Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Afraid of the world (part II)

This extract, from Steve Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000-BC, imagines what living in Çatalhöyük would have been like. The Neolithic site has been called the first city by some, an interpretation that most scholars of urbanism would reject. Nonetheless, Çatalhöyük, as a settlement, incarnated claustrophobia with its narrow rooftop paths, lack of public spaces, and drive to litter their homes with the remains of the dead. What a nightmare! (Another excellent description is here).
Çatalhöyük appears to have a continuous perimeter wall, one that has no entrance and no desire to welcome uninvited guests. [But it is] not a single wall at all, but the outcome of many abutting walls from individual buildings that cling together as if in fear of what lies beyond.

[The returning fieldworkers] climb wooden ladders on to the roofs, dispersing and disappearing down a maze of rooftop pathways, steps and ladders that lead from tier to tier and house to house. Between the paths are flat mud roofs, some evidently used as workshops for tool-making and basket-weaving.

There are three [bulls] at about waist-height — white heads striped with black and red, from which sprout enormous pointed horns that seem to threaten all of human life within the room. Around the bulls the walls are painted with bold geometric designs — sharp, oppressive images above handprints in red and black similar to those painted in the French cave of Pech Merle. But while those ice-age hunter-gatherer hands were welcoming, outstretched in greeting to visitors within the cave, these farming hands of Çatalhöyük seem to be more of a warning or plea for help — people are trapped within a bestiary from which they cannot escape.

Many rooms have clay figurines placed within wall niches, or simply upon the floor; some are evidently of women, others of men, but many seem quite sexless. The most startling is of a woman who sits upon a throne that had been placed beside a grain bin. At each side of her stands a leopard; she rests one hand upon each head while their tails wrap around her body.

The bulls vary from room to room but are always shocking, especially when encountered in the hard- edged beams of moonlight that now enter through the tiny windows, or by flames that bring the beasts alive. There are bulls' heads with long twisted horns, bulls' heads with faces covered with exotic designs, and bulls' heads stacked one above the other from floor to ceiling. Some rooms have free- standing stone pillars with horns, or long lines of horns set into benches daring anyone to sit within their grasp.

The geometric designs are joined by pictures of great black vultures viciously attacking headless people, and by scenes of enormous deer and cattle surrounded by tiny frenzied people. The real people are asleep upon their platforms. They lie in contorted positions.

A pair of modeled women's breasts emerge from the mud-brick and plaster. Both nipples are split apart and peering from within are the skulls of vultures, foxes and weasels: motherhood itself violently defiled.

When houses needed rebuilding they were constructed to the same design at the same place, maintaining the same areas for each activity that took place within them. He suggests that different types of people — old and young, male and female, specialist toolmakers and those without skills — were very restricted as to where they could sit and work within each room. To me it seems as if every aspect of their lives had become ritualizes, any independence of thought and behavior crushed out of them by an oppressive ideology manifest in the bulls, breasts, skulls and vultures.

This sounds like living in a Neolithic hell ... The people of Çatalhöyük seemed to fear and despise the wild.


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