Can an artefact help us understand the ancients?

A woman figurine uncovered in Konya, Turkey. Jason Quinlan / AP Photo
A woman figurine uncovered in Konya, Turkey. Jason Quinlan / AP Photo

A remarkable archaeological find in central Turkey has reignited speculation about our Stone Age past. The find in question is an 8,000-year-old marble figurine, approximately 18cm long, depicting a naked and rather corpulent woman. The figurine had been intentionally and carefully buried under the floor of a Neolithic house, giving rise to the questions: who was she, and what would motivate people to bury such a skilfully crafted artefact under the floor of their home?

Psychologists typically grapple with the behaviour, thought processes and motivations of the living. This is a difficult enough task in itself, especially when you factor in cultural differences.

Imagine, then, trying to untangle and explain the behaviour and intentions of our very distant, long-dead ancestors. This is where psychology meets archaeology, giving rise to a relatively new discipline known as cognitive archaeology.

In attempting to answer questions about how people used to think, context is critical.

Çatalhöyük, the location of the current remarkable find, is often hailed as the oldest city on Earth. Situated on the outskirts of the modern-day Konya, this once densely populated human habitation is about 9,000 years old. The site was continually inhabited for more than a millennium, with the population hovering around 5,000.

The recent find is the latest in a series of similar figurines unearthed at the site going back to the 1960s. The earlier finds of corpulent female figurines gave rise to the speculation that Çatalhöyük was a matriarchal society. One of the most famous artefacts from the site is the iconic figurine of an enthroned woman with her hands resting on the heads of two leopards.

It is on display at Museum of Anatolian Civilisations in Ankara. Several leading archaeologists have interpreted such finds as evidence of a “Mother Goddess” cult at Çatalhöyük.

Each year, coachloads of visitors descend on the site from all over the world. Many of these visitors are women from the “Goddess community”, a kind of vanguard of second-wave feminism. For these intrepid pilgrims, some from as far away as California, the corpulent females and the leopards depicted in the figurines represent female power, sovereignty and divinity: symbols of a long-lost gynocratic golden age.

Professor Ian Hodder, the director of research at Çatalhöyük, expresses scepticism about the idea of a mother goddess cult. He does, however, concede that the motivation for the settlement in the first place may well have been based on joint ritual and symbolic activities; what we might call religion.

This most recent figurine discovered at Çatalhöyük is intact and highly detailed. Most of the earlier finds were broken and not nearly so well preserved. The placement of the figurine under the floor of the home is in keeping with how the people of Çatalhöyük are known to have buried their dead.

The location of the find and its naturalistic detail suggest that this figurine depicts a specific person, an elderly woman known to the household. This might not fit with the idea of a mother goddess cult, but it certainly supports the notion of a Neolithic society in which female elders were held in particularly high esteem, depicted in art and honoured in death.

We can never know with absolute certainty what living people are thinking, so our speculation about this long-vanished society remains wide open to interpretation and reinterpretation. The cognitive archaeologist might never have a complete understanding of why we did what we did or how we used to think, but these are still great questions to ask.

These are the seemingly important questions that come automatically to mind, the type of questions we can’t help asking ourselves.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Published: September 25, 2016 04:00 AM

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