This is Not a Map
A 3-meter long mural found at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük has long been taken to be a map of the Neolithic town (Steward 1980; Delano Smith 1982; Delano Smith 1987, 73–74; Casey 2002, 132, 225–26). This identification was convincingly challenged by Stephanie Meece (2006).
Meece’s arguments have however been summarily dismissed by several academic and lay commentators. What intrigues me is how the discounting of Meece’s arguments reveals certain modern preconceptions about the nature of cartography.
(Unfortunately, to explain these intriguing elements, I need to delve into the weeds; please bear with me.)
Background 1: Çatalhöyük and the Mural
Çatalhöyük (or Çatal Hüyük) is located at 37º40′N 32º50′E, in the plains of central Anatolia near Konya, Turkey. The tell was first subjected to an exploratory excavation by the British archaeologist James Mellaart in 1958; he returned for several intensive field seasons in the early 1960s. The excavations were ended by a scandal, when Mellaart was accused of selling pilfered antiquities. Ian Hodder restarted archaeological investigations at the site in 1991, and they have continued into the present. Hodder’s teams have substantially changed Mellaart’s interpretations, from complicating and redating the site’s settlement levels to overturning Mellaart’s arguments that the city was a major trade hub and a site of goddess worship. The conflicting interpretations have some significance for what follows, but I am not really concerned with the site per se, rather with what discussions of the one mural reveal about intellectual presumptions about the nature of maps and mapping.
The town comprises some eighteen levels that Mellaart dated from 7500 BCE to 5600 BCE. Each level comprised a series of mudbrick buildings, mostly apparently homes, that lacked windows and door. Each building was built against its neighbors; there were had no paths or alleys between the buildings. The townspeople walked across the roofs, made from wood covered in plaster, the access holes or hatches providing the only ventilation. The archaeologists estimated that the town’s population was at most 10,000 people and more likely to be 5–7,000 people at any given time.
The interior walls of the buildings were routinely whitewashed and replastered; it is unclear precisely how frequently the walls were refreshed. In between refreshing the walls, the inhabitants decorated them with a series of murals and plaster reliefs (of auroch heads and leopards). The murals featured hunting scenes, abstract geometrical patterns, and other shapes, some of which have been described as leopard skins (an identification based on the common reliefs of leopards).
Mellaart’s team found the supposedly cartographic mural in the 1963 field season, in room 14 on Level VII, which Mellaart dated to about 6000 BCE. The mural has two components in two registers: a long pattern of some eighty squares in the lower register and an irregular figure in the upper.
Background 2: Mellaart’s Interpretations of the Mural as Town Plan and Volcano
Mellaart’s interpretations are not generally available, so I quote them in full, here. He made an initial, public announcement of the findings of the 1963 season in the Illustrated London News.
The larger shrine to the east, VII.14, produced one of the most extraordinary wall-paintings found at Chatal Huyuk [image 1, above]. Nine feet in length it covers both walls above the main platform which was covered red with fine reed matting. The subject represented is extremely hard to interpret and we are fully aware that our interpretation may not be the right one. However, any interpretation will have to take into account one important point: the wall-paintings at Chatal Huyuk were not mere decoration or doodling, they served a definite and religious purpose, after which they were covered up. As our architect was quick to perceive, the 80 or more squares strung out along the bottom in rows or terraces vividly reminds one of the plan of a town, and one has only to compare the plan [image 2, above], its internal divisions into platforms, benches, etc. to see that this is indeed a possibility. On the other hand, we know that at Chatal Huyuk there were no streets or passages, but houses were built up against each other like the cells of a honey-comb. Nevertheless, we believe that this is a representation of a town, almost certainly Chatal Huyuk itself, rising in terraces, as we know it does, but portrayed in the way children will draw. If we concede this point, then the strange object in the back which looks at first sight like a leopard’s skin, becomes more intelligible, for wherever one looks from the top of the mound, twin-peaked mountains surround the plain. There are the twin cones over Konya, the twin peaks of the Karadag and in the far distance the twin peaks of Hasan Dag, the volcano above the town of Aksaray. At first sight the object by itself may be interpreted as a leopard skin, with the extremities cut off, and blood spurting from it. But this hardly explains the streaks and dots painted above the right hand “peak” or the dots to the right beyond the “skin” and why should anybody want to paint such a scene for religious reasons?
