Rebuilding Boncuklu

The World Heritage Site of Çatalhöyük, stretching over 13 hectares of central Turkey is rightly famous as one of the world’s largest Neolithic sites. It has eye-catching wall paintings and plastered animal skulls on its house walls. The site emphasises the importance of developments in ritual, alongside the domestication of plants and animals, and suggests these phenomena may be interrelated. Çatalhöyük, however, belongs to the end of the Neolithic; just 10km north, exciting new evidence is emerging of the earlier appearance of farming in central Anatolia, and of the spread of farming westwards from the Fertile Crescent, where it originated, to Europe. There is also evidence of the antecedents of Çatalhöyük.

This nearby site of Boncuklu (8500-7500 BC) is representative of the first farming villages in the Konya Plain of central Anatolia. Domesticated crops are present but, 10,000 years ago, the area was a wetland steppe mosaic, not the natural habitat of the first cultivars. The crops were probably introduced from the south and/or east – but by whom? Continuities between earlier microlithic chipped stone assemblages and those at Boncuklu indicate adoption of crops by local wetland foragers rather than migrant farming populations. Recent DNA analysis on Boncuklu’s burials strongly suggests that the population did not originate in the Levant or Zagros, but their genes are closely similar to the first farmers of Europe, so Boncuklu-related populations spread farming westwards.

Experimental houses at Boncuklu (ABOVE) help archaeologists learn more about how the Neolithic inhabitants built and lived in their homes (BELOW), while visitors gain a better sense of the site. Images: Douglas Baird, Boncuklu Project

Other evidence from the site shows that Boncuklu’s inhabitants were directly antecedent to those at Çatalhöyük. As at Çatalhöyük, residences were divided into discrete ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ areas: the dirty area around the hearth for cooking, the clean areas presumably for sleeping and socialising. The clean areas saw ritual and symbolic practices, including human burial, wall and floor painting, insertion of boar jaws into walls, and placement of figurines, obsidian microliths, and bone points into post-holes. Buildings were frequently reconstructed in the same location, even though there was plenty of free space on the settlement, pointing to the importance of the continuity of the ancestral household. These practices, which are so distinctive of Çatalhöyük – where some 2,000 to 6,000 individuals lived – emerged in a very different context in small, sparsely occupied Boncuklu, with its population of perhaps 50 to 150 people.

Compared to foraging, farming at Boncuklu appears to have been of limited dietary and economic importance, suggesting that at Çatalhöyük the ethos of an earlier small-scale forager community was emphatically maintained despite major economic changes. Perhaps this conservatism helped to smooth out tensions across a much larger, denser population aggregation.

Boncuklu presents a range of public-engagement challenges. One is the limited preservation of buildings compared to a site like Çatalhöyük. It is more difficult to convey to visitors some aspects of the settlement that we have described. As well as a visitor centre, our outreach efforts include an experimental area, which allows us to understand aspects of the archaeology better, while also giving visitors a better idea of what the settlement was like.

By building two houses that very closely replicate the archaeological evidence, we have been able to understand factors involved in the construction and plastering of the houses and their decoration. We experimented with handmade mud-bricks and plasters of local materials, placed animal burials under the clean floors to see the effects, including the smell, and tested various fuels in the hearths. We continuously recorded the varying temperature and humidity, and observed the decay of the houses, experimenting with various refurbishments to roofs, walls, and floors. Visitors, especially children, tell us they love these parts of the site and their evocation of Neolithic life.

We are planning to build two more houses, recreating the largest excavated building and the lighter kitchen/work buildings that we have found, and to develop a Neolithic garden to see how early cultivars grow in wetland-edge environs, giving visitors a sense of how much the environment has changed over the past 10,000 years.

Douglas Baird, University of Liverpool, Andrew Fairbairn, University of Queensland, and Gökhan Mustafaog˘lu, Bülent Ecevit University.

Further information
More information can be found at, the project website.
One of our sponsors, the British Institute at Ankara, is organising a fundraising campaign to help support reconstruction work at the site: