Stanford scholar digs deep into human history at Neolithic site

Stanford archaeologist Ian Hodder is unraveling the origins of the human story at the 9,000-year-old Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey.

Jason Quinlan excavation site at Catalhoyuk Research Project

The Neolithic site at Catalhoyuk in central Turkey is one of the world's most ambitious archaeological excavation projects.

A Stanford scholar is leading the way on an international effort to reconstruct the story of humanity's past in a Neolithic village in modern-day Turkey.

Since 1993, Stanford archaeologist Ian Hodder has spearheaded the research and excavation activities at the 9,000-year-old Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey. Hodder is the director of the Çatalhöyük Archaeological Project, the largest and best-preserved site of its kind and one of the most ambitious excavation projects underway in the world.

This summer, the project received a $390,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the National Science Foundation to conduct radiocarbon dating at the site, which will help researchers further explore how humans settled down, formed large villages and domesticated animals in the area.

Discovering how people lived thousands of years ago can help us better understand ourselves today, Hodder said. At a time when most of the world's people were wandering hunter-gatherers, as many as 10,000 people lived at Çatalhöyük, which means "forked mound." And so, the site showcases the transition from wanderers to settled villages and even urban areas during a 2,000-year-period in Neolithic times.

Hodder and his team see three goals behind their work – to place the art from the site in its full environmental, economic and social contexts; to conserve the paintings, plasters and mud walls; and to present the site to the public.

As part of his philosophy, Hodder believes each excavator should pursue the opportunity to record his or her own individual interpretation of the site.

The work by Hodder and other researchers at the site – including students and faculty from around the world – is shedding light on the beginning of human civilization. For example, some researchers are undertaking psychological and artistic interpretations of wall paintings and art at Çatalhöyük; among the striking features are its female figurines. In fact, it appears gender equality prevailed there at times, according to Hodder.

"Thanks to modern scientific techniques, we have seen that women and men were eating very similar foods, lived similar lives and worked in similar tasks. The same social stature was given to both men and women. We have learned that men and women were equally valued," Hodder said in an interview published in the Hürriyet Daily News in Turkey.

He says some of the fundamental questions he seeks to answer are: Why did humans settle down and start living in cities? What is the relationship between people and things?

Hodder talks about the research as producing a "living archive" in a Stanford Humanities + Digital Tools video. Photos of the work are also available for viewing. The archive project's purpose to reorganize and publish all the Çatalhöyük data. The archive's pilot was supported by a Digital Humanities Grant from Stanford University Libraries, and led by Stanford research developers Karl Grossner and Elijah Meeks.

Discovered in the late 1950s, Çatalhöyük became famous worldwide due to its large size and dense human settlements. The current archaeological investigations there are supported by more than 22 institutions and organizations in addition to Stanford.