Review of ‘The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilisation’ by Michael Balter

01st June 2007

Fairbairn book review cover AA64The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilisation by Michael Balter. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2006, xiii+400, ISBN 1-59874-069-5.

Andrew Fairbairn

School of Social Science, University of Queensland St Lucia Qld 4072, Australia

Çatalhöyük is a near legendary Neolithic site in central Turkey under renewed archaeological investigation since 1993 when Ian Hodder made it the focus of his practical application of ‘reflexive archaeology’. In the revised paperback edition of The Goddess and the Bull, Science correspondent Michael Balter takes the reader on an entertaining journey through the complex and at times unbelievable archaeology of the site in its regional context. As alluded to in its introduction, the book takes the form of an ambitious biography, weaving together an historical narrative with the personal histories of many famous, infamous and not-so-famous characters that have contributed to Çatalhöyük’s unlikely status in the popular and professional psyche. At this point I have to declare an interest – I am one of those not-so-famous characters and while interviewed for the book I was, thankfully, avoided in Balter’s biographical sections. Jaded by three years of employment on Hodder’s project, including the 1999 ‘long season’, and with both positive and negative memories of that time, it took considerable effort to turn the book’s opening page. I am glad to have done so and now offer this review with a modicum of ‘insider-knowledge’ and an active research interest in the Turkish Neolithic.

After starting with an account of his own peculiar and almost accidental incorporation into the project, Balter’s narrative kicks off with the story of James Mellaart’s initial work at the site in the 1960s and ends with a party on the dig-house roof in 2001. To summarise as briefly as possible, Mellaart discovers and then excavates a huge Neolithic mound in then archaeologically-unfashionable central Turkey. He discovers a well-preserved site of unexpected complexity, replete with beautiful and unique artwork, figurines and numerous human burials beneath the floors of its densely-packed houses. Fame is assured as he reveals his stunning finds and claims the site as the earliest known city, turning accepted knowledge on its head. He is then ejected from Turkey after the theft and sale of artefacts by some workmen and his involvement in the Dorak Affair – involving, and I assure you this is not made up, a mysterious woman on a train and equally mysterious treasure. Even in mothballs, Çatalhöyük becomes ever more well-known as a result of Mellaart’s voracious appetite for publicity, including publication of controversial ‘kilim’ wall paintings, the site’s appropriation by Gimbutas-inspired Mother Goddess worshippers and, not to be forgotten, the archaeological importance of the finds. Though further archaeological research eventually shows Çatalhöyük to be but one element of a regional Neolithic sequence with local antecedants, the concentration of artwork in its middle levels remains unparalleled. Cut to 28 years later, Ian Hodder unexpectedly becomes the person to reopen the site and starts a 25-year project that rapidly becomes one of the most high profile and largest research excavations on earth with a cast of thousands. Hodder aims to test Mellaart’s conclusions and go beyond the crude empiricism of the ‘New Archaeology’ (i.e. science-based archaeology emerging in the 1960s and 1970s) to develop his own brand of contextual archaeology. The project also allows Hodder to investigate further the Neolithic phenomenon, this time in the excavation trench rather than the armchair, and address one of the key questions of human existence, as phrased in a Science piece by Balter (1998): ‘Why settle down? The mystery of communities’.

Balter’s chronological narrative is peppered with biographies of key characters in the Çatalhöyük story, including many of the archaeologists who have contributed their labour to its investigation. There is a natural focus on researchers with a long presence at the site and those, such as Greek charcoal analyst Eleni Asouti, whose presence transcends geopolitical expectations. The most enjoyable and relevant accounts are of Mellaart and Hodder; I have to admit that I tired of some others towards the end of the book and wondered whether some of the personal details were necessary. Mostly, the biographies were an effective means of illuminating parts of the story, the detail of archaeological techniques, the excitement and plain hard work involved in discovery and the personal drive behind many of the characters leading to their appearance at Çatalhöyük. Having experienced Mellaart’s final years as a lecturer, including those slides of the Dorak treasure and ‘new’ wall paintings, I could understand Hodder’s fascination with both the man and the site. The biographical approach also allowed a textured understanding of life at the excavation itself; its highs and lows and many tensions. Craig Cessford’s thoughts on the arrival of the main dig team midway through the 1999 long season (p.269) mirrored my own exactly. Many specialist techniques are also effortlessly explained via personal experience and occasional wry comment, giving a rich representation of the frantic and methodologically deep investigation of the site.

