New techniques undermine 'mother goddess' role in ancient community


MODERN SCIENTIFIC methods are revealing how the world’s earliest farming communities lived about 9,000 years ago.

Newly discovered human and animal figurines are also overturning some of the previous misconceptions about an archaeological site first opened in the 1960s and a supposed role played by a “mother goddess” for the ancient peoples who lived there.

The evidence is coming from an archaeological site called Çatalhöyük. “This is this amazing site in central Turkey, which is about 9,000 years old and is often talked about as one of the first large settled communities,” explains Prof Ian Hodder from Stanford University. “Çatalhöyük was excavated in the 1960s in a methodical way, but not using the full range of natural science techniques that are available to us today.”

“Sir James Mellaart who excavated the site in the 1960s came up with all sorts of ideas about the way the site was organised and how it was lived in and so on,” he said. “We’ve now started working there since the mid 1990s and come up with very different ideas about the site.”

“One of the most obvious examples of that is that Çatalhöyük is perhaps best known for the idea of the mother goddess. But our work more recently has tended to show that in fact there is very little evidence of a mother goddess and very little evidence of some sort of female-based matriarchy.

“That’s just one of the many myths that the modern scientific work is undermining.”

For example Prof Lynn Meskell, also from Stanford University, has been studying the stone and clay figurines discovered at the site.

“The original project probably found less than 200 figurines. Our current project has found close to 2,000.”

“Now we have a very different picture of figurine production at the site,” she explains. “The greatest number out of that 2,000 are certainly animal figurines.

“There’s certainly less than 5 per cent that could be considered female.” Ironically, they have found many figurines in the “spoil heaps” that the earlier researchers discarded.

Among other finds at the site is the earliest evidence of milk use in human history.

On the role of the site in supporting a mother goddess legend, Prof Simon Hillson of University College London says: “While I’ve been working there since the mid 1990s we’ve had various ‘goddess tours’ – people on bus trips going around Turkey looking for the goddess. For them Çatalhöyük is very important because it is the origin of the mother goddess.”

It seems that the reality may be quite different.

Jeremy O’Brien is on placement at The Irish Times as a British Science Association Media Fellow