Understanding Neolithic Life: Çatalhöyük

Around 7,400 BCE, people first settled in Central Turkey at the site of Çatalhöyük. By 6,500 BCE, the site was a Neolithic urban center. Several construction phases of tightly packed mud brick houses led to the formation of a tall mound at the site. The excavation of the mound and the examination of discovered features and artifacts led to the understanding of what life was like in the Neolithic community and how it developed over time. The site provides great insight into how early farming communities functioned and what activities and items they valued.

A recreation of what Çatalhöyük possibly looked like

The dense settlement was made up of mud brick houses, each with an entrance on the roof.  All of the houses were closely packed together, with zero space dedicated to streets or major pathways.  Evidence of crop cultivation and domesticated animals proves that the last group to occupy Çatalhöyük was a segmentary society of farmers and herders, not a mobile group of hunter-gatherers. It was not a large enough settlement to be considered a chiefdom or state, but still had up to 9,000 residents.  Inside the mud brick houses, there were cooking spaces with ovens and hearths. As agriculture was beginning to become the dominant way of life, food preparation was developing.  More serious cooking tools could be built because people had the ability to settle down and build houses, instead of temporary camps.

The presence of wall paintings and relief sculpture contributes to the understanding of the culture and beliefs of the people at Çatalhöyük. The plastered walls of the houses were used to display painted geometric designs or reliefs of wild animals.  One of the most abundant forms of art found at the site was clay figurines. They were found throughout various areas of the houses, but usually in garbage pits.  The Çatalhöyük people may have used the sculptures to protect against evil spirits or as wish tokens. Another important art form was the installation of animal remains into the main rooms of the houses.  Many bull skulls can be found lining the walls of the rooms, with huge horns sticking out into the living space. The presence of undomesticated animals in the art of the Çatalhöyük people may show a desire to remember the recent past, when hunting was still the main source of food.

Some of the bull skulls found in the houses

The art, organization of houses, and presence of agriculture suggests that the residents of the Çatalhöyük site were in a position in which they could stay in one spot and hold territory. They had stable enough resources to devote time to the arts, but used paintings and installations to connect them to the memories of the past way of life. Çatalhöyük was one of the largest settlements of its time, and by examining the ancient structures and artifacts we can gain insight into how humans lived during the beginning stages of farming and crop cultivation.








Further Reading:



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Disaster Archaeology: Joya de Cerén

Natural disasters are categorized as devastating events in nature that occur abruptly and often with terrible ramifications.  Violent storms, mudslides and volcanic eruptions have been the cause of destruction in many an ancient civilization, often leaving behind no trace of the people who inhabited them.  However, in a bit of an ironic twist, these same circumstances are what have preserved many ancient cultures for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years.  One such example of this is Joya de Cerén, the literal translation of which is ‘The Jewel of Cerén’.

One of the buildings uncovered at Joya de Cerén

Located in present day El Salvador, Joya de Cerén was a pre-Hispanic farming community that was active during the Mayan Classic period (A.D. 300-900).  This archaeological site was preserved in the same way as the famous Italian city of Pompeii.  Around 600 A.D. a nearby volcano, Loma Caldera, erupted and covered the surrounding area in thick layers of ash and other volcanic debris.  This natural disaster acted as a natural preserving agent that protected the architecture, artifacts, ecofacts and even the fields used by the ancient farmers.  All of which was still as the inhabitants had left them while fleeing.  As much as this site was a miraculous find for archaeologists with its remarkable level of preservation, it was made even more unique due to the fact that the area was largely non-elite.  For the most part research into Mayan culture has focused on the rich and elite of society as their marks have stood the test of time more easily than that of the general populace.

An piece of pottery recovered from Joya de Cerén

However, Joya de Cerén gives the world a rare view into the lives of common ancient Mesoamerican farmers.  The layers of volcanic ash allowed for the preservation of the architecture and artefacts of the ancient site that were left ‘in-situ’ or in their original positions of storage and use.  The personal dwellings give us a clear picture of the day-to-day lives of an ancient Mesoamerican farmer.  Religious items, animal remains and even the sleeping mats have been preserved, all ordinary items at the time that would seem to have no large importance on their own but provide much valuable information together (Joya de Cerén Archaeolofical Site).  Several other types of structures have been preserved as well, such as religious and community buildings, storehouses and even a sweat bath.  The fields were also well preserved and show what kinds of foods were the staple of these ancient people’s diets.  These structures and their intact contents give detailed information about how the village functioned as a community, their beliefs and traditions and even their dietary practices.  Again all features that might seem meaningless to the average person, but allow researchers to gain a clearer understanding of the life these ancient people lived and how that relates to the people in the present.


