Landscape/Image/Map: Map-Making in Neolithic Çatalhöyük

“All maps have edges,” writes Margaret Atwood, noting that even slime-molds, bereft of a central nervous system, readily map adjacency. And although the notion of metric accuracy or or accurate indices are lacking–as is a frame–there is a distinct sense of mapping adjacency in the cave-painting or mural that has survived since circa 7000 BCE (6960±640 BCE) in the Konya region of Anatolia, in a valley that has  provided a site of intense archeological investigation of one of the earliest dense areas of human inhabitation.  Although we usually consider the map as both a reproduced and reproducible format–allowing it to be readily consulted and read by many–and have identified the rise of map making with the rise of the state–and might be warranted in seeing the recognizable role of mapping as foreign to the ancient world, the sense of mapping adjacency to the imposing Hasan Dağı range of mountains seems an extremely compelling case of the early mapping of adjacency, and of the boundaries of the known inhabited world.  Although embellished and given greater chromatic definition in this reconstruction now in Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, where it is regarded as a precious artifact of the Neolithic settlement, may be, according to new evidence, a paradigmatic record of how “place” becomes constituted by lived experience, and defined by the confluence of external events.


This restoration and recreation of a Anatolian cave-painting found in one of the more densely inhabited sites of the Neolithic world has been presented by several generations of archeologists as the earliest map–probably because of its symbolic affinities with the transcription of dwelling homes or areas of residence.  The subject-matter of the Neolithic wall-painting is unclear, although it recalls a majestic panorama that befits its length of some three meters, and does suggest a considerable conscious attention and investment of energy in the division of its surface that seem to encrypt information in ways that address its viewer.

But what does it show?  Is the representation of an apparent mountain range a topographical representation of the mountains at the base of which extended a Neolithic settlement?  What the subject of has been contested since it was discovered in Abauntz cave in Central Anatolia.  The three-meter long cave painting reproduced above was first identified as a map with considerable excitement by the archeologist James Mellaart when he discovered it in 1964, and its scope is stunning.  But subsequent debates have contested his identification of the image.  Subsequent scholarly debates have contested Mellart’s identification of the image as inconclusive–as it must be–and have  alternately argued the mural was a symbolic abstraction or just an animal skin shorn of extremities, similar to nearby neolithic mural images, shown above a rectangular grid of no recognizable geospatial significance at all, rather than a specific landscape.  Yet the fascination of this image as a map has gained new supporters, even if many early attempts to find proof for classical objects that reveal a distinctly cartographical sensibility of symbolizing space–such as this rock, once taken as a representation of ancient Gaul by Otto Dilke, with drilled holes noting human settlements, mostly likely seem retrospective projections from a time when we have grown more habituated to map-use, or the relative leisurely learned activity of mapping.

Gaulish Rock?

Unlike this fairly undefined and unsigned artifact, the location of the Aubuntz mural on the side of cave where it seems to have been viewed–and in relation to a range of images in nearby cave-dwellings–the image appears to address the viewer in interesting ways, and to define its subject less in abstractly formal terms than propositionally, and even perhaps in relation to a natural event.  Drawing a map of space would have had little apparent analogous similarity to our own use or habits of viewing maps, which are so familiar to us we must be careful not to naturalize them.

Although interpretations contest the notion of its apparent division into plots or houses served as a map, they cannot deny it specific power as an image–and seek to explain its apparent cultic significance.  Expressing considerable visual tension, the image–even when shown below in a reconstruction from Ankara’s Museum of Anatolian Civilizations to better reveal its definition of a distinct visual field for observers, as if in a framed space–makes us think about what what sort of function the image would have and what readers it would address–although the Abauntz mural seems to have a scope and symbolic significance that parallel the early use of maps in Neolithic society that expanded from small villages–especially in such a populated a proto-city, one of the largest known to date, which includes many wall-paintings, some 8,000-10,000 year old.  The pictorial culture of the region suggests a deep visual concern with geometric designs.

The recent proposal that this mural indeed constitutes the world’s oldest surviving map made it likely that the image was created from the vantage of a town, probably on the northern side of the mountain, that would have been more threatened by the eruption than Çatalhöyük itself:  it seems to document the settlement at the very moment of the volcano’s eruption, or to commemorate the event in ways that would befit its presence in a cave that was associated with some sort of shrine or celebration.  It is unclear that there would have been a similar interest in commemoration, the most human of activities, but the event must have been terrifying.  The apparent naturalism of this distinctively painted image sharply contrasts to the apparently man-made line engravings on stone fragments in ways that make us ask about its performative function as a pictorial description that served to describe a region of early human settlement.


