Umm Dabaghiyah and Catal Huyuk

Dr. Cuyler Young was the Director of the Royal Ontario Museum, a professor at the University of Toronto and a prehistorian conversant with various sites in the Mesopotamian and Anatolian area of the Near East when we talked about two sites. Catal Huyuk is in Anatolia, which is a little north of Mesopotamia, in present Turkey, south of the capital Ankara and south of Konya. It's marked in blue:

This next map shows the Tigris river on the right, the Euphrates river to the left. The area within the broken lines is present day Iraq territory, parts of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the west, with Iran to the east,and Turkey to the north. Umm Dabaghiyah is in the northerly part of the map, central, and underlined:

I chose these sites for several reasons. First, I must admit, they fascinated me, secondly because they are very well documented, and the other reason being that I felt they were specialized societies, quite advanced in their way. Therefore it is interesting, I believe, to see what was actually going on, through the eyes of prehistorians predating the chronology that we appear to have in the datings in the Bible for the Garden of Eden. The first site we talked about was Catal Huyuk:

Edward Furlong (EF) In Anatolia, in Asia Minor, Turkey today, I guess.

Dr.Cuyler Young (CY) Yes, Catal Huyuk

(CY pronounced it as Chattal Huyuk)

E F: C(h)atal Huyuk. No outside doors, they say, ladders to the roof, excellent plastered walls, pottery, cultivated wheat, domesticated cattle, and we're talking now of 6250-5400 BC, They had skulls of bulls attached to walls. Now, the suggestion is that the rooms were shrines with cult objects, but I think to myself, what about modern hunters in Canada with the head of the bull moose on the wall in the den of the house. Is that going to be a cult object in a sanctuary 5,000 years from now? And it rather reminds me of my father. He shot a tiger in India and he brought it back, all proud and so on, and when my mother saw it, the head was mounted and he had this tiger skin rug. She wouldn't have it in the house, she had it thrown out, and all I managed to rescue was the claws. And I think to myself I would never want to be an archaeologist because say 10,000 years from now, somewhere, some poor devil is going to dig up the tiger claws from under my house. And there's no tiger.

CY: Also he's going to be scratching the back of his head and wondering how this tiger got so far out of its natural habitat.

E F: Exactly. So those are my comments on this particular site that has skulls of bulls attached to the walls.

CY: I think in these particular cases, at Catal Huyuk, a religious interpretation of these things is quite reasonable actually. Now, one could, in extremis, make the argument that the hunter's trophy on the walls of his den are also a kind of a religious statement, a kind of cultic statement about him and his prowess as a hunter, and so forth and so on. I've done a bit of hunting myself, but it's never occurred to me to turn it into a semi-religious event and stuff it and put it on my wall, quite regardless of what my wife might have to say about that. But that point aside, I think in this particular case, we can accept that these bulls' heads and these very elaborate paintings on the walls which also often involve bulls have some kind of religious significance.

My comment: Fortunately there's an article on Catal Huyuk by Ian Hodder, (a former professor at Cambridge, now a department head at Stanford), in Scientific American, January 2004 issue, page 76, complete with pictures, illustrations and a map. It says that Catal Huyuk began about 9,000 years ago, on the plains of central Turkey, and grew to about 8,000 people with 2,000 houses on 26 acres. I suggest that clearly a town of this size cannot feed itself by farming. It must act in some way as an administrative centre, collecting taxes or rents from elsewhere, and be a trading entrepôt where satellite villages provide food in exchange for manufactured goods. The manufacturing and processing performed there is discussed in the article: we're told that more information can be found at:

Now let's consider Umm Dabaghiyah. Dr. Diana Kirkbride was probably one of the leading archaeologists in the earlier part of the 20th century. She had the Wainwright Fellowship at Oxford University and she was noted for the quality of her work and the exacting standards of her archaeological notations and recording of what she discovered. So I think her work is an excellent example to pick because we can really rely on the information we have available to us. I wanted to discuss this with Dr. Cuyler Young, I did have to go into some details, but please bear with it and then you'll see what happens in the end.

EF: The site that really fascinates me, and I'd like us to talk about it, is Umm Dabaghiyah, which is Diana Kirkbride's. I find it's a fascinating site. Hardly any grain there, according to her husband, Hans Helbaek, and I think only one human skeleton.

CY: Yes.