Banyasz, Malin G. “From the Trenches – Off The Grid – Archaeology Magazine Archive.” From the Trenches – Off The Grid – Archaeology Magazine Archive. Archaeological Institute of America, Mar. 2012. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.


Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Joya de Cerén Archaeological Site.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.





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Tollund Man: Peat Bogs Today and in the Iron Age

Tollund man, discovered in a bog in Denmark in 1950, is so well preserved that the two brothers who found him thought he was a recent murder victim. Based on carbon testing, he lived during the Iron age and died around 3-400 BC aged 30-40 years. After being hanged he was laid in the peat bog in a sheepskin cap, a belt, and a noose tied around his neck. Instead of decomposing, the peat moss killed bacteria and prevented the decomposition of the body.

Tollund Man’s Preserved Remains

Ever since Tollund man was found, both archeologists and the media have debated and posed questions about the manner of his death. Superficially, the circumstances of Tollund man’s death seems to correspond with a section of Tacitus’ later description of the Semnones, a germanic tribe. He wrote in the second century, that, “They hang traitors and renegades in trees, cowards, combat evaders (afraid to go to war) and unnaturally immoral people they lower into filthy swamps and cover them with branches”(“Why Did He Have to Die?”). However, Tacitus was writing about 400 years after Tollund man was left in the bog and Tollund man’s burial does not seem to line up with the burial of a criminal. Archeologists have pointed out that he was placed in the bog in a sleeping position. It is also likely that those who buried him closed his eyes and mouth after death. Because of this his death is often seen as a sacrifice to a god. Other bog bodies do not show the same special treatment that Tollund man’s does. The bodies of Kayhausen boy (500-100 B.C.) and Yde girl (54 B.C.-128 A.D.) may have had physical deformities that ultimately led to violent deaths. Yde girl’s hair was also shaved on one side a sign that she might have been an adulteress (French).

Tollund Man’s Preserved Head

Though Tollund man was likely put in the peat bog to be forgotten, either as a criminal or more likely as a sacrifice to the gods, it was this location that insured his preservation. Bogs are treasure troves for modern archeologist, and the artifacts recovered from them can often reveal information about people’s lives that would not otherwise survive. Bodies are not the only things found in peat bogs, archeologist and locals have also found jewelry, weaponry, battle armor, farming equipment, and even butter (French). In the peat surround the Tollund man two peat spades and a wooden walkway were also found (“The Bog Where the Tollund Man Was Discovered”). Reconstructed image of peat cutting during the Iron age, when Tollund Man would have lived. The existence of these artifacts also point to the important role that peat bogs also played for ancient cultures. It has been argued peat bogs, were seen as ‘gateways to the spiritual world’ as well as a source of fuels, as it is still seen today (French). All together the bog artifacts can indicate what peat bogs meant to Iron age cultures and can help unravel the continued questions that the Tollund man and other bog bodies pose.

Reconstructed image of peat-cutting during the Iron Age

French, Kristen C. “The Curious Case of the Bog Bodies – Issue 27: Dark Matter.” Nautilus. N.p., 06 Aug. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. http://nautil.us/issue/27/dark-matter/the-curious-case-of-the-bog-bodies
“Why Did He Have to Die?” The Tollund Man – Death. Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, 2004. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. http://www.tollundman.dk/doeden.asp
“The Bog Where the Tollund Man Was Discovered.” The Tollund Man – The Bog. Silkeborg Museum and Amtscentret for Undervisning, 2004. Web. 02 Feb. 2017. http://www.tollundman.dk/mosen.asp

Read More:
More on the Tollund Man: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/tollund-man
Bog bodies and violence: http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/bog/violence1.html
Bog bodies poetry and science: https://www.elsevier.com/connect/the-bone-vault-poetry-and-palaeontology-of-the-bogs

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Pazyryk People of the Past and the Homeless of Today

In modern day society, the homeless are too often looked down upon as the lowest class.  We treat a settled down lifestyle as the ultimate goal — the American dream of a house with a white picket fence.  But as urban nomads, the homeless are not inherently down on their luck.  In fact, the nomadic lifestyle has a long and complex historical significance – like, for instance the Pazyryk people.

The construction of a Pazyryk kurgan.

