Episode 24: Early Chalcolithic Anatolia

The sixth millennium in the Southern Levant – the Wadi Rabah culture – is the source of many arguments as to whether we are talking about the end of the Neolithic or the beginning of the Chalcolithic (copper stone age). When we look at the sixth millennium in Anatolia – at least the first half of the sixth millennium (c.6000-5500 cal BCE) we don’t have this problem of arguments and confusion about whether or not we are still in the Neolithic. There is general agreement that this period in Anatolia is the Early Chalcolithic. Unfortunately, this agreement does not help all that much.

The way that we divide up the past today sees the Chalcolithic starting in most of the ancient Near East when we see at least one of two things happening – people starting to smelt and manipulate copper and people starting to specialise in producing different items. Neither of these turns up in Anatolia during the Early Chalcolithic. The decision to put the start of the Chalcolithic at 6000 cal BCE here is Anatolia comes from an older way that we used to divide up the past, when the appearance of painted pottery was used to mark the beginning of the Chalcolithic. In other parts of the ancient Near East this way of dividing up the past went out of fashion as we learned more about societies in the past. In Anatolia, though, this way of dividing up time became habit and it stuck around. This means that while everyone working on the sixth millennium in Anatolia agrees that this is the beginning of the Chalcolithic, everyone also agrees that this first half of the sixth millennium is considered Early Chalcolithic more out of habit than because of any major changes to the societies here.

Anatolia in the Early Chalcolithic looks a lot like Anatolia in the Late Neolithic, with smaller regional cultures spread out across Asia Minor. These can be fairly similar between regions, or they can be very different from one region to another. For example, in central Anatolia we have two different Early Chalcolithic cultures in areas only about 130km (80 miles) apart. The large village of Çatatalhöyük that we looked at during the Late Neolithic is still the largest village on the Konya Plain, but after about 6000 cal BCE it stops being the only village on the plain as a series of small farming villages also turn up around it. Çatatalhöyük also gets smaller after this time, although at 8 hectares it is still something like ten times the size of the small villages on the plain. People living on the main settlement mound at Çatatalhöyük (the east mound) also begin to move out and build houses on an adjacent hill (the west mound) from about 6000 cal BCE. People lived on both mounds for about 150 years, until the older east mound was abandoned and people lived only on the west mound until Çatatalhöyük was abandoned at about 5500 cal BCE.

These houses are not built in the clustered neighbourhood style of the Late Neolithic, but are instead smaller groups of houses more with more space, alleys and streets between them, and even with doors visible at ground level. The insides of these houses, at least for the rooms at ground level, are not as fancy as the houses of the Late Neolithic. There is very little painted plaster and many of the rooms are even missing plaster on the walls. The walls of these houses are very thick, though, which is something that we also see at the nearby site of Canhasan. The walls of the houses here also are pretty plain and the rooms are largely lacking in normal domestic household features.

The walls of the Early Chalcolithic houses at Canhasan have slightly better preservation, and we have the remains of walls not only to the full height of the ground floor but even remains of some walls from an upper floor of houses. Where we have these upper floor walls, we can see that these were plastered and painted. This suggests that these plain ground floor rooms at Çatatalhöyük and Canhasan were plain because they were used as storage rooms, with people living and working on an upper floor.

Examples of painting styles from the pottery of Early Chalcolithic Canhasan. Image from During 2011.

The painted pottery which we find in central Anatolia at Çatatalhöyük and Canhasan is usually done with a re-brown paint on a vessel that has been slipped in cream or another pale colour. Painting is usually done in a repeating pattern of geometric shapes. This painting occurs on both jars and bowls, including carinated bowls, which become popular here as well as in Northern Mesopotamia and the Levant. We also have little L-shaped legs called ‘pot stands’ which would have been used to support these jars and bowls, which usually have flat bases.

Three pot stands supporting a bowl from Çatatalhöyük.

The second culture that we have in central Anatolia comes from Cappadocia, where we have two different phases of Early Chalcolithic. Here, painting on pottery is less common, although the shapes of the pottery are similar to what we see at Çatatalhöyük and Canhasan, including carinated bowls, necked jars and carinated jars. Instead, we have a different new style of decoration in the form of carved relief decoration along the tops of jars. This is usually scenes of people and animals, either hunting or dancing together, but sometimes is a parade of just animals. Sometimes this relief decoration is painted, but more often the pottery was just slipped in red.

An example of a relief-decorated jar from Tepecik-Ciftlik in Cappadocia. Image from During 2011.