If, on the other hand, we try to identify this object with the distant, twin-peaked volcano (visible from Chatal Huyuk) of Hasan Dag, and when we realise that it was from here or nearby that the Neolithic people obtained their obsidian, a volcanic glass which is the most prized and earliest commodity of trade, and perhaps the basis of Chatal Huyuk’s wealth, then it is not such a far cry to suggest that what was shown here was an eruption of Hasan Dag. Far from being a profane or unusual subject, a volcanic outburst of the obsidian mountain was a threat to Chatal Huyuk’s existence, a sign of anger (or perhaps the reverse if more obsidian were produced) of the goddess of nature, and as such a highly relevant subject for pictorial composition.
If our interpretation is right, we have here the altogether unique early seventh millennium “eye-witness account” of a volcanic eruption. It is known that Hasan Dag and others were active until the second millennium B.C…. (Mellaart 1964a, 194; also quoted by Meece 2006, 6, 8)
The twin-peaked volcano Hasan Dağ (Mount Hasan; 38º8′N 34º10′E) is about 120 miles (190 km) from Çatalhöyük. It is just visible from the tell on clear days, just to the north of west.
Mellaart’s write up of the findings for the specialist, archaeological community was actually more florid:
The larger building to the east (VII, 14) should probably also be regarded as a shrine on account of one of the most fascinating wall-paintings found in it [image 1, above]. Nine feet in length, it covered both walls above the north-east platform which was carpeted with fine reed matting. The interpretation of the subject depicted is, of course, subjective (and perhaps controversial) but it seems likely that the eighty or more squares drawn along the base in rows or terraces represent a view of a town and one has only to compare [image 2, above] with [image 1] to see that this is indeed a possibility. Each house has its own walls and the internal divisions in the drawing remind one of the platforms, etc., in the plan, and one is struck by the variations and irregularities in the drawing of the individual houses. Therefore in our opinion this is a representation of a neolithic town, probably Çatal Hüyük itself, the houses of which rise in exactly the same manner as is shown in the painting. This brings us to the strange double-peaked object in the back and if one looks from the top of the mound to-day, such objects are easily identified as mountains. Twin cones mark the position of Konya to the north-west, twin peaks crown the mighty mass of Karadağ and in the far distance one sees on a clear day the double cone of Hasan Dağ (10,000 feet), then an active volcano and the highest mountain in the region. Hasan Dağ had a special importance for the neolithic inhabitants of Çatal Hüyük, for it was the source of obsidian, the volcanic glass from which they made their tools and weapons, beads and mirrors, the commodity which they exported far and wide. The exploitation of the obsidian fields and a monopoly in the obsidian trade was probably the basis of Çatal Hüyük’s wealth. Its mysterious origin, sharpness, transparency, and reflective power were probably regarded as unusual if not ‘magic’, the benevolent earth goddess’s gift to neolithic man. Volcanic eruptions still stir even the most unimaginative moderns and must have been regarded with awe by early man. How much more so then when his precious source of income was at stake! 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 Dağ is therefore certainly a possibility and in view of its economic importance a highly relevant subject to be recorded in a shrine. (Mellaart 1964b, 52, 55)
Finally, in his book on the site, Mellaart (1967, 176) simply stated that the mural shows the plan of the town with the profile of Hasan Dağ in eruption above.