The Pazyryk people were nomadic horsemen who inhabited the Altai mountain region from the 6th century B.C. to the 4th century B.C. (about.com).  The Pazyryk people combat the idea the nomadic peoples are, “less developed than many sedentary ones”  (nytimes.com), or that nomadic people of their region were simply “rude barbarians” (evolution-institute.org).  In Pazyryk burial mounds known as kurgans, artifacts like carved pieces of wood, goods formed from precious metals, and mechanically-complex carts have been found.  Foreign goods have also been found, but they have been transformed by the Pazyryk people’s craft — becoming even more fantastic.

Princess designs

An artist’s rendition of the tattoos covering the mummy known as Princess Ukok.

Even more interesting than the artifacts found inside of kurgans are the mummies buried with them.  Upon their bodies were intricate tattoos of animals both real and mythical.  It is believed that these tattoos symbolized place in society, names, or even pre-writing (nytimes.com)(ancient-origins.net “The Stunning Ancient Tattoos of the Pazyryk Nomads”).  This has been supported by the discovery of the mummy Princess Ukok, a young female who was found in an elaborate burial chamber.

The Pazyryk people have even been found to have performed complex surgery.  Two individuals were found to have undergone cranial surgery, and survived — evidenced by bone growth over the incisions (ancient-origins.net “Ancient Pazyryk nomads carried out highly advanced cranial surgery in Siberia”).  Interestingly, there is evidence that the surgeries performed are in line with ancient Greek medical texts suggesting the Pazyryk had an extensive range and communication with other cultures of their time period (ancient-origins.net “Ancient Pazyryk nomads carried out highly advanced cranial surgery in Siberia”).

The urban nomads of today are not unlike the Pazyryk.  Though some are not homeless  by choice, many do make the choice to be “home-free”.  Those of us with sedentary lives should not look down upon urban nomads.  We should work to coexist and stop trying to fix their way of living through assimilation into our lifestyle.  Nomadic people have an equally rich culture and history — especially if wealth is not measured in terms of material items.




The Pazyryk Kurgans: a Glimpse into the Amazing World of Central Asia in the Iron Age (I millennium BCE)





Further Reading:

The Textiles from Pazyryk





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Role Modeling Sustainable Living through the Ancient City of Caral-Supe

As President Obama urges world leaders to tackle climate change in Paris for COP21, members from the 124 nation group of the International Union of Architects plan to present to the Paris summit the Caral Letter, a letter celebrating the ancient city of Caral-Supe in Peru as a model for sustainable living in the twenty-first century.  This initiative is an example of how archaeology can be used to engage the problems our society currently faces by studying the past for ways to plan for a better future.   

The city of Caral overlooking the Supe river valley.

The city of Caral-Supe was home to the Notre Chico people and can be traced back to the Late Archaic period of the Central Andes and is also the oldest center of civilization in the Americas.  Caral is 5000 years old and 626 hectares, situated on a dry desert terrace overlooking the green valley of the Supe river.

Caral is famous for the ways its engineers developed the complex city using basic tools, representing inspiration to current world leaders and engineers trying to tackle climate change.  The city incorporates sunken amphitheaters, pyramids, and underground ducts that once channeled winds to keep fires burning (globalpost.com).  Moreover, Caral is situated in a seismically active area, and engineers of Caral innovated the use of flexible foundations called “shicras” to stabilize structures in the city.  

A picture of one of the structures in the city of Caral.

The city also epitomizes a message about how our society should respect the environment.  “This society was very interested in developing in harmony with nature. They never occupied the valley, they didn’t settle on productive land. Fertile fields were deities,” said Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady, who conducted the first excavations at Caral in 1996 and brought the site to world attention (globalpost.com).  The city of Caral-Supe is an admirable example for architects to present to the climate summit not only because it serves to inspire current world leaders and engineers with the extraordinary tasks people accomplished with only basic tools, but also because the people of Caral intimately respected their environment – a pertinent message for world leaders looking to solve climate change.

The city of Caral-Supe shows that archaeology can be a means of tackling the problems our society faces today by providing examples about how we faced – and overcame – similar challenges posed in the past.  

“We turn to the past to see how civilization was organized 5,000 years ago, thinking about their commitment to nature, their cosmic vision,” said Jose Arispe, one of Peru’s leading architects and an adviser with the International Union of Architects. (globalpost.com)





Photo 1 http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2013/02/26/caral_2-6202c5022d4f3a304ac051b478a0acb728860ab7-s900-c85.jpeg

Photo 2 http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/Images/countries/American%20pics/caralpyramidmayor.jpg

Further Reading



Gigapan of Caral-Supe http://gigapan.com/gigapans/163382

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