reaching natural

Many years ago, nearly forty, I was driving along Hakanoa Street in Huntly, where we lived at the time, in the front passenger seat of my mother's red and white Hillman Imp. I think it was after school, certainly afternoon. In what was obviously a pre-planned move, she pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned to me and said: "What's it going to be, a doctor or a lawyer?" To say I was gobsmacked doesn't answer the case. "Actually," I stammered, "I'm going to be an archaeologist." Of course I didn't, just as I didn't become a doctor or a lawyer; but I did investigate the option before deciding against it. Too boring, I decided. Too much hard yakka over minutiae. Not everyone, in fact hardly anyone, finds a Troy or a Çatalhöyük; furthermore, since the advent of processual archaeology in the 1970s and the post-processual archaeology that succeeded it, interpretation of the minutiae uncovered by archaeologists has itself become controversial if not actually proscribed. I've retained my interest in the subject, have continued to read widely, I'm still grappling with my own, perhaps idiosyncratic, explanations of how our distant ancestors lived, which is to say, how we came to be the way we are ... but I have to say it can still be hard yakka when it comes to the literature. This reflection is prompted by a book I bought recently, sight unseen, but with some excitement: 'The Goddess and the Bull' by Michael Balter. It purports to be a biography of the aforementioned Çatalhöyük, which has been of interest to me ever since I read James Mellaart's 'Ancient Civilizations of the Near East' not so very long after that epochal conversation with my mother. Indeed, she bought the book for me. Mellaart was a maverick, an enthusiast, a controversialist. By the time he came to excavate Çatalhöyük at the beginning of the 1960s, he had already dug, as it were, his own grave as far as working in Turkey was concerned. His involvement in the mysterious Dorak Affair ultimately meant that Çatalhöyük would be closed to him forever, and off limits to anyone else for thirty odd years. But in the early 1990s the site was re-opened and, under the direction of Ian Hodder, excavations have continued there for more than ten years now. And yet, in an index of how things have changed, in those ten years Hodder's team of a hundred specialists has excavated only a tiny fraction, not just of the mound itself, but of what Mellaart uncovered in less than half the time with a tenth of the people. And, somehow, no conclusions can yet be drawn from the meticulous forensics of this hundred-strong A team. Balter's book is full of brief, laudatory, mildly interesting bios of people on the site, of inadvertent impressionistic detail of their rather privileged lives, of 'dramatic' confrontations on the mound ... and reads not unlike a school magazine end of year report. Fine if you were there, if not, not. His account of the Dorak Affair, one of the main reasons I bought the book, is perfunctory and unconvincing, with no new information and several mis-readings of the excellent book written in the 1960s by two Sunday Times journalists. I can tell already, about three quarters of the way through, that 'The Goddess and the Bull' will end with a series of non-answers to resounding questions - like why and how people began living in cities at all? It is another case of a contemporary phenomenon, familiar from many other fields of inquiry, that the more facts you know, the less understanding you have. Science is perhaps a romance for those involved in it, but for those of us who are not it can seem like a massive, expensive, ultimately nugatory indulgence. At one point Balter writes: " ... archaeology is a destructive process. Excavating a Neolithic building means taking it apart piece by piece and layer by layer, until all that is left is the data on the archaeologist's recording sheet and the artifacts recovered ... the only way to get to the bottom levels is to take off the top ones." When you do that, when you do get to the bottom, you have, as they say, 'reached natural'. Where prehistory turns into geology perhaps. I know there are no incontrovertible answers to the big questions; but that doesn't seem to me a reason not to attempt answers. On the other hand, one of the truly unnerving images in Balter's book is that of goddess worshippers making their way past the labouring forensic diggers to join hands and dance on the top of the mound, in fealty to an ancient deity who, say the archaeologists, probably never existed. As if we were all, only differently, deluded.

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