Monday, 24 April 2017

Did the people of Çatalhöyük build boats?

Two posts crossed my Twitter feed last week that got me thinking. Both are related to experimental archaeology and use of wetland resources. If you are a regular reader of my blog (or indeed my academic papers) you will have noticed that I talk a lot about the environment of Çatalhöyük, and how this may have influenced human activity in the Neolithic. You will also notice that I have criticised some of the early interpretations which, to me, present a simplistic interpretation of evidence that doesn’t consider the complexity of the environment, or people.

Çatalhöyük was situated in a wetland environment, and there have been debates over the influence this had on agriculture. Where were people growing their crops if the local area was not suitable for agriculture?  One theory suggests people travelled to fields that were located many km away from the site, which in turn has implications for social organisation. This always bothered me, firstly because of the limitations of the evidence being used (which I won't go into here), but also because people are amazing and innovative and very good and adapting to environments that we would consider to be ‘not ideal’. Furthermore, wetland environments themselves are variable and complex, and the huge area of the Konya plain was unlikely to be totally unsuitable for growing crops, even if localised areas were too wet.

The first post I saw this morning was about experimental reconstruction of mounds called ‘terps’ within salt marshes in the Netherlands, which have been interpreted as a way of growing crops in the wetland environment during 600BC – 1200AD. Whether natural or constructed, these sorts of dry areas within the wetland would make sense for where the Çatalhöyük residents were locating their crops. Maybe we need to look in more detail at the immediate landscape around the site; current geoarchaeological models are very broad scale and could easily be missing localised differences like this.

Experimental archaeology - reed boat construction by Pamela Holland
The second post was about experimental building of boats using reeds. It is becoming increasingly apparent that reeds were a major resource for Neolithic (and earlier) communities in the Near East, and there is also a long ethnographic history of the utilisation of marshes in Iraq for example. Two sited I have worked at, Çatalhöyük and the earlier Boncuklu, both have masses of remains of burnt and unburnt reeds. Some of these have been interpreted as fuel, and we also have evidence of these materials being used in basketry and matting. It struck me that there is no reason why the people of Çatalhöyük would not have the technology to build similar types of boats as these. The skills are similar to those needed for construction of roofs and weaving materials. 

But how would we identify a ‘decayed boat’ deposit? If we found a huge concentration of reed phytoliths like this, it would most likely be seen as discarded materials from roofing. This is a good example of how we ‘see what we know’ in archaeology. If a possible interpretation is outside our own realms of experience, we are unlikely to recognise it as a possible option. 

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