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James Mellaart

14 November 1925 - 29 July 2012

Appreciation by
Trevor Watkins

James Mellaart

James Mellaart, whose accounts of his discoveries at Çatalhöyük in the early 1960s startled the archaeological world and amazed the public, died at the end of July, aged 86. He was a remarkable man of enormous intellectual and imaginative energy, a fund of encyclopaedic knowledge. He was as capable with his pencil at drawing archaeological artefacts as he was with his pen at communicating his enthusiastic vision of prehistoric worlds. He was enviably talented as an archaeologist, and extraordinarily adept in stirring controversies—an accumulation of which brought about the end of his career in active research in Anatolian prehistory.

James (always known as Jimmy) Mellaart was born in London in 1925 to Dutch parents. His father, however, was ultimately of Scottish descent, the family name a Dutch disguise of Maclarty, of the Clan Macdonald. Jimmy was sure of his descent from the Lords of the Isles, and usually wore his clan tartan as a tie. The family returned to Holland at the beginning of the 1930s, and Jimmy's English retained a Dutch accent through the rest of his life. As a teenager he had a voracious appetite for all things ancient, and taught himself ancient Egyptian and hieroglyphics from books. Somehow, throughout the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, he was secreted into a job in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden, where he acquired his hands-on skills with archaeological artefacts. After the war he returned to London, where he studied Egyptology at University College, graduating in 1951.

The 1950s were formative. He was one of the many young would-be archaeologists who worked as members of Kathleen Kenyon's team in the excavation of Tell es-Sultan, ancient Jericho. He met Arlette, a beautiful young Turkish archaeology graduate, on an excavation at Fikirtepe in northwest Turkey; they married, and Arlette has been his constant companion and loyal support throughout all his excavations, various posts, and many trials and tribulations. The British Institute of Archaeology in Ankara, inaugurated in 1948, gave Jimmy one of its first resident scholarships; and later in the 1950s, he was appointed Assistant Director of the Institute.

James Mellaart
James and Arlette Mellaart during the early days of their marriage (photograph provided by the Çatalhöyük Research Project to Michael Balter, http://www.michaelbalter.com/photos7.php)

He recognised the site of Beycesultan, in the upper Menderes (Maeander) catchment in southwest Anatolia, as being a major and long-lived ancient site, a city of the Late Bronze Age, and much earlier. The ambitious Hittite empire was known from documentary sources to have sought to expand its control to the Aegean coasts, and here was a site that might provide archaeological documentation of that chapter in Anatolian history. Seton Lloyd, the Director of the Institute, brought his excavation expertise to the task, and he and Jimmy Mellaart explored the site between 1954 and 1959, working through its long stratigraphy through the whole of the Bronze Age and back into the Late Chalcolithic period. Jimmy also found the site of Hacilar, which seemed able to carry the regional story of Beycesultan back through the Chalcolithic. He excavated the site on his own account between 1957 and 1960, and, as a bonus, the site gave him an unsuspected basal stratum that belonged in some early, aceramic Neolithic.

Finally, also in the late 1950s, Jimmy became interested in the Anatolian Early Bronze Age. At that time, archaeologists in Greece were noting a break in cultural continuity between Early Bronze II and III, and speculating that the new cultural traits were a physical indicator of the arrival of the first Greek-speaking people. And Linear B was shown to be a way of writing an early form of Greek. In Anatolia, the Hittites were already known to be Indo-European speakers. And the end of Troy II (in whose ruins Schliemann had found the treasures) marked a similar break in cultural continuity at the northeast corner of the Aegean. Mellaart decided to survey sites in the Konya plain, in the centre of Anatolia, where there were known to be Early Bronze mounds; would he be able to find evidence for EB II destructions that might mark the aggressive arrival of the Hittites? He did publish an article in Anatolian Studies on his EB findings, but the survey was remarkable for the discovery of the site of Çatalhöyük, a settlement mound of early Neolithic date as large as many of the Bronze Age centres.

Mellaart knew at once that Çatalhöyük was where his future investigations should be focused, and he began excavations there in 1961 with a small team, plus workers recruited from the nearby village of Küçükköy. And that was where he was when several things concatenated to bring about his downfall. Beautiful painted pots of the unique forms and decoration that Mellaart had found and documented at Hacilar began to appear on the international antiquities market, fetching thousands of pounds from major western museums. Indeed, objects were "leaking" apparently from the new excavations at Çatalhöyük. There was never any evidence that Mellaart was involved in any way. Ironically, a few years later, in the early days of the development of thermoluminescence dating, one of the pots remarkably similar to the finds from Hacilar was offered for sampling by the museum that had bought it; and it was found to be modern fake.

The disaster, however, was Mellaart's role in the story of the Dorak treasure, a brief account of which he published in the Illustrated London News in 1959. As he told the story, he had met a young lady on a train journey to Izmir. She wore a beautiful bracelet that Mellaart recognised as resembling Early Bronze Age jewellery from Troy. The young lady told him that the bracelet was but one item from a remarkable collection that had been found in (illicit) excavation of two extremely rich tombs near the village of Dorak, not so far from Troy. If he wished, he could come with her and see the collection at her apartment in a suburb of Izmir. Jimmy spent several days working his way through the large collection of jewellery, gold and silver vessels, weapons and figurines, sketching and writing notes. Back at the Institute in Ankara, he was strongly advised to forget about the Dorak treasure, because he had not reported his encounter to the Turkish archaeological authorities. Given the delay since he had seen the treasure, it would have been spirited out of the country, its market value endorsed by Mellaart's expertise. Some time later again, however, he went ahead with the Illustrated London News publication, and that started a public outcry against him in Turkey, where the smuggling of antiquities for the international art market is a recurrent insult to a young nation's pride in its ancient cultural heritage.

