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As the first full-length volume about Çatahöyük aimed at the general public since James Mellaart's 1967 book, Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia , this book has the potential to reach a very wide audience. For that reason, I decided at the outset to employ literary devices that would allow me to get across a maximum of archaeological knowledge, including details of the theoretical debates that led Ian Hodder to reopen the site in the first place, with a minimum of pain to the general reader. I felt that the best way to do this was to tell the story of the excavation through the lives of the archaeologists themselves, exploring their backgrounds, what led them to become archaeologists, and the various ways that they participated in the dig and experienced its challenges. For many members of the team, this occasionally created anxiety about the extent to which their private lives would be exposed publicly; in most cases these issues were easily resolved through discussions and negotiations about what would and would not be included. It is a great credit to the members of the team that they allowed me to go to the maximum limits in this regard: Once having accepted the basic premise of the book, they courageously permitted their lives to be opened up for scrutiny.

Although at the beginning I had no intentions other than producing an "objective" piece of journalism about the dig, the book ended up being, in my opinion, a good example of the principle of "multivocality" which has guided Ian Hodder's direction of the excavations. That is, the book is part of the Çatahöyük Research Project, and yet independent of it at the same time. While a number of members of the team carefully reviewed the text and made corrections and very helpful suggestions, at all times it was understood that I would have the final say about what went into the book. It is rare that a journalist has the opportunity to produce a work under these conditions, which insured the credibility of the book while at the same time maximizing the input by its very subjects. If the book ends up having even a modest success in the literary marketplace, it will be largely due to this collaborative effort. And in writing it, I learned a great deal myself about what "objective" journalism really means, and to what extent it is achievable or even desirable. I think I expressed this best in the book's Introduction:

"One day, while consulting the dig's Web site…I was surprised to see that without my knowledge I had been designated as the excavation's official 'biographer.' At first I was a little concerned. I even thought about asking them to take my name off. Wouldn't being a member of the team jeopardize my reputation as an objective journalist? Indeed, I had often secretly wondered whether I kept going back to Çatahöyük so that I could write this book, or whether I wrote this book so that I could keep going back to Çatahöyük. But in the end, it really doesn't matter; either way, the story comes out the same."

Now that the book is done, I have to find a new excuse to visit the dig. I am sure I will come up with something.
    The Çatahöyük Biography (Michael Balter, ÇATALHÖYÜK 2004 ARCHIVE REPORT)
Çatahöyük could hardly have had a better official biographer, as Michael Balter's history of the famed site makes for fascinating reading. Whether intentionally or not, the structure of the book itself calls to mind an archaeological dig. At the very bottom, buried under numerous layers, lies the question of how and why humans first made the epochal transition from wandering hunter-gatherers to settled communities. This is a mystery, the Neolithic Revolution, that can be explored but never answered, as the literally prehistoric folk who enacted this revolution by definition did not leave written records of their motivations. We can know that such settling would have required steady food sources, but can't know with certainty whether they forced or followed innovations in domestication of animals and plants or were the result of religious and ideological doctrines or allowed for the development of said.

A level up from the central mystery we have the actual physical evidence that will be unearthed as teams dig and that will provide the bases for various conjectures about how Çatahöyük, which was settled some 9,500 years ago and eventually housed some 8,000 people, developed. Excavations have revealed things like wall paintings, figurines, burial practices, and more, a treasure trove of artifacts and remains around which theses can be constructed and argued as to what life was like for the occupants of the site in the past.

Moving up we come to the controversial history of the dig itself, which was shut down by the Turkish government for some years because of alleged irregularities in the handling of antiquities by the British archaeologist James Mellaart. This scandal alone has provided authors enough material for an entire book.

This brings us to the personalities involved at Çatahöyük, first Mellaart and later another Britisher, Ian Hodder, whose imagination was fired by Mellaart's work and who continues the dig today. as the digging progresses off and on, Mr. Balter traces the changes in prevailing archaeological theories: from the culture history school of folks like Mellaart, which "assumed that the objects dug up directly reflected the culture of the peoples they were studying," such that what you found was who those people were; to the New Archeology, of Lewis Binford and David Clarke, which emphasized scientific methodologies, in the belief that more rigorous measurement, quantification, dating and the like would provide scientifically sound means of testing given hypotheses about the peoples under study; to the post-processual or contextual archaeology of Hodder, which might best be considered a kind of post-modern and relativistic theory, returning to an emphasis on archaeology as a historical rather an a physical science. The venomous disputes among the various schools of thought make for some amusing reading. Those of us with no dog in the fight, might paraphrase Henry Kissinger: Archaeological politics are so bitter precisely because the stakes are so small.

The next layer we're brought to is the team that's digging at Çatahöyük now and that Mr. Balter has become an unofficial official part of through his writing about them. They're an interesting cast of characters and the detail he can provide about how they go about the day-to-day work of modern archaeology is fascinating. If most of us went through a phase in childhood where we wanted to be tomb raiders because of how Hollywood portrayed them, Mr. Balter shows that their duties really more resemble the meticulous examination and reconstruction work of the team from CSI. They may not be adventurers, but they are unexcelled puzzle solvers.

Sprinkled gently upon the rest of this structure is a dusting of material that doesn't bear directly on the site, like the feminist groups who worship the Earth Mother and insist that the folk of Çatahöyük must have too, because some of the figurines found there are alleged to represent Her. I'd suggest that this is so much debris, but Mr. Balter is a more charitable soul and discusses them with a straight face, though one hopes a tongue-in-cheek.

