Review of Çatalhöyük: Excavations of a Neolithic Anatolian Tell

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Çatalhöyük: Excavations of a Neolithic Anatolian Tell [Dead link: Archived version at the Internet Archive (may not match the content of this review)]

The Çatalhöyük Web Site is a very difficult one to review. It is extensive, multi-faceted, and complex. It is also evolving. Taken together, all these matters make it difficult to describe and evaluate the site. Notwithstanding those points, there is a great deal of information in this site. Much of it is carefully and thoroughly presented, and the level of access to current excavation data is unprecedented. This is a major step forward for archaeology, making field data available virtually in real time. The importance of the Web site is, of course, magnified by the importance of the archaeological site. Çatalhöyük has been the center of important debates about early urbanism and cult practices, and the new excavations are intended, in part, to provide more information for these debates.

I was struck on the home page by the all-too-typical absence of an author/editor. The opening page says, "Current editing and development by Anja Wolle," but Ms. Wolle is listed in the personnel page only as a computer person; the implication is that she is acting as webmaster only. (Before the last update of the site, there was another person, Peter Durham, credited with "design input.") Who is responsible for the choice of content, the vetting of individual submissions, the visual material used, the materials that are not attributed to individual authors, and so on? It is possible that Ms. Wolle is that person, but that is not clear and seems unlikely.

I was also struck at the outset by the aims of this Web site. It is clear from the breadth of the materials presented that the site is intended to provide information for the general public as well as the archaeological community. At this point, however, the information for the general public seems to me to be rather thin. I assume it will be expanded, but, in the meantime, I will confine my comments to the scholarly portions of the site.

The following materials are available for scholars: newsletters (which may also serve the general public), archive reports from the 1996 and 1997 seasons, bibliography, distribution plots, papers (sometimes whole papers, sometimes abstracts only, sometimes titles only) on Çatalhöyük from the Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting in 1996, information about project personnel, and materials from the excavation database. Navigation between and among sections is limited to the point of being frustrating. It is too often necessary to return to the home page to continue; rarely are there such elementary aids as a link to the next article in a sequence.

The key to the value of this material is the extensiveness of the material and its timeliness. For the 1996 and 1997 seasons there are reports on every aspect of the work, from the mundane matters of staffing and construction to results of excavation and survey projects (though there are two reports for the 1996 season not available). Those reports are generally thorough and complete, providing information that is not only detailed but very current. Indeed, one report indicates that "Firstly, it is likely that zooarchaeological findings from the 1960s excavations at the site are potentially severely flawed, at least in terms [of] taxonomic abundance." This kind of direct reporting of on-going research is what gives a Web site such as this one real potential. Good, factual reports are presented quickly to those who need the information.

Another of the reports, R. J. Matthews' discussion of the 1996 work on Building 1, was straight-forward, clear, and well illustrated. Indeed, using multiple browsing windows on a large monitor made following the history of the areas in question very easy - easier than with a paper publication. (For those who have not realized the possibility, any link can be brought up in a new window by using the right mouse button on a PC or by holding down the mouse button until the choice window appears on a MAC. That allows the original material to stay in place while the linked material appears in a new window. Many different windows, each with its own image or text, can be viewed on once.)

Other reports indicated the need for an editor. In general, in fact, the reports showed clearly the absence of a copy editor and of oversight concerning use of illustrations, references, and the like. Errors such as the missing word in the quotation above, grammatical errors, and others were too frequent, affecting the quality of the whole. The errors were not only minor grammatical errors but on occasion rose to the level of nearly incomprehensible English.

The use of illustrations is a good example of the missing uniformity that a guiding hand should have provided. Some reports had good, copious illustrations; others had none - even when they could have referred to illustrations used by other authors. Some had helpful charts, others had none. In some cases, there were references to figures, but there were no links and no apparent figures, despite the references. Illustrations of pottery were completely absent.

In addition to the reports, there are diary entries of the excavation personnel. Access to the diary is provided by a Web page that presents two search boxes - one is for the name of the individual whose comments are to be read and the other is for the date of the entry. Unfortunately, one cannot easily go through a specific person's entries in sequence, since the entries for all of the excavators are grouped together; selecting the next entry (a link at the bottom of the page) yields the next excavator's entry for the same date, not the next entry for the same excavator. I found the diary entries to be interesting and potentially very valuable as aids in understanding the complexity of certain areas. Of course, they are also excellent primary sources for future generations of scholars who will mine them for information about the techniques and procedures of this excavation.