This reconstruction clearly foregrounds the regular repetition of what seem serial reproduced rectangular land-plots or houses of fixed territorial bounds to suggest a system of measurement or mensuration in the Neolithic community.  But the contrast of the ostensible landscape and the background and the area of settlement, defined by demarcation, seems more striking than the suggestion that this painting is evidence of a systematic measurement of land-plots.  Mellaart’s original thesis that the mural constitutes the earliest cartographical construction–or map–of a specific geographical site has recently gained potentially critical and compelling new evidentiary support from an unlikely source–reopening these debates once more.  Findings that the mural was contemporary to the eruption of Hasan Dağı mountains which indeed appear represented in it pin the image to a geographically specific landscape and location.  The Hasan Dağı (or Mount Hasan) stratovolcano is distinguished by two peaks of similar elevation (3253 and 3069 m), forming Big and Small Mount Hasan, and might make this image a strikingly early example of a landscape-map we might associate with the engraved “bird’s-eye” views of cities most familiar from Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg’s compendious and copiously illustrated Civitates orbis terrarum that appeared in print in 1574.  Such a composed scene of an early area of inhabitation would, indeed, seem foreign to the views Braun and Hogenberg collected as artistic forms, but suggests an attempt to comprehend the relations, I would suggest, between the events of the explosion and the bounded settlement lying at the mountain range’s feet.

The skyline does not reflect  the situation of Hasan Dağı from the vantage of the modern or prehistoric Çatalhöyük, but the pairing of these two peaks in the mural as a horizon, revealing one mountain clearly erupting, seems an attempt to document a specific moment in time as a way to chart the place of human settlement nearby to the mountain range, in ways that define the specificity of its place in the manner of a map; the reconstructed geochronology places its eruption age at 6960±640 BCE, coeval with the settlement and occupation of Çatalhöyük as a region suggest the image was an early first-hand record of the observation of volcanic eruption.

Hasan1Hasan Dağı, photograph by Janet C. Harvey


Although the Neolithic wall-painting is a contender for the earliest map ever–predating Babylonian clay tablets.  Its depiction of the built settlements of some size at the base of two peaks also suggests a distinct consciousness of the prehistoric inhabitation as lying in precarious relation to the natural world.  What sort of vantage point in represents in relation to the twin peaks of Hasan Dağı is unclear; but  evidence and magma remains indicate a widespread eruption that would have been visible near its base when the area was populated, although the broader historical impact of explosions on the region in the Holocene demand further investigation.  The discovery that the magma from the Hasan Dağı mountains erupted at about the very time that the mural was painted also raises interesting questions about what status the mural might have had as a map, a personal testimony, a cultic image or very early landscape, and how the maker of the ostensible map might have regarded their mapping of an inhabited or settled space.

The mural has been hypothetically identified as an early form of scientific observation of the eruption of a volcano based on the comparison of geochronological dating with the archeological dating of the mural.  Realism is rarely associated with Neolithic art.  But the mural would, if it has been correctly identified, be something closer to an example of early landscape painting than a map–its field  densely packed and intricately detailed pattern, resembling a honeycomb, more than either an abstract pattern or animal skin.  The prospect is fascination that the image in fact reflected the historical settlement of Çatalhöyük before specific mountain ranges:  identification of the painting with a datable eruption in the Hasan Dağı mountain by carbon dating of the ash to the time of its last eruption, thought to have been inactive since circa 75000 BCE.  Can it be understood, one wants to ask,  as a first-person observation of Çatalhöyük, or a sort of site-specific reportage, and the dramatic and fearsome commemoration of a natural disaster?

Although Mellaart identified it with the eruption of a volcano of two peaks, the map has long been argued to be a substitution for and representation of a specific landscape–approaching an image, unlike the topographical renderings of mountains with the accuracy and indices of elevation that surveying tools might later allow.  Based on new evidence of hardened magma at the crater near the settlements, given that volcanic rocks can be usually expected to cool uniformly after eruptions, at the last eruption of the volcano–as if the mural might be more accurately described as a shock to the trauma of eruption, and the atmospheric and environmental turmoil that resulted, in ways that suggest that the “map” was a way of both processing and in a way compensating for the shock of the human disaster, and, if removed as a survey, of suggesting the destruction that the eruption was in danger of bringing to the repetition of sites of settlement to which humans had divided the land lying below the mountain range:  rather than a “bird’s-eye” view, the juxtaposition ostensibly offered a potentially disastrous meeting of natural disaster and human settlement.