Meece (2006) noted the manner in which Mellaart’s interpretation of the mural grew ever more certain as he kept writing, although without adducing any new evidence in support. At first he admitted that the initial interpretation of the upper register was a leopard skin, one of many found at the site, and he implied that the team’s architect, Miss Pat Quin (Mellaart 1964b, 39), was perhaps incorrect in her “perception” given that the town lacked the alleys that the mural, if a map, depicted between the houses. Both caveats are missing from the archaeological report, which is further notable (to my mind) for the manner in which its initial hesitancies are allowed to drop away; for example, Mellaart transformed the terraces from a possibility within a possibility into an “exact” certainty. Finally, in his book, Mellaart “admitted no uncertainty, and made no attempt to persuade” (Meece 2006, 9).
Note also that Mellaart’s interpretation of the mural rested on some untrustworthy logic:
• the realism of the two registers of the mural are mutually reinforcing. Only when Quin “perceived” that the lower register was a map did a more figurative interpretation of the upper register as a mountain profile suggest itself; the realism of the mountain profile implicitly sustains the realism of the plan;
• the realism of the image of the volcano is justified by reference to Mellaart’s interpretations of the religious significance of an erupting volcano, especially one that is an economic resource to the townspeople.
Background 3: Meece’s Challenge to Mellaart
In addition to the increasingly unwarranted certainty with which Mellaart presented his interpretation, Stephanie Meece leveled several specific objections.
Mellaart had strongly implied that the upper register is the profile of the volcano as seen from the tell. But, when viewed from Çatalhöyük, Hasan Dağ’s “higher peak is on the left and the smaller on the right”; Mellaart had fudged the issue by reproducing photographs of the volcano from a quite different perspective (Meece 2006, 6). Moreover, scholarship in the 1990s had also revealed that Çatalhöyük’s obsidian did not, in fact, come from Hasan Dağ (see Carter 2011). This finding rather guts Mellaart’s argument that the upper register must be a profile image of an erupting volcano that was so important to the town.
And why, Meece asked, should the Neolithic townspeople have sought to map or image their town and, if they did so, why did they use this particular representational strategy? This is perhaps the weakest element of Meece’s argument in that she had to interpolate examples from several other ancient yet nonetheless historic cultures. She pointed out that the surviving maps and plans of urban places stem from larger, more complex societies and generally concerned major public works such as large temples and fortifications that Çatalhöyük lacked. To this end, she cited Denis Wood’s (1992) clear distinction between internal spatial schemas (a function of human cognition) and the making of external inscriptions of spatial knowledge (i.e., maps), and she quoted Bill Gartner’s comments on the divide:
Although informal mapping (the analogical expression or performance of spatial knowledge) may well be a human universal, it has been argued that formal mapmaking (the inscription of spatial knowledge) tends to arise as a discourse function only within highly organized, bureaucratic societies. The conditions necessary for formal mapmaking include “the demands of agriculture, private property, long-distance trade, militarism, tribute relations, and other attributes of redistributive economies.” (Gartner 1998: 257, quoting Wood 1993, 56; quoted by Meece 2006, 10).
One might quibble with the forcefulness of Wood’s sentiments, but it is a fundamental point that the making of maps is a social endeavor that requires some kind of semiotic system shared by producers and consumers, and that means that map making is an ineluctably social phenomenon. Without large public works and living in a small “walking city” that even strangers can navigate easily by asking directions (verbal, incorporative mapping), why should the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük map their town?
To his credit, Mellaart had not thought that the mural was a functional map. Rather, he argued that the mural must have been part of a religious ritual of some sort, and why should a ritual emphasize economic relations when there are so many elements to cosmographies that need to be represented. The question then arises, if the town must be represented, why should these Neolithic people have shown it in just the same manner as modern archaeologists?
The method of two-dimensional recording used by archaeologists, adopting an “objective” bird's eye view to record data, is a unique, specialised method of recording observed archaeological features. The inhabitants of the site would almost certainly have not understood their village as an exposed horizontal layer (a very archaeological concept!), with their roofs absent and walls partly removed, but rather a conglomeration of different levels. (Meece 2006, 5)
Any similarity of the mural’s lower register to modern archaeological plans is strictly coincidental. Peoples in multiple cultures symbolize their homes in various ways, through totems—perhaps the aurochs’ heads and leopards whose images proliferate at Çatalhöyük—and other abstractions that look nothing like modern maps and that require cultural informants to interpret them (Meece 2006, 10). If there was a reason to represent Çatalhöyük in some way, it would not have been through an image that looks like a modern archaeologists’ plan.