To add further meat to a fairly rich stew, the author somehow manages to insert a condensed Neolithic into the narrative, including many of its key theories, sites, debates, researchers and recent discoveries. In addition there is a well-written and highly condensed history of archaeological theory thrown in for good measure. The treatment is necessarily brief and focuses mainly on Hodder’s views and the archaeology of Neolithic Turkey, but provides both an indispensable backdrop to the site biography and a useful entry point for the uninitiated. The author mostly provides succinct and accurate précis of the issues, though in one or two places I sensed a loss of focus and a density in writing that may have baffled the newcomer. This type of writing is not easy, yet it is all too easy for archaeological professionals to scoff at such syntheses and to pick holes endlessly in the generalisations and simplifications that are necessarily part of a broadly accessible work. Indeed I have heard many such gripes about this book. While I do not agree with some of Balter’s observations (published data at Aşıklı Höyük show it to not be a gatherer site), I admire his ability to provide a coherent, comprehensible and well-founded argument, especially in a subject carrying so many strong, varied and conflicting opinions. Some sections were particularly well-written and provide excellently worked examples illustrating how we can and should, to paraphrase Wheeler’s wise words that grace the Chapter 1 heading, dig up people not things. My favourite concerns the identity of mudbrick makes (p.144) which draws on analyses of mudbrick composition and skeletal analysis. In other places, I did feel that accounts were over-dramatised to either segue between chapters or arouse the reader’s interest. At few times I also winced at what I considered unnecessary exaggeration, for example in describing the result of Mellaart’s expulsion from Turkey as depriving ‘humankind of a cornerstone of its heritage’ (p.54).

Difficult and highly controversial issues are not avoided, but treated with caution and skill. And there is plenty of controversy in the story without journalistic sensationalism, including the baffling ‘Dorak Affair’, Mellaart’s expulsion from Turkey and his credibility, especially regarding claims of kilim wall-paintings, Hodder’s acceptance and demands of corporate sponsorship, the missing bead that almost closed the dig in 1996, tensions with the Mother Goddess community and the minefield of Turkish political and cultural sensitivities. These issues are reported factually and the lack of sensationalism not only strengthens the account but adds weight to their impact on the story. Of course there are the visible and rather predictable personal gripes and divisions in the dig team, especially the rift between the excavators, self-styled as honest put-upon labourers, and so-called specialists, styled by everyone as a bunch of demanding, prima-donnas. From my experience, Balter’s treatment of this issue is pretty good and he illustrates nicely why some of the tensions between teams occurred and that the two warring factions contained a rather wider range of personalities than the preceding sentence may suggest. You can read the diary entries yourself to see how vicious the war of words got and then marvel at how Shahina Farid managed to call a truce and make the dig work, which it certainly did by the time I arrived there.

The author also provides enough information for those who are interested in evaluating how well the project has fulfilled its aims to develop a reflexive method, as set out by Hodder in a 1997 Antiquity article, which also managed to annoy every field archaeologist who read it. In short I don’t believe it has and suspect Hodder grossly misunderstood the extent to which archaeologists debate and query their own work in the field, especially the definition, description and interpretation of archaeological contexts. I thought the comments of Shahina Faird, Hodder’s field director, about ‘interpretation at the trowel’s edge’ (p.145) were rather apposite in this regard. I also suspect he underestimated the extent to which specialist fields are integrated into many excavations in southwest Asia and the strong record of specialist residence on excavations.

