An 8,000-Year-Old Goddess Figurine Discovered in Central Turkey

Earlier in 2016, a group of archaeologists were working at the Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk in the Turkish region of Anatolia, and they made a spectacular find. The figurine, carved out of limestone dates between 6300 and 6000 B.C. This ancient collectible stands out not only for the material and quality, but also for its amazing craftsmanship.

Though such figurines were traditionally associated with the goddesses of fertility, the researchers believe that this find could also represent an elderly, influential woman in the ancient society. At the time that the figure was made, Catalhoyuk may have been in a process of transition from its egalitarian roots and sharing economy to a more stratified, hierarchal system based on an economy of exchange.

Excavations of the Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk started back in 1961, then led by the controversial British archaeologist James Mellaart. After accusing Mellaart of smuggling priceless artifacts out of Turkey, the Turkish government cancelled his permit to dig in 1965. By that time, however, excavations had revealed a large settlement, with over a dozen layers of ruin.

Catalhoyuk remained largely untouched by archaeologists until 1993, when Ian Hodder, a professor of anthropology and classics at Stanford University, launched the Catalhoyuk Research Project. With the backing of the Turkish government, an international team of archaeologists and other experts from more than a dozen universities have continued to excavate the site in the decades since then. In 2012, UNESCO designated the settlement as a World Heritage Site.

A team of Polish archaeologists discovered the 8,000-year-old “goddess figurine” earlier this year. It was found after they hollowed out a large dwelling in the southern part of the Catalhoyuk site. The inhabitants of the ancient dwelling had deposited in the figurine at the far corner of a platform built on top of earlier structures, next to an obsidian blade and close to another figurine of lesser quality, made from yellow limestone. Such placement suggests the figurine might have been positioned as part of ritual.

Goddess figurines were very popular during that era, and they were crafted all throughout southeastern Europe, the Middle East and Anatolia, the region that is in central Turkey where Catalhoyuk is located. The newly discovered figurine is very striking and admirable, not just for its appearance but for its craftsmanship as well.

Despite having oddly small hands and feet, the limestone figure is well-proportioned and shows knowledge of the human body. It is also finely detailed and includes rolls of flesh along the neck, arms and legs. In contrast with other goddesses, the woman’s arms are separated from her torsoand her protruding stomach is set off from the rest of her body by an undercut. Archaeologists say that only a skilled artisan could have created such detailed work, and only with the use of thin tools, such as a flint or obsidian.

Lynn Meskel who is a Stanford archaeology professor on Hodder’s team and other scholars have suggested that the Neolithic figurines found at Catalhoyuk may not only represent goddesses of fertility, but also older women who have achieved positions of influence in society. Being fat may have signaled a high social standing, as well as an advanced age, when the exertions of manual labor had been replaced by more sedentary religious and political duties.

Due to their revered position, such women might or might not have attained goddess status in the society. “In all egalitarian societies, older people have a special status and are venerated,” Hodder said in a statement. But, he continued, “Whether one can talk of these older people as ‘gods’ is a rather thorny issue.”

Whereas earlier generations of Catalhoyuk society were known to be egalitarian, with a shared economy in which resources were pooled, the researchers think it could have transitioned to a more stratified, hierarchal society (one that was similar to Ancient Rome, for instance), around the time that this goddess figure was crafted. As Hodder put it, “We think society was changing at this time, becoming relatively less egalitarian, with houses being more independent and more based on agricultural production.”

According to the statements made by archaeologists, humans first settled in Catalhoyuk around 7500 B.C. The settlement reached its peak around 500 years later, and would be abandoned by around 5700 B.C. The goddess figurine was discovered in the shallower layers of the site, suggesting that it was buried later in the lifespan of the settlement. Houses held central importance in Catalhoyuk, connecting present inhabitants with past generations through platforms built atop earlier structures. Previous generations were known to bury human remains between the levels, while in the newer, shallower layers years no human remains have been found. Instead, the researchers believe, figurines like the newly discovered goddess may have been used as intermediaries between the living and dead.