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Saturday volcano art – Çatalhöyük and the volcano that changed its spots 28 February 2009

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Catalhoyuk 'map'

Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey has been called the world’s oldest known city. The site consists of a town of many buildings that appears to have flourished between 8000 and 10000 years ago. Some of the buildings have surviving wall paintings, and it is one of these that is reproduced above. The orange, spotted object in the picture has since the 1960s been widely seen as the oldest surviving artistic representation of an erupting volcano.

The painting was uncovered by the British archaeologist James Mellaart, who discovered and excavated Çatalhöyük between 1958 and 1964. Mellaart interpreted the lower part of the picture as the close-packed buildings of the town of Çatalhöyük itself, and the orange shape in the upper part as the twin-peaked volcano Hasan Dagi, with an eruption in progress at the higher of its two cones. Hasan Dagi, a 3253m stratovolcano inactive since around 7500BC, lies about 140km east of the town. ‘A clearer picture of a volcano in eruption’, wrote Mellaart in his A Neolithic Town in Anatolia (1967), ‘could hardly have been painted’ (p. 176). In his ‘Excavations at Çatal Hüyük, 1963, Third Preliminary Report’, published in Anatolian Studies in 1964, Mellaart goes into detail (p. 55) about the depiction of the volcano:

This brings one to the spots on the mountain, the objects spurting out of the right-hand top, the ‘cloud’ of dots and strokes above (and to the right) of it and the lines extending from the base of the mountain. All these can be interpreted as the usual phenomena of a volcanic eruption: the rain of glowing volcanic bombs and red-hot rocks; the cloud of glowing particles above it and perhaps tongues of lava welling up from vents near the base of the mountain. It is known that the Central Anatolian volcanoes were active until the second millennium B.C. An ‘eye-witness’ painting of an early seventh millennium eruption of Hasan Dag is therefore certainly a possibility and in view of its economic importance a highly relevant subject to be recorded in a shrine.

The reference to the ‘economic importance’ of Hasan Dagi is an allusion to its role as the source of the obsidian that was traded by the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük.

Catalhoyuk 'map' detail