Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Çatalhöyük and Other Complications

I have been reading with some interest various news items that have been trickling out about a major archeological scandal. James Mellaart (1925-2012) was one of the world's greatest experts in prehistoric Anatolia, making a major splash in archeology with his discovery of a Neolithic site, Çatalhöyük, in Turkey. It revolutionized the field, and, more than that, the exciting discoveries to come out of the site made Çatalhöyük a fairly significant tourist site -- not a minor thing in an academic discipline whose funding is as closely tied to public interest as archeology's is. One of the things Mellaart argued was that the 9000-year-old settlement was matriarchal and had a Mother Goddess religion, because there were a lot of female figurines in goddess-like portrayals. This was called into question with more careful study in the 2000s, when it became clear that, while a lot of figurines were being uncovered, they were almost all animals, and very rarely women, and nothing about the few female figurines really suggested any major religious character. What is more, the evidence of social status that kept being turned up did not indicate any significant difference between men and women -- if Çatalhöyük was matriarchal, or for that matter patriarchal, it was not showing up in the evidence. The difference between Mellaart's claim and the increasingly clear disposition of the evidence was treated as march of science -- the techniques were better, the work far more extensive, speculations had been proven wrong by new evidence.

But Mellaart had an interesting way of showing up around controversy. For instance, Mellaart began publishing about some interesting pots that he had discovered, and people started noticing pots like them showing up in various venues for the sale of antiquities, for thousands of dollars. It began to be thought that the pots were leaking from the archeological site -- always a potential problem -- but there was no reason to attribute it to Mellaart himself. Analysis eventually indicated that the pots were in fact forgeries, so even the suggestion that the site was leaking was dismissed.

But there were others. The most notorious of these was the Dorak Treasure scandal. Mellaart's version of the story was that he met a young woman named Anna Papastrati on a train from Istanbul to Izmir who was wearing an unusual item of jewelry. He asked her about it and discovered that her family were antiquities collectors; on learning that he was an archeologist, she invited him to her house to show him the collection, but, she said, photographs were not allowed -- if he wanted photographs, he would have to wait. So Mellaart sketched a number of pieces in the collection over a few days, and then left. He later got a letter from Papastrati giving him permission to publish his sketches. He did so. The Turkish authorities, who keep an eye on this sort of thing, were angered that he had not properly informed them of this discovery and began to investigate. The investigation discovered that there was no house at the address Mellaart had on file for Papastrati. The Turkish government naturally drew the conclusion that the collection had been illegally smuggled out of Turkey. The theft of Turkish antiquities is something that the Turkish public is very sensitive about, and the whole thing blew up, so that he was banned from Turkey. His career in the field apparently broken, he nonetheless made a persuasive case to the British that he was just unfortunate, and perhaps a bit foolish in going public about something before he had dotted all the i's. He got a job as a lecturer in London, where he was very popular with the students, who often found him inspiring. He wrote bestselling books in archeology, and received a number of important awards and recognitions for his archeological work. He had a reputation for being a brilliant man who, perhaps, had a bit of a tendency to jump to conclusions, but whose work was nonetheless groundbreaking and valuable.

Mellaart continued to do important general research, and soon contacted colleagues about having come into possession of a text by a French archeologist sketching part of an extended hieroglyphic inscription in the Luwian language which had since been destroyed. He told them that he didn't know the language and so needed help translating; and it was indeed an interesting find. There was some caution, given Mellaart's reputation for getting ahead of himself and the inevitable worry that it could be a forgery. But it was difficult to see how there could be any forgery here, since no one could have done it except an expert in Luwian. Mellaart could neither read nor write the language, and Luwian hieroglyphics were a very difficult and esoteric field that had only slowly been deciphered. Mellaart didn't actually do any of the interpretive work and analysis; that was done by others, so he wasn't even getting the primary credit for it. What is more, Mellaart seemed to have followed proper procedure here; he claimed to have been working on it since the 50s, and the preliminary work had been done by a team of scholars, which included only respectable experts. He hadn't rushed to publication. It created a significant controversy between those who were inclined to accept it (in which case it shed crucially valuable light on Philistine culture) and those who were more skeptical, given that everyone was working on copies of an inscription that no longer existed, from a man who had not always exercised due caution. And occasionally someone would note that Mellaart's not having rushed to publication had a disadvantage -- all the scholars from the preliminary research team had died, except for Mellaart himself.

When Mellaart died in 2012, he left a request to the colleagues he had been working with to see to the publication of certain materials related to the Luwian hieroglyphs that he had not been able to get into proper shape. They agreed, but there some complications and the materials they had were not quite adequate to what they needed, so after some rigmarole they got access to his complete papers. And the world came crashing down.

James Mellaart was an expert on Luwian hieroglyphics. He didn't just have an acquaintance with it; he had clearly studied it very, very closely, and knew the language well. He had been lying in saying that he didn't know it. It's remarkably clever, really. Nobody expects an academic to claim ignorance of a matter in which they have expertise -- and certainly no academic would expect it from another academic. The puzzle that had spoken for the authenticity of the find -- that there was no one who could have done a forgery like that -- fell apart. You can read an old interview from poor Dr. Woudhuizen, one of the people Mellaart had contacted about the inscription, defending Mellaart and the find, and it all depends on Mellaart not knowing Luwian hieroglyphics. Another layer of cunning: he set up honest researchers to give the work an air of authenticity. And a third: nobody expects a forger to forego the benefit of his forgery, but Mellaart had set it all up so that most of the forgery would become available after he died.

Nor was that all. They found what seemed to be rough drafts of the inscription, as well as significant numbers of what seem very much to be draft copies on slate of some the murals from Çatalhöyük on which Mellaart had published. And in a sense that's even worse: a blatant forgery is a personal wrongdoing, but it can be pinpointed and excised. But the evidence that Mellaart was engaged in forgery means that half a century of major archeological work is potentially contaminated. Nobody knows what was legitimate and what was not. Mellaart got away with his late forgeries because of his brilliant early work. But when did it all start? And he got away with it, too, because he was a brilliant man who genuinely knew the field from first-hand research. Where is the line between his genuine work and his forgery? Beyond some minor points that have panned out independently in other research, nobody knows -- a serious issue in a field like archeology that constantly deals with a lack of evidence, so that every distinctive bit of evidence is immensely precious. It all has to be ripped up. And, too, while research has often corrected Mellaart's speculations, it has sometimes confirmed them -- but how much of that confirmation in reality is partly based on evidence from Mellaart himself? It all has to be looked at again.

Two news items that are particularly good at giving the background:


Queensland Times

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