He had moved from the Institute to a lectureship in the University of Istanbul by the time that the storm overcame him. He lost his permit to excavate at Çatalhöyük, and he lost his job when he and Arlette were forced to leave the country. In London, a lectureship in Anatolian prehistory was created for him, which he occupied from 1965 until his retirement in 1991. Around 1990, the Turkish archaeological establishment let it be known that it was time that excavations started again at Çatalhöyük; the research should be led by a British archaeologist, but Mellaart was not to be in any way involved. Finally, in 2005, the year of his eightieth birthday, Jimmy was able to return to the site to be greeted by Ian Hodder and his team (Ian had been an undergraduate at the Institute in London, where Jimmy's lectures about Çatalhöyük enthused him), and by Turkish archaeologists.

Why on earth did Jimmy go public on the Dorak treasure? What happened to the treasure? Did it ever exist, or was it a fabrication of Mellaart's fertile imagination? Kenneth Pearson and Patricia Connor investigated the story for The Sunday Times, and then produced a whole book on the subject (The Dorak Affair, London: Michael Joseph, 1967). The young lady, her apartment, and the treasure itself have remained untraceable. The mystery continues, and still excites debate on the world-wide web.

Mellaart's interest in the treasure, I think, lay in its vindication of his view of the civilisation represented (but poorly documented until the recent excavations) by Troy II. Mellaart had calibrated the available radiocarbon dates from Troy (Suess's "cosmic Schwung" calibration curve had just appeared), and they supported his controversial early dating of the Trojan Early Bronze Age, which made the civilisation of Troy II chronologically parallel with the Royal Cemetery of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, and with the major pyramids of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Two objects in the Dorak treasure were critically important to Mellaart: one was a superb sword with images of a fleet of ships along the length of the blade (Troy II was thus a maritime power); and a scrap of thin gold sheet that had perhaps decorated a piece of wooden furniture bore an inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphics, which, of course, Jimmy had at once been able to read—it included the cartouche of the Egyptian pharaoh Sahure, who ruled in the early twenty-fifth century BC. Quod erat demonstrandum, even though the demonstration of his case broke his career.

In London, he was soon appreciated by the students as one of the most inspiring lecturers in the Institute; his courses were popular and well subscribed. He also continued to publish. He had contributed a chapter on prehistoric Anatolia to the lavishly produced Thames & Hudson volume The Dawn of Civilization (1961, edited by Stuart Piggott). And the publisher went on to reproduce a number of those chapters as slim, colour-illustrated paperbacks. Those books undoubtedly have had a wider readership than Mellaart's contributions to the third revised edition of the Cambridge Ancient History. Thames & Hudson called on him again to write an account of the Neolithic throughout the whole of the Near East. The resulting book (1975, The Neolithic of the Near East) displayed Mellaart's capacity to absorb and integrate a great amount of archaeological data, and to write about it in a way (untainted by any hint of processualism) that made it readily comprehensible to its many readers. In recognition of his archaeological achievements, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1980.

His popular account of his unfinished business at Çatalhöyük (1967, Çatal Hüyük: a Neolithic town in Anatolia, London: Thames & Hudson) was a bestseller, and firmly established the site as iconic. The scale of the site (Mellaart claimed it as a supernova of precocious urbanism), its well-preserved and dramatic architecture, vivid wall-paintings and sculptures plastered onto animal skulls embedded in the walls, the hundreds of burials beneath the floors, together with extraordinary preservation of organic materials, such as wooden dishes and boxes, ropes and textiles, all contributed to its impact on the public imagination.

Mellaart added significantly to the public reputation of Çatalhöyük through his identification of the small sculptures of female forms and one or two somewhat enigmatic human forms modelled on the walls of buildings as evidence for the worship of a female deity, the prototype of the Anatolian Mother Goddess. The idea had come to him, in fact, from the small sculptures that he had found at Hacilar; but he gave flight to the identification with the evidence from Çatalhöyük. Likewise, he publicised his belief that some of the panels of non-figurative, geometric painted decoration on the walls of buildings probably imitated textile designs, making them the prototypes of the modern Turkish flat-weave carpet (kilim) motifs. The antiquity of the mother goddess, and the continuity of kilim motifs from the Neolithic until today were ideas that have strongly embedded themselves. Mellaart launched the idea of Çatalhöyük as the prehistoric centre of the worship of the mother goddess, an idea that took off in an extraordinary way, especially in North America, and particularly in California. From the 1970s Marija Gimbutas, installed at UCLA, gained a large following, mostly of ladies, who were enthusiastic about her ideas of Neolithic societies in which women played the key roles both socially and spiritually.

James Mellaart was both fortunate and unfortunate as an archaeologist. He possessed the ability to see the wood as well as the trees. He was a man of ideas, many ideas, and he was quick to appreciate how other disciplines (historical linguistics, geology, physics and radiocarbon dating) could be brought to bear on questions that interested him. And he was a genius (or was he just lucky enough to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time?) at identifying archaeological sites that would advance our knowledge in really significant ways. His contribution to the unfolding of the Anatolian Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods was enormous and fundamental. On the other hand, he was tragically unfortunate: he became—through his own decision to publish the Dorak treasure—embroiled in accusations of being complicit in the illegal antiquities trade; and that, when he was about to enter his forties, shut him out of further engagement in frontline research in the prehistory to which he was devoted.

Jimmy wasn't always comfortable in formal gatherings. But one-to-one, or in a small group of people that he knew (such as Stuart Piggott, who was a close friend of Seton Lloyd) he was outgoing, happy, talkative, a fund of stories and extraordinary information of many kinds—preferably on his feet and pacing the floor, with a glass of whisky in one hand, and one of his Dutch cigars in the other.