The Significance of Çatalhöyük and its Connection to the Past

By Sam Cowen

Edited by Emerson Hurley

Image Credit: Dan Lewandowski, an artist’s impression of Çatalhöyük.

Located in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), Çatalhöyük is one of the largest and most heavily documented archaeological sites of the neolithic world. This site was first excavated by James Mellaart in 1961 and then again in 1963, with his broader type of excavation allowing him to unearth a substantial number of houses and buildings within the settlement. Later, excavations were continued by Ian Hodder, who in 1993, thoroughly excavated only a few houses but provided an enormous amount of detail into the daily lives of the individual.Together, both these excavations provide us with a detailed account of the social, architectural and religious changes and continuity which occurred during the neolithic period. However, whilst they do provide us with this information, we must recognise that what was excavated was only a fragment of the entire city. Thus, the arguments made in this paper, and any in the future, come with limitations and are subject to change as new archaeological evidence is found. Nevertheless, from the available information, this paper discusses evidence where we see continuity in Çatalhöyük, relating to a strong ancestral and geographical connection. I do this by looking at the architectural design of the settlement, both the interior and exterior of the buildings. By assessing the data, I will conclude that there is evidence of continuity, although innovations were made within the settlement. These innovations do not undermine the continuity but rather make it harder to locate.

Fig. 1. Bleda During, Social dimensions in the architecture of Neolithic Çatalhöyük, 2001. Shows the continuity in the architecture, throughout the levels excavated at Çatalhöyük. It shows a sharp decline around level V, which correlates with the architectural redesign in c. 6500 BCE.

Architectural structure:

What we find from the excavation of Çatalhöyük is a plethora of houses, closely compacted, stacked upon one another. As each generation passed, family members would rebuild the houses on top of one another, creating levels which we use to differentiate between the different periods. Hodder theorises that this was deliberate, so that the inhabitants could remain close to their gods and ancestors.

Continuity is significantly easier to spot prior to 6500 BCE, or what is known as Level V. During this period, individuals built their houses on top of one another, keeping the buildings closely compacted. However, this soon changed, with an architectural redesign occurring. Of the fifteen building levels excavated, we can see elements of an overall decline in its continuity, with buildings not being rebuilt on top of each other and the creation of more open spaces. Figure 1 shows the level of building continuity found in Çatalhöyük. From the data, it is evident that there is a strong drop in continuity, occurring at level V – corresponding with the estimated dates of the architectural redesign. I would argue that despite the continuity of architecture diminishing, the social continuity of the inhabitants did not waver. Whilst there was a change in architectural design, the inhabitants were still building in the same area, creating similar buildings to those their ancestors had constructed. This is in contrast to places in Anatolia, where there was little continuity, both due to the lack of residential buildings and the lack of ancestral connection. An example would be Göbekli Tepe. The architecture found here suggests the presence of religious and ceremonial buildings rather than residential ones. By comparison, Çatalhöyük had religious and ceremonial areas, but they are found in houses, specifically on the north side, near the burial graves. This difference gives us two explanations as to why continuity was stronger in Çatalhöyük than in places such as Göbekli tepe. The connection with one’s ancestors, through both religion and geography on the whole, allowed for more continuity within Çatalhöyük. When these two factors are put together, we can assume that an individual wouldn’t want to leave. There would be set foundations to build upon, and the individual has a connection with the land through his ancestors. Hence the architectural redesign was rather an adaptation of what was already there, allowing for the settlement to continue. Therefore, I would argue that despite the architectural redesign, which occurred at Level V, there was still an overall sense of continuity in Çatalhöyük; it is just harder to spot. 

Interior design

We can see other elements of continuity represented within the home. The separation of rooms into ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ gives the impression of an evolving society, one which was adapting within the same community rather than moving on. From around 6500 BCE, we start to see evidence of pots used for cooking kept on the south side of the house, near the ovens and hearths. This is opposed to the more religious elements of the house, such as the burials and wall paintings, which would occur in the north. Figure 2 shows the density of small bones and chipped stones found in white-plastered floors (typically found in the northern, cleaner parts of the house) versus the non-white-plastered floors (typically found in the southern, dirtier parts of the house). From this, it is evident that there was a separation of rooms, with the southern parts of the house being for domestic tasks, whilst the north was used for ceremonial. Moreover, to support this argument, evidence from micro-debitage shows that some parts of the house were kept deliberately clean as opposed to others. Whilst this doesn’t tell us which rooms were clean and dirty when combining it with the archaeological evidence, it reaffirms the argument about the separation of rooms and what they were used for. Therefore, this shows us that the inhabitants, once again, adapted and changed their traditions, but overall continuity didn’t diminish. The parts of the home which were kept clean were those related to their ancestral ties, providing evidence of a strong connection to them. Thus, I would argue that although the change was occurring, continuing respect for their past was in no way faltering.

Fig. 2. Bleda During, Social dimensions in the architecture of Neolithic Çatalhöyük, 2001.  

