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Prof. Peter Biehl and His Team

Peter Biehl Of UB Anthropology Investigates A Neolithic Mystery At Çatalhöyük

By Luke Heuskin | Updated May 25, 2017

Located in present-day Turkey, Çatalhöyük is one of the oldest cities in the historical record and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Prof. Peter Biehl, chair of UB’s Department of Anthropology and director of the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology, has worked as project director with the Çatalhöyük Research Project since 2006, leading archaeological digs at the site’s West Mound.

“Çatalhöyük is internationally recognized as a milestone of human evolution and history,” says Biehl. “It has been well known since the 60s as one of the first cities in human history.”

The city was a hub of civilization in the early neolithic world, and has been widely studied since its discovery in 1958 by British archaeologist James Mellaart.

Religious artifacts and the emergence of figurative art made Çatalhöyük a cultural hotspot in the 8th millennium BC. The discovery of the “so-called mother goddess: a figurine of a female goddess sitting on a leopard throne” has been central to interpretations of ancient fertility rituals and archetypes of matriarchal religion.

“In addition to the figurines,” says Biehl, “Çatalhöyük is one of the first sites where we have very rich murals: wall paintings of hunting scenes and other wild animals. It is a site which is perfect to study the transition between the use of wild and domesticated animals.”

Çatalhöyük is also notable for its unusual domestic burial rituals.

“For over 1500 years,” Biehl explains, “people [at the East Mound] buried their ancestors in their house below a platform. They did this to be closer to their ancestors, to relate to their ancestors. They slept on top of their ancestors, and re-opened [the burial chambers] all the time when other people were buried there.”

This practice faded after 6000 BC, around the time that a second settlement was established at the West Mound.

“They had, for the first time, cemeteries that are outside the house…the famous funerary rite of burying the dead in the house was no longer there,” Biehl says.

For reasons previously unexplored, the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük expanded from the original East Mound to a West Mound around 6000 B.C. Though James Mellaart had performed a small excavation of the West Mound, he went no further than a 10’x2’ meter trench. No large-scale excavations were undertaken until decades later.

“In [Mellaart’s] understanding,” says Biehl, “the West Mound was 500 years [after Çatalhöyük East] and had nothing to do with the East Mound, and that is why he didn’t continue to excavate.”

Since the 90s, scientists with the Çatalhöyük Research Project have re-opened these questions, probing the West Mound for clues to Çatalhöyük’s expansion.

Advanced research on the West Mound did not begin until the 1993 when Ian Hodder of Cambridge University began a more thorough excavation with a completely new team and new research project.

Prof. Biehl’s academic career at Cambridge brought him in contact with Hodder, who invited him to join in the excavations. He has returned to Çatalhöyük every year since 2006.

Though the Research Project brought together students and scholars from more than a dozen institutions from around the world, the team was united by something vital. In Biehl’s words: “The common language is really archaeology, and that makes it all come together.”

After ten years of painstaking research at the West Mound, Biehl has linked the move of the settlement to the West to the famous 8.2 cal BP climatic event.

Biehl describes the climate event as a period of “extremely hot summers and very cold winters…flooding and heatwaves that made it very difficult for an early farming society to survive.”

Using advanced dating techniques, researchers found that the 8.2 event coincided with the settlement of Çatalhöyük’s West Mound. The climate event led to alterations in the course of the Çarşamba river, which once ran between the East and West Mounds. In response, some residents of Çatalhöyük began to relocate approximately 300 meters to the west, forming a new settlement.

Contradicting Mellaart’s conclusion from his dig at the West Mound, Biehl and his colleagues have determined that the settlements at Çatalhöyük East and West were concurrent.

“There was no hiatus. There were two villages at the two mounds at the same time,” Biehl explains. “I was able to show that the now-famous climate change event which happened about 6000 BC was one of the main triggers for the movement of people from the east to the west, on a microscale, but on a larger scale, they also moved from central Anatolia into western Anatolia and then across the European continent.”

With the rise of urbanization, the population of Çatalhöyük led a very different existence compared to the hunter-gatherers who came before them.

“People settled down in crammed spaces: dark, smelly, smoky, very unhealthy conditions. Why did they do that?” Biehl asks. “Why did they develop ritual activities, religious structures, in order to make that all controllable? And when do we have the first emergence of social hierarchies?”

Even as control of the project is ready to be turned over to the Turkish government in 2018, there are many open questions that point to a promising future of research at Çatalhöyük.

Biehl expresses interest in exploring “questions of health and infectious diseases,” such as the emergence of tuberculosis. “At a time when we had environmental stress and climate stress, and people were on the move with animals, especially cattle, it would be very interesting to see whether we can see the emergence of tuberculosis with studies on the ancient DNA of animals and humans,” he says.

Although Çatalhöyük is “the best studied site in the region,” Biehl would like to see digs in other areas of Anatolia as well. “There’s a lot that’s entirely unexcavated between Çatalhöyük and the coast [of Turkey]. That would be one thing I would be interested in following up on.”

Compared to its depictions in popular culture, archaeology is rarely as eventful as the tales of swashbuckling action popularized in the movies. As director of the West Mound excavations, Biehl was responsible for everything “from A to Z”—from fundraising to formulation of research questions, documentation of artifacts, hands-on excavation, and publication of results.

“Normally people think about Indiana Jones and finding treasure,” says Biehl. “But as academic archaeologists, we are not looking for treasures—we are looking for stories. You have to be meticulous, you have to be resilient. For a couple of days you don’t find anything when you excavate.”

An archaeologist’s day on-site is rigorous. From sunrise to sunset, there’s always a job to do.

“We get up every morning at six and go to bed at midnight,” Biehl explains. “The day ‘on the dig side’ starts at 8am and ends at 4pm. Then you take a break and you have another two hours of documentation. You wash pottery, you make photographs, you write diaries, and then you have dinner, and then you either have a lecture, a seminar, or you work another couple of hours until midnight. Because clearly, excavation is expensive and you only have a certain period of time that you are there so you have to really work at the maximum.”

Though archaeologists labor to uncover the past, their discoveries extend well beyond the study of ancient history. Biehl has recently been nominated to serve on the Society for American Archaeology’s Committee on Climate Change Strategies and Archaeological Resources, using parallels between historical scenarios like those studied at ancient Çatalhöyük and climate instability in the 21stcentury.

“I think we can learn from the past in the present for the future,” he says. “As an archaeologist, I can bring knowledge about deep history to study climate change and to understand what people did in the past. This understanding brings a lot to the table.”

As the culmination of a decade of research, Biehl is editing The End of Çatalhöyük, a collaborative book by a team of 24 contributors detailing the findings of the Research Project. It is set to be published in 2018.