A final theme that deserves mention is the complex place that Çatalhöyük has in the broader world: Turkish national icon, religious site, inspiration to artists and fashion designers, vehicle for economic growth, cultural heritage problem and advertising tool. Again, the author manages to tread carefully through this tangled web of relationships and explains why many came about. The preface shows that the real world has bitten back at Michael Balter, with the Mother Goddess worshiping community especially aggrieved by his coverage. More locally, an Australian review of The Goddess and the Bull led to one article stating that both the book and the Çatalhöyük project itself showed archaeology to be a waste of time, based on unproveable conjecture (Campbell 2006). Ignoring the inherent lack of intellectual rigour in the argument (post-modern theory used to support a positivist statement!) and clear misreading of the text, the example shows just how far Çatalhöyük’s influence extends into the world beyond the academy.

On a technical note, the book is an attractive production, with a quirky cover design, comfortable font and pleasing illustrations at each chapter heading by John Swogger, Hodder’s illustrator. A section of black-and-white plates provides, with a solitary map at the start of the book, illustrative material for the text. For those not familiar with the region, a map referring to some of the Levantine sites mentioned in the text and perhaps a chronological table to help understand the temporal relationships of sites mentioned in the text would have been useful. I noticed only a couple of typos, a minor miracle in modern academic publishing, and this edition has a useful preface and epilogue, the latter bringing the reader up-to-date with findings immediately prior to publication. Extensive footnotes and bibliography, with a good index and attractive price tag, complete an impressive package and the volume demonstrates once again that Left Coast Press has well and truly arrived as an ambitious, high-quality archaeological publisher.

Beyond its relevance to those of us obsessed by the Turkish Neolithic, The Goddess and the Bull is a highly worthwhile read for anyone interested in the complexity of archaeology, how it relates to the outside world and the dynamics of its theory and practice. The book presents a very different form of archaeology to that familiar to many AA readers and gives a good insight to the stifling conditions of large-scale Old World excavation. If you ever wondered what life was like on one of those ‘cast of thousands’ newsreel excavations from the Middle East, then you may get a good idea by reading this book. For budding directors, you could also do worse than reflect on the trials of Ian Hodder as he raises funds and gained permission to open the site anew. I felt a great deal of admiration for his persistence and ultimate success, let alone the project he has stitched together. This is not the definitive work on the archaeology of Çatalhöyük that some may hope for, and indeed it does not set out to be so, even though some reviews have I think unfairly judged it in these terms. It does, however, fulfill its aims extremely well and gets as close as anyone has to distilling the archaeological process and the essence of what makes Çatalhöyük such a focus of national, personal and professional obsession. In writing this review I am again stunned at just how much the story contains. If you want the detailed archaeological data produced by Hodder’s team, read the McDonald Institute volumes that have recently been produced and/or visit the project’s sleek and comprehensive website ( For a personal, and it has to be said rather partial, synthesis of this material seek out Hodder’s The Leopard’s Tale (2006), which fleshes out his theory of ‘material entanglement’ described briefly in Balter’s tome.

To conclude, The Goddess and the Bull provides a good read about one of the few prehistoric sites that attract a global interest by both public and professional alike. The popular style will not be to everyone’s taste, but I certainly enjoyed the book and admire Michael Balter’s ability to sensitively weave together so many strands of information, opinion, and biographical information. In doing so, he has produced an entertaining and high-quality popular archaeological text based on good scholarship and exhaustive journalism. The Goddess and the Bull provides the general public with an excellently-written and comprehensible entry point to our subject, students with a great insight into the complexity and reality of working in our field, the teacher a wonderful text to prompt critical and wide-ranging discussion about archaeology, and the established professional plenty of food for thought. And its last sentence is one with whose sentiment I am sure we all agree. I am pleased to have finally read it.


Balter, M. 1998 Why settle down? The mystery of communities. Science 282:1442-1445.

Campbell, F. 2006 Molesting the past. Weekend Australian (Review Section) 25 February:14.

Hodder, I. 1997 ‘Always momentary, fluid and flexible’: Towards a reflexive excavation methodology. Antiquity 71:691-700.

Hodder, I. 2006 The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük. London: Thames and Hudson.

Andrew S. Fairbairn
Review of ‘The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilisation’ by Michael Balter
June 2007
Book Reviews
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