Finally, Meece adopted the fundamental art historical practice of analyzing images by placing them into their proper discursive context. Rather than treating the mural as a unique and exceptional work, to be compared with images made 8,000 years later, we need to consider it in the context of images made by the same culture at the same time. As noted, Çatalhöyük is full of imagery. It is far more logical to treat this mural as a combination of geometrical patterns and a leopard skin, as are common to the rest of the site, than to impute unique acts of map making and landscape art to this Neolithic people. It makes much more sense to set modern cartographic fixations aside and follow good historical practice by considering the image in terms of the style of the other wall art found at the site (see Krygier 2008).
Overall, Meece concluded, Mellaart should have stuck with his original interpretation of the upper register as a leopard skin, and he should have resisted Quin’s overly quick realization that the lower register is just like a modern plan so it must be one. I for one am persuaded by Meece.
Post-Meece Reassertions of the Mural’s Mapness
Since 2006, a number of authors have affirmed Mellaart’s interpretation. At least one made no reference to Meece’s work, probably because the Çatalhöyük mural was only tangential and because the published work is not updated significantly from the original, 2007 presentation (Rochberg 2012, 9–11). But others have cited Meece’s essay and have dismissed her arguments. They have done so because they remain committed to the conviction that maps are only direct products of the observation of landscape.
Two such essays appeared in a special, anniversary issue of The Cartographic Journal in 2013 that asked a number of leading academic and professional cartographers to reflect on the field. Two of the several respondents, neither with any background in map history, chose to consider the origins of the field. In the first of these two essays, Danny Dorling mentioned Meece’s argument but did not cite her essay. He left the interpretation of the upper register open—it could be a volcano, it could be a leopard skin—but he was absolutely clear about the significance of the lower register:
but we know that this map—revealed on a 9000-year-old plaster wall—served a purpose greater than simply being a remarkably accurate depiction of the buildings around it, for many thousands of years having been buried and ruined.
The original image is augmented by two modern-day plans drawn directly below it. These show how the city without streets might have looked had anyone then been able to fly and how it was laid out in plan form. We presume that people got to their homes by walking over the roofs of others’ property. Also almost certainly property will have had a different meaning then. There were no countries, as we know them now, and the idea of given generic names to masses of water, the entire lengths of river networks, and maybe of towns and cities will have all been inventions of thought that have come long since Çatalhöyük was first built, along with both the idea of streets and, in some cases, a very long time later: sewers. (Dorling 2013, 152)
From his blithe acceptance that the mural presents a town plan, Dorling makes a series of assertions that are manifestly false yet which seem quite valid from the perspective of modern cartography.
• If the lower register is a map, the map is not “remarkably accurate”: even Mellaart’s assistants were unable to match the mural’s squares to a particular portion of the site (Meece 2006, 9). Rather, the statement is one of visual impression, yet another instance when commentators have mistaken graphic precision for accuracy in both geometry and topographical content.
• Again, if a map, then it is a map akin to the archaeologists’ plan that omits the roofs that that would have obscured the interiors of the buildings; thus, the mural cannot show what the town “might have looked like had anyone then been able to fly.” The presumption that the planimetric perspective is the natural consequence of the view from above is a crucial element in the ideal’s pictorial preconception.
• By shifting from the mapping of the town to regional and perhaps world mapping, Dorling revealed the conviction that cartography is the making of maps of any part of the world at any scale, that the same processes govern the mapping of regions as the mapping of places and towns.
Dorling (2017, 551) later rehearsed the same arguments: “The map shows how this ancient people thought that their city and that part of the world was organized.”