An excavation database can also be queried through the Web site, and that is a very impressive feature of the site. One may request information for individual units, spaces, or features. Information on an excavation unit includes date of excavation, location (area, x- and y-coordinates, space, and building), category and interpretive category, dimensions, description, plan, and discussion. A more detailed description of the excavation unit may be obtained - adding bedding; inclusions; porosity; moisture; Munsell color; consistency & strength; consistency, plasticity, and stickiness; structure; texture; post-depositional features; basal boundary; condition and weather; method of excavation; and name of excavator. Stratigraphic relations are also available in a separate table (with a link from the basic information table).

Requesting information about a space yields a list of excavation units for that space. Each unit may be queried, yielding the information already noted above; indeed, each unit is hot-linked to a table with the details.

Features may also be individually queried, and the user may also call up a feature table - the complete list of features excavated thus far. For each feature there is a location and a description. Calling up the features individually yields more specific location information, dimensions, and the information from the feature table. Calling up an individual feature also provides a link to excavation unit information so that a user can directly access information about the excavation unit(s) associated with a given feature.

Valuable as these excavation data are, access is only by number of excavation unit, space, or feature. One cannot search for hearths, for instance, or any other meaningful category. Thus, the data can be used to support a discussion (on the Web or not), but they cannot easily be used to answer general questions posed by a reader, for instance, where are the hearths or what are the characteristics of all hearths of a given phase.

Faunal remains are also available through the database search page. Basic faunal data, bone artifacts, and a postcranial table are available. All data, however, are coded; so the utility of these data is quite limited.

Lithics tables are available as well. This portion of the site is still under construction, but there is already much available. For instance, the table showing lithics from each excavation unit is there. In addition, a table of blades, each with information about working techniques, is available, as are tables of bifaces/projectiles, debitage (too large to be downloaded on my machine without substantial difficulty), and modified blanks, edges, and proximal ends. Lithics may also be called up by excavation unit. Most of these tables are too wide to be used easily on most monitors.

Ceramics tables are also available, but they are coded. One of them is also too wide for the Web. No provision has been made to call up ceramics by excavation unit.

Taken together, the tables present an enormous amount of information. However, accessed through the Web as they are, the tables would be more useful if they could be downloaded so that searching, grouping, and sorting could be done. (Admittedly, that may not be perceived as desirable at this stage in the excavation.)

The new excavations have been in progress for some time, starting in 1993. Reports are only available for the 1996 and 1997 seasons, though there are references to the work of earlier seasons. In addition, most of the data tables indicate that work is in progress on the tables. As a result, one is left wondering about the missing pieces. It is a shame that the work of earlier seasons is not included and that there is no clear statement of what is missing from the data tables.

Given the many virtues of the site, it is unfortunate that the level of presentation is not better and more uniform. Too much of the material at the site needs work; a strong editorial hand is required.

The Çatalhöyük site also suffers from the problems inherent in being a ground-breaking approach. Being the first of its kind, it is predictably close to paper publications in format and general presentation - a simple and inexpensive approach, but not a very innovative one. Rather than taking advantage of the Web's features to provide materials in more effective ways, too many of the materials consist only of paper materials put on a computer screen. For instance, many of the authors spend time in the reports discussing methodology, then results, and finally interpretations. The Web seems to provide an ideal environment to present methodology, findings, and interpretations separately, each linked to a kind of table of contents so that the reader may choose to read only the portion of interest, but no such device to change the linear approach of paper presentations has been used.. I do not mean necessarily to suggest a specific organization; rather, I want to suggest that there are many ways to use the Web to present information in new and more effective ways than on paper, but none has been tried here. Even something so obviously needed - a simple chart relating the excavation area names used in the earlier excavation by Mellaart to the new names used by the current team - is not provided, though it could be referred to (and hot-linked) in many places.

The presentation of the micro-artifact distribution plots is a good case in point. These plots are "scanned versions of the Micro-artefact distributions . . ." and are quite large, too large for the monitor. They present very useful information in a concise and effective way when they are on paper. In this medium, however, the presentation is not very effective. Many of the numbers are too small to be legible. Yet there are ways to present this information well on the Web. It is too bad that more time and money (the silent but effective enemy of innovation) weren't spent here.

In conclusion, then, the Çatalhöyük site seems to me to be an excellent beginning, a bold step to permit archaeological data to be presented quickly and openly to a very wide audience. On the other hand, the site needs a true director, someone who can and will critique materials, enforce some uniformity of approach, copy edit as necessary, and then use the capacities of the Web to make all this information even more useful. Of course, the site also needs explicit indicators of responsible persons, archival storage plans, and dates of posting of individual portions of the site. Despite the criticisms, some of which I consider very important, this is a site to be savored for what it provides and for the promise of more and better things to come.

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