The female figurine found at Çatalhöyük (all photos by Jason Quinlan, © Çatalhöyük Research Project)

The Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, consists of two settlement mounds — the remains of houses continually built over old ones — that have yielded many treasures since archaeologists began excavations in the 1960s. One of the most remarkable artifacts to emerge recently is a slightly weathered but fully intact, female anthropomorphic figure carved of marble — a rare find at the UNESCO World Heritage Site that illustrates one ancient craftsperson’s great level of skill. Archaeologists with the Çatalhöyük Research Project, which has explored the site since 1993, found it this summer in one of the site’s earliest structures; they estimates it dates to about 5500–8000 BCE.

The female figurine found at Çatalhöyük (click to enlarge)

The team had discovered the rounded figure lying next to a piece of obsidian, a position that suggests “some form of ritual deposition,” according to a statement. “The context shows that this figurine differed from others in its completeness and careful deposition, as well as in its very fine craftsmanship.” Weighing just over two pounds, it spans about half a foot long and three inches thick and is also carved from marble. While Çatalhöyük has proven home to many old figurines, most of these are clay and typically depict animals. Many also tend to end up in areas of refuse and are found broken. Archaeologists have also found others carved from stone, but these too, are rarely completely preserved.

The late Marija Gimbutas takes credit for her identification of similar figures found throughout Western Asia, Anatolia and southeast Europe — published in The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, but rarely do archaeologists know the detailed context of these objects. Archaeologist Lynn Meskell has suggested that Neolithic statuettes at Çatalhöyük represent older women, with their full figures symbolic of great wisdom, and Çatalhöyük Research Project’s director Ian Hodder agrees that the new artifact suggests such an interpretation.

Portrayed with large buttocks and small feet, with her hands on her breasts and her hair in a bun, the figurine reflects a style typical of Çatalhöyük. The artist had shaped the marble by polishing the material, giving it more human expression with incisions to depict eyes, a mouth and chin, and even neck fat. There’s even a navel, formed by a knick in the shape of a triangle.

As the team notes, the settlement at its peak was home to 3,500–8,000 residents, who lived in houses that were at times adorned with rich art. The marble figurine is just one reminder of the symbolically complex role art played for the community; the site also boasts many paintings and reliefs, clay seals, sculpture, and, among the most unique of works, bull’s head sculptures mounted to walls.

Illustration of female figurine found at Çatalhöyük (image by Kathryn Killackey, ©Çatalhöyük Research Project)

The female figurine found at Çatalhöyük

The female figurine found at Çatalhöyük

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

13 replies on “Archaeologists in Turkey Find Neolithic Female Statuette Intact”

  1. Speaking as a sculptor who also has a knowledge of that period of sculpture, this figure looks quite wrong. It is full of anatomical detail that is entirely unlikely. The evidence of certain techniques (close up images above) and finish of marble are also suspicious to my eye.
    Really looks like a fake to me, or a joke aimed at the unwary?

      1. Speaking as a marble sculptor, no not at all. If anything, the tool marks are those of contemporary tools, and a person/persons setting out to create a hoax would have greater success if the quality of the craftsmanship is good.
        A hoax antiquity-object is often outed for having too little detail, but it can also be outed for having too much, especially of the wrong sort.
        I have a feeling, and may be wrong, that this is a sort of contemporary art project. The fake/hoax antiquity being a part of the story.
        Interesting anyway!

        1. I don’t work in marble, and I am not at all familiar with the history of outed forgeries, nor am I debating your suspicions, it just seems that someone with the skill to produce such an object would also have the smarts not to leave such tell tale details as modern tool marks.

          If the object IS genuine, perhaps the question is, ‘what sort of tools WERE used?’

          1. Well we shall see.
            I think the object is genuine, but genuine contemporary.
            I wont comment on the tool marks further so as not to give ideas to any other hoaxer. However before even looking at the tool marks, the style is a highly unlikely hybrid.

  2. I agree with Jackyl. This looks suspicious. Most of what I have learned about prehistoric female sculptural figures involve enlargement of sexual organs including breasts as a possible teaching tool for passing on information from female to female (one theory). This seems to be a depiction of overall body type (obesity) which makes me think of a contemporary commentary. But this would be neolithic rather than paleolithic when the previously mentioned female figures originate so that may account for the difference? Interesting either way.

  3. I don’t agree. There are statues of the Neolithic Period in “Gods and Goddesses” :Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (Turkish Republic Ministry of Culture, 1992) which are similar.

  4. If not a forgery, the figure may suggest the role of an ideal woman fed
    and nurtured and pampered into obesity to represent the hoped for bounty
    of the clan’s numbers or as a boastful point of pride to other clans,
    “Our woman is more fecund then yours.” The ideal woman could have been a
    specialist for producing babies, one after the other, for the clan.
    This is supported by the droopy belly not having had time to retract.
    Her hands and feet are truncated and minimized as if she had no need to
    walk or do manual labor, and perhaps carried around on migration routes
    as if she’s the village’s Mother Goddess.

  5. Absolutely beautiful. I saw a beautiful woman walking down the street today in the East Village with identical proportions. This looks like a cross between the Venus of Willendorf and Cycladic female figurines, of which there is one in the Met showing very similar features. The marks and carving are akin to Cycladic figurines from a period a little later than these. It shows steatopygia, as well as probably a post-partum stomach probably from multiple pregnancies in conjunction with obesity. The feet and hands are very stylized, a common aspect of venus figurines.

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