The second essay from the 2013 issue of the Cartographic Journal is explicit in its rejection of Meece’s arguments or, at best, in its qualification of them (“true, although”; “credible, yet …”). But the reasons for these qualifications were all strictly impressionistic and were grounded in presumptions of the nature of maps. Keith Clarke falls back on naive resemblance: the upper register looks like a twin-peaked mountain, is therefore the mountain, so that the map might have been in situ “for generations” to serve as “spatial memory, telling generations where to go to trade for obsidian”; however, this interpretation fails to take into account the manner in which the townspeople regularly whitewashed their walls and Clarke’s own (incorrect) description of the site as one in which “each family built its own separate house…and each generation demolished the house and rebuilt on top,” both processes that would limit the longevity of the image (Clarke 2013, 139, 138). Clarke ultimately rejects Meece’s argument because she seemed to reject the mental capacity of the Neolithic townspeople:
Perhaps, however, most telling is Meece’s contention that “the process of actually making a map, including reducing a space, constructing analogies between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space, and representing distant features is a significant development of abstract thinking and symbolic representation” (Meece, 2006, p. 17). While Meece acknowledges that “the development of mapmaking was as significant to human life as was the development of literacy” (Meece, 2006, p. 17), clearly she sees mapmaking as beyond the thinking capabilities of Çatalhoyuk’s residents. I not only dispute this assertion, I argue that maps predate Çatalhoyuk itself by thousands of years. (Clarke 2013, 139)
For Clarke, map making is a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the development of a cognitive spatial schema (what is often misleadingly called a “mental map”). His imaginative examples all sound so reasonable—a hunter could make a map of the land across the river for another hunter—because they accord with the fundamental conviction that all map making stems from the individual map maker’s experience with and observation of the landscape. Only from this perspective can an argument that prehistoric peoples did not make maps become a statement that prehistoric peoples could not make maps.
What Clarke missed in his quotation from Meece is that “abstract thinking” and “symbolic representation” are not the same thing. The one is cognitive, the other is social and cultural. The one is common to all cognitively developed adult humans, the other is a function of social needs and cultural conventions. What Meece argued is that social needs likely did not call for a town plan, and cultural conventions would have likely led to a quite different kind of representation than something that sort of looks like a modern archaeological plan.
A third reaction to Meece’s challenge of cartographic orthodoxy came from an archaeologist. Elizabeth Wayland Barber (2010, esp. 343n2) briefly discounted Meece’s argument by overly simplifying it, even as she permitted the possibility that the mural was not intended to be an exact map:
I do not see the “village” as a realistic map of its lanes and houses but as a rectilinear pattern simply denoting “houses,” that is, “us.”
Barber’s real aim was to bolster her general arguments that myth can be long-lived. The fact that geologists had dated the last eruption of Hasan Dağ to about 7550 BCE, or some 1,500 years before the mural was painted on the wall, is thus evidence of the longevity of oral legends and not a flaw in the identification of the upper mural as a volcano.
Most recently, geologists have refined the dating of some of the deposits at the summit of Hasan Dağ, laid when it last erupted, to 6960±640 BCE. This date range could just about encompass the period when Level VII at Çatelhöyük was occupied and the mural made (Schmitt et al. 2014). The possibility of chronological overlap is made all the more likely given that recent archaeological work has refined the dating of Level VII to 6430–6790 BCE (Cessford 2005). The possibility that, were the upper register actually Hasan Dağ in eruption, then the potential chronological overlap rather undercuts Barber's argument and obviates her need to insist that the lower register must be a map.
It is perhaps worth, at this point, to restate a key piece of evidence from Meece's essay, that Hasan Dağ does not have the same profile as the upper register in the mural when seen from Çatelhöyük.
However, the geologists who undertook the redating of the volcano's last eruption also took the essays by Clarke (2013) and Barber (2010) to support their conviction that the mural is indeed a realistic depiction of the town and the volcano. Their findings were accordingly received by lay commentators as proof that the entire mural is, indeed, realistic: the eruption was contemporary to the mural, the upper register is therefore the erupting volcano by an eye-witness (as Mellaart had originally asserted), so the lower register must be a map (Boyce 2014).