Finally, starting from above it all as an observer and then digging through all the layers and sifting the evidence is the author, a most gracious and amiable but dogged guide to the site. He's clearly been beguiled by Çatahöyük and the team at the dig and conveys his own interest to us. Mr. Balter's mastery of all this material is impressive and it allows him to provide the kind of multivocality that Hodder aspires to:
This meant that no one archaeologist, no matter how many degrees he or she had or how much experience in the field, could claim to have the magic key to understanding the past. Rather the archaeologist engaged in a complex and often frustrating process of interpretation of what had happened in prehistory, an excavator had to be receptive to multiple points of view.
My only quarrel is that he is perhaps too reserved a narrator, not offering his own judgments about the many issues he raises. He's certainly fair to every argument, but perhaps too fair. It's one thing not to claim to have the magic key, but quite another to almost intentionally frustrate the reader to prove a point. Still, if that's the worst criticism you can find of an author he's done a darn fine job. Mr. Balter has, in fact, written what has to be the standard against which any archaeological narrative should be judged and he's set the bar awfully high.


Grade: (A-)


Michael Balter Links:

    -AUTHOR PAGE: Michael Balter (Simon Says)
    -Çatalhöyük: Excavations of a Neolithic Anatolian Höyük
    -Mysteries of Çatalhöyük (Science Museum of Minnesota)

-ESSAY: The Seeds of Civilization: Why did humans first turn from nomadic wandering to villages and togetherness? The answer may lie in a 9,500-year-old settlement in central Turkey (Michael Balter, May 2005, Smithsonian)
    -ESSAY: Search for the Indo-Europeans: Were Kurgan horsemen or Anatolian farmers responsible for creating and spreading the world's most far-flung language family? (Michael Balter, 27 February 2004, Science)
    -ESSAY: Why Anatolia? (Michael Balter, 27 February 2004, Science)
    -ESSAY: Did Plaster Hold Neolithic Society Together?: Recent studies around a 9500-year-old settlement suggest it was built in the middle of marshland. How then did its inhabitants grow their food? (Michael Balter, 14 December 2001, Science)
    -ESSAY: A Long Season Puts Çatalhöyük in Context (Michael Balter, 29 October 1999, Science)
    -ESSAY: The First Cities: Why Settle Down?: The Mystery of Communities (Michael Balter, 20 November 1998, Science)
    -ESSAY: THE FIRST CITIES: Digging Into the Life of the Mind (Michael Balter,, 20 November 1998, Science)
    -ESSAY:Let 'intelligent design' and science rumble (Michael Balter, 10/02/05, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: Evolutionary Genetics: Are Humans Still Evolving?: The goal of much of modern medicine and culture is effectively to stop evolution. Is that happening? (Michael Balter, 8 July 2005, Science)
    -ESSAY: Why Get Smart? (Michael Balter, 15 February 2002, Science)
    -ESSAY: Becoming Human: What Made Humans Modern?: Could our species have been born in a rapid burst of change? Researchers from different disciplines are trying to find out. (Michael Balter, 15 February 2002, Science)
    -ESSAY: Shake-Up in Paris: At 109, the International Herald Tribune is at a crossroads (Michael Balter, July/August 1996, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -ESSAY: Killing the Messengers: Thirty-seven murdered journalists - and counting. (Michael Balter, May/June 1995, Columbia Journalism Review)
    -ESSAY: 'Onward ... Over the Sea to Skye' (Michael Balter, August 23, 1991, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARCHIVES: "Michael Balter" (International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: Redesigned Rocket Fires Up Eurospace Program (Michael Balter, November 17, 1993, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: Eggheads à la Lyonnaise (Michael Balter, October 5, 1993, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: Summerhill's Radical Recipe Survives (Michael Balter, February 17, 1993, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: 400 Years Later, Oxford Press Thrives (Michael Balter, February 16, 1994, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: Biopesticides Use Genetics to Protect Both Crops and Environment (Michael Balter, December 19, 1991, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: 'Jumping Genes' Get Vaccine Role (Michael Balter, September 17, 1991, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: Ile de France Museums Offer Aesthetics in a Pastoral Setting (Michael Balter, October 27, 1992, International Herald Tribune)
    -ARTICLE: Biotech Bubbly - A Headache for Pests (Michael Balter, November 17, 1993, International Herald Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Guns, Germs & Steel: Is This How the West Won? (Michael Balter, Science)
    -ARCHIVES: "Michael Balter" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhöyük: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization by Michael Balter (Steven Mithen, Science)
    -REVIEW: of Goddess and the Bull (Pat Shipman, Nature)
    -EDITOR'S PICK: Goddess and the Bull (
    -REVIEW: of The Goddess and the Bull(Stein Jarving, Eutopia)
    -REVIEW: of Goddess and the Bull (K. Kris Hirst, Archaeology:
    -REVIEW: of Goddess and the Bull (G. Hall, Book Loons)
    -REVIEW: of Goddess and the Bull (

Book-related and General Links:

    -ARTICLE: Layers of clustered apartments hide artifacts of ancient urban life: City on Turkish plains a major draw for 'goddess tours' (David Perlman, April 18, 2005, SF Chronicle)
    -ESSAY: Dig Of The Century: Getting To The Bottom Of The Dorak Affair (Suzan Mazur, 8/27/05, Scoop)
    -ESSAY: Dorak Diggers Weigh In On Anna & Royal Treasure (Suzan Mazur, 4 October 2005, Scoop)
    -Goddess worship (Wikipedia)
    -ESSAY: "The Goddess Remembered" - A Case of "False Memory Syndrome" (Robert Sheaffer, December 1993, Debunker)
    -Turkey Travel Planner