The houses here in Cappadocia are also different to the ones at Çatatalhöyük and Canhasan. Villages here were laid out with individual houses set close together, but with a series of twisting streets and alleys running between them. Dorrs to these houses were also at ground level. Houses can be either one large room or divided up inside into two to four rooms. Either one room, or a portion of the main room, was set aside for cooking and storage, with ovens, a hearth and built-in storage bins. The floors were either paved in stone, or were plastered and then often painted in either white or orange. We also get large room complexes which look like storage buildings, made up of a series of small (1×1 metre, or about 1×1 yard) rooms with no decoration or signs of domestic life. These are believed to have been storage buildings, either providing storage for the nearby houses, or acting as a basement storage area for people which would have lived on an upper storey.

Two-room houses from the Early Chalcolithic site of Kosk Höyük in Cappadocia. Image from During 2011.

Just to the southwest of central Anatolia we have the Lakes district, which in the Early Chalcolithic as in the Late Neolithic had its own distinct culture. Here the Early Chalcolithic can be divided up into two phases, based on how the pottery was decorated. From 6000 to 5800 cal BCE we have what is called the Fantastic Style, which transitions into the Geometric Style from about 5800 cal BCE until the end of the Early Chalcolithic. These names come from the types of painting on pottery. Pottery here is also done with red-brown paint on a pale slipped vessel, but here the styles of decoration are more unique. The bottom of the pot was usually painted in solid red, with wavy abstract decorations free-flowing around the sides of the vessel (the Fantastic Style). Over time, these became more geometric and repeating and transition into the Geometric Style. Painting was done on both jars and bowls, including the carinated bowls which became popular here as well during the sixth millennium.

Some of the Fantastic style designs on pottery from Hacilar. Image from Yakar 2005.
Examples of Fantastic and Geometric style pottery from the Lakes district. Image from During 2011

The styles of pottery decoration is not the only thing that changes more than once during the Early Chalcolithic in the Lakes region. The way that villages and houses were laid out also changes during these different phases, as can be seen at the extensively excavated village of Hacilar. During the Late Neolithic the village at Hacilar was made of a series of houses with walls of either mudbrick or pisé, laid out along either side of a street. With the change to the Fantastic Style at the beginning of the Early Chalcolithic the shape of both houses and of the village changes. During the Fantastic style phase (c.6000-5800 cal BCE) Hacilar changed to a collection of house groups. These groups of houses were set out together around a central courtyard, with the back walls of the houses connected together to form a wall around the house group. Each house in the group had its door facing into the central courtyard, and most had two rooms. The back rooms of these houses sometimes had a hearth and an oven, but more commonly held built-in storage units.

Houses from the Fantastic Style phase at Hacilar. Image from During 2011.

With the change to the Geometric style phase (c.5800 to 56/5500 cal BCE) the village at Hacilar changed again. The house groups from the previous phase clumped together into large buildings made up of a series of square rooms, about 6x6m for each room. These were probably the ground floors of buildings which would have had at least one upper floor, as can be seen by the very thick walls – averaging about 2m or 6ft wide – and the internal buttresses on the interior walls to support floor joists for the upper floor. The walls of these ground floor rooms do not show much in the way of decoration or domestic features, which presumably were placed on the upper floor in the main living area for the series of families which would have had a house each in this complex.

When we look at western Anatolia, either to the southwest in the Aegean region of Anatolia or to the northwest at the Marmara region of Anatolia, then we are looking at areas which only started to get farming villages and pottery during the second half of the seventh millennium, while the more central areas of Anatolia (including the Lakes) had been settled with farming villages well before this. Much like in central Anatolia and the Lakes region, we don’t see major changes to the societies of western Anatolia in the Early Chalcolithic. In some ways, we see fewer changes here even that we see in other regions. Painted pottery – the hallmark of the Chalcolithic in Anatolia – is more rare in the Aegean region and missing from the Marmara region.

While we may not see the flourishing of painted pottery styles in these regions that we see elsewhere, it does not mean that western Anatolia continued on exactly as it had in the Late Neolithic. In Aegean Anatolia, at the extensively excavated site of Ulucak, we have a mix of styles of how villages were laid out. At Ulucak the houses were arranged like villages of the Late Neolithic, laid out in rows with the walls of houses often touching. At other villages though, we see houses arranged in groups around a central courtyard, similar to what we see in the Lakes region during the Fantastic Style phase. Houses in the Aegean region were built from a range of materials, with differences not only between villages but also between individual houses of the same village. Houses could be built from mudbrick or pisé, but also from wattle-and-daub construction. Houses usually had ovens and hearths, either inside the door in the front room or just outside the door in a little porch area. The walls and floors of houses were often plastered and sometimes were also painted.

Painted pottery from Early Chalcolithic levels at Ulucak. Image adapted from Çevik & Erdoğu 2020.