Commentary (at last …)
All of this—from Quin’s initial interpretation in 1963 of the mural’s lower register as a plan of the town, through its acceptance by map historians, to the more recent persistence of the identification—indicates a basic lack of concern that we are evaluating an 8–9,000 year old image by reference to a modern map that was made by a particular subset of map makers driven by their own clearly modern motivations. For such an evaluation to be valid we must presume that:
• the ancient mural, when it was made, had the same geometrical and conceptual relationship to the world as the relationship of the modern archaeological plan to the excavated site;
• the ancient people who made the mural lived in a world in which this relationship was meaningful;
• this relationship is the exclusive preserve of cartography; and
• the only way in which spatial knowledge can be communicated is through specifically cartographic works.
For an academic cartographer to insist in the face of archaeological doubt that the mural is indeed a map suggests a certain chutzpah: it is a declaration that a map is a map is a map, and that only students of cartography have the knowledge and experience to recognize one.
Furthermore, the later assertions that the lower register of the mural can only be a map relies on the apparently reasonable conviction that the foundational act of mapping, to create the ur-map, occurred when some ancient individual converted their personal cognitive spatial schema into an external spatial schema of some sort. The problem is that map scholars have routinely construed this foundational act as producing a graphic image that is recognizably “a map,” such that they presume that the connection between a cognitive spatial schema internal to the individual (and certainly all of Clarke’s hypothetical instances of early map making featured one individual) and the external map made by the individual of that spatial schema is presumed to be direct and unmediated.
The alternative position to this highly individualistic perspective is that the production, circulation, and consumption of maps are ineluctably social processes and they need to be studied as such. There are other socially defined representational strategies for communicating spatial knowledge, oral and gestural ones, that can be deployed. Historical sensitivity is also needed. When one appreciates the ways in which modern maps are made and used according to a wide variety of social and cultural factors, one must understand ancient mapping as having similarly been a function of multiple variables. Indeed, we can see that the conviction that map making is an individualistic endeavor is itself an idealization established over the last couple of centuries.
But Clarke for one wants nothing to do with this position. He began his short essay by snidely dismissing out of hand any idea that normative mapping might have been coeval with the development of writing in early Mesopotamia:
To be generous, we could say that humans developed writing about 5000 BP, about the time of the cuniform tablets, and about the time of the first maps according to the cartographic texts.
However, this interpretation seems to conveniently date maps as “texts,” as the “critical cartographers” and their French philosophers have deemed and interpreted them. In this essay, I offer another interpretation based on scientific and other evidence. (Clarke 2013, 136)
His other evidence comprises either hypotheticals grounded in a preconceived notion of mapping as individualistic and an essay interpreting petroglyphs from an ancient Spanish site, about 11,600 BC/13,600 BP old, as local maps (Utrilla et al. 2009). The quality of the interpretation of the last is beyond my ability to evaluate. In the end, Clarke’s argument amounts to: the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük could have made a map, so the mural is a map.
Overall, it is not enough to say that any image is a map because of the manner in which it apparently replicates that portion of a world, in whatever way, unless it is evident that the image was also consumed as a map within a discourse whose parameters are understandable. Those who have focused on the Çatalhöyük image without contextualizing either register have confused cognition with semiosis.
Finally, two further points about how Mellaart’s arguments drew on this excessively individualistic interpretation of map making. First, in his passing comment that the lower register of the mural was a map “portrayed in the way children will draw,” he seemed to reference the long-standing equivalency, fostered by Jean Piaget, of prehistoric and indigenous peoples with modern children (Blaut 1993, 99–101; see Wood 1993). Second, I am struck by Mellaart’s admission that the “perception” that the mural’s lower register was a map was accomplished by a woman, Pat Quin. This seems an instance of the long-standing and sexist conviction that the minds of modern women share in both modern rationality and unmodern irrationality, so that women are able to mediate between them.
All told, the original interpretation of the mural as comprising a pair of realistic images and the subsequent insistence on the correctness of this interpretation reveal some basic beliefs and convictions about the nature of maps and cartography that are wrong.
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