EF: She hasn't really given us carbon 14 dates. I came across one by Kent Flannery: 5800 - 5300 B.C. And then she says, "They had all five domestic animals--cattle, dogs, sheep, pig, goat." But from the photographs I've seen of the place and the descriptions, there's really nothing there. Now it's a godforsaken, semi-arid plain or steppe, and at least today the rainfall is below 20 cm. a year, say about 8 inches a year. In Toronto we have what, 80 cm? Very small amount of rainfall there.

CY: Yes

EF: And they had to import everything--lumber, flint, obsidian, stone vessels, fine pottery, lentils and peas--even the food they had apparently to import. Only five or six houses at most there and set into the ground with a series of well shaped circular pits, about 2 metres deep, lined with clay. And they traced them for 50 metres or so at least, as far as they'd excavated, and then there were hearths for the houses and quite a number of kilns, with an open central space. And then the other three sides had two blocks of buildings. One was 25 metres long on one side and the other was L-shaped and about 40 metres long on one side, and the blocks were all the same width--6.45 metres. And they had cell-like structures in them, about 70, they first counted, and then up to about 80 or 90 of these things. And every 1.45 to 1.75 metres, there was a cell wall or part of an opposing interior buttress, she says, and the walls of the cells were strong and thick, about 50 cm. wide--20 inches wide, made from strongly tempered clay. And there were no doors on the exterior walls and hardly any on the courtyard side either. But if you look, and I've brought a diagram for us to look at here, and we can see that there is a corridor, it would appear, down the middle, on the main structure there:

Sandor Bokonyi analyzed the animal remains, and his report gives some remarkable results, and this is what he says, "478 onager," which is a sort of a half ass -- and I'd like to talk about that later on--

"102 gazelle, 22 auroch, or wild cattle, 4 dogs, 7 pigs, 52 sheep or goat, 20 cattle, 1 hyena" -- I guess it lost its life when it got in there--"and 8 sheep or goats or gazelles"--I guess they couldn't sort them out. So we've got 84 percent onager and gazelle, plus a few domestic farm animals for the few people in houses. And what would be your comments on that?

CY: Well. All right, Umm Dabaghiyah is, from the architectural point of view, a very difficult site. Now, of course, Miss Kirkbride's interpretation of this whole phenomenon is that we are dealing with a very specialized economic activity, that these people are coming out on a seasonal basis to this site and they are specifically hunting onagers, and they are doing this presumably for the skins of the animals. Well, maybe. I had a very fine graduate student by the name of Ted Banning who did me a report on the problem of the seasonality of Umm Dabaghiyah some years ago and he is not at all sure that it's demonstrable that the site was occupied seasonally. There is perhaps just enough evidence in the animal bone and the plant materials to argue that the site might have been occupied year round. There is no question that as far as we can tell, the existence of the plant remains at the site, at least, clearly indicate that that plant material was imported to the site. So an effort, a clear economic effort was being made to sustain this phenomenon of Umm Dabaghiyah out in the desert. Now, broadly speaking, the site relates quite clearly to an early northern Mesopotamian prehistoric culture by the name of the Hassuna culture. Umm Dabaghiyah is essentially early Hassuna, so this is an outpost in the desert of the Hassuna culture. Now, coming to the architecture, it's very puzzling indeed what these little cells were. If you excavated them somewhere in Sussex or Kent and they dated to the 10th century, you would say, "Aha, a monastery," or something like that. These would be individual cells for human beings to live in. On the other hand, they're quite small, and if they were monks' cells, then they would be particularly religious monks, let's put it that way, who were willing to put up with a great deal of discomfort.

EF: Anchorites

Dr. Cuyler Young: Yes. One argument is that we're not looking at the actual buildings themselves, we're looking at substructures of a building, and that in fact this is only the basement, in other words, of the structure. And the argument then is that this kind of honeycomb shape to the structure is there in order to keep the basement dry. In other words, that whatever was above, on the first floor of this building, was something that needed to have air circulating underneath it in order to keep it dry. Now, we know that phenomenon from certain later sites in the Halaf period, where it clearly exists that we're dealing with a basement and that it is honeycombed, rather like this, and there's good evidence that what we're looking at is the substructure of a granary. Of course, you have to keep grain dry or it moulders, and then it's not edible any longer. Although I must confess myself I don't see the relationship between the massive numbers of onagers, the 478 individual onagers, at the site, I don't really see what the relationship between those onagers and these cell-like structures are. I don't know what the devil these buildings are and I don't think anybody in the profession has a sensible interpretation at this point in time as to what they are. They are there. Diana Kirkbride is a superb excavator. There's absolutely no question that this is what she found. There's nothing wrong with the basic information that we have on the architecture of the site, but what the devil it means is just beyond me and I think it's beyond anyone else. It's one of those mysteries to crack in the future.