Pottery in the Aegean region was more likely to be slipped or decorated with incised decoration or impressions, such as rows of fingernail impressions or rows of seashell impressions along the sides. Shapes were simple, including hole-mouth jars and bowls. The carinated bowls that we see becoming popular in other parts of Anatolia as well as in Mesopotamia and the Levant do not seem to have come into fashion here. When pottery was painted, it was decorated with repeating lines and geometric shapes, such as chevrons or cross-hatching.

Pottery in the Marmara region to the north continues to use many of the simple shapes that we see here in the earlier Late Neolithic, although the use of seashells to impress designs onto the outsides of vessels seems to have gone out of fashion after about 6000 cal BCE. While the shapes of vessels continue to be fairly simple, new shapes such as carinated bowls also come into fashion here in the Early Chalcolithic.

The remains of a wattle-and-daub house at Ilipinar in the Marmara region. Image from During 2011.

In the Marmara region, we see houses continuing to be built with much more wooden support and framework than we see in other regions of Anatolia. At Ilipinar, for example, houses in the Late Neolithic were often built with a series of wooden posts put into the ground, more branches woven between them and the whole frame plastered over with mud. Many of the houses had raised wooden floors, with cross-beams set out along and earthen floor and then wooden boards or small poles stretched out to make the floor, which was then plastered over. After about 5700 cal BCE the layout of the Late Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic village changes. Houses in this later stage of the Early Chalcolithic change to being made mostly from mudbrick, although still contain the raised wooden floors that we saw before. Houses in the village were arranged in a circle at the edge of the village, facing into a central open area. Some houses have the preserved remains of an upper floor, so it is believed that many or possibly all of the houses in this phase of the village had at least one upper storey. Some buildings do seem to have been present in this central open area, but it is unclear whether these were more houses or were storage buildings. A local spring at the site may have emptied into the middle of this area during the sixth millennium BCE, which would have provided residents at the village with a convenient source of clean water for their everyday needs.

Episode Bibliography:

Anvari, J. 2021. Rethinking Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic Architecture in Central Anatolia. British Archaeological Reports International Series 3061. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Biehl, P.F., Franz, I., Ostaptchouk, S., Ortn, D., Rogasch, J. and Rosenstock, E. 2012. One community and two tells: the phenomenon of relocating tell settlements at the turn of the 7th and the 6th millennia in Central Anatolia. In R. Hofmann, F.-K. Moetz and J. Müller (eds.), Tells: Social and Environmental Space. Bonn: Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelt GmbH: 53-66.

Carter, T., Conolly, J. and Spasojevic, A. 2006. The chipped stone. In I Hodder (ed.), Changing Materialities at Çatalhöyük: Reports from the 1995-1999 Seasons. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs: 221-283.

Çevik, Ö. And Erdoğu, B. 2020. Absolute chronology of cultural continuity, change and break in western Anatolia between 6850-5450 cal BCE. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 20(1): 77-92.

Cutting, M.V. 2003. The Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic Farmers of Central and Southwest Anatolia: Household, Community and the Changing Use of Space. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University College London.

Düring, B.S. 2011. The Prehistory of Asia Minor: From Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Düring, B.S. 2005. Constructing Communities: Clustered Neighbourhood Settlements of the Central Anatolian Neolithic ca.8500-5500 cal BCE. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut Voor Het Nabije Oosten.

Gatsov, I. 2003. The latest results from the technological and typological analysis of chipped stone assemblages from Ilipinar, Pendik, Fikirtepe and Menteş. Documenta Praehistorica 30: 153-158.

Lichter, C. 2005. Western Anatolia in the Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic: the actual state of research. In C. Lichter (ed.), How Did Farming Reach Europe? Anatolian-European Relations From the Second Half of the 7th Through the First Half of the 6th Millennium cal BC. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari: 59-74

Marciniak, A. and Czerniak, L. 2007. Social transformations in the Late Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic periods in Central Anatolia. Anatolian Studies 57: 115-130.

Orton, D., Anvari, J., Gibson, C., Last, J., Bogaard, A., Rosenstock, E. and Biehl, P.F. 2018. A tale of two tells: dating the Çatalhöyük west mound. Antiquity 363: 620-639.

Thissen, L. 2010. The Neolithic-Chalcolithic sequence in the SW Anatolian Lakes Region. Documenta Prehistorica 37: 269-282.

Ostaptchouk, S. 2020. The non-obsidian knapped stone assemblages from Çatalhöyük West (Central Anatolia, Early Chalcolithic): contribution of a multi-scale approach to the question of chert sourcing. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 30: 102171.

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