Exhibition review: The Curious Case of Çatalhöyük

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The Curious Case of Çatalhöyük at SOAS’ Brunei Gallery delves into the work of archaeologists investigating the Neolithic site. (Doruk Yemenici)

Between 1993 and 2018, largescale excavations at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey as part of the Çatalhöyük Research Project have yielded important evidence of the development and transformation of one of the world’s earliest societies. First settled around 7100 BC, the following centuries at Çatalhöyük saw some radical changes, including an increase in population and housing (between 3,000 and 8,000 people live at the site at its peak), the introduction of domestic cattle and dairy as well as more efficient cooking pots that allowed extra time for art, culture, and more elaborate ritual activity.

Now, to celebrate 25 years of the project, the Brunei Gallery at SOAS is presenting The Curious Case of Çatalhöyük, an engaging, interactive exhibition, organised by Koç University’s Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED). The displays take a look at investigations at the site and highlight their importance and outreach. The large number of publications on Çatalhöyük are incorporated into the exhibition, as is a video of Ian Hodder, director of the Çatalhöyük Research Project (and perhaps the only archaeologist to give a talk on a catwalk at fashion show), who responds to a set of questions on the site. Visitors need only take a seat in an armchair and push a button to ‘Ask Ian’ and see the video version of the archaeologist, on a wall surrounded by trowels, spring into action.

RFID discs bring up details of objects from the finds library. (Doruk Yemenici)

One of the aims of the exhibition is to improve public understanding, not just of Çatalhöyük, but of the archaeological research that helps us interpret sites such as these. There is a chance to read digitised excavation diaries – in Turkish as well as English – from the past 25 years, and to nose around the desks of various specialists. Research into human remains, archaeobotany, ceramics, and other fields are represented on these carefully composed desks, complete with posters, Post-its, and 3D prints of finds from the site. An interactive finds library offers a chance to learn more about the various artefacts recovered from Çatalhöyük. More than 40 records have been turned into RFID (radio-frequency identification) discs that can be placed on a reader to bring up information about the object. These finds include decorated objects like a leopard stamp seal (as well as some more unassuming fragments), faunal samples, and human remains, reflecting the diversity of items excavators encounter.

An ARCGIS site map is one of the visualisations that appear in Refik Anadol’s digital installation. (Refik Anadol, Çatalhöyük Research Project Archive)

Another intriguing and innovative display comes in the form of a digital installation by media artist Refik Anadol, created by collating and sorting datasets from the past 25 years of excavations at Çatalhöyük with machine learning algorithms. The result is varied visual work that encompasses scans of the site, photos of artefacts, close-ups of GIS (geographic information system) plans, and captivating swirls of white squares, that highlight complexity and extent of archaeological records and show that data can be beautiful.

To create the impressive, immersive work, Refik Anadol used machine learning algorithms to sort through the 2.8 million data records in the Çatalhöyük Research Project Archive. (Refik Anadol, Çatalhöyük Research Project Archive)

The Curious Case of Çatalhöyük runs at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, until 15 December. Admission is free. Visit www.soas.ac.uk/gallery/catalhoyuk for more information.

1 Comment

  1. Could this exhibition be available in such a way as to be used for a longer time. Some permanent exhibit to be seen by the world’s people?

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