EF: Right. Well, I have a little bit of a theory about all this.

CY: Good.

EF: I'm always full of theories.

CY: Good.

EF: One other thing I notice about it, there was a heavy use of gypsum and plaster in the domestic houses and level after level of ovens for burning gypsum, apparently. Of course, gypsum is fireproof. It's used for making plaster of paris and it can also be used as an agricultural fertilizer. And there were many large baked clay balls about 15 cm. In diameter. That would be pretty heavy.

CY: Yes it would.

EF: And she wondered what they were for. Well, onagers have been clocked at 35 miles an hour. Not Mesopotamian onagers because they're extinct, of course, but the Indian ones. I've looked into this a little bit. As to their height, I find that they stand about 9 3/4 hands, and a hand is four inches, so we're looking at something not much more than about a metre high, which is quite small. As a matter of fact, a Shetland pony stands 10 ½ hands, and a regular horse 15 ½ to 17 ½ hands, so they are miniatures, very small. They are just a little bit bigger than a Great Dane, for example. But they're also fast if they can do 35 miles an hour. So a 20 mile an hour running man couldn't catch them by chase.

CY: Certainly not.

EF: And gazelles are very fast too, and these are the two animals that comprise 85 percent of the remains. So my proposal is that they were breeding them, that the cells were stalls. When I measured the cell up, measured the size of the animal, it fits in perfectly. We have the corridor down the middle. I think the walls were thick because if they kicked the walls, they wouldn't kick them down because they were 50cm. wide.

CY: Yes, in the neighbourhood of 50.

EF: We also have pregnant onagers on pots as part of the decorations, so that shows they were interested in the fertility of the onagers, and I'm not sure it would be of much interest to them if they were merely hunting them. Diana Kirkbride as you say has done really quite a marvellous job in giving us detail. She has a mural here:

and she suggests on this mural that we're looking at onagers running, and maybe they're going to drive them into a wedge of a trap and catch them, but it seems to me that this is a corral. Certainly the one on the right here is standing and not running anywhere, I would say.

CY: No. Well, the fellow right in front of him isn't running either.

EF: Right, they're not really. And I think that they may not be pasturing either particularly, but they are standing, I would say, in a corral. I'd like to carry this a little further. I think the clay balls were used to hobble them. Somebody found at Jarmo some imprints I think of fine linen on a clay ball, and I think what they did was to put the clay balls in a kind of a sack, tie it around and hobble these fast animals when they let them out to pasture so they couldn't run away, and that's how they kept them where they wanted them. I suspect that they probably broke them in as pack animals there, and because they had to bring stuff in and move stuff out, everything they had came from outside, so I suspect here we are really looking at one of the steps in domestication. And I think it's right under our noses. I think they were breaking these animals in on that site.

They were trading them, they were getting their supplies in exchange. They were probably trading gypsum as well, and maybe this is where the gypsum for the much larger site, the 30-something acre site at Catal Huyuk came from. They were more or less contemporaneous, it might have gone that far. We don't know how far they travelled. We know their obsidian came from several hundred kilometres away.

CY: Well, in fact some of the obsidian at Umm Dabaghiyah came from the neighbourhood of Catal Huyuk. We know that for a fact.

EF: I think the storage bins and spare cells would be used for winter feed and the clay-lined pits were for water storage for the animals and for the men. So there's my suggestion.

CY: Well, that's very reasonable. Now, there's a good way to test that. The first thing I would do, the next time I'm in Iraq, is I would tootle out to the existing remains of Umm Dabaghiyah and I would go into any number of these cells and I would scrape up soil from underneath the floor of the area and I'd bring it back and test it for uric acid.

EF: Very interesting.

CY: I think man has not yet figured out a way to stop a horse urinating in a stall.

My comment:
I didn't hear back from Dr. Young on this, although we've met a number of times since. I think international politics made it difficult for him to continue work in the region, as it's in northern Iraq. I should add that the chariot with four onagers was found at Tel Agrab. I have no date for this find but it's obviously from a later period.

Those two sites are about 600 miles apart, yet they were trading together. Our dating for Catal Huyuk was from about 6250 BC and for Umm Dabaghiyah from about 5800 BC. That means on average they were about as far away in earlier times from the presumed origin of Eden in the book of Genesis as 1 AD is from us, so if Eden did exist it was certainly not the time and place of the original creation of humans. But how accurate are these historical datings? We'll discuss this in the next chapter.