Lady of Çatalhöyük

A stunning Neolithic stone figure was uncovered at Çatalhöyük during the latest season of excavation. Ian Hodder, who leads the Çatalhöyük Research Project, tells CWA why this rare find is such a special lady.

Though many figurines have been found at Çatalhöyük, most are of clay, roughly made, and were discarded in refuse areas. There are a few exceptions that are finely made, such as the so-called ‘Mother Goddess’, which is now on display in the Ankara Museum of Civilisation. But almost all of the figurines are broken – including the Ankara exhibit, whose head is missing. And though rare examples of stone figurines have been recovered at Çatalhöyük, typically from Level VI and above, again most are broken.

The Neolithic marble figurine of a woman, with a piece of obsidian to her left, uncovered during the excavations at Çatalhöyük in 2016.

This latest find, therefore, is hugely significant: it is made of stone, shows superbly high-quality craftsmanship, and is complete. Moreover, it was not found in refuse. It had been carefully placed beside a piece of obsidian against the wall of a house, suggesting deliberate deposition in a ritual context.

Though similar figurines have been recovered throughout the Middle East, Anatolia, and south-east Europe, the detailed context in which they were found is often not known. Our find was discovered during excavation of the earliest building in the section known as TPC Area. Floor deposits suggest the large Neolithic structure, which dates to about 6300 BC (towards the end of classic Çatalhöyük occupation), was rebuilt at least three times, and that the female figure was deliberately desposited during one of these construction phases. It was placed on a pre-existing platform and buried under a light-brown sandy layer, which was then covered by a dark-grey layer, and finally coated with a layer of white plaster 3cm thick.

The sagging physical features of the Neolithic female figure are more representative of an older woman, perhaps of high status, than a fertility goddess.

A stylish figure

The artistic style displays typical Çatalhöyük characteristics in the shape of the head, the hairstyle (a circular ‘bun’ on the top of the head), the placing of the hands on the breasts, the large buttocks, and the disproportionately small hands and feet. Recent theories suggest that rather than representing fertility goddesses, whose features typically would be full-breasted and round-bellied to symbolise fecundity, the Neolithic female figurines recovered at Çatalhöyük depict older women who have achieved high status in society. Certainly such an interpretation better reflects this latest find, with its sagging breasts and belly.

The figurine, which stands about 17cm tall, 11cm wide, and 9cm thick, is made of a type of marble we commonly find in the upper levels of Çatalhöyük. It was made by first polishing the stone into shape, and then clearly defining the body details using incised lines: eyes, mouth, chin, neck fat, the back of the head roll. The navel is engraved as an asymmetrical triangle pointing up, and is more roughly done than the other lines, which are very deliberately marked and naturalistic. The hands are folded under the breasts, which are splayed to the side as if the figure was depicted lying down. The once-smooth surface has weathered and is pitted as a result of its long burial, but nonetheless it is possible to admire the superior craftsmanship and attention to detail shown by the artist who created this exquisite object.

All photos: Jason Quinlan, Çatalhöyük Research Project