Earlier this year, a team of archaeologists digging at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, in the Turkish region of Anatolia, made a stunning find. The figurine, carved out of limestone dating to between 6300 and 6000 B.C., stands out not only for the material and quality—artifacts previously discovered at the site had been sculpted of clay, and were seriously deformed by the time they were foun—but also for the craftsmanship. Though such figurines are traditionally associated with goddesses of fertility, the researchers believe it could also represent an elderly, influential woman in the ancient society. At the time the figurine was made, Çatalhöyük may have been in a process of transition from its famously egalitarian roots and sharing economy to a more stratified, hierarchal system based on an economy of exchange.
Excavations of the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük began back in 1961, 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 ruins.
Çatalhöyük remained largely untouched by archaeologists until 1993, when Ian Hodder, a professor of anthropology and classics at Stanford University, launched the Çatalhöyük 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, after hollowing out a large dwelling in the southern part of the Çatalhöyük site. The inhabitants of the ancient dwelling had deposited 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—which measures 6.7 inches tall (17 centimeters) and 4.3 inches (11 cm) wide and weighs in at 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds)—might have been positioned as part of some kind of ritual.
Goddess figurines were common to the era, and were crafted throughout southeastern Europe, the Middle East and Anatolia, the region in central Turkey where Çatalhöyük is located. The newly discovered figurine is particularly striking, the researchers say, not necessarily for its appearance but for its craftsmanship.
Despite oddly small hands and feet, the limestone figurine is well proportioned and shows knowledge of the human body. It’s also finely detailed, including rolls of flesh around the neck, arms and legs. In contrast with other goddess figurines, the woman’s arms are separated from her torso, and her protruding stomach is set off from the rest of the body by an undercut. Archaeologists think only a skilled artisan could have performed such detailed work, and only with the use of thin tools, such as flint or obsidian.
Lynn Meskel, a Stanford anthropology professor on Hodder’s team, and other scholars have suggested that the Neolithic figurines found at Çatalhöyük may not only represent goddesses of fertility, but also older women who 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 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 Çatalhöyük society were known to be egalitarian, with a shared economy in which resources were pooled, the researchers believe it may have transitioned to a more stratified, hierarchal society (more similar to that of ancient Rome, for example) around the time this figurine 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 archaeologists, humans first settled in Çatalhöyük around 7500 B.C. The settlement reached its peak around five hundred 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 Çatalhöyük, connecting present inhabitants with past generations through platforms built atop earlier structures. Previous generations actually buried 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 served as intermediaries between the living and the dead.