The crude geometric regularity of the odd lattice-form of the “map”-mural seems to recall a clear sense of a planned town or settlement of a surveyed form, perhaps echoing early plans of built environments.  But even if this were correct, as much as offering a map of settlement. But rather than simply function to map its situation, the mural would offer a historical record of the threat of that community’s cancellation, of the impending threat posed by volcanic ash and magma erupting from the volcanic peak at that single terrifying moment–when the built houses of human construction were threatened to be buried under the volcano’s sudden eruption and the arcs of ash and fire whose threatening and terrifying trajectories seem traced in the image.

Is this an impending catastrophe?  The evocation of loss works through the evocation of specific details, just as the image seems to evoke the potential loss of the human division of settled lands.  Much as Pliny the Younger in Letter 6.16 to Tacitus described an account of his uncle’s terrifying death “to posterity . . . in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities” by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius after he rose from reclining for dinner with his books, having taken a sun bath and a cold bath, so as to get a better view of a white cloud rising with patches of ash and dirt that “rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches.'”   Struck by the majestic sight of the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius he decided to save Tacitus’ wife from her a villa at Vesuvius’ foot, tempted both by the need to save his friend’s wife, and also by the possibility of taking advantage “continuous observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud.”  Much as Pliny the Younger had paused, “dictating what he saw,” the mural seems to record the spewing of “broad sheets of flame” from the Hasan Dağı mountains, as if recording less of a landscape or topography than the precise historical moment when erupting volcanic ash threatened to bury the built settlement in the Çatalhöyük valley together with its many inhabitants.  Pliny wrote his account subsequently, at the request of Tacitus, but the image would probably have been drawn, also, considerably after the catastrophic event had occurred.

Indeed, it is tempting to read the mural that details the eruption of the volcano as having a very analogous dramatic content to how Pliny the Younger, in his famous letter, set the stage for his uncle’s process of decision-making at the very moment that he confronted the “danger from the rocks that were coming down, light and fire-consumed as these bits of pumice were.”   For Pliny described how his uncle, “weighing the relative dangers they chose the outdoors; in my uncle’s case it was a rational decision, others just chose the alternative that frightened them the least.” The Çatalhöyük mural seems particularly powerful when seen as a similar moment that forced its maker to preserve a moment of potentially catastrophic change–and its observer to decide whether to stand or to flee the erupting scene.  The image could be best described as a sort of “living landscape,” as well as simply as a map.

It is interesting to consider this earliest of scientific observations as being prefigured by the painter of the Çatalhöyük murals–and the image less as a landscape-map than a living image.  What the painter of the mural imagined must remain unclear, but the recent re-dating of the mural to the time of the eruption of the volcano in PLoS ONE used Carbon 14 dating–using (U-Th)/He zircon geochronology–radiometrically link the mural’s composition to the witnessing of the volcano’s historical explosion in ways that offer grounds to link this landscape image to an actual event in time–and not assume its formal intricacy recapitulated an abstract form or iconic rendering, linking it once more to a clearly specified community at the exploding volcano’s feet.

The dating of the mural may indeed recapitulate a map that might be understood as commemorating and directing attention to the drama of a moment of volcanic eruption, and the image of threatened reconfiguration of the landscape itself, rather than a static map.  Can the image be better understood as mapping a fixed historical moment, which the viewer is forced to process and remember?  For if its composition was a monumental way of coming to terms with the destructive events that the volcano’s last explosion wrought, this earliest of maps was a living image, recording of a moment of shock and readjustment of expectations, commemorating a sudden shift in the environment less than a record of a fixed spatial configuration, and confronting viewers with a single moment of impending environmental change.

Map Image-Keith ClarkeImage: Keith Clarke

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Filed under Çatalhöyük, Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates, Hasan Dağı mountains, mapping early human settlement, mapping human settlement, Mount Vesuvius, Neolithic Maps, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus

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