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The material politics of houses at Çatalhöyük, 7000–6300 BCE

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Citation
Kay, K.(2020). The material politics of houses at Çatalhöyük, 7000–6300 BCE (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.64739
Abstract
Archaeologists often treat past houses and households as social units—as places of stability within larger political dynamics. Houses are rendered as conservative objects, not places of profound change. This thesis adopts a material political approach to houses, considering the way they were assembled through time as a working-out of social alternatives. By approaching prehistoric houses, not as units but as processes of space-making extending through time, it shows the great extent to which past societies’ politics were navigated and transformed through intimate communities and intimate places. Using fine analysis of the internal stratigraphy of houses, I show how much more variable and consequential domestic communities were at a turning point in human history (the beginning of the Neolithic expansion) where many conventional ‘prime movers’ of more recent histories (nations, armies, corporations, elites of various sorts) simply did not exist to drive change. In so doing, The material politics of houses at Çatalhöyük opens avenues for perceiving the full political weight of small houses and everyday relationships elsewhere and at other times—even in the present. The focus of this thesis is space-making in domestic contexts at the 7th millennium site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey. Çatalhöyük spanned two worlds, both geographically and chronologically: one where settled farming life developed, piecemeal and dispersedly, over many millennia following the last glacial maximum within the confines of the Middle East, and one where settled farming life seemed inexorably spread across the world map in a matter of 2,000 years. It thus represents a window into a turning point in the social dynamics of vital technologies and human lifeways writ large. The site itself, pristinely preserved and meticulously excavated, is the result of a unique way of living that packed small mudbrick houses, wall-against-wall with very few gaps, onto an exceptionally dense mound of old dismantled architecture. No ‘temples’, ‘palaces’ or ‘public buildings’ have been discovered to date, and instead all aspects of social life—from grain processing and cooking to art and human burial—were integrated into houses at Çatalhöyük. The thesis asks, what can the houses at Çatalhöyük tell us about the material politics that articulated lives, houses, and practices in the 7th millennium? Houses’ interiors at Çatalhöyük were plastered hundreds of times over the course of their use-lives. This creates unparalleled stratigraphy for investigating change through time inside of them. The backbone of the research presented herein is the creation of high-resolution stratigraphic timelines of changes in 11 Çatalhöyük houses’ interiors, each capturing hundreds of space-making moments that transformed the house’s interior over several decades. These are supplemented by broader investigations of houses’ biographies and contextual analyses of key moments (e.g. construction, burial) in the broader site. From this basis, the thesis investigates four questions: 1. How did people at Çatalhöyük make and reshape domestic space as a part of the work of making communities and meeting life needs? 2. How did their particular way of shaping material space fit into broader political dynamics in the Neolithic town? 3. What changed in the way communities formed and intersected through houses over the course of the 7th millennium? 4. How did politics ‘spill out’ of houses at Çatalhöyük and feed larger-scale changes in the site, region, and in the dynamics of the Neolithic phenomenon more broadly? I establish that each house at Çatalhöyük was a political multiple object—engaged in the work and knowledge of a variety of communities that were more or less stable, rather than relating to a singular stable household with clear-cut social qualities. From this understanding, I illuminate social dynamics that worked through and cross-cut houses in one 66th century neighbourhood. Although every house seems self-sufficient in time-compressed overview, a close stratigraphic reading reveals a surprising frequency of moments where houses were unequipped for vital tasks like cooking, storage or burial of the dead, suggesting that it was not autonomy but rather creative and dynamic dependency that situated houses in lives, and lives in houses. I also trace a tension between ways of politicizing space through knowledge of its depths (the generations of built-up walls, bodies, deposits and other salient details invisibly sealed below people’s feet) and knowledge of its surfaces (displays of plaster and paint, sculpture and persistent boundaries). Finally, the thesis turns to a diachronic examination of community through time at Çatalhöyük, considering the waxing and waning of different political dimensions through the biographies of earlier and later 7th millennium houses. In particular, I show how a political dynamic of friction—where difference was accommodated and elaborated without dividing people or spaces into discrete, bounded units—gave way to one of integrity, where houses and communities were fitted to a more unitary ‘mould’ (something like a household) but also became less flexible and more brittle in the process. I relate this to architecture in other later 7th millennium sites in Turkey, speculatively relating the dynamics of communities in houses and landscapes to the transformed spatial dynamics of the Neolithic at regional scales in this period. This thesis shows how dramatic transformations of human lifeways have been sustained in intimate spaces, through the work of bodies, ovens, plasters and gatherings. This bottom-up, materialist approach to politics and history, focused on the details of communities and knowledge at one site, thus resonates with central concerns in archaeology across larger scales.

 

 


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