayer et al., 2012). The river “flooding phase” at Çatalhöyük appears to have prompted a nucleated rather than dispersed settlement pattern on the Çarşamba fan, for only this single large site is known during the ceramic Neolithic, whereas several smaller settlements existed during both the preceding aceramic Neolithic and subsequent early Chalcolithic periods. The distinctive lifeways at Neolithic Çatalhöyük may, in consequence, have been partly an adaptation to specific hydro-environmental conditions.

The “flood phase” at Çatalhöyük can be linked to a period of wetter climate in the eastern Mediterranean during the early Holocene, and its ending coincides with the well-known 8.2 ka BP cold, dry climatic event. However, lake isotope data show that wetter climatic conditions in central Turkey had started by 9500 BC and continued until ∼4500 BC, thus spanning a longer time period than the Çarşamba flood phase. Its timing must therefore have been affected by local factors, such as river avulsion and a changing depocenter, as well as regional climatic changes. Its onset, for example, would have been affected by a change in river course from an easterly to a northerly orientation when the Çarşamba broke through a sand spit of the former Konya lake (Figure 1).

More recent geoarchaeological fieldwork has been extended to include the nearby predecessor aceramic Neolithic site of Boncuklu, as well as further analysis of the sediment fill at and around Çatalhöyük, e.g., the sourcing of mudbricks and lime plasters (Love, 2012; Doherty, 2013). A new program of coring and ditch sectioning around the mounds took place in 2007–2009 in order to build a picture of the site environs at higher spatial resolution. At this fine spatial scale, the Neolithic landscape would have been a mosaic of upstanding marl hummocks, seasonally wet flood basins, and riparian zone river channels, some of which would have provided microhabitats suitable for more intensive “garden-scale” crop cultivation (Charles et al., 2014).

Çatalhöyük lies close to the volcanic terrain of Cappadocia, from where it obtained obsidian for lithic artifacts. A tephra layer found in eastern Mediterranean lake and marine cores has been linked geochemically to one of the Central Anatolian stratovolcanoes and dates to the ceramic Neolithic (Zanchetta et al., 2011; Schmitt et al., 2014). This may provide an explanation for an enigmatic wall painting at Çatalhöyük, which has been interpreted as showing a twin-peaked volcano erupting above a settlement.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science and EnvironmentPlymouth UniversityPlymouthUK