Furthermore, there is substantial evidence of people burying individuals under the floors of their homes. The bodies were found in the foetal position, sometimes decapitated, but mostly not, and accompanied by burial goods. However, when looking at the location of where the bodies are buried we see evidence of continuity. These burials happen within houses, far more than at other Anatolian sites. Though we must not neglect evidence from sites such as Çayönü, which show evidence for similar mortuary practises. Furthermore, there is similarity between practises when looking at both Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe. The beheading of the dead (which we have evidence of in Çatalhöyük) can be seen on a stone pillar found at burial sites in Göbekli Tepe. Thus mortuary practises we see in Çatalhöyük was more likely to be a ‘construction of a social memory’ rather than an isolated incident only happening in one location. This provides evidence of the transference of similar cultures throughout Anatolia, and thus cultural continuity. Göbekli Tepe and Çayönü predate Çatalhöyük by 500 and 1000 years respectively, and thus the rituals passed on are signs of continuity, although passed between different locations. Thus the continuity presented can be attributed to other sites in Anatolia, predating Çatalhöyük, and providing evidence of continuity. It could even provide evidence of migration from these sites, which would help facilitate the argument of transference of knowledge. Regardless, by looking at the burial practises which occurred, we can see borrowed ideas from other cultures, expressing continuity, in this case over a wider geographical scope. Moreover, this is further expressed by the clear connection between the locations and the burying of the dead beneath the floor. Overall, I would argue that there is significant evidence to suggest high levels of continuity within Çatalhöyük, as shown by the mortuary practises.

 Fig. 3 Stone Pillar at one pillar found at burial sites in Göbekli tepe.

As well as the burial practises, evidence of continuity can be found by contrasting wall paintings and with the archaeological evidence. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of domestication through pottery and metallurgical instruments. Moreover, storage bins have been found outside of houses, which most likely contained grain and other food for storage. From this, we certainly have evidence of longevity, allowing for continuity within the population to occur. By staying in the same location, it allows for the population to develop, creates a connection to the land, and ancestral presence can flourish. However, we must not neglect the wall art which is found in the houses. Hodder explains how the wall art depicting wild animals, ‘contrast to the heavy dependence in the diet on domestic sheep and goat…the paintings and installations occur in the domestic context of houses. And yet it is not that domestic world that is depicted. Rather it is an outside world of wild animals’.

Fig. 4. Ian Hodder, Çatalhöyük: revealing the mysteries of Turkey’s ancient town, 2006.  Pots found inside the house, and by going off trends of what other pots were known to be used for, these were most likely storage bins

Whilst some would infer from this that they were living, a semi-domesticated lifestyle, and they had not cultivated the region, we must consider the other possibility. It is just as likely that these paintings were made purely for artistic purposes rather than to convey practises happening at the time. Even if they did convey real practises, it is likely that they were an artistic representation of past memories rather than current events.If anything, this gives stronger evidence for the existence of continuity, as they are depicting and reminiscing on past events. This can even link to the example of burial rites, with the continuations of stories coming alongside this knowledge. Therefore, we would argue that continuity clearly thrived and even drove the people of Çatalhöyük to artistic depictions of events, showing us the significance of the past for them.


There is sufficient evidence to suggest that the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük show continuity, both inside and outside the home. Evidence of architectural redesign, connection to ancestry and evidence of domestication all support this argument, although sometimes it is not clear to what extent. No doubt, the development took time, with traditions and knowledge coming from ancestors, events, or even other settlements in Anatolia, such as Göbekli Tepe or Çayönü . However, it was due to Çatalhöyük’s longevity that continuity was able to be acted upon, both inside and outside the home. Therefore, Çatalhöyük is significant as it gives evidence of continuity, and a rich connection with the past, whether that be from the settlement or its surrounding neighbours.


Secondary Scholarship:

Düring, Bleda. “Social dimensions in the architecture of Neolithic Çatalhöyük.” Anatolian Studies 51 (2001): 1–18.

“Göbekli Tepe Project”, Published 1st May 2010,

Hodder, I. “Çatalhöyük: 9000-year-old housing and settlement in central Anatolia.” In Housing and Settlement in Anatolia, an Historical Perspective, edited by Yildiz Sey. Turkey: Turkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfi, 1996b.

Hodder, Ian. Çatalhöyük: revealing the mysteries of Turkey’s ancient town. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

Knüsel, Christopher, and Glencross, Bonnie. “Çatalhöyük, Archaeology, Violence.” Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 24 (2017): 23-36.

Kuijt, Ian. “Neolithic Skull Removal: Enemies, Ancestors, and Memory.” Paléorient 35 (2009): 119.

Mellaart, James. Çatalhöyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. Michigan: University of Michigan, 1965.

Sagona, Antonio and Zimansky, Paul. Ancient Turkey. London: Routledge, 2009.

Schmidt, Klaus. “Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey: A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations.” Paléorient 26 (2000): 45-54.