In Progress: Adornment at Çatalhöyük

Male Adornment Preliminary Drawing If a good fairy or mad scientist suddenly appeared in a puff of smoke and offered you the ability to time travel, where and when would you go?

My first stop would probably be Neolithic Çatalhöyük. I’d love to see what the place and the people really looked like. 9000 years is a long, long time ago and while we can recover broad information on topics like architecture, animal husbandry, agriculture, daily practices, etc., we’ll forever be missing the smaller details. There is no Pompeii effect at work at Çatalhöyük; the site was not preserved due to a cataclysmic event that froze everything in time, but through slow accumulation and the perseverance of certain materials such as stone, mudbrick, bone, and fired clay. This means we know they hunted aurochs (wild predecessors to cattle) and kept domesticated sheep and goat, but we don’t know exactly how they used all the skins they must have collected. We know they made all sorts of things out of carved bone, stone, and clay, but we only have hints of what they made from botanical materials such as wood, flax, and reeds. We know the average height of males and females occupying the site, but we can only make educated guesses about their hair and eye colors. It’s my job to illustrate scenes with all these small harder-to-uncover details filled in.

I could use a good fairy right about now as I am working on some images for Milena Vasic’s chapter on adornment at Çatalhöyük which will be published in an upcoming project volume. Most of the direct evidence for adornment here consists of beads; beads made of stone, clay, shell, and bone. They are sometimes found in burials, clustered around necks, wrists, and ankles, but also singly all over in contexts such as middens and room fill. More rare are bone rings, alabaster armbands, and bone hooks and eyes. Most rare are materials made of soft tissue and plants such as leather, linen textiles, and wooden objects. While we sometimes find residues or small charred scraps of these materials, most of the evidence for them is indirect. For example, objects found in burials that would have been attached to cloth or leather, such as hooks and eyes, indicate that these materials where once present. Depictions of humans in figurines and wall paintings are another line of indirect evidence for cloth and leather, as well as jewelry and hairstyles.

Drawing indirect evidence from figurines and wall paintings has its own set of issues. This evidence is two or three times removed from what the people of Çatalhöyük wore. First, the people of Çatalhöyük had their own style of representation and ideas about what was important to represent. This filters the information we are getting. Second, in the case of wall paintings, James Mellaart recorded these paintings in the 1960s and as he re-drew them he interpreted what he saw, filtering the information again. Finally, I am looking at Mellaart’s drawings of Çatalhöyükians’ drawings of what Çatalhöyükian’s wore and putting my own interpretations on it based on my own experience of the site, other people’s interpretations (see John Swogger's reconstructions), and my own society’s adornment norms.

All these different lines of evidence provide information on what the people of Çatalhöyük were putting on their bodies, but what did those bodies look like? For this kind of evidence I turn to the site’s bioarchaeologists who study the skeletal remains. Dr. Clark Larsen (Ohio State University) and Dr. Christopher Knüsel (University of Exeter) lead the current Human Remains Team. This summer I had a meeting with Dr. Knüsel and Scott Haddow, a Human Remains Team lab supervisor, during which we discussed what we know about the Çatalhöyükians’ phenotype. Based on skeletal analysis, we know their average height and that they were robust with strong facial features such as wide jaws and heavy brows. Unfortunately, no DNA has been successfully retrieved from skeletal remains so we have no information on their nearest living relatives or coloring. Dr. Knüsel has suggested that they may have had olive skin with dark hair and eyes based on common adaptations to similar climates. We can also hypothesize that they would have had well-weathered skin and callused hands and feet from spending so much time outdoors on daily tasks.

So far I have completed a preliminary drawing for male adornment (see above). The bone rings on the man’s left hand are from Feature 212, a male burial in Building 1. His necklace is also from a male burial in  Building 1, Feature 38. The bone hook closing his cloak and the leather pouch with flints are from the male burial Feature 1709 in Building 50. The head dress and loin cloth are drawn from the male figurine on the left (from the Mellaart excavations) and the surrounding painted male figures, which are part of the Hunting Shrine FVI wall paintings (also from the Mellaart excavations). Only one leopard bone has been found on site so it is possible the spotted fabric/leather has been painted to mimic leopard skin.

I'll be completing the final art for this reconstruction, as well as a companion piece on female adornment, this month so check back!